Chinese Character Components System

Chinese Character Components System


    For several thousand years, written Chinese has fulfilled many needs, evolving from a completely pictographic script used in performing rituals to a modern complex form of communication. This long history serves to enhance the beauty of the Chinese script and stimulate interest in it. However, it also makes Chinese a difficult language to learn.


    For several thousand years, written Chinese has fulfilled many needs, evolving from a completely pictographic script used in performing rituals to a modern complex form of communication. This long history serves to enhance the beauty of the Chinese script and stimulate interest in it. However, it also makes Chinese a difficult language to learn.

The basic written units in Chinese are characters. There are about 3,000 and 4,600 frequently used characters in China and Taiwan, respectively, and these characters make up about 40,000 Chinese words in daily use. In its evolution from simple pictographic to the script used today, most Chinese characters inherited a phonetic component and a semantic identifier. The smallest, meaningful orthographic units that play semantic or phonetic roles in compound characters. They follow positional constraints and they have meaning-cueing and pronunciation-cueing functions. They have semantic and phonetic functions and they conform to position rules within characters. In China, Skilled readers use components as functional orthographic units in character recognition.

Chinese is a logographic language, meaning that each character represents an entire word. The character representation is based on its component. These characters can also be combined to make other words. Furthermore, Component is also a visualization-based tool for potential learners of Chinese or the people who are interested in aspects of the culture or language system itself. Therefore, unlike English, in which are there are 26 letters to learn in order to be able to read the language, there are many thousands of characters that one must be able to recognize in order to be able to read written Chinese. Within most characters are components which give clues to the sound and meaning of the word.

Three levels of component awareness are defined in their study to explain how students acquire and utilize Chinese orthographic knowledge: a) understanding that components, other than arbitrary strokes, are the basic components of Chinese characters and being able to decompose unfamiliar characters into component units; b) knowing the shape and meaning of semantic components; and c) understanding the orthographic structure of phonetic-semantic compounds and being able to utilize this knowledge in learning new compound characters, which are composed of a semantic component offering a clue to the meaning and a phonetic component indicating the pronunciation of the character.

For example, the semantic component “女([nǚ], female)” in the following characters: 妈([mā], mom), 姐([jiě], sister), 媳([xí], daughter-in-law), and 妇([fù], woman), indicates that all these characters are related to “female” in meaning and belong to the same semantic group. Consider the following traditional Chinese characters:

  • 情[qíng]: feeling, emotion
  • 請[qĭng]: to ask, to invite
  • 清[qīng]: clear, quiet

Their similar pronunciation comes from the component 青([qīng], green). However, the characters have very different meanings. For these characters, the different meanings are conveyed by the components on the left-hand sides of the characters. The components in these three characters are:

  • 忄: heart
  • 言: speech
  • 氵: water

Thus, knowing the component for the pronunciation hints that the pronunciation of each of these three characters will be some form of [qīng] (no information is given about the tone, however), and knowing these three components allows one to easily differentiate between the three characters based on meaning:

  • heart - feeling/emotion
  • speech - to ask / to invite
  • water - clear/quiet.

Component is an important part of Clavis Sinica learning system that helps students better memorize characters.

  The component is a necessary component in every character.   Components can indicate the meaning of the characters, and become very important anchors of the characters. For example, the water component 氵 can be found in the characters湖([hú], lake), 海([hǎi], ocean) and 河([hé], river). There is a total of 210 components for the combined domain of traditional and simplified characters. Almost all components have meaning indicators. For example, one component is 丨[gǔn],means through up and down.

  A significant number of Chinese compound characters share the same component. Individual characters with the same semantic component generally belong to the same semantic category. For instance, the characters 妈([mā], mother), 姐([jiě], sister), 姨([yí], aunt), 婆([pó], grandma), 媳([xí], daughter-in-law) share the same component 女([nǚ], female) that is obviously related in meaning with each of the above component-transparent characters. However, there are also small groups of compound characters that share the same component but are not semantically related. For example, the component刂 ([dāo], knife) in the characters 剧([jù], drama), 列([liè], column), 到([dào], to), and 则([zé], but) could not be associated with any of them, which is known as component-opaque characters. At the same time, there are single characters that could not be separated into semantic component and phonetic component, such as 用([yòng], use), 重([zhòng], heavy), 火([huǒ], fire), and 水([shuǐ], water). Despite the exceptions, components are present in most of the Chinese characters and are usually a reliable indicator of a character’s general meaning.

  The components in compound characters can be classified into two categories based on their functions in the formation of compound characters. One group is called semantic components as they always provide semantic categories of the whole characters, the other group is called phonetic components as they give clues to the pronunciation of the characters.

While most of the phonetic components could also be independent characters, most of the semantic components can only be combined with phonetic components to form characters. An example is given to denote the formation of a character.

                                         艹(plant)       Semantic component

花([huā], flower)

                                         化[huà]        Phonetic component

Strokes: 一丨丿乚

                Formation of a character

Another piece of evidence illustrating the importance of component in character acquisition is concerned with the kanji, Chinese characters used in Japanese script. Modern Japanese employs three scripts: kanji, hiragana, and katakana. Kanji are logographic characters imported from Chinese thus share many similarities in structure and orthography with Chinese characters (e.g., semantic components, number of strokes for each parallel character). Hiragana and katakana, on the other hand, are adapted from kanji to provide a means of representing native Japanese vocabulary, loanwords, proper names, and affixes. and cannot decompose into sub lexical components. kanji were recognized by the activation of information about their phonetic and semantic components, which supported the research finding from earlier study that Japanese students performed better in the word matching assessment when words were presented in kanji than in kana, the Japanese writing system for representing pronunciations. Converging evidence has shown that semantic components serve as processing units in character recognition.

Committing the more important components to memory establishes a base from which to build a broad character vocabulary. 97 percent of Chinese characters are formed from the combination of a component and a phonetic identifier, then the concluding advantage becomes obvious: knowing the components allows the reader to isolate the phonetic. This phonetic component hints to the pronunciation of a character just as the component hints to its meaning.

There are 214 components recognized today. The following is a list of eighty common components, established by analyzing the number of characters associated with the individual components and the frequency of use.

214radicals Kangxi

                    Common components

This seems to be a manageable number that even the novice student or those with a casual interest in the written form of Chinese could benefit from with a limited amount of memorizing. The characters associated with these eighty components comprise 87 percent of the characters found in Liang Shih-chiu’s (梁实秋) A New Practical Chinese-English Dictionary (《最新实用汉英辞典》).

Memorization is aided by creating an environment conducive to paired-associate learning. learning typically refers associations between items in a pair. In language acquisition, the learner associates a new word with another previously learned word or object already in his vocabulary.

Although each component has a specific meaning and over a hundred of the 214 components are characters themselves, the semantic thread binding them together can be often a subtle tie. Characters have also changed in meaning over the centuries. For example, the direct meaning of 車[chē] is cart, yet today this character has become a more generic term for vehicles of any sort. The compounds for car, truck, bus and train all use this character.

  Often components have lost much of the semantic value over the years, but are indispensable when looking up a character in a dictionary or isolating the phonetic component of many characters. A good example of a component that has changed meaning over the centuries is 寸[cùn]. In ancient times this component carried a martial connotation. Today, this character is used as a measurement of length. Since this component is a common character and a well-known component it is included in the program. Developing a familiarity with components of this type can help build a sound basis for the study of characters.

Chinese Semantic Component

Morphologically transparent characters are those where the semantic component such as 金([jīn], metal) provides a clue to the meaning. For example, the morphologically transparent character 銅([tóng], copper) can be figured out more easily than the opaque character 錯([cuò], error), in which the relation between the meaning of the semantic component 金([jīn], metal) and that of the character 錯([cuò], error) is not obvious. In the same study, like the regularity effect of phonetic component, this morphological transparency effect was relatively small when the characters were familiar to the children. On morphologically transparent characters with familiar components, better readers got higher scores than poorer readers. This means that the better readers were not only more knowledgeable about specific characters but could also interpret novel characters based on their semantic components. Evidently, the children as young as Third Graders were able to realize the information provided by the semantic components, integrate the information with the meanings of the characters, and successfully infer the meanings of unknown characters. In this dissertation, this is referred to as another kind of part-whole relation.

Instruction of semantic components. Morphological awareness instruction was implemented in some of the classes, in which the teachers analyzed the relationship between the semantic component and the meaning of the character, and between the phonetic component and the character sound, and also explained the base and extended meaning and compared its meanings used in the different words. in both grade levels, this instructional intervention significantly increased children’s performance on tasks directly related to awareness of semantic component and on reading literacy measures that focused at the character or word levels. For instance, after the instruction, the children were found to perform significantly better on the task of choosing from four written characters such as 情([qíng], feeling), 清([qīng], clear), 請([qǐng], invite) and 青([qīng],green) to fill in a sentence presented orally such as “心[qíng]很好(The heartfelt “qíng” is very good).” This suggests that the morphological instruction has a significant improvement in the children’s awareness of the semantic component.

As noted previously, young children have acquired knowledge about semantic components and phonetic components. But, in order to learn this, they should have more primarily learned the way of how to look at the signs or the written forms of the characters, i.e., the orthography. This concerns whether children recognize the specific orthographic features in the way that the characters are written as such. More sophisticatedly, this is about children’s way of seeing the compositions of the characters, i.e., how the characters are composed from the components and in what ways children can make sense of the compositions of the characters.

Chinese Phonetic Component

A few studies have found that children after several years of experience with Chinese characters indeed become more aware of the function of the phonetic components. Regular characters refer to those characters that are pronounced exactly in the same way as the phonetic component on its own. For example, the character 油[yóu] is regular since it has the same pronunciation as 由[yóu]. In contrast to this, the character 抽[chōu] is irregular since its pronunciation is different from that of the phonetic component 由[yóu]. This regularity effect was found to be greater on unfamiliar characters than on familiar ones. Perhaps, on familiar characters, the children could right away recall the sounds of the characters without having to figure them out from the phonetic components. Children could name phonologically regular characters more accurately than irregular ones, especially for low-frequency characters. These studies show that children have developed an insight into the relation between the sounds of the phonetic components and those of the characters. This is referred to as the part-whole relation between the components and the characters in this dissertation.

Development of the awareness of phonetic component. the performance of Second Graders was more likely to be determined by their familiarity with the characters rather than the regularity. This means that children in junior grade levels are more likely to learn the characters by rote. But in senior grade levels, greater proportion of phonetic error (i.e., mispronouncing the irregular character 琼([qióng], rare jade) as the sound of the phonetic component 京[jīng]) and analogy error (i.e., mispronouncing the character 秕([bǐ], empty rice husk) as the other high-frequency character 批[pī] that contains the same phonetic component 比[bǐ]) was found. These errors reflect the children’s attempt to use the information of the phonetic components to pronounce the characters. In other words, young children tend to learn by rote whereas older children investigate the phonetic components of the characters. Shu et al. suggest that the Fourth Graders appeared to be in transition.

In Beijing school, in Grade One, only 48% of the characters taught are semantic-phonetic characters, and only 29% of them have regular pronunciations. The proportion of semantic-phonetic characters then increases over the first four grade levels and then levels off at 86%, and in Grade Four, about 45% of them are regular. most of the characters that children encounter in junior grade levels either do not have a phonetic component or are pronounced different from the phonetic components. Thus, the children in junior grade levels have only limited opportunity to be exposed to the regularity between the sounds of the characters and those of the phonetic components. This may be the reason why children must develop such an insight into the phonetic components in around Grade Four.

Awareness of phonetic component and learning Chinese phonetic symbols. In addition, learning Chinese phonetic symbols is helpful to developing the awareness of phonetic component.

Consistency of the characters. Like regularity, an alternative approach to look at children’s knowledge of phonetic component is by means of manipulating the consistency of the characters. By consistent is meant that most of the neighboring characters that share the same phonetic component are pronounced in the same way as the character. For example, there are a total of twelve characters that contain the component 由[yóu]. Five out of them, i.e., 由, 油, 鈾, 釉 and 柚, are pronounced as [yóu], while only two, i.e., 迪 and 笛, are pronounced as [dí]. In this sense, the five characters with the pronunciation of [yóu] are said to be more consistent than the two of [dí].

This concept of consistency is in some cases more useful than the previous concept of regularity, which looks at whether the sound of a character matches that of its phonetic component. This is because the sounds of some phonetic components such as 枼[yè] as in the characters 葉[yè] and 碟[dié] have become rarely known to most people. However, quite likely, children make use of the pronunciation of one of the two characters to pronounce the other. In this case, the concept of regularity has failed to capture the similarity in the sounds of the two characters, which is however clearly reflected in the concept of consistency.

The recognition of the function of phonetic components in the characters appears to be important to the learning of Chinese characters. However, this apparent importance is not supported by the statistics of the linguistic analysis on modern Chinese characters. According to Zhou (周有光), the proportion of Chinese characters in which the phonetic component is an effective cue to the their sounds is only 39%. In other words, using the phonetic component to determine the sound of the characters may not be effective. As compared to the phonetic components, children may instead be more sensitive to the function of semantic components.

Phonological Awareness

Phonological skills and ability to read English words. It has been well established in the field of learning alphabetic languages like English that phonological skills of children are highly correlated with their ability to read. For example, good readers perform well in phonological tasks such as identifying words that rhyme with each other like “cat” [kæt] and “mat” [met]. Bryant and Bradley reports that the performance of young school children on rhyme and alliteration tasks was significantly correlated with their reading ages, and successfully predicted the subsequent success or failure of pre-school children in learning to read. In other words, good readers do not regard the various spoken sounds of their language as unrelated to each other. Rather, they are aware of the common features in the speech sounds, i.e., the structure in phonology.

Symbol-sound correspondence in learning English words. Children with serious reading problems could easily learn to read English represented by Chinese characters. For example, the children were taught to read “父買黑車[fù mǎi hēi chē]” as “Father buys black car” (i.e., each character was read as an English word). Although these children had difficulty in mapping the letters to the sounds in their learning of English, they could in this program map the Chinese characters to the speech at the level of words. This suggests that understanding the grapheme-phoneme correspondence (GPC) rule plays a very important role in the learning of the spellings of words. Phonological awareness in Chinese. How is it about children’s phonological awareness of Chinese language? similar in learning to read Chinese characters. Most Chinese characters are semantic-phonetic characters, which consist of a semantic component and a phonetic component. Rhyme detection of Chinese characters (e.g., choosing the odd sound out of three spoken syllables[fā], [mā] and[bō]) was found to correlate with the reading aloud of semantic-phonetic characters. In line with this, word recognition was highly correlated with phonological skills in tone and rhyme discrimination tasks. In the study on Chinese children in Taiwan, before First Graders had received any formal instruction in reading Chinese characters, early phonological performance was found to significantly correlate to their reading ability at the end of the first year.

Phonological awareness and learning Chinese phonetic symbols. Learning Chinese phonetic symbols has been repeatedly found to be able to improve phonological awareness. compared two groups of Chinese literate adults, who had, and had not, learned 漢語拼音[Hanyu Pinyin][used in Mainland China] before. It was found that phonological skill did not develop spontaneously even with many years of schooling and everyday reading and writing experience. a significant increase in phonological skills was achieved immediately after First Graders had learned the 注音符號[Zhu-Yin-Fu-Hao][used in Taiwan]. Both studies point to the fact that phonological skill is only developed because of learning a Chinese phonetic script.

 Phonological skills of specific language. The nature of children’s phonological awareness is dependent upon the phonological structure specific to their language. This means that phonological awareness developed in one language cannot be easily transferred to another language. Despite having learned Zhu-Yin-Fu-Hao, the Taiwanese children found the task of phoneme deletion with English (e.g., deleting the /s/ from “stop”) virtually impossible. Also, Hong Kong children were significantly better than UK children on first sound deletion from words with an initial consonant cluster. the reason for this to the fact that English children may treat initial consonant clusters (e.g., the “br” in “bread”) as single units, and when European words with consonant clusters are represented in Chinese, which has no consonant blends, the clusters are typically broken up so that each consonant has its own syllable, for example, the “Cl” in “Clinton” into “克林頓”[kè lín dùn]. This suggests that phonological skills are dependent upon one’s specific experience of their own language.

Phonological awareness seems to play a more important role in learning English words than in learning Chinese characters. Chinese characters are composed in a way very different from that of English words. one important characteristic of Chinese characters is that most of the characters are made up of a semantic component and a phonetic component. The semantic component provides the clue to the semantic field to which the character belongs (e.g., the 木([mù], tree) in the character 榕([róng], banyan)) while the phonetic component provides the clue to the sound (e.g., the 容[róng] in 榕[róng]). It was found in many studies that those children who are aware of these semantic and phonetic components can learn the characters better. In what follows, I shall present a review of these studies.


Six months, Four Core Courses, Control Chinese Language.

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