Learn Chinese (2): The General Basics on Chinese Characters

One more post on the generics of Chinese characters and we’ll get started with all our vocab! Lol just hang with me one more post! This post will cover radicals, stroke order, pictographs, and traditional vs. simplified Chinese. Nothing that hard and it’s quite a bit of overview and history 😛

Table of Contents:

  • The History of Chinese Characters
  • Radicals
    • History
    • Shape and Position of the Radical
    • Additional Resources
  • Simplified vs. Traditional Characters
  • Stroke Order
  • Final Words

1. The History of Chinese Characters

Chinese characters initially began as pictographs. Over time they evolved so that the character became more and more simpler.



As you can see, there are many types of Chinese scripts, each of which comes from a different time period. Writing Chinese has been known as an art for the longest time, known as calligraphy. Different emperors liked different styles, with the added edition of further simplification. This meant that each emperor would favor different scripts and thus, different styles emerged. The officials and scholars who were the main people who were literate in the ancient times would adapt to those different styles.

2. Radicals

The English language does not have anything akin to radicals. In Chinese, radicals are sometimes known as a classifier for Chinese characters, but above anything else, they provide some knowledge of the overall character even when you don’t know how to read that particular character.

Radicals are also known as 部首 (Bù shǒu). Bù refers to categories. Shǒu refers to a header or the leader. Thus, radicals can be thought of categories that Chinese characters go in based on their ‘leading characteristic’.

An example of the radical is here:


The red highlighted part of the word is 女  which means female. Thus, we can assume that the word has something to do with females and we can also automatically group it into the “feminine” category.

But radicals are not only limited to “feminine” or “male” characters. Take a look here:


In this character, the red highlighted part is the radical. This time, the radical means motion; 辶. Thus, you can probably infer what part the character inherently refers to- motion.

2.1 History

In the 2nd century AD, the Han dynasty scholar Xu Shen organized his etymological dictionary Shuowen Jiezi by selecting 540 recurring graphic elements he called (部 , “categories”). Most of the radicals he chose were common components of the words, but they also included shared graphic elements like a dot or horizontal stroke. Some were even artificially created groups, which never had an independent existence other than being listed in Shuowen. Each character was listed under only one element, which is then referred to as the radical for that character.

Later, this system of radicals was popularized with the more famous Kangxi Dictionary of 1716. These were first called bùshǒu “部首” or “section header” in the Kangxi Dictionary.

2.2 Shape and Position of the Radical

Sometimes radicals go above the whole character like “草” which means Grass. The whole radical goes above the whole character and looks like this:

download In an actual character it looks like this: 0066ehkmgy6w338u1cg06690

The green highlighted part of the character is the “Grass” part of the radical.

The whole radical is called a 儿 which literally means Grass Word Head. Head is used to refer to how the radical goes above the whole radical thus acting as the “head” of the character as it sits on top just like our heads. 

Radicals can go beside, under, around, or within the character. To refer to them, you often say

‘name of the radical word’ + 字 (word) + ‘location of the radical’

In this case the name of the radical word is 草. You add a 字 after, and then say where the radical is with the 头 which means head.

2.3 Additional Resources

http://www.yellowbridge.com/chinese/radicals.php (A complete list of the radicals. You do not have to learn all of them or know all of them at this point but it is good to familiarize yourself.)

3. Traditional vs Simplified Characters

Later, when Mao Ze Dong came to power, he recognized that very few peasants were able to write Chinese because the characters were too complicated. In the ancient times, only high ranking people were able to read Chinese while the peasants and the common people were overlooked as their job was to farm for the country, etc. Thus, Mao made the decision to change the standardized form of Chinese into a much simplified one which is the one the Chinese mainland uses to this day.

Meanwhile, Taiwan and Hong Kong use the traditional characters, or the characters used before Mao changed the standardized system.

To be consistent, we will introduce both characters. Depending on where you’re planning on going, etc., we recommend that you use the characters that you connect the most with and will actually need in the future. Here are some examples on how the characters were simplified:



The radical stays the same, although the right side is more complicated on the traditional character which makes it harder to write. Both are pronounced mā. The only difference between the two is in the way they are written. Both mean “mother”.

There are exceptions to having the same radical. Sometimes, the traditional character has a different radical than the simplified character radical. Depending on which type of characters you use, you should use that specific radical. For example:

Simplified: 旅游

Traditional: 旅遊

Do you notice the difference in the 2nd character? Both phrases mean “tourism” or “travel” and are pronounced Lǚyóu. However, the simplified “you” and the traditional “you” are different. The radical which is located on the far left side is ‘water’ in the Simplified character, while in the Traditional character, the radical is ‘motion’.

If you were to name the radicals of these characters, the radical of the simplified “you” would be ‘water’, while the radical of the traditional character would be ‘motion’. Do not mix the two radicals up as both characters are already written differently. They convey the same things, but with simplification comes a cost of destroying the original meaning and intent between the old pictograph and the modern character. It won’t matter too much in the future but just a heads up!

4. Stroke Order

Stroke order is very crucial to writing Chinese correctly and neatly. Check out the below post for more information. We will touch on this on every character we learn so that you guys know how to write it properly.

4.1 Additional Resources

The below resource is designed to get you started on the basics.


5. Final Words

Thanks for tuning in to another lesson of Chinese.

After this lesson, we will officially be beginning vocabulary lessons.

Next week, please welcome marri531, a new partner I’ve found to help you guys learn Chinese as well.

Each week will be themed something different and we will introduce eight vocabulary words a week. We will have an official Quizlet account as well where all our flashcards and vocabulary will be located. As of now, we have a tentative idea of 1-2 posts per week, four words on each post.

Our Quizlet is tranz_marri so please do check it out!

Every post will introduce the pinyin, pronunciation, radicals, stroke order, evolution (if applicable), and a way you can remember the character (if applicable).


4 thoughts on “Learn Chinese (2): The General Basics on Chinese Characters

  1. I came to the site to read “When a Snail Falls in Love”, but will keep coming after it’s conclusion for these posts. I love languages and Asian dramas. I have for many years thought I should at least learn one of the many languages I watch. This is perfect. It is very clear too.

    Thank you.


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