Mark Zegarelli
Mark Zegarelli

Looking Forward

The Big Picture in Chinese

Before moving on to the next chapter, I'd like to spend a few minutes helping you to understand how to make sense of what you've learned so far in a slightly larger context. To do this, here's one of the characters you've already learned:



Mandarin Pronunciation

Meaning in English



Stroke Order (3): shù + héng zhé + héng


This character incorporates all three basic strokes that you learned in this chapter: héng, shù, and zhé.


Notice that I use the word basic strokes rather than just strokes. Technically speaking, zhé isn't a stroke all by itself. Instead, it's a component of the strokes héng zhé and shù zhé, plus other more complicated strokes that you'll learn later.


That's why the character 口 has exactly three strokes: shù, héng zhé, and héng. Each complete stroke is written without picking up your pen from the paper.


Now, consider another character you just learned:



Mandarin Pronunciation

Meaning in English


to go out

Stroke Order (5): shù + shù zhé + shù + shù zhé + shù


This character has five strokes, one of which is shù zhé, which comprises the two basic strokes shù and zhé.


Both of these characters, 口 and 出, are also words, because each by itself has a meaning. That is, each is a Chinese word made up of only one character.


But you can also combine these two characters to create a new word:



Mandarin Pronunciation

Meaning in English


chū kǒu



This word will be easy to remember if you think of an exit as a "mouth" that allows you "to go out."


Thus, 出口 is a Chinese word made up of two characters. Many other Chinese words also have two characters, but some have three and even four characters.


Now, here's a new character that you'll discover in the next chapter:



Mandarin Pronunciation

Meaning in English



Stroke Order (7): dian + héng + héng + héng  + shù  + héng zhé + héng


This character comprises seven strokes, one of which you haven't learned yet, the diǎn stroke. Notice, though, that it includes a small version of the character 口. This inclusion is no accident, especially when you consider that the words 口 and 言 are both related to speech.


Thus, 口 is the radical, or root word, of 言. A radical is a basic component at the heart of a variety of more complicated words.


This idea of a radical carries over into English where, for example, you can find the root word biblio (the Greek word for "book") hiding in English words like bibliography, bibliophile, and even Bible.


So, if you're ready for a 50,000 foot view of how Chinese words are written:


1.  Basic strokes (12 in all): The most fundamental unit of Chinese writing is the basic stroke, such as héng, shù, and zhé.


2.  Strokes (about 32, depending on how you count): Some strokes are simply basic strokes, such as héng and shù, that stand on their own; in other cases, a stroke is a formed as compound strokes, héng zhé and shù zhé, composed of two or more basic strokes.


3.  Radicals (hundreds): Strokes are combined to form radicals, such as 口.


4.  Characters (thousands): Radicals are then used as the basis of characters, such as 口,言, and 出.


5.  Words (tens of thousands): Some words are simply one-character words, such as 口, 出, and 言; other words are multiple-character words, such as 出口, that require two, three, or as many as four characters.


Don't worry too much if you don't grasp all of these interwoven layers at once. Remember that the Chinese written language is 6,000 years old – the oldest written language on Earth! 


So, give yourself a few days or weeks to get used to all of this new terminology. And as you do, have fun as you practice writing the characters introduced in this chapter.