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.

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.                                

花([huā], flower)

艹(plant)       Semantic component

  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.