Reading Chinese


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As with the other short articles in this series, this is not a complete language course as this is beyond he scope of the article, but is intended to show how the written language works, to explain some of the common Chinese ideograms used in Chinese horoscopes (and in your local takeaway) and as a brief introduction for those interested in learning the language.

We have already seen the Chinese signs for a dozen animals:

You can probably see that some of these are stylised representations of the relevant animal.  The horse is perhaps the most obvious one; You can see the body, tail, four legs and the long, flowing mane.  You can see the two horns of the sheep.  Others are not so obvious, because as in English, the Chinese language has compound words made up of smaller words.  Examples in English are Woodworm and Foremost.  Chinese has 270 “radicals” which can be combined to form compounds.  Some of these are words in their own right while others only exist in compounds (like the “ing” in running, jumping, swimming or the “tion” in station or motion).

The ancient Chinese, like other cultures, used pictograms – pictorial representations of objects.  Over the centuries these changed so that in modern times the pictograms are squared off.  This is shown below in the old and modern representations of SUN and MOON.  Sun and moon together form the compound BRIGHT.  Sun and Moon are also used in dates to indicate “day” and “month and the symbol for year is also shown:

          Sun                            Moon                   Bright                 Year

A typical date might be written with Chinese numbers to indicate the day, month and year or, in an era of globalisation, with a mixture of Arabic numbers and Chinese indicators.  Note the use of the European zero, also common in Japanese, as it is simpler than the traditional Chinese equivalent.  The following represents the first of March 2008:




When considering Chinese horoscopes, it is obviously useful to know ideograms the five elements.  These are:

Wood is also the character for a tree and shows the trunk, branches and roots.  A short bar across the trunk near the bottom emphasises the roots and indicates root or origin as in the English equivalent.  We also use the word “root” to mean “origin” or “beginning”.  The Sun placed next to the symbol for root means JAPAN.  Japan is “the origin of the sun” because the sun rises in the east:



  FIRE looks like some flames.  The character for EARTH is a flower or other plant growing out of the level earth.  Metal shows some nuggets of gold stored under a roof, while the character for water derives from the character for a river.  A river is three straight vertical lines indicating the flow (|||).  When you squeeze a river you get water.


Plurality is often indicated by repeating a character.  For instance:




     Tree                  Woods               Forest                        Year                   Every Year


Many characters can be used on their own or combined, as “Radicals” into complex characters.  English is similar.  The word “stonewall”, as in “to stonewall someone” does not mean the same as the two words “stone wall”.  Similarly, in Chinese and also Japanese, the words “Woman” and “Child” as separate characters means “Woman child” or “girl”.  Combined into a single ideogram, they mean “Good”.




     Woman (Curtseying)     Child                          Girl                     Good


If you have got this far you already know over twenty Chinese characters and they are also used in Japanese.  The rest of this article introduces some more common characters.  After that, you need a book.  I hope I’ve convinced you that acquiring at least a working knowledge of Chinese script is not the impossibly difficult task it often seems to be to Westerners.

A man is a Paddy field above power.  In a non-mechanised age, he was the power in the fields, four rectangles represent the paddy field, a clenched fist is power:




Paddy Field     Power     Man




Person            Big          Beautiful          King          Treasure     Country          America       China         Prisoner

A person (either sex) is two legs.  A person with their arms outstretched is BIG.  We have already seen the symbol for a sheep; the next character is a sheep above big.  To a peasant working on the land a big sheep is BEAUTIFUL.  Add the character for country and you have “beautiful country” which is the Chinese name for America.  The character for China is “Middle country”.  The character for middle is self-evident from the graphic above.

Finally in this sequence, the way that the character for “COUNTRY” is made up.  The KING rules heaven, earth and sky, hence the three horizontal lines with the vertical line of the King’s rule running through them.  Add a jewel in the form of a dot, and we have TREASURE.   A line boundary line around the King’s sphere of influence gives us COUNTRY.  A similar line around a person is PRISONER.

Here is another sequence.  You now know the characters for “pig” and for “woman”.  The first character below shows a pig under a roof which means “HOME”.  Chinese peasants kept the pigs indoors on the ground floor while they lived above.  A woman under a roof means “PEACE”.  Finally in this sequence, a woman next to “home” means “MARRY” or “BRIDE”:



I hope that these few Chinese characters have given you an insight into the way the language works, and also other oriental languages such as Japanese, which have borrowed the Chinese characters. 

You can see that the biggest difference is that whereas in European languages we write down the sound, the Chinese write down the meaning.  In European languages the written word enables you to immediately pronounce it even if you do not know the meaning.  In Oriental languages it is possible to read the same meaning across several languages even though the pronunciation will probably be quite different.

From here on, it is easy to find Chinese and Japanese readers in most good bookshops, and also English/Chinese dictionaries.  Also, try reading at least part of the signs outside Chinese restaurants and takeaways.  You will often see the character which means “LICENSED”, a bottle half full of alcohol, with  stopper in the top of the bottle:




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©  Ken James 2008