字 and 词


Most people who don’t have any idea about what Chinese is tend to think two things about characters – first, that they are pictographs and, second, that each character is one word. The first is very easy to prove incorrect – well, uh, no, they’re not. In fact only about 3-4% of characters are true pictographs or ideographs. The majority (82%) are composed of phonetic and meaning parts.

The second assumption leads to more interesting thoughts. It is, of course, incorrect as a blanket statement. There are loads and loads of monosyllabic (and thus, mono-character) Chinese words but there is an even larger quantity of multi-syllabic Chinese words.

There are a lot of meaningless statistics out there. One such example is saying that you need to know only about 400 characters to get 67% recognition of Chinese text and only 1000 characters to get 88% recognition. This, in my opinion, is complete garbage because what it really means is that you’re going to be able to read a sentence like this, “Although blah-blah called blah-blah was there at blah-blah, still, we know that blah-blah and blah.” Basically, yes, you will recognize 67% or 88% of the characters but, in a lot of the texts, it’s the other 12% or 33% that contains the important meaning-giving words rather than the majority of the words which just provide grammatical structure.

Secondly, and this is the more important point, even if you know two characters, say 明 (míng; bright) and 白 (bái; white), is it really obvious that the word 明白 (míngbái) is the verb “to understand”? I speak for myself here but I could never have guessed that. This is similar (sort of) to English where the word ‘understand’ is composed of ‘under’ and ‘stand’ but the components have nothing to do with the meaning of the word in its entirety. There are also words that will later make sense to you once someone tells you what they mean and what the individual characters in them mean, such as 矛盾 (máodùn). 矛 means ‘spear’ and 盾 means ‘shield’. 矛盾 means ‘contradictory’. Still, if you came across 矛盾 in a random text and didn’t know what it meant, you’d simply be reading ‘spear shield’.

And this is actually what makes learning Chinese even more of a challenge. Yes, you need to learn all those 3000 whatever characters. But also all the words and fixed expressions that can be made out of them. So, even if you learnt the character 明 (míng; bright), you still need to know that, 明天 (míngtiān) means ‘tomorrow’, 明白 (míngbái) ‘understand’, 说明 (shuōmíng) ‘explain’, and, 聪明 (cōngming) ‘intelligent’. Of course, the character also features in about seven hundred other words and fixed expressions, like 嘴闭眼明 (zuǐbìyǎnmíng) which means ‘keep the mouth shut and the eyes open’. Eeyup. Back to rote memorization…


2 Responses to “字 and 词”

  1. Nicely written! I still think people are thrown off when they hear that are 10 000 plus characters out there. So it’s refreshing to hear that learning the most common 3000 will get you a long way. Yes you still have to learn the meanings when they are put together, but I would think it would be easier to learn the meaning of two characters put together that you already know, than to have to learn new characters altogether. Wouldn’t it be easier to remember that “bright white” means “understand” rather than “these two new characters together mean “understand”?

  2. 2 minshirui

    Well, Adam, one of the things, I suppose I didn’t put explicitly out there, was also that a lot of times you see new characters and new words at the same time, and that is Chinese at its most difficult.


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