Taking things apart

A trick to help you remember Chinese characters

For some reason, some characters seem impossible to remember, no matter how often you revise. One way to solve this is to take the character apart and look at the meaning of the individual pieces.


By far the majority of Chinese characters are made up out of two parts. One part denotes the approximate meaning, the other tells you how the character should roughly be pronounced. Take, for example, . The left part, , means 'woman', the right part, , is pronounced 'mǎ.' Thus, without looking 妈 up in the dictionary we already know it's approximately pronounced 'mǎ,' and its meaning is related to 'woman.' The actual meaning and pronounciation, of course, are 'mother' and 'mā.'

Some dictionary apps and websites have options that will easily let you dissect (almost) every character. In Pleco, you can do this by tapping on 'chars' (see picture on the right). On MDBG.net, you can do this by opening the '>>' menu and clicking on the scissors (see picture below).


I recently found I had trouble remembering the character 籍 (pronounced 'jí,' meaning 'record, register') - for some reason I kept writing it as 藉 (notice the top part). Applying the above method, I found out the upper part of the character, 竹, means 'bamboo.' Because in ancient China records (the meaning of 籍) were kept by writing on bamboo, this was a good enough clue to help me remember how to write this character.

As said, this doesn't work for every character, but this method should be able to help you out most of the time.


Kevin writes columns for the GoEast Blog on studying Chinese, Chinese culture, and life as a foreign student. He has studied China and Chinese for over five years, first in his home country the Netherlands, then in Beijing, and now attends Fudan University's Chinese Society department.