A Complicated Path to a Simple Starch: Chinese Characters, Part 一

Oh hey, a topic that won’t make you wish you lacked a sense of smell!  That’s right, today we’ll take a peek at one of my favorite subjects, Chinese characters.

The bane of  many a CSL (Chinese as a Second Language) student, 汉字/漢字 (hàn​zì/ in Japanese kanji), or Chinese characters as you know and swear at today were likely created in the 2600s BCE, with the help of a fellow named Cangjie.   FYI, the sound cang in Chinese is pronounced “tsang,” sort of like the ts- in tsang…the tones, I’ll leave those alone in this post, but if you weren’t previously aware, if you blurt out the wrong tone, you might be calling your mother a headboard.  It’s not the only tonal language out there, so try to pick on Cantonese or Thai sometime.

There’s this pervasive notion that learning Chinese characters is confusing, dolorous and humbling.  Nice.  Though, if you wanted to try and set your memory on “memorize,” getting just a few down pat shouldn’t be too taxing.  They don’t all have numerous strokes; The unabashedly large hyphen in the title of this post, 一, actually means one. Some are pictographs, that is, they represent a (often tangible) concept, be it an eye, fire, a turtle, or a tree.
Generally, characters would have at least one radical, an element in that character which frequently can help you guess what the whole thing means.  You’ll see below three examples in two photos- the first two characters have no radicals though they aren’t needed, and the third will make you shed a tear.

Then there are the ones that might fit in better buried deep in a children’s toy chest.  Kids that have interest in advanced shape theory will get a kick out of these:

Dekoboko Kanji- Narita

Dekoboko Kanji- Narita

The two characters centered in the white box, if removed from this context, couldn’t they moonlight in a playroom or a psychiatrist’s office?  Sure.  Perhaps appropriately assigned the meanings of “bumpy, uneven, rugged, or rough,” 凸凹 also has the unusual trait of offering the same definition if written  凹凸 backwards.  凸凹  in that case, the first signifies convex, and the second concave. (Yep, back then, logic was more common; in Chinese you can only write 凹凸)  This sign, found in Narita city in Japan, is warning drivers of the bumpy conditions ahead.  Bonus material: 凸凹コンビ, pronounced “dekoboko konbi” in Japanese, refers to an incongruously placed or odd duo or combination– for instance, milk and toothpaste, James Bond and Howard the Duck, the sun and Irish people.

Unexpected, right?

I can’t let you go for today, all sullen, thinking you should tackle Chinese characters just because 一 is 一 and 凸凹 is a euphemism for potholes.  Let’s see what else the Middle Kingdom has engendered:

Biang- Shenzhen

Biang- Shenzhen

Straight outta Shaanxi province, the biang noodle has the thickness and length of a belt, and is served with chili peppers. But it isn’t found in your average, everyday Chinese dictionary.  It doesn’t even have the decency of providing us with an auxiliary character (in this case, 面 miàn) to help us remember that it’s a noodle.  But radicals?  Plenty of those.  Not skillfully employed in this case, but based on the stroke count of this black sheep character, you’d probably remember what it stands for anyway.  Want to impress others?  Order noodles in Chinese. Want to impress yourself?  Try the mnemonic.  Don’t have easily impressed friends?  Let’s trade…

I’ll delve more into the 汉字 abyss later on, but until then, contemplate for a bit if this system writing would be well-received where you are from.  If you come from Japan/China/San Francisco already, thrilling stuff, no?


Have you tried studying Chinese characters?  Do these specimens challenge and/or delight?

This entry was posted in China & Hong Kong, East & Southeast Asia, Food & Drink, Human Nature, Japan and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A Complicated Path to a Simple Starch: Chinese Characters, Part 一

  1. expatlingo says:

    Now chatter about characters is something I can really get into. I get a complete kick out of this old, unused character, 囧, being re-appropriated for “sad face.”

    • Was getting down pat a slew of 汉字 a goal, or did you brush them off at first as so many other CSL students do?

      I think we discussed this a while back, but they’ve always been an intriguing facet of language for me (ie, wondering what the heck is going on down in Chinatown, and then after having lived in China, “knowing” what’s going on in Chinatown…).

      On a mostly unrelated note, in response to 囧,
      brought to you by the nutty inhabitants of the Senkaku islands: http://club.pep.ne.jp/~hiroette/en/facemarks/

      • expatlingo says:

        I’ve been an on-again, off-again part-time Mandarin student for going on eight years. The first 2 of those years, I completely blew off characters, then I saw the light and realized that being illiterate was extremely tiresome. The on and off momentum means that I mainly always hover between recognizing a measly 200 to 500 characters depending on the season and year. At this point, I might need to move back to the Mainland to re-establish character learning momentum. (*´ο`*)

  2. Pingback: Study Chinese, Learn English: Signs in China | buildingmybento

  3. Pingback: One Great Menu: Lanzhou Lamian (China) | buildingmybento


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