I am learning Chinese now, and we've been introduced to Chinese characters as 'pictograms'. I understand the logic behind some characters, like 口 mouth to and 人 person.

But, what about complex characters? For example: 吃 to eat consists of to indicate that this character is related to the mouth, but what about the remaining right-side of the character? What is the logic (if any) in those strokes?

This leaves me to wonder about countless other characters like 礼物 gift. It seems very hard to remember all of these characters, especially since the their strokes are seemingly mostly without logic.

4 Answers 4


Chinese characters can be broken up into a number of categories, only one of which are pictograms like you described.

  • 象形字, or pictograms, are simple characters like 日, 山, 口 that are visual representations of the words that they mean.
  • 指事字, or simple ideograms, are simple characters like 上 and 下 which are visual representations of more abstract concepts, like up or down.
  • 会意字, or compound ideograms, are characters that are combined of multiple parts that represent more abstract meanings, like 休 (person + tree = rest)
  • 假借字, or rebus characters, are characters that had their meanings significantly changed since Classical Chinese and are now used for completely different meanings. Many of these characters were originally pictograms or simple ideograms, but now have different meanings. Examples are 自 which used to mean "nose" but now means "self" and 北 which used to mean "back" but now means "north."
  • 形声字, or phono-semantic compounds, are the most numerous types of characters in modern Chinese. These characters are comprised of two sections - phonetic and semantic. The character you asked about, 吃, is an example. 口 is the semantic section - it tells that the character's meaning has something to do with the mouth. 乞 is the phonetic part - pronounced qi3, it means "to beg" and is used as a rough guide to the pronunciation of the character. These guides aren't 100% accurate, as the characters often predate phonetic changes in the language.

Hopefully this answers your question - eventually, as you delve into further study, you'll learn about radicals and other deconstructions of Chinese characters which will hopefully demystify the system more for you.

You can read more about the classification of Chinese characters http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_characters here.

  • in view of the phrase " wanting to discuss the finer points of the Chinese language" used to describe the site. users are wondering whether this site is the proper place to ask this question, since it is totally elementary and answered on the first pages of any textbook on Chinese, or the first lectures of any course on the language, 因为本网站说明其使命时,用"。。。 finer points。。。"这个短语,所以有使用者很怀疑本网站可能是合适的地方来问这个问题。毫无疑问该问题是十分基本的而回答找得到在任何课本最初一些页上或任何课程最初一些讲座里。
    – user6065
    Mar 21, 2015 at 15:13

You can look in zhongwen.com for character analysis. I've heard they may not always agree with other experts, but I like it. Just click search and put the pinyin in the box, it gives you a break down of most characters. The 'logic' may be lost in history!


There are general guidelines listed in the Stroke order article at Wikipedia. Even still, there are varying standards (also noted by that same article) on what is considered the "correct" stroke order. The article goes into further detail on some of the differences, but practically speaking, the guidelines should generally serve you well.

  • although question does not mention "stroke order", as mentioned above this is fixed by the stroke order rules with some exceptions (quoting "教学汉字规范手册":"绝大多数汉字应当按照笔顺规则书写。由于汉字结构复杂,有些汉字习惯的写法与笔顺规则不尽一致,天长日久,也就流传和固定下来。女、火、长、丑、非等字就是这样。")Anyhow there exists animated stroke order software。
    – user6065
    Mar 21, 2015 at 2:48

I think we can name the parts of Chinese characters as "suffixes", which are also called "radical", such as "left-fix", "right-fix", "top-fix", and "bottom-fix".

Do not think they have meaning. They do not. Those suffixes only have some information of categories. It is not as strictly logical as in math. It is just about right. For example, 林,树,杆,梁,柴 are of the kind of 木 (wood).

The other part may (or may not) have information of sound. It may be the same sound or the same final of pinyin. And it is not always make the similar sense, not logic, not math.

I think we'd better say they are 指类指韵,not 指意指音。

That is the situation of Chinese written system. You may want to put most of your time in speaking and write as pinyin.

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