From Shang Wu Ding’s Oracle Bone script to the characters we know today, Chinese characters have played a big role in East Asia’s history. In areas with Chinese communities and Japan, Chinese characters (known as Hanzi in China and Kanji in Japan) are widely used.

However, in Korea and Vietnam, the characters (hanja and hán tự respectively) are only used as abbreviations, used in clarifying difficult words, or used for decorative purposes. While there are over 106,230 characters (according to 异体字字典 Yìtǐzì Zìdiǎn), only 2,000-4,000 characters are used regularly. Chinese characters may seem daunting especially for those used to Roman letters. But, scholars like James Heisig have developed ways for one to learn them easily. 

Ideas and Pictures of Characters

Some of the characters are based on representations of concepts and material objects. While they may be scarce, they provide a basis for complex characters. An easy way for one to remember such characters is to associate an image for the character. For instance, 日 is the character for “day” and you can think of a “window” where you look to see the sun and a bright day. You can also check out these creative designs made by Hsueh Shaolan for reference.

Radicals or Building Blocks

These are the building blocks or components of characters. Knowing them can allow you to make almost any character. There are around 214 radicals that you can learn to help you learn to write the components of characters and to break down the characters’ parts. However, it is important to note that the radicals can change depending on the position of the radical.

Associative Idea Characters or Imaginative Memory

There are also characters based on concepts or ideas that you associate things with. Heisig also introduced the concept of imaginative memory where you can make stories out of the radicals and parts of the character. For instance, the character on top (明), which means “bright”, has the parts/radicals and characters 日 (sun) and 月 (moon). Both the sun and the moon are bright. With Heisig’s method, your story to help you remember could be like “the sun is bright, but the moon is brighter (the bigger radical).”

Sound-Based Radicals

On the other hand, there are characters with two components. The first one talks about the meaning of the character and the other one talks about the sound of the character. For instance, let’s look at the characters with the radical 由 (the ones in the upper picture), which means “cause” or “reason.” The character 由 is pronounced as yóu [joʊ̯³⁵] (Mandarin), yau4 [jɐu̯²¹] (Cantonese), iû [iu²⁴] (Min Nan), ゆう yuu [jɯ̟ᵝː] (Japanese), 유 yu [ju] (Korean), and do [jɔ³³] (Vietnamese). (International Phonetic Alphabet pronunciation in brackets)

The two characters have the 由 radical (underlined in red) because they sound like that character. On the other hand, the radicals underlined in blue describe the meaning of the character. For instance, the character 油 has the radical 氵, which comes from the character 水, which means “water.” This means that the character refers to a liquid, hence we have “oil.” On the other hand, the character 柚 has the radical 木, which means “tree”, hence we have “a fruit from a tree.”

NOTE: Some characters in Japanese may have different types of pronunciation. For instance, 油 can be pronounced as ゆう yuu or あぶら abura (the native Japanese word).

Here in AHEAD, we know that many of our students come from Chinese schools, international schools, or are learning an East Asian language as a foreign language. This article can help you in your language subjects. We believe that our students can excel with the best opportunities, especially with the rise of East Asian countries. We all hope for the best in your learning.


(Check out Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji, Remembering the Simplified Hanzi and Remembering the Traditional Hanzi series)

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Qiu, X. (2000). Chinese writing. Translated by G. L. Mattos & J. Norman. Berkeley, CA: Society for the Study of Early China and The Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California. ISBN 978-1-55729-071-7. (English translation of Wénzìxué Gàiyào 文字學概要, Shangwu, 1988.)

Sampson, G. & Chen, Z. (2013). The reality of compound ideographs. Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 41(2): 255–272. JSTOR 23754815.

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