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As the simplest Chinese characters, both pictograms and ideograms are the smallest categories in Chinese characters. Reportedly, roughly 4% of the total Chinese characters are pictograms and only 1% of the totals are ideograms.

The next category, ideogrammic compound, is much bigger. Approximately 13% of the total Chinese characters fall into this category.

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By far the most numerous category is the phono-semantic compound, also called semantic-phonetic compound or pictophonetic compound. These characters are composed of two parts: one is of a limited set of pictograms, often graphically simplified. This part is the semantic element, called a “bushou” or “radical”. It suggests the general meaning of the new target word.

The other part is an existing character pronounced approximately the same as the new target word. This part is the phonetic element. It suggests approximately how the new word is pronounced.

For an instance, the Chinese character mù “to bath” has on the left a bushou/radical of three short strokes, which is a simplified pictogram for a river, indicating that the character has a semantic connection with water; while the right-hand side in this charcter is a phonetic indicator mù, which by itself means “tree”.

In this case it can be seen that the pronunciation of mù “to bath”, the new targed character, sounds exactly the same as t as that of its phonetic indicator mù“tree”.

Semantic Element Phonetic Indicator English Meaning of
the Phonetic Indicator
New Targest Word English

As an example, a verb meaning “to flush” is pronounced chōng. It is the combination of the determinative radical which supplied an element of meaning, “water” in this case, and the phonetic element zhōng, which by itself means “middle”.

In this case it can be seen that the pronunciation of the character, chōng “to flush”, is slightly different from that of its phonetic indicator zhōng “middle”. This process means that the composition of such characters can sometimes seem arbitrary today.

Semantic Element Phonetic Indicator English Meaning of
the Phonetic Indicator
New Targest Word English

Other examples include hé “river”, hú “lake”, and huá “slippery”.

Semantic Element Phonetic Indicator English Meaning of
the Phonetic Indicator
New Targest Word English
   
   
   

Here is another example. The character bù “plutonium” is the metal radical jÄ«n “gold” plus the phonetic component bù“gold”, described in Chinese as jÄ«n “gold” gives the meaning, while bù“gold” gives the sound. Many Chinese names of elements in the periodic table and many other chemistry-related characters were formed this way.

Semantic Element Phonetic Indicator English Meaning of
the Phonetic Indicator
New Targest Word English

However, the phonetic component is not always as meaningless as the above-mentioned examples would suggest. It is also often the case that the determinative merely constrained the meaning of a word which already had several. The charcter cài “vegetable” is a typical example in point.

The Chinese charcter cài “vegetable” has the semantic element for plants combined with its phonetic indicator cÇŽi “to harvest”. However, cÇŽi “to harvest” does not merely provide the pronunciation. In classical texts it was also used to mean “vegetable”. That is, cài “vegetable” underwent semantic extension from “to harvest” to “vegetable”, and the addition of the semantic element merely specified that the latter meaning was to be understood.

Semantic Element Phonetic Indicator English Meaning of
the Phonetic Indicator
New Targest Word English

Approximately 82%-90% of the total Chinese characters are phono-semantic compounds, due to the extremely productive use of this technique to extend the Chinese vocabulary.

Considering its size and close assocations among pictograms, ideograms and phono-semantic compounds, my forth advice would be children should use pictograms and ideograms as bases to understand and memorize phono-semantic compounds.

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How to help children learn Chinese characters? (Method 2)
How to help children learn Chinese characters? (Method 3)
How to help children learn Chinese characters? (Method 4)
How to help children learn Chinese characters? (Method 5)


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