Understanding complexity in Chinese characters and structures.

chinese characters

If you read my first post about learning Chinese, you already know a great deal about what makes the Chinese language difficult to learn. Now let’s discuss some more complicated aspects of the Chinese language: the nature of characters and structures.

One character, many meanings

The tricky part for me is not the amount of characters or the similar sounds. It is the fact that some characters are being used (as it feels like) infinitely with various kinds of meaning and structures. Characters like 来 (lái) and 点 (diǎn) are everywhere and the list of it’s meanings seems endless.

There are different levels of complexity to this. Let’s start with some “easy” examples: one character can have many different meanings.

The second level of complexity are characters which have various pronunciations (and different meanings). Some of the most prominent examples are the following.

Are you wondering how to know, which word is meant? “Context” is the answer to this question, which you will hear a lot when learning Chinese. It is impossible to simply look at a sentence and try to translate character after character. Even in many simple cases, you can only grasp the sentence as a whole. But wait, it gets even more difficult.

Grammatical structures (or lack thereof)

When I started to make my first sentences in Chinese I was quite optimistic. It seemed easy enough since Chinese nouns are not differentiated by gender, there is no declension for verbs, no conjugation or cases for nouns. Most of the other grammatical concepts, which make some languages hard to learn, do not exist in Chinese. (And if you are a native English speaker and not sure what I am talking about: most if this does not exist in English either, which is why English is comparably easy to learn.) My first impression was: there is little grammar in Chinese, great!

As it turns out, there really is little grammar as I knew if before. But as I painfully learned later, there is a lot of other grammar in the Chinese language, which cannot easily be mapped to the concepts in other languages. So, unfortunately this did not make life easier, but actually harder.

So is this a verb or a noun?

Let’s dive in. The question “So is this a verb or a noun?” is one of the most frequently asked questions in my class. Even this basic linguistic concept of differentiating words by type (like noun, verb or adjective) does not really work in Chinese. Characters or even words can sometimes be both a verb and a noun or any other combination. Here are some examples of common characters which can have many word types.

Cases like the ones above might be rather special, but it is quite common for a word to be used as both, the verb or adjective, as well the corresponding noun. One such case is 安排 (ānpái), which means “to arrange” or “to plan” (安排旅程) and also “arrangement” or “plan” (明天你有什么安排?). Here are some more examples:

Furthermore, sentences do not need a verb, but an adverb can take the position of a predicate. (我很好 is literally translated as “I”+”very”+”good” and means “I am good”. It is interesting to note that it does not mean “I am very good”.)

Chinese does not even have tenses to express time in the way you might know it from “western” languages. The Chinese often rely on context or a time word (yesterday, today, tomorrow) to express when an action has happened.

Learning Chinese means letting go of existing concepts

Most Chinese books and curricula I have seen try to teach Chinese by explaining the language using the grammatical concepts as in the western languages. This is fair, as you need to start somewhere. But I sometimes feel it might do more harm than good and can be very confusing. Chinese has its own way of structuring information in a sentence. From the point of view of a language like English it does not always make sense. (Accepting that things don’t always make sense from a foreigner’s point of view is generally a wise choice in China.)

One of my teachers confirmed that the Chinese language has not developed from a structured framework. What is now being called “grammar” is an attempt to give some kind of rule and form to the way the language has evolved. From my perspective, it is easier to just surrender to the fact that certain grammatical structures don’t exist in Chinese and learn the Chinese structures from scratch.

Learning Chinese means memorizing.. a lot!

In that sense, Chinese is a language where you simply have to memorize a whole lot of things, not only individual characters. “Words” (as far as they can be identified as such) often are formed by one or more characters. And while many of them have a beautiful and interesting composition (I will share some examples in a specific post later), there are many combinations that are not intuitive at all.

In addition, there are “structures”. This usually consists of a certain combination of characters in a sentence, that will refer to a specific meaning. (They are not always adjacent to one another and thus different from words.)

Furthermore, those specific words, expressions and structures often rely on characters that are awfully common, which adds to the complexity. All of this means that you cannot infer meaning from logically combining one character after another. At every level and in every combination you have to memorize the meaning anew.

I will talk more about structures and grammar in the next post. For now, here are some basic examples to illustrate this phenomenon. My favorite example is 要 and 不要. It is very simple and something you learn very early on. 要 (yào) is a very common character and usually means something like to want or to wish for something. 不 (bù) is even more common,as it means “not”. It is used for common negation, such as 我不去,”No, I am not going” or 今天不冷, “It is not cold today”. Now, combining 不要 (bùyào) should give you “don’t want”, right? Sometimes it does. But it can also mean “don’t do”, which is not just different, but almost the exact opposite.

Wait, where does this word end?

Let’s say you have learned a few characters and want to start reading full sentences. As soon as the sentences get a little more complicated the next challenge comes your way: there are no spaces to separate the words. Depending on where you grew up, it will probably seem natural to have spaces in written language. At first, this seemed utterly confusing and illogical to me, but the more I dove into the Chinese language the more I could see why this is the case in Chinese. In some sentences and combinations I would not even know where to put the spaces, if I would want to add them. This is because the meaning arises from a certain combination of characters in a specific order without each of them having a literal translation as individual words.

A screenshot of the Chinese edition of the New York Times: the text is a long flow of characters without spaces
https://cn.nytimes.com/https://cn.nytimes.com/travel/20191115/qantas-longest-flight/ on 04 September 2020

If you are interested to learn more, please follow up with the next post in this series or have a look at my Chinese Language section.

For information sources and some materials to use for learning Chinese, click here.