How do we learn Chinese characters?

Cyrille J.-D. Javary’s “100 mots pour comprendre les Chinois ( 100 words to understand Chinese people)” is an excellent thread for learning and understanding characters. This book tells us the history and stories of these characters in several themes: nature and time, body and feelings, family and society, eating and drinking, culture and technology, history and politics, wisdom and spirituality. I skip over various relevant considerations of the author to focus on the mnemonic process that can help us understand logic and retain them.


木 arbre

The author starts in the section “Nature and time” with the ideogram for tree 木, mù.  We see in the illustration below the evolution of the character, starting with its archaic form, with the antler, the vertical line, the trunk, and the root at the bottom. Then we have more stylized forms to arrive at the classical ideographic form. 

caractère chinois arbre


How do you say root? Very simple, we add a line at the bottom of the ideogram, the root is at the bottom of the tree: 本, běn. This character will be found in the Chinese word for “Japan” (sun and 本), this country is well named the country of the Rising Sun – the root of the Sun, 日本.
“As for: 本, it’s not so much that the root is at the bottom of the tree, but that the root is not visible, since it’s buried in the ground. It is therefore the proof that the sign 木 is not a pictogram, a drawing that serves to describe what we want to write, but an ideogram, the drawing of an idea, here the “tree-system” which during the yang period of the year grows towards the sky and during the yin period of the year grows towards the earth. Ideography does not suggest ideas, it represents them, it shows them” (email from C. Javary).

Branch, 末

Where are the branches? Upstairs. If you add to tree, a line at the top, you will find the word branch, 末, mò.

Fruit, 果

The fruit grows at the end of the branches. The primitive shape showed this, but the constraints of the brushstroke transformed the fruit into a square, 果, guǒ.

Nest, 巢

The nest, often in the trees, is differentiated with three additional features above the fruit, reminiscent of “the flapping of the wings of the parent birds, returning to the nest with the food of their chicks”: 巢, cháo.

Picking, 采

And pick? Just place a hand sign over the tree, waving at something. 采, cǎi.

This method is a very easy and interesting way to learn the life of the Chinese characters.

The book is translated in Spanish, not in English for the moment :
“100 palabras para entender a los chinos”.

You can find the articles on the Chinese language here.

8 june 2020

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