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Growing up in Taiwan as the daughter of a calligrapher, one of my most treasured memories was my mother showing me the beauty, the shape and the form of Chinese characters. Ever since then, I was fascinated by this incredible language.
But to an outsider, it seems to be as impenetrable as the Great Wall of China. Over the past few years, I've been wondering if I can break down this wall, so anyone who wants to understand and appreciate the beauty of this sophisticated language could do so. I started thinking about how a new, fast method of learning Chinese might be useful.
Since the age of five, I started to learn how to draw every single stroke for each character in the correct sequence. I learned new characters every day during the course of the next 15 years. Since we only have five minutes, it's better that we have a fast and simpler way. A Chinese scholar would understand 20,000 characters. You only need 1,000 to understand the basic literacy. The top 200 will allow you to comprehend 40 percent of basic literature -- enough to read road signs, restaurant menus, to understand the basic idea of the web pages or the newspapers. Today I'm going to start with eight to show you how the method works. You are ready?
Open your mouth as wide as possible until it's square. You get a mouth. This is a person going for a walk. Person. If the shape of the fire is a person with two arms on both sides, as if she was yelling frantically, "Help! I'm on fire!" -- This symbol actually is originally from the shape of the flame, but I like to think that way. Whichever works for you. This is a tree. Tree. This is a mountain. The sun. The moon. The symbol of the door looks like a pair of saloon doors in the wild west.
I call these eight characters radicals. They are the building blocks for you to create lots more characters. A person. If someone walks behind, that is "to follow." As the old saying goes, two is company, three is a crowd. If a person stretched their arms wide, this person is saying, "It was this big." The person inside the mouth, the person is trapped. He's a prisoner, just like Jonah inside the whale. One tree is a tree. Two trees together, we have the woods. Three trees together, we create the forest. Put a plank underneath the tree, we have the foundation. Put a mouth on the top of the tree, that's "idiot." (Laughter) Easy to remember, since a talking tree is pretty idiotic. Remember fire? Two fires together, I get really hot. Three fires together, that's a lot of flames. Set the fire underneath the two trees, it's burning. For us, the sun is the source of prosperity. Two suns together, prosperous. Three together, that's sparkles. Put the sun and the moon shining together, it's brightness. It also means tomorrow, after a day and a night. The sun is coming up above the horizon. Sunrise. A door. Put a plank inside the door, it's a door bolt. Put a mouth inside the door, asking questions. Knock knock. Is anyone home? This person is sneaking out of a door, escaping, evading. On the left, we have a woman. Two women together, they have an argument. (Laughter) Three women together, be careful, it's adultery.
So we have gone through almost 30 characters. By using this method, the first eight radicals will allow you to build 32. The next group of eight characters will build an extra 32. So with very little effort, you will be able to learn a couple hundred characters, which is the same as a Chinese eight-year-old. So after we know the characters, we start building phrases. For example, the mountain and the fire together, we have fire mountain. It's a volcano. We know Japan is the land of the rising sun. This is a sun placed with the origin, because Japan lies to the east of China. So a sun, origin together, we build Japan. A person behind Japan, what do we get? A Japanese person.
The character on the left is two mountains stacked on top of each other. In ancient China, that means in exile, because Chinese emperors, they put their political enemies in exile beyond mountains. Nowadays, exile has turned into getting out. A mouth which tells you where to get out is an exit.
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For foreigners, learning to speak Chinese is a hard task. But learning to read the beautiful, often complex characters of the Chinese written language may be less difficult. ShaoLan walks through a simple lesson in recognizing the ideas behind the characters and their meaning -- building from a few simple forms to more complex concepts. Call it Chineasy.
ShaoLan Hsueh has been a tech writer, an investor and entrepreneur, who now focuses on teaching Chinese through an engaging new method. Full bio »