The Chinese Blockbuster method
In order to be able to read and understand a Chinese character, you need to know the following:
- The various definitions and meanings of the character
- The pronunciation or various pronunciations of the character
- The components (the building blocks the character is made of)
- Some examples of use of the character in words and sentences.
Here is a short video showing the basics of the method, using character 外, meaning ‘outside’, ‘foreign’.
Let’s now take two sample characters found in Book 1 of the Chinese Blockbuster series to help you understand how the method works in more details.
Numbers have been added to the figures above to allow me to explain each section of an entry. Please refer to the corresponding numbers as they are described below.
- This is the sequence number, reflecting the order of presentation of the character in this series.
If a character has two different pronunciations and each pronunciation means something different, two separate entries are created for the same character. The corresponding entries follow each other. Likewise, if a simplified character represents the simplification of two different traditional characters, both entries follow each other.
- The Chinese character itself. In Figure 1, there exists only one version of the character. Figure 2 shows a character with both a simplified and a traditional format, the traditional one being written between square brackets.
- The tone used (first, second, third or fourth tone) when the character is pronounced.
Definition and pronunciation
- The real, actual definitions of the character, written in italics and presented as a numbered list. Some of these are also underscored with a solid line; they are the values selected in this series to be associated with the character when it is used as a building block in other characters. All the values written in italics should be learned. If a definition is indicated but is not written in italics, it is a definition that is no longer used in modern Chinese.
- The pronunciation of the character, in pinyin.
- The sound word used that best represents the character pronunciation, written in bold. The part of the sound word which reproduces the Chinese sound is underlined in that section. A definition of the sound word follows, when deemed useful.
- An image used to reinforce the meaning of the sound word.
- The list of components or building blocks making up the character. Here are a few important points regarding this section:
- For characters having both a simplified and a traditional format, the building blocks of each are represented under separate headings, with the traditional ones between brackets. See Figure 2.
- The difference between real and fictitious meanings. Building blocks are always written in underlined small caps (hint: ‘blocky’ letters) where they appear. The building blocks underscored with a solid line (RIGHT HAND, ONE) represent real meanings. Those that are not underscored (STAPLE GUN, WINERY) represent fictitious meanings.
- In Figure 2, you can also see that the word ‘inch’ is appended as a superscript to the building blocks for STAPLE GUN and STAPLE. When a corresponding real value exists for a fictitious building block, it is indicated as such. When no real meaning superscript is written besides a building block, as is the case for WINERY in Figure 2, it means that there is no longer an actual value associated with it.
- The superscript number written immediately to the right of the building block corresponds to its sequence number in the series. It allows you to quickly reference the character or building block.
- Finally, the components making up a character are listed in the order in which they would be written.
Mnemonics and story
- You will find in this section memory hints and mental images to help you memorize the character as well as important things to remember. They are presented in the form of a bullet list when there are more than one, as in Figure 1.
In some instances, the ancient form of the character is provided when it may help you understand and remember the character under study, as is the case in Figure 1, where it shows a hand begging for money.
The fictitious meanings given to some characters are also presented in this section. Illustrations often accompany the fictitious definitions in this section.
- The Story section is the centerpiece of the whole presentation. This is where all the elements of a character (meanings, building blocks, pronunciation) are brought together in a memorable narrative. The meanings are written in italics, the components in small caps (underscored with a solid line or not) and the sound word in bold.
There may be cases where either the Mnemonics or the Story section is sufficient to convey a memorable narrative. Typically, only the Mnemonics section is used for ‘non-characters’ and very rare characters.
Examples and supplementary info
- Seeing Chinese characters in combination with other characters is very useful to be able to read Chinese texts. As such, this section provides, except for very rare characters and non-characters, examples of usage in modern Chinese. They are presented in a numbered list that corresponds to the numbered list in the Definition section. Most of the examples provided consist of two-character words (as most modern Chinese words are now written). However, expressions and sentences are given as well. For economy of space, only simplified characters is used in the examples.
- Because learning Chinese characters is so interesting, I am betting you will ‘want a little more.’ This last section indicates:
- Whether the character is one of the 100 most common Chinese surnames, based on a report on the household registrations released by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security on April 24, 2007, for Mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau.
- Whether the character is one of the 214 Kangxi radicals.
- Whether the character is a heavenly stem or an earthly branch.
- The frequency of use of each character, going from the most to the least frequent, we have: Top 10, Top 100, Top 500, Top third (1-2000), Middle third (2000-4000) and Bottom third (4000-6000). For non-characters, i.e. pure elements of the Chinese writing system, for characters that are no longer used and for characters with a frequency of use above 6000, no frequency of use is indicated.
- Any additional points worthy of mention and other fascinating facts about the character.
There, you have it. The Chinese Blockbuster method, in a nutshell. More details are provided in the User Guide.