Anatomy of a Chinese character
Most Chinese characters are composed of building blocks or components that form part of a character and which are seen repeated in other characters. This way, the number of symbols to learn is drastically reduced. In other words, Chinese characters are not arbitrary symbols; they are composed of familiar building blocks, and there is an underlying logical structure guiding their construction. It is as if you had a box of Lego blocks containing yellow, blue, green and red bricks with a limited number of shapes, allowing you to create an almost unlimited number of structures with them.
While a few characters represent actual pictures (日 for sun， 月 for moon， 山 for mountain, 木 for tree) and symbols (一 for one， 二 for two， 三 for three), the great majority of Chinese characters are what we call sound-meaning compounds. They usually consist of a component taken from a list of 214 elements called radicals (more precisely Kangxi radicals, which are used by most Chinese dictionaries to organize their content, a bit like the 26 letters of the alphabet are used to order words in a Western dictionary), that gives a hint to the meaning of the character, combined to another part that gives a hint to its pronunciation. Most of the time, these two parts are also characters themselves.
Building Block Examples
Take for instance the following three characters:
1 根 gēn (root of a plant) 2 校 xiào (school) 3 村 cūn (village, hamlet)
They all have on the left side the character 木, a radical which means ‘tree, wood.’ It is used here to indicate that the character to which it belongs has something to do with wood: 1 the root of a plant, of a tree; 2 a wooden structure where you study; 3 a village with houses made of wood.
Written on the right side of the tree radical are components (and characters in their own rights) which give an indication to the sound of the main character.
1 艮 gěn (tough; stubborn) 2 交 jiāo (to deliver, hand over; to intersect)
3 寸cùn (Chinese inch)
Their meaning, in this case, does not contribute to the sense of the character to which they belong.
There are also what we call meaning-meaning compounds, where two or more semantic components are joined to create a new character that has a meaning derived from the sum of the meanings of all the components. For example, still using 木 as a radical, we have 析 xī (to separate, divide, split) where the right part 斤 jīn represents an ax, hence to separate, split wood with an ax;
the character 林 lín, where two trees are put next to each other to mean ‘grove, woods’; or the character 森 sēn, where three trees are grouped to mean ‘forest.’
With time, the characters underwent gradual changes, mostly phonetic changes but also shifts in meanings and structure to the point that lexicographers are not always able to trace them back to the original character. Therefore, some characters no longer appear on their own and do not have a meaning or a pronunciation of their own. They have essentially become ‘non-characters,’ but they continue to be used as building blocks to form more complex characters.