Characters and Compounds
It’s now time to elaborate on just what Chinese characters represent, and how they can be used in combinations. Although I’ll only be skimming the surface on this subject, it’s my intent to provide a glimpse of the inherent logic (and beauty) of written Chinese.
The English language employs twenty-six letters (consonants and vowels) which are used as the building blocks to monosyllabic or polysyllabic words, each conveying a specific meaning. By contrast, each Chinese character represents an idea or concept that is orally translated into a monosyllabic sound:
[Chinese character = pinyin (English meaning)]
星 = xing (star)
期 = qi (a period of time, phase, stage, term)
多 = duo (many, much, a lot of)
数 = shù (number, figure)
Given a word may be defined as “a unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation, that functions as a principal carrier of meaning”, a Chinese character can therefore be defined as a word. There is a caveat, though…the definition of “word” may apply to more than a single character. Enter the compounds:
星期 = xing1 qi1 (week)
多数 = duo1 shu4 (majority, most)
Two consecutive characters can therefore carry a specific meaning which differs from the meaning of each character on its own. They may as a result be considered one word. But wait, there’s more:
公 = gong1 (just, honorable, public, common)
共 = gong4 (altogether, together, common, total)
汽 = qi4 (steam, vapour)
车 = che1 (car, vehicle)
Place these four characters in the following order, and you get:
公共汽车 = gong1 gong4 qi4 che1 (bus)
That’s four characters translating into one specific meaning which, by definition, may be referred to as a single word.
This “building block” approach demonstrates the logical pattern in assigning characters to meanings. Characters with similar if not identical meanings are often compounded to reinforce an idea:
练 = lian4 (to practice, to train)
习 = xi2 (to practice, to study)
练习 = lian4 xi2 (to practice, exercise)
Other combinations provide a hybrid concept, which if you think about it, makes sense:
马 = ma3 (horse)
上 = shang4 (on, up, on top, upon)
就 = jiu4 (at once, then, right away, only)
马上就 = ma3 shang4 jiu4 (immediately, at once, right away).
This commonly used expression provides a sense of immediacy to an action. I have yet to confirm this, but I like to think that the imagery of riding a horse — the common form of transportation in older times — accentuates the concept of speed or haste. It would make sense, anyway.
Based on the manner in which units are strung together, the differences between English/Western languages and Chinese can be staggering. Fortunately, extracting meaning from characters and compounds lends a considerable fluidity to the Chinese language, and this is a surprisingly good motivator for the student. What’s more, the logical construction of patterns and expressions greatly helps to remember the ever-growing vocabulary and repertoire of characters.
The bottom line is: if you truly want to learn Mandarin Chinese, you must absolutely learn to read (and write) Chinese characters. Pinyin, in the end is there to aid your pronunciation.