A few years ago I was a graduated student at an international science institute. Many students were Chinese; in my small research group there were two of them. Trying to improve our communications, I decided to learn a bit of their language.
The concept of radicals was clear to me since Hebrew uses "roots" in a similar fashion. The tones were difficult to learn and remember – there was no hint within the characters how they should be pronounced.
The grammatical structure – especially the verbs system – was pretty simple and posed no difficulties. However, the endless amount of apparently random characters finally discouraged me and I dropped the topic.
Years later, I reached China and stayed there for a couple of months. Moving between zones speaking different dialects turned my learning to speak an almost impossible task. However, written Chinese is the same in all the country and thus I found myself rapidly learning many of them.
Except for the simplest ones, Chinese characters fit a square frame. The clearest exception is one of the last characters adopted into the Chinese: the full stop; it is shaped as a hollow circle.
Traditionally, Chinese was written in vertical columns from top to bottom; while the columns were ordered from right to left and had neither spaces nor punctuation. Nowadays, texts usually follow Western conventions and are written from left to right and top to bottom; punctuation marks and spaces have been adopted.
Pīnyīn is the Roman transliteration system’s name for Chinese; it solves the ambiguous pronunciation of traditional characters and is widely used for writing road signs, except for the far west.
Pīnyīn is easy to read once the diacritical marks for the tones are learned and the differences in the pronunciation of certain consonants are comprehended. The most obvious differences from Western languages are the "Q" which sounds like the "Ch" in "China," and the couple of "X" and "Zh" which roughly sound like an English "J." Hence, the "Qing" Dynasty should be pronounced "Cheeng."
The Pīnyīn was designed by the Communist government after the 1949 revolution in order to solve the analphabetism problem. However, in 1958 it was relegated to a secondary position after the simplified Chinese characters were adopted.
Since then, Chinese may be rendered in Classical Characters or the Simplified Characters. Nowadays, the simplified version is very popular in the Mainland, while Taiwan still uses the traditional characters.
Chinese characters are built up from basic radicals conveying a basic meaning and sound. Thus recognizing a radical within a character is a good way of getting a hint about it. For later stages of the learning, recognizing the radical is imperative, since Chinese dictionaries are usually arranged according to radicals.
Mnemonic techniques for remembering important – or recurring – radicals are easy to design; here are a few samples:
"山" is read "Shan" and means "Mountain," its shape reminds of a terrain elevation; it is part of a myriad of locations’ names.
"東" is read "Dong" and means "East;" it shows a "sun" (日) rising over a "tree" (木). Remembering that in China the east is the fertile part of the country and thus the sun rises over the trees makes remembering the character a breeze.
"人" is read "Ren" and means "Man." Doesn’t it look like a schematic walking man?
By the end of my trip, in Kashgar, I was able to completely decipher a trains’ schedule table written only in Chinese. My feeble mind wouldn’t have succeeded in the task if it wasn’t for a very useful intrinsic characteristic of the Chinese culture. They give an unusual important to the directions – that’s the origin of Feng Shui. Just by learning four characters I became able to read halves of many names:
"北" is the "Bei" part of "Beijing" and it means "North."
"西" is the "Xi" part of "Xian" and it means "West."
"左 or 東" is the "Dong" part of "Guangdong" and it means "East."
"南" is the "Nan" in "Yunnan" and it means "South."
"中" is the "Zhōng" part of "Zhōng guó" (中國) the Chinese name for China (Literally the Middle Kingdom) and depicts an arrow hitting a target’s center.
Moreover, most Chinese cities order their streets in strict grids and name them accordingly: "West Avenue," "North Road."
Just by adding a few other characters to my learning list I became able to navigate the streets by myself. Parallel streets in China are usually distinguished by a number: 1 East Street is parallel to 2 East Street; learning the relatively simple characters used for numbers transformed whole cities into legible. The most useful characters in this category are:
道 Dào means "road" or "street."
路 Lù means "street" or "avenue."
街 Jiē means "road" or "avenue."
衢 Qú means "highway."
The lower numerals are also simple to memorize:
一 Yī 1
二 èr 2
三 sān 3
四 sì 4
五 wǔ 5
六 liù 6
七 qī 7
八 bā 8
九 jiǔ 9
十 shí 10
Ruling Chinese Streets
Typical Chinese cities have a central square and walls surrounding them. Two perpendicular avenues connect the square with the walls, at the center of each axis. The avenue running from the square northwards to the walls (or former walls’ site) is usually called Bei Lu "北路" or North Avenue, while its southern counterpart is called Nan Lu "南路" or South Avenue. The same is valid to the eastern and western sides of the square. Streets parallel to the main avenues are numbered and called "street" (or elated terms – see above) instead of "avenue."
Even cities which do not strictly follow the traditional grid, clues to the ancestral principles can be found. One of the main avenues in Kunming – Yunnan’s capital – is called Beijing Lu 北京路 instead of the expected Bei Lu. Beijing means the "Northern Capital;" accordingly, the avenue runs northwards from the downtown’s railway station.
Remembering these basic and simple principles makes navigating China independently an easy and very enjoyable task.