The average non-Chinese person looking at Chinese characters may well think they are a mass of lines and squiggles which are impossibly difficult to fathom. According to Wikipedia there are 47,000 + characters in the Kangxi dictionary whilst this blog claims that there are in excess of 80,000 characters – a truly daunting prospect for a learner of Chinese. Moreover, there is some disagreement as to the number you need to know in order to read a newspaper depending on which source you consult. The HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi – the People’s Republic of China only standardised test for non native speakers) at advanced level is based on approximately 2,600 characters giving a total vocabulary of about 5,000 words.
Learners of Chinese will know however, that the characters are made up of building blocks or components called radicals of which there are just over 200, so what at first might seem impossible to fathom actually can be decoded more easily once these have been learnt. I’ve just recently come across Cracking the code website which offers learners a useful way of getting to grips with characters and how they are built up.
This site breaks the characters down into components which are classified as being derived from humanity, nature, culture abstract or “other”. These in turn are broken down into further subcategories. “Nature” for example is categorised into ‘earth’, ‘heaven’, ‘plants’, ‘animals’ and ‘animal parts’, each of which is then further subdivided e.g. “earth” components include those for earth, field, gold, jade, stone, mountain, hill, cliff, cave and valley. Clicking on one of these individual components then brings up a screen showing details of that component. This includes the meaning, a sound file, the number of strokes needed to write it, its “radical” number for the purpose of looking it up in a dictionary and a list of characters where it is used in combination with another radical. The learner can then click on one of these characters to get the sound file and an explanation of the breakdown of the character and how they combine with other characters to create new words.
The site is easy to use and would be particularly useful for a learner with a basic knowledge of the most common radicals wanting to increase their vocabulary. The one thing it does not seem to have are animated characters showing the stroke order, but these can be seen on the Nciku dictionary site.