A Tip on Sounding out Chinese Characters

I have not met any Chinese-speaking person who knows all of the 40,000 + Chinese characters. In fact, we get by fairly well by having just a few thousand Chinese words under our belt. And, like you, from time to time, we encounter a word that we have not learned before. What to do when you come across such a word while reading a document but are too lazy to look it up in a lexicon? Many of us would simply take a shot at it by employing a method known as 有边念边 (yǒu biān niàn biān). (biān) means the side or edge of something, while (niàn) in this phrase means to read. In other words, if the character contains a radical, then try sounding out the remaining part. As you will see from the following examples, this method actually works in very many cases.

The Chinese word for crickets is 蟋蟀. Remove the insect radical from the first character, and you would get (xī), which is the formal word for “entirely” or to “learn about something”. As for the second character, you already know that is pronounced as “shuài” when it means “to lead”. Voilà! 蟋蟀 (xīshuài crickets).

(qīng) is a blue or green color. It also represents youth. (qīng), which means clear, clarified, thoroughly, clear up or clean up, sounds exactly the same. 蜻蜓 (qīngtíng) is a dragonfly, and 鯖魚 (qīng yú) is a mackerel.

In some cases, the tone is different. For example, (qíng clear, sunny) is in the second tone and (qǐng to request or to invite, please) is in the third tone.

Xīshuài hé qīngtíng dōushì kūnchóng.
Crickets and dragongflies are all insects.

(yáng) is a goat or a sheep.
(yáng) means vast, foreign, or an ocean.
(yáng) means to pretend.
氧气 (yǎngqì) is oxygen
(yǎng) means to cultivate, to nourish or to provide for.
(yàng) means appearance, shape or pattern.

(fēn) is polyphonic. In the first tone, it means to divide, to differentiate or to distribute. It also means a grade point. In the fourth tone, it could refer to components – 成分 (chéngfèn) or one’s duty – 本分 (běnfèn).

Tā fēnpèi le qīngsōng de gōngzuò gěi wǒ.
He assigned an easy job to me.

芬芳 (fēnfāng) means a sweet smell, or sweet-smelling.
气氛 (qìfēn) is the ambiance.
(fěn) is a powder, or noodles made from starch. It is also used to characterize a pale color. So, 粉红色 (fěnhóngsè) is a pink color.
(fèn) is a share or a portion.
气忿 (qì fèn) means indignation, or to be angry. It is akin to the word 气愤 (qì​fèn anger, being angry). See? If you use the wrong tones for 气氛 (qìfēn), it might be interpreted as resentment or vehement anger.

As an exercise, find a few words that comprise (fāng square or rectangular, honest, locality) and are pronounced similarly.

Keep in mind, though, that this method does not always work. As you may recall from a number of my previous blog posts, (dōng) refers to the east direction. However, Mr. Chen, or 陈先生 (Chén Xiānsheng), may get a good laugh if you address him as Mr. Dong.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Anthony Bogadek
    Jun 05, 2013 @ 12:32:40

    Hi Dear Miss Lin,
    An interesting and useful lesson. Thanks.
    Here are a few points of mine.
    1. A few printing inaccuracies:
    a) … then try sounding out out the the remaining part.
    The “out” occurs twice.
    b) … It also represent …
    spelling: should be: It also represents….
    2. My biggest problem occurs towards the end of the lesson’s text. Quoting from your lesson: “气忿 (qì fèn) means indignation, or to be angry. See? If you use the wrong tones for 气氛 (qìfēn), it might be interpreted as “resentment”.”
    I find the statement a bit obscure.
    For “气忿 (qì fèn) my dictionary uses the first tone for “fen”, i.e. qì​fēn (I got this from the MDBG online dictionary) and not the 4th tone as given in the lesson, and then this word means “atmosphere, mood”, not “indignation” as suggested by the lesson text.
    Then, quoting the MDBG dictionary again,”indignation or resentment” seems to be 氣憤 qì​fèn and not “气氛 (qìfēn)” as indicated in the lesson.
    But it may well be that I misread and misinterpreted your text.
    3. About “Absolutely don’t call Mr. Chen, or 陈先生 (Chén Xiānsheng), Mr. Dong.”
    I guess the “Dong” refers to the right-hand half of the character 陈, though this is not so obvious from the lesson’s text. It would have helped if the Chinese character for “Dong” had been included.
    Kind regards and thanks,
    A bee


    • likeabridge
      Jun 05, 2013 @ 14:49:13

      Hi Anthony,

      1. Thank you very much for pointing out the typographic errors. These have been corrected.

      2. This is a good question.

      MDBG shows 忿懑 fènmèn at this link.

      This is akin to 愤懑 fènmèn (resentful).

      If you see 气忿 (qì fèn) shown as qì​fēn with the meaning “atmosphere, mood”, then that reference document needs to be corrected. The atmosphere/mood is written as 气氛 (qìfēn). Note how the word 氛 takes on the 气radical? 忿 has the heart radical and represents a strong emotion (usually of anger). 气忿 and 气愤 are customarily used interchangeably.

      3. I was hoping that my readers would know the character for “east” by now. Still, I have, at your suggestion, edited the text for the sake of clarity.


  2. Anthony Bogadek
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 10:11:35

    Dear Miss Lin,
    Thank you for taking time to answer my question. It is quite obvious now that I had mixed up two closely resembling characters. Your answer is quite clear. Thank you for correcting my mistake.
    A bee


    • likeabridge
      Jun 06, 2013 @ 14:09:14


      My pleasure. Thanks for bringing up the word 气愤 (qì​fèn), which is a commonly used expression for anger or being angry. I’ll add this to the lesson.


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