Deconstructing Chinese texts is the key to learn how to read Chinese

Deconstructing Chinese texts is different from deconstructing Chinese characters. There is only one way to deconstruct Chinese texts, while there are three ways to deconstruct Chinese characters.

Chinese characters can be deconstructed by strokes, components or radicals. Strokes are the most basic components of all Chinese characters, the first step for all students to learn how to write Chinese. Components and radicals are two different concepts. It is beneficial to understand what they are. 

Deconstruct texts by words

On the surface, Chinese is written using individual characters. But, if we treat a sentence as a sequence of Chinese characters, we may not understand what this sentence is telling us. 

Let’s use English as an analogy.

There are 26 letters in the English language. If English were written as Chinese is written, a typical sentence will look like this: 

Couldyoueasilyreadasentenceiftherewerenospacesbetweenitswords?

To understand this sentence, we must group letters into words. It’ll take some time, but we can still do it. 

Fortunately, this is not how English is written. There are spaces conveniently provided in the texts to separate words from one another. These spaces make reading English texts much easier. 

However, Chinese texts do not provide spaces for word boundaries. People must be trained to pick out the words by themselves. Also, instead of 26 letters, Chinese texts are usually written with thousands of Chinese characters.  

Chinese characters are acquired one by one. But they are used as combinations. This is the reason that learning characters is only the first step of learning how to read Chinese.

Grouping characters into a fixed combinations or words is the first step for students to make sense of any sentence. 

Most words consist of two Chinese characters, some only one, and some more than three Chinese characters.

The deconstruction process

This process of grouping Chinese characters within a sentence is the deconstruction process. We deconstruct a block of Chinese characters into smaller groups, i.e. words. 

Take a look at this example:

Deconstructing Chinese texts

This example is a really short sentence. To deconstruct longer sentences requires more practice.

When word boundaries are drawn differently

Chinese texts are really unique in a way that the same block of Chinese characters can be interpreted differently depending on how the word boundaries are drawn. In other words, when word boundaries are drawn differently, the same texts present different meanings. 

There are funny stories to play around this idea.

One of them goes like this:

A guest was visiting an acquaintance. When it was time for the guest to leave, it started to rain heavily. The guest did not want to rush home in a rainy day, but the master of the house did not want to ask the guest to stay any longer. 

The master thought of a polite way to ask the guest to leave. He wrote something on a piece of paper and handed it to the guest. It was “下雨天留客天留我不留” (xià yǔ tiān liú kè tiān liú wǒ bù liú). What the master intended to say is “下雨天 / 留客 / 天留 / 我不留” (xià yǔ tiān / liú kè / tiān liú / wǒ bù liú), which means “On a raining day, guest is asked to stay. The sky asks, but I don’t”. 

After reading the note, the guest smiled and thanked the master for asking him to stay. For the same note, the guest’s interpretation is “下雨天 / 留客天 / 留我不 / ” (xià yǔ tiān / liú kè tiān / liú wǒ bù / liú), which means “A raining day is the day to ask a guest to stay. Ask me to stay? Yes!”

Another one is illustrated as below:

Deconstructing Chinese sentence

There are two ways of reading the Chinese text  武汉市长江大桥欢迎您”. 

One is 武汉市 / 长江 / 大桥 / 欢迎您 (wǔhàn shì / chángjiāng / dàqiáo / huānyíng nín), which means “Wuhan city Changjiang bridge welcomes you”.

The other is  武汉 / 市长 / 江大桥 / 欢迎您 (wǔhàn / shìzhǎng / jiāng dàqiáo / huānyíng nín), which means “The mayor of Wuhan, Jiang Daqiao, welcomes you”.

The second interpretation makes one feel important.

Our final example is different ways of reading a beautiful poem by 杜牧 in Tang dynasty:

清明时节雨纷纷,路上行人欲断魂。

借问酒家何处有,牧童遥指杏花村。

There are at least two different ways to read this poem.

  • Version #1: someone is looking for a place for wine.

    清明时节,雨纷纷。路上,行人欲断魂。借问:酒家何处有?牧童遥指:杏花村。

  • Version #2: someone is looking for a shepherd boy.

    清明,时节雨。纷纷路上行。人欲断魂。借问酒家:何处有牧童?遥指:杏花村。

Of course, this kind of twisting does not do justice to such a great literary work. However, I loved it a lot when I first read about these different interpretations decades ago.

Conclusion

Learning Chinese reading and writing is more than learning a string of Chinese characters. 

For beginner students, they must go through extensive training to develop their ability in deconstructing Chinese texts. 

At MSL Master, we believe the training will be really effective when the total number of the Chinese characters is under control. In other words, when all the characters are known, students can focus on comprehending the meaning of the texts.

That is the principle of the Chinese Reading and Writing series, which uses a simple format and provides lots of reading exercises written with 320 Chinese characters.


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