Chinese characters that look like a sandwich

Chinese characters are being connected to pictures or objects a lot, for example, what “” looks like, or what “” looks like. In doing so, we try to understand the images or the objects that inspired ancient Chinese people to invent certain characters. This way of connecting characters with pictures/objects sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t. (More details are here, Pictures and Chinese characters.)

What is really interesting for us today, and which is beyond ancient Chinese people’s widest imaginations, is that a small group of Chinese characters really do resemble an object, a sandwich! Take a look at these Chinese characters, , , , , , , , . 

Chinese characters

Don’t they all look like a sandwich?

All these characters have two identical sides enclosing a middle part, like two slices of bread with some ham and cheese in the middle. 

Let’s explain these Chinese characters a little:

  • (bān): school class, work shift, and etc
  • (jiē): street
  • (kā or gā ): meaningless by itself
  • (xián): to hold in the mouth, to link, rank
  • (biàn): to differentiate, to recognise
  • (biàn): to argue, to debate
  • (yǎn): to spread out, to be redundant
  • (bàn): to do, to handle, to set up

All these characters look like a sandwich. But none of them really mean “a sandwich”. Therefore, we can not use a sandwich to explain any of these characters. For people who love to use pictures/objects to explain characters, they’re going to have a tough time to come up with something to explain each of these characters appropriately. 

For people who want to connect the meanings of characters with their radicals, they are likely to be disappointed, as these characters overall show a weak connections between their meanings and their radicals. 

  • (school class, work shift, and etc): the radical is (jade, gem)
  • (street): the radical is (move, travel)
  • (meaningless by itself): the radical is (mouth, entrance) 
  • (to hold in the mouth, to link, rank): the radical is (move, travel)
  • (to differentiate, to recognise): the radical is (bitter, toilsome)
  • (to argue, to debate): the radical is (bitter, toilsome)
  • (to spread out, to be redundant): the radical is (move, travel)
  • (to do, to handle, to set up): the radical is (power, strength)

One way to look at these characters is to pick those special ones. Although they are all unique in their own way, I think three of them are really special.

The first one is the character , because this character looks quite different from its traditional form , while the other two characters have more in common with their traditional forms, (traditional character: ), and (traditional character: ). The rest characters do not have two different forms. 

As a traditional Chinese character, the radical of is . This is very different from its simplified version .

  • (to do, to handle, to set up): the radical is (bitter, toilsome)
  • (to do, to handle, to set up): the radical is (power, strength)

The character is also a special character, because it doesn’t really mean anything by itself, while other Chinese characters in this group all mean something. The character only serves as a phonetic sound, for example:

  • If we put and together, we’ll have 咖啡 (kā fēi, coffee). 
  • If we put and together, we’ll have 咖喱 (gā lí, curry). 

The third special Chinese character in this group is , because it has the most diverse meanings of all. In other words, it has different meanings when it is combined with different characters, such as:

  • 学前班: preschool class
  • 早班: morning shift
  • 戏班: theatrical troupe
  • 班师: withdraw troops from the front
  • 一班人: a group of people
  • 航班: scheduled flight
  • 下一班火车: next train
  • 加班: work overtime
  • 跟班: footman
  • 按步就班: follow the prescribed order

As a Chinese character, the character is very useful, more useful than other characters in this group, more useful than most Chinese characters. 

To be highly useful is a common characteristic among the top frequently used Chinese characters. Learning these characters first helps students build up a sizeable useful words/combinations quickly. This is the reason that the character is the only Chinese character in this group being included in the Chinese Reading and Writing series!


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