When I was a little girl and enmeshed in my ill-fated Saturday Chinese school adventures, my Scarlett Ai-Yi and Uncle Gary tried to encourage me to enjoy my studies. Knowing that I enjoyed art (and being an artist himself), Uncle Gary told me: “think of writing each character as drawing a picture.” Obviously, I didn’t take his advice.
But that way of thinking is certainly helping me now. One of the great things about Xu Lao Shi, my teacher, is that he breaks down each character into its radicals and explains its etymology.
Take the character 讀 (dú, to read), for instance. Here it is blown up and in my favorite color, kelly green:
The radical on the left is number 149, or 言 (yan), meaning speaking–as in speaking words, which you also read (duh). The top radical on the right is number 33, or 士 (shi), meaning scholar. The middle one is 目, eye (number 109, mu), tranposed horizontally. And the bottom radical, 貝, is number 154 and means bei, or shell, which was once used as a form of currency in China.
So the mnemonic our teacher taught us for this character is: if you study and look at your words, or reading, diligently, you can make a lot of money one day.
Unless you decide to become a journalist ( 記者, jì zhě), in which case you’ll be living in penury ( 貧困, pín kùn) forever. Ha ha! Ha ha ha! Hahahahahahahaha! [strangled sob] Ha. Ha.