Culinary Chinese 101: Look me up (sometime)…

Today’s post is not so much a lesson in written Chinese as it is just a little food for thought…  So far, in our first few posts, we have looked at the following Chinese characters:

菜 白 四 川 北 京 味

大 小 上 海 苗 燕 精 不 辣

The 7 in the first line have been examined in some detail while the remaining 9 in the second line have received only a brief mention. Thus far, the total is only 16 characters and if you are seriously following these lessons and keeping an eye out for the various characters in grocery stores or restaurants etc., you could probably print out the above two lines and keep them in your pocket for easy reference.

What will happen, though, when our vocabulary list approaches 25, 50, or even a hundred characters? I expect you can probably guess how quickly such a list would become unmanageable without some sort of method for organizing the characters in a meaningful sequence. To illustrate this, we can try a simple exercise:

Our first 7 characters listed above are printed out in the order in which we encountered them in the previous series of posts. What I would like you to do now is organize them in their ‘correct’ order… 

Are you finished yet?

Or are you asking yourself:    Order?  … WHAT freakin’ order is John talking about?

Now, suppose I asked you to sort the letters ‘QWERTY’ into the ‘correct sequence. Almost certainly, you would respond with ‘EQRTWY’… You would just automatically assume I meant alphabetic order and not even bother to ask what order I meant. Indeed, the process of alphabetic search and organization is so straight-forward, and learned so easily, that we pretty much take the skill for granted. In Chinese, however, the situation is very different indeed and this naturally begs the question:

What would a Chinese dictionary look like?

This is probably not a question that has ever occurred to you but I would like you to ponder it for a while. It is said that a literate high-school level student in China is familiar with somewhere on the order of 1500 characters… So, how would you sort all those characters into any meaningful sort of order and how, for heaven’s sake, could you ever actually look anything up?

Well, the answer to that is not simple but it is definitely something you need to know if you are going to study written Chinese. Unfortunately, as it happens, I won’t be able to give you a straight-forward, one-line solution to the problem because there isn’t one… Accordingly, we will be examining the process in a number of posts to follow (albeit, you may be relieved to know, over time and not all at once).

By the way, I know that some of my readers will have a general idea about this already so I ask you to please not ‘shout out’ the answer… For the rest of you, though, how do you imagine one might go about organizing a list of Chinese characters into some sort of meaningful order?


  1. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, indeed! . That’s my final answer! Lol. .

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