Posted in Chinese

Culinary Chinese 101: A Character Study…

CC Character Study 1

Today, we are beginning our post with a new character. However, you will probably notice that, contrary to previous practice, I have provided you with neither the pronunciation nor a definition. The reason for this is that we will be looking at both of those things next week. The 炒 character doesn’t often appear on restaurant signs but it will appear lots of times on just about every menu you will ever encounter. It is a very useful character to know and we will eventually have some fun exploring it in more detail.

That being said, I am trying, in these lessons, to alternate the interesting and instructive stuff with information that is a bit less exciting but nevertheless critical. Next week’s post will be a lot more fun, I promise you, but, today, please bear with me as we wade through a bit of technical stuff. The best way to begin is to dive right in by stating a few basic, but essential principles… 

  1. Chinese words are composed of one or more characters.

  2. Characters are composed of one or more components.

  3. Components are composed of one or more ‘strokes’.

CC Character Study 2

We can see the above three principals illustrated by examining the most simple of Chinese characters. The Chinese word for ‘one’ is made up of a single character, composed of a single component that, in turn, is composed of a single stroke.

Strokes, by the way, refer to the individual strokes of the brush or pen traditionally used for writing and we will have a further look at the formal stroke system in a future lesson.

CC Character Study 3

Turning once again to our 炒 character, the ‘Stroke Count: 8’ label probably makes a bit more sense now and you can quite easily see that the character is, in fact, made up of 8 individual ‘brush’ strokes. Counting the strokes in a character can be fairly easy sometimes, but it can also be very difficult and we will practice this as we go along.

The next thing I would like you to notice is that, unlike our 菜 (cài) character, which has three components (grass, claw, tree) in a vertical, or top-to-bottom arrangement, 炒 has a left-to-right form (which is actually the most common amongst all Chinese characters). It is not immediately apparent, at least in our very first picture, but 炒 also has three components and in the diagram directly above I have shaded the second and third components in the right-hand part of the character in light and dark blue respectively. Having noted this, we may now re-state our original basic principles thusly:

  1. Chinese words are composed of one or more characters.

  2. Characters are composed of one or more components.

  3. *Components may also be composed of one or more components*

  4. Components are composed of one or more ‘strokes’.

Finally … our component diagrams today, in addition to the stroke count, also make reference to something called a ‘radical’ and, if you look carefully, you will see that the radical for 炒 is the same as the component on the left-half of the character. For now, all you need to know that a radical is a specific class of component. This is probably one of the more important things you need to know about character structure and we will be looking at this in a good bit of detail later on.

By the way, before we close, if I tell you that the pronunciation of 炒 is often rendered as ‘chow’ on westernized menus, does this ring any bells for you? If you were put in mind of ‘chow mein’ or ‘chow fun’, perhaps you can guess at the meaning?


I am a lawyer by profession and my practice is Criminal... I mean, I specialize in Criminal law. My work involves travelling on Court circuits to remote Arctic communities. In between my travels I write a Food blog at

5 thoughts on “Culinary Chinese 101: A Character Study…

  1. Let’s see…I think I know this one…since chow mein is my favorite type of mein and the crunchewier the better….and to achieve that crunchewiness it has to be fried…I will go with “to fry or stir-fry”.

  2. Fascinating! To me all this is new – but have loved today’s logical grammar lesson. And my study book is growing 🙂 !

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