Judging from many comments on this post, "Annals of airport Chinglish, part 3", there is both tremendous interest in and massive confusion about how Chinese characters are constructed.
Jeremy Goldkorn sent me this clever complaint about the characters from Weibo (China's imitation of Twitter) which is circulating widely on the web; it seems to be relevant to our present discussion:
终于会读了，泪奔 三个土念垚（yáo）三个牛念犇（bēn）三个手念掱（pá）三个田念畾（lěi）三个马念骉（biāo）三个羊念羴（shān）三个犬念猋 （biāo）三 个鹿念麤（cū）三个鱼念鱻（xiān）三个贝念赑（bì）三个毛念毳（cuì）三个车念轟（hōng）不会读的转!
I'll provide a rough translation:
With tears streaming down, I've finally learned how to read:
three tǔ 土 ("earth") are pronounced yáo 垚 ("high, lofty")
three niú 牛 ("bovine") are pronounced bēn 犇 ("rush")
three shǒu 手 ("hand") are pronounced pá 掱 ("pickpocket"); the same morpheme may also much more easily be written as 扒, although the latter character also has many other meanings under two different pronunciations, bā: "hold on to; cling to; rake; dig up; push lightly; strip / take off; peel", and pá "rake up; gather together; stew, braise"
three 田 ("field") are pronounced lěi 畾 ("fields divided by dikes")
three mǎ 马 ("horse") are pronounced biāo 骉 ("the aspect / appearance of a galloping herd of horses"); a Chinese woman who had this character as her surname was forbidden to use it because it was not found in standard fonts
three yáng 羊 ("sheep-goat; ovicaprid") are pronounced shān 羴 ("the rank smell of ovicaprids / mutton; a flock / herd of ovicaprids")
three quǎn 犬 ("canine, dog") are pronounced biāo 猋 ("appearance / aspect of dogs running; swift; whirlwind" — the latter meaning is usually written with the "wind" radical either on the left or the right side, and the wind radical may, of course, be either simplified 风 or traditional 風, and the 3 dogs may be replaced by 3 fires (huǒ 火) yet retain the same meaning of "whirlwind", and so forth and so on
three lù 鹿 ("deer") are pronounced cū 麤 ("coarse; crude"), and the same morpheme is written a number of different ways, e.g., 粗, 麄, 眯, etc.
three yú 鱼 ("fish") are pronounced xiān 鱻 ("fresh; new; delicious; rare, few"), another way of writing xiān 鲜 ("fresh", etc.)
three bèi 贝 ("cowry; shell[fish]; valuable; conch") are pronounced bì 赑 ("straining hard; a legendary animal like a tortoise [the bases of many heavy steles in premodern times were often carved in the presumed shape of a bì 赑]")
three máo 毛 ("hair; fur; feather; wool") are pronounced cuì 毳 ("fine animal hair or feathers")
three chē 车 ("cart; car; chariot; vehicle") are pronounced hōng 轟 ("boom; bang; rumble; noise of an explosion")
If there are characters you don't know how to read, forward them [on Weibo].
Most of these characters are of relatively low frequency and, except for a few of them, neither their meanings nor their pronunciations are known by persons of average literacy.
Many more such characters consisting or two, three, or four repetitions of the same character exist, and their sounds and meanings are in most cases equally or more opaque.
Since it is the year of the dragon, let us examine a couple of characters that consist solely of repetitions of the character for dragon, lóng (simplified 龙 traditional / complicated 龍). To show the full complement of strokes, I will use only the traditional forms:
龍龍 [that is meant to be one character consisting of 32 strokes] ("the appearance of a flying dragon; a pair of dragons")
龍龍 [that is meant to be one character consisting of 64 strokes] ("garrulous; verbose; talkative")
All of the characters referred to above are real (neither I nor anyone else now alive made them up).
The ultimate sendup of Chinese character formation is Xu Bing's famous Tiānshū 天书 (A Book from the Sky), which consists entirely of characters that look like real characters, but are in fact all fake. When A Book from the Sky was first exhibited in Beijing in 1988, it caused enormous consternation, because those who came to view it felt that the characters were familiar, but no matter how hard they strained, they could not make sound or sense of a single character in the entire lot. Sounds and meanings could arbitrarily or imaginatively be assigned to each and every one of Xu Bing's 4,000 characters from the sky. All of the strokes and all of the components are "legal" in the sense that they occur in officially authorized characters, but they have been combined in "illegal" ways. That is to say, they don't add up to any characters that occur in historical texts or dictionaries. Once they realized that they had been "had", conservative viewers were outraged because they thought that Xu Bing was making fun / light of them and their revered writing system. It wasn't long before the exhibition closed and Xu fled to the United States in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
I have met Xu Bing several times, e.g., once in his studio in New York and once at a lecture in Hong Kong, and I've gone to three or four of his exhibitions in the United States and have read his autobiograpical and theoretical / critical writings (I included his substantial "The Living Word" [translated by Ann L. Huss and Victor H. Mair] in the Hawai'i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture). Yet I have not been able to determine precisely what his intentions were in creating A Book from the Sky (though I certainly have my theories about what prompted him to spend so many years of exacting labor to produce such a monumental work of completely impenetrable "literary" art). To tell the truth, I do not think that Xu Bing himself knows exactly why he felt driven to produce this mind-boggling / jarring multivolume book that makes no sense whatsoever.
Lest learners and lovers of the Chinese script feel as though they have been cast adrift after reading this blog, I want to reassure them that approximately 85% of all Chinese characters do give some hints about how they are to be pronounced and / or what they mean, but these are vague and imprecise hints only. For instance, it is easy for me to think of two dozen characters that include fāng 方 ("place; region; square; regular; upright; honest; side, party; easy; rule; means; comparison; method, way; prescription; only when; then; just, still") as a phonophore having the following pronunciations: fāng, fáng, fǎng, fàng, páng. In most of these cases, the basic meaning of fāng 方 has no perceivable bearing on the meaning of the character, but is being used strictly for its sound, which — although spread across all four tones and a fifth related pronunciation — is actually more regular than many other phonophores. I can also easily think of two dozen other characters in which fāng 方 is the radical (Kangxi no. 70). In these cases, fāng 方 occasionally has vague semantic significance (though it is usually so hidden as to be essentially useless for figuring out the actual meaning of a character in which it appears), and often it is only considered the radical for the purpose of looking up the character by the shape of fāng 方, without regard to its meaning. I can, moreover, identify nearly another two dozen characters in which fāng 方, as incorporated in the derived phonophore páng 旁 ("side"), serves as the secondary phonophore, where 旁 has the following pronunciations pāng, páng, pǎng, bǎng, bàng. In a couple of these characters where páng 旁 is the phonophore, one may with effort detect the secondary semantic notion of "side", but the overall meaning is more often than not vaguely related to the various radicals under which these characters fall.
In the final analysis, one must still rely on brute memorization to master the sounds and the meanings of the characters, though in some cases the radical may provide a slightly useful jog to the memory in recalling roughly what the character means. Similarly, probably in over half the cases the phonophore may provide a somewhat useful, yet often dim, hint about the pronunciation of the character. To conclude, we may say that, if one studies very, very hard, one can can master upwards of three thousand out of the 80,000+ total characters. If one does not apply oneself extremely diligently, tears will stream from one's eyes when faced with trying to remember the sounds and the meanings of characters like those in the lament at the beginning of this post (and they are relatively easy when it comes to monsters like 龠龜 [that is intended to be one character consisting of 35 strokes] and 齒簿 [that is intended to be one character consisting of 34 strokes].
[Thanks to Zhao Lu for help in figuring out the meaning of the final character in the Weibo doggerel at the beginning of this post and to Maiheng Dietrich for making some sense of the context]