# 1.7: Radicals, the Building Blocks of Characters

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Chinese characters are sometimes intimidating to new learners of the language, due to their visual complexity.  But many characters are visual representations of what they represent, like for example 山 ("hill, mountain") or 三 ("three").  These characters do not represent sounds.  Instead, they are pictographic, meaning that they are drawings of things, or ideographic meaning they represent ideas.  The diagram below is a visual summary of how some characters shifted from abstract drawings to their current written forms.

Each of the example above is a character that contains a single image, representing a single thing.  However, these single visual representations, sometimes called radicals, can also be combined to create more complex characters.  Below is a relatively comprehensive list of Chinese radicals.  Don't worry, you do not need to learn all of these!  The list is provided only for your reference.

Radicals may appear in any position in a character. For example, the radical 女 appears on the left side in the characters 姐, 媽, 她, 好 and 姓, but it appears at the bottom in 妾.  Sometimes, the radical may be placed outside, as in 園 = 囗 "enclosure" + 袁, or 街 = 行 "go, movement" + 圭. More complicated combinations also exist, such as 勝 = 力 "strength" + 朕, where the radical is in the lower-right quadrant.

Many character components (including those used as radicals) are distorted or changed in form in order to fit into a block with other components. They may be narrowed, shortened, or may have different shapes entirely. Changes in shape, rather than simple distortion, may result in a reduction in the number of strokes used to write a component. In some cases, these combining forms may have several variants. The actual shape of the component when it is used in a character can depend on its placement with respect to the other elements in the character.

Some of the most important variant forms of radicals are:

• 人 "man" → 亻 on the left:
• 囚, 仄, 坐 ~ 他
• counter-example: 从

• 心 "heart" → 忄 on the left:
• 杺, 您, 恭* ~ 快
(*) 心 occasionally becomes ⺗ when written at the bottom of a character.
• 手 "hand" → 扌 on the left:
• 杽, 拏, 掱 ~ 扡
• counter-examples: 掰, 拜

• 水 "water" → 氵 on the left:
• 汆, 呇, 沊 ~ 池
• counter-example: 沝

• 火 "fire" → 灬 at the bottom:
• 伙, 秋, 灱 ~ 黑
• counter-example: 災

• 刀 "knife" → 刂 when placed to the right of other elements:
• examples: 分, 召 ~ 刖
• counter-example: 切

Associative Compound Characters

Many characters in Chinese are created by combining two or more radicals.  Thus, learning the radicals of Chinese can be of immense help toward decoding the meanings of more complex characters.  These combinations are called associative compounds (會意 huì yì "joined meaning") because they are combinations of pictographic or ideographic characters that suggest the meaning of the word to be represented.  Some examples of associative compounds are as follows:

• 林 'grove' composed of two trees (木 + 木)
• 森 'forest' composed of three trees (木 + 木 + 木)
• 休 'shade, rest' depicting a man (人) by a tree (木)
• 采 'harvest' depicting a hand (爫 literally 'claw') on a bush (木)
• 看 'watch' depicting a hand (手) above an eye (目)
• 武 'military' depicting a dagger-axe (戈) and a foot (止)
• 信 'truthful' depicting a person (人, reduced to 亻) and speech (言)

Pictophonetic Compound Characters

Another type of complex character that can be decoded through radicals is called a pictophonetic (形聲 xíng shēng "form and sound") character.  More than 90% of all Chinese characters are pictophonetic compounds.  They are combinations of two components:

• a semantic radical that supplies an element of meaning, and
• a phonetic character that suggests the correct pronunciation.

As an example, a verb meaning "to wash one's hair" is pronounced mù. This happens to sound the same as the word  "tree" 木. The verb  could simply have been written 木, like "tree", but to disambiguate, it was combined with the character for "water", giving some idea of the meaning. The resulting character eventually came to be written 沐; ; 'to wash one's hair'. Similarly, the water determinative instead be combined with 林; lín; 'woods' to produce the water-related homophone 淋; lín; 'to pour'.  The table below shows these two examples, as well as several other pictophonetic compound characters.

Semantic Radical Phonetic Character Pictophonetic Compound

As you can see in this list of examples, the sound of the phonetic character is often similar but not exactly the same as that of the resulting pictophonetic compound.  You can think of the semantic radical and phonetic character as hints to assist in learning compound forms.

## Review Chinese Radicals with Shao Lan

A Taiwanese graphic designer named Shao Lan has developed a systematic visual guide to Chinese characters on the basis of understanding the meanings of individual radicals.  Check out this video, introducing her system, called Chineasy!

This page titled 1.7: Radicals, the Building Blocks of Characters is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Carl Polley (裴凯).