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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.


    Pinyin Radical Variants

    Core Meaning

    Secondary Meanings Strokes Name of Radical in Chinese
      One Individual, Horizontal 1 一横
    gǔn   Downstroke One, Vertical 1 一竖
    piě 丿   Slash Left-falling stroke 1 一撇
    zhǔ   Dot Point, Drop 1 一点
    乚 乛 Bent Second 1  
    èr   Two Two horizontal, Pair 2 两橫
    shí   Ten Complete 2 十字
    hǎn   Cliff Factory 2 厂字旁
    fāng/xǐ   Basket Box 2 匠字框
    dāo 刀 ⺈ Knife Sword, Katana 2 利刀旁
      Divination   2 卜字旁
    jiōng   Borders Upside-down box, Cave 2 同字框
    rén Person Man, Human 2 单人旁
    Eight Divide, Split 2 八字旁
    ér   Legs Person, Going 2 儿座底
      Table   2 几字旁
      Spoon Upside-down person 2 匕字旁
    bāo   Wrap Embrace 2 包字头
    tóu   Lid Cover, Latch 2 点横头
    bīng   Ice Freeze 2 两点水
      Cover Treasure chest 2 秃宝盖
    yán Speech Words 2 言字旁
    kǎn   Container Receptacle, Open-mouth 2 山字底
    jié Seal Kneel, Stamp 2 单耳朵
      Mound Dam, Terrain 2 左耳朵
      Town City 2 右耳朵
      Power Strength, Force 2 力字旁
    yòu   Right-hand Again, Hand movement 2 又字旁
      Privacy   2 私字
    yǐn   Stride Build, Move on 2 建之旁
    gān   Shield Dry, Pestle 3 干字旁
      Earth Dirt, Soil, Land 3 土堆
    shì   Scholar Official, Bachelor 3 士字旁
    gōng   Work Labour, Effort 3 工字旁
    shǒu 手 龵 Hand Hold, Grip 3 提手旁
    cǎo   Grass Herbs 3 草字头
    cùn   Thumb Inch 3 寸字旁
    gǒng   Two-hands Folded hands, Twenty 3 弄字底
      Big Large, Great, Man-standing 3 大字头
    wāng   Lame   3 尤字旁
      Shoot Shoot a bow, Arrow 3 弋字旁
    xiǎo ⺌ ⺍ Small Insignificant 3 小字旁
    kǒu   Mouth Opening 3 口字旁
    wéi   Enclosure Surround, Limit, Scope 3 国字框
    shān   Mountain Hill 3 山字旁
    jīn   Scarf Turban, Towel 3 大巾旁
    chuān River Stream, Flow 3 三拐川
    chì   Step   3 双人旁
    shān   Bristle Feathers, Decoration 3 三撇
    quǎn Dog Beast 3 反犬旁
    zhǐ   Go   3  
      Evening Sunset, Dusk 3 夕字旁
    shí Food Meal, Eat 3 食字旁
    qiáng   Splinter Piece of wood 3 将字旁
    yǎn 广   Shelter House on a cliff, Vast 3 广字旁
    mén   Gate Door 3 门字框
    shuǐ 水 氺 Water Flow 3 三点水
    xīn 心 ⺗ Heart Mental, Soul 3 竖心旁
    mián   Roof House, Room 3 宝盖
    chuò   Walk Move foward, Path 3 走之旁
      Snout Sweep 3 橫山
    shī   Corpse Body 3 尸字头
    已 巳 Self Oneself 3 己字旁
    gōng   Bow Stretch 3 弓字旁
    Child Seed, Son 3 子字旁
    chè   Sprout   3 右边草
      Woman Female, Girl 3 女字旁
    Silk Weave, Connect 3 绞丝旁
      Horse Ride 3 马字旁
    yāo   Little Thread, Little 3 幺字旁
    wáng   King Jade, Lord, Precious 4 王字旁
    wéi   Leather Tanned leather 4 韦字旁
    lǎo Old Wise 4 老字头
      Tree Wood 4 木字旁
    dǎi   Death Bad, Decay 4 歹字旁
    chē   Car Vehicle 4 车字旁
      Fang Tooth 4 牙字旁
      Halberd Weapon, Trade, Arms 4 戈字旁
      Compare Compete 4 比字旁
      Tile   4 瓦字旁
    zhǐ   Stop Foot 4 止字旁
      Tap Hand holding a stick 4 反文旁
      Tap Knock 4 旧反文旁
      Sun Day 4 日字旁
    yuē   Say Mouth 4 曰字旁
    bèi   Shell Coin, Valuable, Currency 4 贝字旁
    jiàn   See Perceive 4 见字旁
    niú 牛 ⺧ Cow Ox, Cattle 4 牛字旁
    máo   Fur Hair, Plume 4 毛字旁
      Steam Gas, Air 4 气字头
    piàn   Slice Strip, Wood chips 4 片字旁
    jīn   Axe Catty, Pound, Weight, Chop 4 斤字旁
    zhǎo Claw Talon, Nail 4 爪字头
    Door Household 4 戶字旁
      Father Senior 4 父字头
    yuè Flesh Moon 4 月字旁
    qiàn   Yawn Owe, Lack, Blow, Exhale 4 欠字旁
    fēng   Wind   4 风字旁
    shū   Lance Pole-axe, Destroy 4 殳字旁
    wén   Literature Language, Written, Script 4 文字头
    fāng   Square Raft, Area 4 方字旁
    huǒ Fire Cook, Burn 4 四点火
    dǒu   Dipper Spoon, Peck 4 斗字旁
    shì Sign Altar, Ceremony 4 半禮旁
    ⺻ 聿 Brush Writing brush, Pen 4 毛筆
      Do not   4 毋字旁
    shí   Stone Rock 5 石字旁
    lóng   Dragon   5 龙字旁
      Business   5  
      Eye   5 目字旁
    tián   Field Paddy, Farm, Work 5 田字旁
    mǐn   Dish Pan 5 皿堆
    wǎng   Net Eye 5 四字头
    jīn Gold Money, Metal 5 金字旁
    shēng   Life Give birth 5 生字旁
    shǐ   Arrow   5 矢字旁
      Grain Stalk, Growing crops 5 禾木旁
    bái   White   5 白字旁
    guā   Melon   5 瓜字旁
    yòng   Use   5 用字底
    niǎo   Bird   5 鸟字旁
      Sickness Disease 5 病字旁
      Stand Erect 5 立字旁
    xué   Cavern Hole 5 穴宝盖
    Clothes Costume 5 衣字旁
    Cloth Bolt of cloth 5 疏字旁
      Skin   5 皮字旁
    máo   Spear Lance, Pike 5 矛字旁
      Mother Female 5 母字旁
    lěi   Plough   6 耒字旁
    ěr   Ear   6 耳字旁
    chén   Minister Official 6 臣字旁
      Cover   6 西字头
    西   West   6 西字
      Page Leaf 6 页字旁
      Tiger Stripes 6 虎字头
    chóng   Insect Bug, Worm, Reptile 6 虫字旁
    fǒu   Jar Jug, Crock 6 缶字旁
    shé   Tongue   6 舌字旁
    zhú Bamboo Basket 6 竹字头
    jiù   Mortar Old 6 臼字旁
      Self Nose 6 自字旁
    xuè   Blood   6 血字旁
    zhōu   Boat Ship, Ferry, Vessel 6 舟字旁
    yáng  ⺶ Sheep Goat 6 羊字旁
      Rice Uncooked rice 6 米字旁
    gèn   Limit Still, Perverse 6 艮字旁
      Feather Wings 6 羽字旁
    mài   Wheat Barley 7 麦字旁
    zǒu   Walk Run 7 走字旁
    chì   Red Bare, Naked 7 赤字旁
    dòu   Bean   7 豆字旁
    yǒu   Wine Alcohol 7 酉字旁
    chén   Morning   7 辰字旁
    shǐ   Swine Pig 7 豕字旁
      Salt   7 卤字旁
      Village Area, Distance 7 里字旁
    Foot Ankle, Sufficient 7 足字旁
    shēn   Body Oneself 7 身字旁
    biàn   Divide Distinguish, Discern 7 釆字旁
      Valley Ravine 7 谷字旁
    zhì   Cat Badger, Beast 7 豸字旁
    jiǎo   Horn Angle, Corner 7 角字旁
    xīn   Bitter Suffering 7 辛字旁
    qīng   Blue/green Black 8 青字旁
      Clear   8  
      Rain Precipitation, Weather 8 雨字头
    chǐ 齿   Tooth Molar, Age 8 齿字旁
    zhuī   Small bird Short-tailed bird 8 隹字旁
      Fish   8 鱼字旁
      Rawhide Leather 9 革字旁
      Bone   9 骨字旁
    guǐ   Ghost Spirit, Ghoul, Devil 9 鬼字旁
    yīn   Sound   9 音字旁
    biāo   Hair Long hair, Head hair 10 髟字旁
    dòu   Fight Struggle, Battle 10 鬥字框
      Hemp Flax 10 麻字旁
    鹿   Deer   10 鹿字旁
    hēi   Black Dark 10 黑字旁
    shŭ   Rat Mouse, Rodent 10 鼠字旁
      Nose   10 鼻字旁


    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.

    Alternate Forms for Frequent Radicals

    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
    氵 'water' 木  沐  'to wash oneself'
    氵 'water' 林 lín 淋 lín 'to pour'
    艹 'plant' 采 cǎi 'harvest' 菜 cài 'vegetable'
    扌 'hand' 白 bái 拍 pāi 'to clap, to hit'
    穴 'to dig into' 九 jiǔ 究 jiū 'to investigate'
    日 'sun' 央 yāng 映 yìng 'reflection'


    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).

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