Chinese Radicals and Why They're Essential to Learning Characters

January 18, 2022

Chinese radicals, also sometimes called “components”, are a vital part of Chinese characters. Using radicals to break down Chinese characters can help us understand how a character is formed and can make memorizing characters easier as well.

What are Chinese radicals?

Radicals are the building blocks of characters, giving clues about the meaning and pronunciation of a Chinese character. In Chinese, radicals are called 偏旁部首 piānpáng bù shǒu. 偏旁 piānpáng are Chinese character components that make up the structure of Chinese characters, and bù shǒu specifically refer to the Chinese character components used for indexing Chinese dictionaries.

Kangxi dictionary

How many Chinese radicals are there?

There are 214 Chinese radicals. These radicals are based on the Kāngxī dictionary (康熙字典 Kāngxī Zìdiǎn) which was published in 1716. The dictionary was commissioned by Emperor Kāngxī in 1710 (hence the name, “康熙字典 Kāngxī Zìdiǎn”) to improve on earlier dictionaries, maintain Confucian culture, and help standardize the Chinese writing system. As a result, these 214 Chinese radicals are often referred to as Kāngxī radicals.

Kangxi radicals dictionary

However, the idea of radicals was first introduced a century earlier in 1615, with the publication of the 字汇 Zìhuì, a Chinese dictionary edited by the Ming Dynasty scholar Méi Yīngzuò 梅膺祚. Crucially, this dictionary introduced the system of 214 radicals used for indexing Chinese characters today.

It also introduced the radical-and-stroke character sorting method used in dictionaries, in which characters are organized by number of strokes in the radical, then by number of strokes in the rest of the character (excluding the radical).

(If you want to look up characters this way, stroke order will come in handy.)

Although the Kāngxī dictionary was initially written for traditional characters, it has also been adapted to simplified characters.

So, with the history part out of the way, let’s actually take a look at some radicals in action!

Chinese character radical on left side

Where do radicals appear in Chinese characters?

Radicals can appear anywhere in Chinese characters if you know where to look!

1. Radicals on the top of the character

For example, the radical 雨 :

xuěsnow
léithunder

2. Radicals on the bottom of a character

For example, the radical 皿 mǐn:

gàicover
dàothief

3. Radicals on the left side of Chinese characters

For example, the radicals 讠yán and 口 kǒu:

shuōto speak
jiàoto shout

4. Radicals on the right side of Chinese characters

For example, the radical 殳 shū:

duànsection
殿diànpalace

5. Radicals surrounding the rest of the character

For example, the radical 囗 wéi:

tuánsphere
guócountry

6. Radicals partially enclosing the top of the character

For example, the radicals 门 mén and 尸 shī:

wènto ask
wěitail

7. Radicals partially enclosing the bottom of the character

For example, the radicals 走 zǒu and 辶 chuò:

Chāoto surpass
to arrive

Do I need to know Chinese radicals?

Understanding radicals is crucial to understanding the make-up of characters, as well as improving your reading and writing skills. With radicals, you can break down a complex character into its component parts.

You will also begin to notice various radicals in different characters. This can help you to memorize characters more easily, which in turn can improve your Chinese reading and writing skills.

How do I use Chinese radicals to learn characters?

The position of radicals can give you a clue as to the meaning or area of meaning of the character. Very often, this “meaning radical” appears above, below or to the left or right of the character.

In some cases, the meaning radical may be located in the center, but this is quite rare. One such instance is in the traditional form of the character 爱 ài (traditional form: 愛) which has the radical 心 xīn (meaning "heart") in the center. It is important to note that the meaning radical may not always be obvious, as many radicals in simplified characters look different from in the traditional forms.

Luckily, many characters have a rather straightforward meaning radical. Let’s take a look at a couple examples:

The Mouth Radical 口 kǒu

Here, the 口 kǒu radical on the left gives us a clue as to the meaning of the character. As you would expect, 口 kǒu relates to things to do with the mouth.

chīto eat
to vomit, to spit, to cough up

The Roof Radical 宀 mián

Here the 宀 mián radical at the top of the character gives us a clue that character is related to buildings, structures etc.

jīahome, house, family
gōngpalace
shìroom, work unit

The remaining parts of the character can help to give you clues or guidance as to the characters pronunciation, however this is most certainly not an exact science. That being said, the pronunciations may be the same or at least similar:

assist, supplement, assistant
happiness, good fortune, blessing
rich, abundant, wealthy

Although the pronunciation and tones of the characters above are the same, this is not always the case. For example:

qiánmoney
线xiànline

This shows that pronunciation may sometimes be similar. This can give you a hint as to a character’s pronunciation, even if you don’t recognize the character.

If you want to try your hand at guessing meaning based on radicals, you might also enjoy checking out these Chinese radicals related to nature.

Radicals with Variant Forms

Some radicals will change their appearance depending on where in the character they appear. Let’s take a look at some common radicals that change their form:

1. The Heart Radical 心/忄xīn

When the heart radical appears on the left side of a character, it looks like 忄. When it appears elsewhere in a character, it looks like 心. For example:

to remember
niànto miss
chǐshame, disgrace

2. The Fire Radical 火/灬 huǒ

When the fire radical appears on the left side of a character, it looks like a slightly compressed version of 火. When it appears on the bottom of a character, it looks like 灬 . When it appears elsewhere in a character, the fire radical is simply 火. For example:

dēnglantern
hot
mièto extinguish

3. 人/亻 rén The Person Radical

When the person radical appears on the left side of a character, it looks like 亻. When it appears elsewhere in a character, it looks like 人. For example:

rénhumaneness
to gather together
zhòng a crowd

4. The Knife Radical 刀/刂 dāo

When the knife radical appears on the right side of a character, it looks like 刂. When it appears elsewhere in a character, it looks like 刀. For example:

biéto separate
fēnto divide
rènedge of a knife

5. The Hand Radical 手/扌shǒu

When the person radical appears on the left side of a character, it looks like 扌. When it appears elsewhere in a character, it looks like 手. For example:

to strike/hit
quánfist
pickpocket

6. The Water Radical 水/氵 shuǐ

When the water radical appears on the left side of a character, it looks like 氵. When it appears elsewhere in a character, it looks like 水. For example:

zhījuice/sauce
quánspring/fountain
màngreat currents

7. The Clothes Radical 衣/衤

When the clothes radical appears on the left side of a character, it looks like 衤. When it appears on the bottom of a character, it looks like 衣. For example:

to mend/repair
dàibag/sack

8. The Speech Radical 言/讠yán

When the speech radical appears on the left side of a character, it looks like 讠. When it appears on the bottom of a character, it looks like 言. For example:

tǎoto discuss
shìto swear/pledge

9. The Foot Radical 足/𧾷

When the foot radical appears on the left side of a character, it looks like 𧾷. When it appears elsewhere in a character, it looks like 足. For example:

pǎoto run
urgent
xuéto walk to and fro

10. The Food Radical 食/饣shí

When the food radical appears on the left side of a character, it looks like 饣. When it appears on the bottom of a character, it looks like 食. For example:

fànrice/food
cāneat/dine

Hopefully all this information above shows the importance of knowing Chinese radicals. They can help you to remember characters, understand how characters are constructed, and improve your reading and writing skills. While learning and understanding radicals is not something that just happens overnight, radicals are crucial for your Chinese learning journey.