Chinese radicals - a fact sheet

When students are learning Chinese characters, the concept of radicals will always come up, because they are so interesting!

The following illustration shows how grass turns into part of Chinese characters.

Chinese radicals

Unfortunately, many books, posters and flash cards do not teach them right. They usually use the following format:

  1. Introduce a radical, many times with a picture like the above;
  2. Explain the meaning of this radical;
  3. Present a few Chinese characters which have this radical. 

The underlining belief is that if students learn a radical, consequently they will be able to understand many related Chinese characters. And this, my dear reader, is indeed a misconception about Chinese radicals. 

In this article, I will explain what Chinese radicals are, and why it is wrong to believe that students can learn Chinese characters through radicals.

What are Chinese radicals?

The concept of radicals comes from describing the picto-phonetic characters.

According the method of creation, Chinese characters are commonly divided into four groups: pictographic characters (象形字), indicative characters (指示字), associative characters (会意字), and picto-phonetic characters (形声字). 

The biggest group is the picto-phonetic characters, containing more characters than the other three combined.

Different groups of Chinese characters

When describing a picto-phonetic character, we usually divide it into two halves, one half as the meaning radical (形旁), and the other half the phonetic radical (声旁). For example “”. (female) is the meaning radicals, and (horse) is the phonetic radicals.

A fact sheet about radicals

When we discuss Chinese radicals, there is no rule of thumb. 

Chinese radicals are versatile and flexible. If someone claims that meaning radicals indicate meanings, she will be disappointed to know that many meaning radicals failed to do so. Or if someone claims that phonetic radicals gives clues to the sounds of characters, she will be disappointed when the sound phonetic radicals bears no relationship with the sound of characters. 

Let’s take a look at a number of facts.

Fact #1: Some radicals can be a meaning radical in one Chinese character, and a phonetic radical in another. For example:

Chinese radicals as meaning radicals and phonetic radicals

Fact #2: Meaning radicals don’t always indicate the meanings. For example: “” does not indicate “a person” in these characters, , , 仿, .

Fact #3: There are some of the same meaning radicals but with different looks. For example:

same radicals with different looks

Fact #4: The same radical can occupy different positions in different characters. 

Below is a table listing where you can expect a phonetic radical. Basically, it’s everywhere.

radicals in different positions

Fact #5: When radicals appear at different positions, the length of strokes changes. 

For example radical “”: when is on the left, the horizontal stroke is shortened, such as , when at bottom, the same stroke is at its full length, such as . 

Another example of radical “”: when radical is on the left, the second horizontal stroke goes up, such as , when at the bottom, at its full length, such as .

Fact #6: There are some relationship between the sound of a Character and its phonetic radical, but not enough to define its pronunciations.

radicals with pronunciations

In this table, takes the sound of its phonetic radical . takes only the initial of . bears no relationship with .   

Fact #7: Some phonetic radicals look almost the same, but their pronunciations are very different.

similar look radicals

A misconception about radicals

After we go through these seven facts about radicals, we are confident to say that radicals provide no definitive clues for understanding characters. Therefore, learning radicals does not expedite learning characters. It is wrong to claim that understanding radicals helps students understand Chinese characters.

This false claim can be shown as the following diagram:

radical before characters

The problem of this false claim is that it got the cause and effect backwards.

The actual learning direction is that students learn a new Chinese character first, then they breaks this character up to its radicals, as shown in the following diagram:

characters before radicals

Unfortunately, too many textbooks, flashcards and teachers don’t get it.

Conclusion

Chinese radicals are a complex phenomenon, and they do not directly help students understand Chinese characters, let alone Chinese texts. Spending too much time on radicals steers students away from the real goal, which is building up the ability in reading and writing Chinese texts.


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April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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