Strokes, components and radicals of Chinese characters

There are two different ways to break down a Chinese character, either by its strokes or by its components. In Chinese writing classes, strokes are always the first to be introduced. Components are not as often. And many people get confused between components and radicals.

Strokes

Strokes are the smallest unit used to construct a Chinese character. There are thousands of Chinese characters, but only six basic strokes. 

When writing Chinese, a slight change in strokes often leads to a completely different character. Some differences seem trivial, but really significant. 

Observe the following characters. 

  • 目 vs 自, 住 vs 往: The difference is one more stroke.
  • 己 vs 已, 土 vs 士: The difference is the relative length of the same strokes.
  • 午 vs 牛, 刀 vs 力: The difference is whether or not to cross two strokes.
  • 千 vs 干, 贝 vs 见: The difference is two different strokes which have a similar look.
  • 办 vs 为, 人 vs 入: The difference is a different arrangement of the same strokes.

Thus we can see that strokes make all the differences in differentiating Chinese characters. For those who wants to train their attention to details, studying Chinese characters is a good way to accomplish that. There are so many details to be noticed.

Components 

Components are also building units of Chinese characters. Different from strokes, they are independent parts of characters. And the same component can appear in different Chinese characters. For example:

  • 厶: 么, 去, 参
  • 夂: 冬, 条, 各
  • 𠂇: 有, 左, 右
  • 冂: 同, 冈, 两
  • 儿: 兄, 先, 克
  • 亠: 京, 方, 高
  • 耂: 老, 考, 孝

Components are more useful than strokes for students to memorise Chinese characters. They are stable and easily recognisable. The number of components is much smaller than the number of Chinese characters. The commonly used Chinese characters in today’s prints are roughly around 3500, which are constructed with approximately 500 distinct components. Some components are more frequently used than others. And sometimes a component is used twice in a character, such as 多, 吕. 

Components are not Chinese radicals

Radicals come from describing picto-phonetic characters, where there is a phonetic radical and a meaning radical. There are only two radicals in any given picto-phonetic character, but it is possible for this character to have more than two components.

For example, 意. To analyse this character according to its radicals, we will have a phonetic radical 音, and a meaning radical 心. To analyse this character according to its components, we have three components, 立, 日, 心. 

Many Chinese characters have two radicals, and also two components, with each radical also being a component, such as 边, 们, 订. But that does not mean we can equate radicals and components to be the same concept. They are not. 

The best use of radicals is to describe picto-phonetic characters, while components  to understand the structures of Chinese characters. 

Structures of Chinese characters

Based on the number of components, Chinese characters can be divided into two groups: single component characters and multi-component characters.

Single component characters are Chinese characters are comprised of only one component, such as 年, 月, 日, 电. Something interesting to be mentioned here is 电, which is a simplified version of 電, which is, as a traditional character, a multi-component character.  

Multi-component characters are Chinese characters comprises of two or more components. The way components are arranged gives us four basic structures of Chinese characters. 

 

Then, these basic structures can be combined to create new variations of them. 

够: The main structure is left-right, with the left a enclosed structure and the right a top-bottom structure. 

些: The main structure is top-bottom, with the top half a left-right structure.

圆: The main structure is enclosed, with the inside a top-bottom structure.

赢: The main structure is three-tier. And the bottom tier is also a three-tier structure.

A cherry on top

It is fascinating to analyse the structures of, and find beauties in, Chinese characters, but there is one condition that we have to have accumulated quite bit of knowledge about Chinese characters to be able to do so. 

For beginner students who just start learning writing Chinese, to direct them to pay attention to components and structures is to overload them. When they are struggling with the writings, the meanings, the sounds and the usage of all the new and foreign looking Chinese characters, it is hard to ask them to step back and just to analyse the forms. Moreover, recognising all the components and understanding the structures of each Chinese character does not contribute to fully understand the Chinese texts, which are written with words, not with components.

However, for higher level students, it is a nice extra layer of knowledge to know and to appreciate Chinese. The fun is in the details.


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