It is not necessary to spend too much time studying radicals

There was a time when studying radicals was necessary to learn Chinese. But things have changed greatly. 

Let’s start with how students used to learn a new Chinese character. 

Before the advent of smart phones and Chinese learning Apps, when there was a Chinese character students did not know and there was no Chinese teacher around, there were two ways for them to look this character up in a dictionary. 

The first one was that, if students knew the sound of the character but not the meaning, they could use pinyin, an alphabetical method, to locate this character in a dictionary. 

The second one was that, if students did not know the sound of the character, they had to use “bushou” (部首) method. 

“Bushou” is a term specific for dictionary consultation.

Below is a step by step explanation of how to use “bushou” to consult a dictionary.

Consulting a dictionary using “bushou” method

There are six steps in the “bushou” method. 

  1. Determine the “bushou” of the character and count its number of strokes;
  2. Turn to the “bushou” catalog in a dictionary, find the correct number of strokes and locate this “bushou”, it will give you a page number in the index pages;
  3. Go to the page in the index pages and find this “bushou”;
  4. Count the remaining strokes of the character (i.e. leave out the “bushou”);
  5. Find the character below the corresponding number of strokes. It will give a page number in the body of the dictionary;
  6. Go to the page, and find out the meaning and pronunciation of this character.

Or watch this explanation video.

The most important step of the “bushou” method is the first step, determining the “bushou” of an unknown character. It is vital for the success of the entire operation.

However, this also where trouble begins. Many times we just can not tell what the “bushou” is in a given character! If we can not determine the “bushou”, we can not find the character.

It takes quite some time to locate a Chinese character in a dictionary using the “bushou” method, provided that we know what the “bushou” is in that character. 

“Bushou” vs radicals

“Bushou” and radicals are two different concepts, although they are closely related and overlapping. 

As we see from the above procedure, it is “bushou” that indexes all the Chinese characters in a dictionary. 

Before pinyin was invented, this indexing system was the only system and had been very effective and successful for a long time. The only debate was the exact number of “bushou”. Some had more than 200, while some had less. 

Different from “bushou”, the concept of radicals comes from describing the picto-phonetic characters. 

If we take a look at the “bushou” page of a standard dictionary, we see a small portion of “bushou” are radicals, such as , , , while some “bushou” are just strokes and some others are characters.

Below is the “bushou” page from a Chinese dictionary. 

"bushou" page in a Chinese dictionary

Reasons for not spending too much time with radicals

Before, because the “bushou” method was the only way for students to look up an unknown character, they had to learn it. Since the majority of Chinese characters have radicals, it was good to use radicals to understand “bushou”. 

Nowadays, students can use their Chinese learning Apps to quickly look up an unknown character. Learning radicals is no longer a must. 

Another argument for learning radicals is that learning radicals helps students understand the meanings of characters, such as relates to people, relates to mouth, also helps them guess the sounds of characters. 

However, this connection is only true to some characters. 

Recommendation

We acknowledge the historical role radicals have played in learning Chinese. We also need to recognise that learning radicals for the purpose of learning Chinese no longer makes any sense. Students are able to achieve greater learning results without learning any radicals. 

Today, there are no longer any compelling reasons for students to spend huge amount of time in memorising radicals.

It’s better to treat learning radicals as a hobby, same as learning Chinese character etymology or learning oracle bone inscriptions.


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April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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