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The connections between radical, pronunciation and meaning

Take a look at the following Chinese characters:

  • (mā)
  • (mǎ)
  • (ma)
  • (mà)

These characters sound the same except the differences in tones. One common theme of these characters is that all of them contain the character (mǎ). That explains the similarities of the sounds of these characters.

phonetic radicals

The above characters are picto-phonetic characters (形声字), and their common phonetic radical is (mǎ). To learn more about different categories of Chinese characters, read Chinese radicals - a fact sheet.

I’ve seen many articles that demonstrate this connection between radicals and sounds of Chinese characters, such as the example above.

However, if you think all picto-phonetic characters exhibit the same connection, you’ll be proved wrong. 

Phonetic radicals and pronunciations

Let’s see the following Chinese characters which also contain radical (mǎ). But they do not show any pronunciation pattern among them.

  • (féng)
  • (chuǎng)
  • (dǔ)
  • (biāo)

There are no connections between their sounds and the radical  (mǎ).

phonetic radicals

86% of Chinese characters are picto-phonetic characters (形声字), with one meaning-radical and one phonetic-radical. But not all phonetic-radicals indicate the pronunciation of the characters.

Let’s take a look at some other Chinese characters which do not show a connection between their sounds and their radicals.

(1) (duì)

  • (shuō)
  • (tuì)
  • (yuè)

(2) (jīn)

  • (yí)
  • (xīn)
  • (jìn)
  • (chì)
  • (zhuó)
  • (zhǎn)
  • (sī)
  • (duàn)

Meaning radicals and meanings

It is also quite common to see characters’ meaning radicals are connected to their meanings. 

For example, the following Chinese characters. The phonetic radical is the same (qīng), but meaning radicals are different. 

Characters' meanings are quite explainable using their meaning radicals: 

  • (qíng): fine; clear (Meaning radical is which means “the sun”.)
  • (qíng): feeling; affection; sentiment (Meaning radical is which means “heart”.)
  • (jīng): eyeball (Meaning radical is which means “eye”.)

These characters are all right. Both phonetic radicals and meaning radicals fit very well.

But if we don’t stop there and look at more Chinese characters with different meaning radicals, we’ll find characters that can not be explained easily by their radicals. 

  • (qiàn): pretty; handsome (Meaning radical is which means “people”.)
  • (liàng): pretty; handsome (Meaning radical is which means “view, see”.)
  • (jìng): quiet; calm (Meaning radical is which means “argue, dispute”.)


The conclusion is that learning radicals is not a short cut to learning Chinese Characters. 

While we all agree that good learning method is of great importance to the success of learning Chinese, we need to weed out the bad ones. 

Spending too much time on learning radicals, because you believe radicals will give clues to an unknown Chinese character’s pronunciation and meanings, is a bad one.