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

Chinese character basic strokes

These basic strokes can be combined to create some variations.

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. 

Strokes are also important in ranking Chinese characters.

During the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, many people got confused when athletes from over 200 participating countries and regions were entering the stadium. The order seemed so … random, for example, Guinea entered before Turkey, and Australia was one of the last countries that came in.

This sequence proved a little tricky for international networks covering the games. Without the familiar latin alphabetical order as a guide, they didn’t know when their home team would appear and when they could insert commercials.

That was the first time for the world to see an order of countries from a Chinese language perspective. This order is based on the number of strokes that the first character of each country’s name in Chinese has. 

Take a look at these countries’ names in Chinese.




The first character in Guinea has two strokes, while Turkey has three and Australia fifteen. 

Below is a detailed illustration of how these characters are written, stroke by stroke:

If two countries happen to have the same first character, the stroke numbers of the second character will be compared, and so on, until the ranking is complete.

Fourteen years later, shortly before the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, when the same order would appear again for the second time, media outlets well prepared themselves beforehand.

Also, since stroke orders are demonstrated above, it is necessary to add that sometimes more than one stroke orders are accepted for a given character. For more details, read: What? Stroke-order does not matter (that much anyway)?


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, three times in a character, such as , , or four times, such as , . Read more about these characters here.

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.

Chinese character components

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.

Chinese character component structure

A cherry on top

According to Kant, beauty is the form of finality in an object. He would probably have loved to use Chinese characters when he expounded this idea, analysing their structures and appreciating their beauties.

But, please be reminded that recognising all the components and understanding the structures of each Chinese character does not contribute to fully understand Chinese characters or Chinese texts.

It is a nice extra layer of knowledge to appreciate Chinese.

April Zhang

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