chinese-radicals

The Mandarin Learner’s Guide to (All 214!) Chinese Radicals

“The characters are so complicated!”

“There are soooo many characters!”

“There’s no alphabet!”

These are three of the most common reasons people don’t want to read and write Chinese.

Here’s what those reasons would sound like if they were about English:

“The words are so hard to spell!”

“There are soooo many words!”

“There’s an alphabet!”

Sounds a lot different the other way around, doesn’t it?

Learning a language is already intimidating enough without all the road blocks we put in our own way.

For beginning Chinese learners, the characters seem complicated because we don’t have enough experience to create reference points for ourselves.

But the truth is, there are mitigating factors.

Although there are around 85,000 official characters, you only need around 5,000 of those characters to be really good at Chinese.

And it’s true there’s no alphabet, but there are radicals and character components that help you mentally break down a character and make it easier to remember.

Reading and writing Chinese is probably much more master-able than you think. Today, we’re going to focus on radicals and how they can help your understanding of the language.

Then, we’ll set you up with all 214 Chinese radicals and usage examples, so you’ll be ready to roll!

Storied Mandarin: The Creative Guide to Chinese Radicals

Understanding Radicals and Character Components

Chinese character components can be broken up into three categories: radicals, semantic components and phonetic components.

You may also come across the terms “key radicals,” “semantic radicals” and “phonetic radicals.” The term “radical” is often used to describe the various components of a character, as in “this character has three radicals.” This isn’t the way we’re using the term “radical” here, but just know that you may see the term being used in more than one way.

Radicals

Radicals (部首 — bù shǒu) are for looking up a word in a dictionary, just like the first letter of a word in English. That’s pretty much it. Every one of the 85,000+ characters technically has one (and only one) radical. Although learning to use radicals for this purpose can be helpful, most online dictionaries and dictionary apps these days only need pinyin or a drawing of the character.

Radicals are usually on the left side or top of the character. Here are a couple of examples:

(hǎo — good) is a horizontal character, written left to right. The radical, on the left, is (nü).

(gāo — high; tall) is a vertical character, written top to bottom. The radical, on top, is (tóu).

Radicals are sometimes referred to as “key radicals” because of the misconception mentioned earlier. No one will be offended if you refer to components as “radicals,” but at least you’ll have an understanding of the original intended meaning.

Semantic components

Semantic components is a pinky-out way of saying “what the character means or relates to.” For example, the character (bà — father) is a vertical character, written top to bottom. The top component  (fù) is the semantic component, which means “father.”

Phonetic components

Phonetic components give you an idea of how to pronounce the character. Reusing the character 爸 (bà — father) as an example, the bottom component (bā) clues you in to the pronunciation.

Why Some Chinese Characters Seem Complicated

Some Chinese characters are drawn with historical meaning. A character may have a connection to ancient culture or to an ancient form of writing. One example of a character with a connection to ancient culture is (jiā — home). This character is made up of  (mián — meaning “roof”) and (shǐ — meaning “swine”). Animal husbandry had already been developed by the time Chinese was first being written, and pigs were kept indoors. If a home had a pig, it meant people lived there, so that house was someone’s home. So, a pig under a roof means “home.”

Some historical reference points for Chinese writing have to do with the older writing styles. A classic example is the character for “sun,” which is  (rì). Today, it looks like a nightstand. The original form was a circle with a dot in the middle, which looks more like a sun, especially if you stare at it (don’t try that!).

Pop culture (and the internet) affects everything. The Chinese character (zàn — to praise) is the Chinese word for “like,” which is used extensively on WeChat moments. (hàn — to perspire) is a slang word for being speechless because of embarrassment or exasperation. 大神 (dà shén — deity; god) is a common word for someone who’s a guru (as in an expert in something, not the religious type). If you call someone (miàn — noodle), it means they have no backbone.

Some words are recycled, so the original meaning matches the character but the older meaning doesn’t at all. An example of a recycled character is (wǒ — I; me). 我 is made up of (shǒu) and (gē). 手 means “hand” and 戈 means “spear.” How did that turn into meaning “I” or “me”? There are a few different explanations for what the original meaning was, but it was a tool or weapon of some kind. Eventually, that tool or weapon was phased out with newer tools or weapons, so the character was borrowed and came to mean what it does today. Yeah, that’s basically the whole story.

How to Use Radicals (and Character Components) to Master Chinese

For all those times when the components of a character seem to have no relation to the meaning, nothing will be more helpful to you than creativity. Use the components and their meanings to make up your own story.

From personal experience, the less sense the story makes, the more likely you’ll remember it.

For example:

  • means “I; me”

(shǒu) means “hand” and has three horizontal strokes and one vertical stroke.

(gē) means “spear” and has two horizontal(ish) strokes and one vertical stroke.

The second stroke of “hand” and the first stroke of “spear” combine when writing the character 我. Your story could be as simple as, “I have a spear going through my hand.” The meaning of the character (I), the two character components (spear and hand) and a clue about how to draw the character (through) are all combined in one sentence.

chinese-radicals

Once you remember how to draw and recognize the character, you won’t need the story anymore, so don’t invest too much in it. Just let it serve its purpose.

Another easy way to memorize characters is to use FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—like movie trailers, music videos, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

And Now for the Radicals Themselves…

The chart below has a complete list of Kang Xi radicals to help you on your way.

Regarding this chart, please note: Most radical charts use example characters to help you look up words in a dictionary. That’s not the purpose of this chart. The examples in this chart are to help you see how radicals and character components appear in different forms within a character.

*only used in traditional characters

RadicalEnglishPinyinExample Char.
one不 (bù) — no
lineshù; gǔn个 (gè) — measure word for people or objects in general
dotzhǔ; diǎn门 (mén) — door
丿

Variant: 乀 乁
slashpiě人 (rén) — person


Variant: 乚 乛
second吃 (chī) — to eat
hookjué; gōu可 (kě) — may; can; -able
twoèr仁 (rén) — benevolence
lidtóu高 (gāo) — high; tall


Variant: 亻
personrén坐 (zuò) — to sit
son; childér兄 (xiōng) — older brother
enter内 (nèi) — inner


Variant: 丷
eight公 (gōng) — fairness
widejiǒng用 (yòng) — to use
cover写 (xiě) — to write
icebīng冷 (léng) — cold
small table; severaljī, jǐ风 (fēng) — wind
receptacleqiǎn; kǎn出 (chū) — to go out


Variant: 刂
knifedāo到 (dào) — to arrive
power男 (nán) — man; male
wrapbāo包 (bāo) — package
ladlebǐ; pìn它 (tā) — it, as a third person pronoun
boxfāng区 (qū) — area
conceal忙 (máng) — busy
tenshí早 (zǎo) — early
divination下 (xià) — under; down; next
sealjié命 (mìng) — life
cliffhàn厅 (tīng) — hall; room
private去 (qù) — to go
againyòu友 (yǒu) — friend
mouthkǒu口 (jiào) — to shout
enclosurewéi国 (guó) — country; nation
earth走 (zǒu) — to walk
scholarshì喜 (xǐ — to like
gozhī路 (lù) — road
go slowlysuī夏 (xià) — summer
night多 (duō) — many
big天 (tiān) — sky; heaven; celestial
woman安 (ān) — peace
child学 (xué) — to study; to learn
roofgài家 (jiā) — home; family
inchcùn对 (duì) — correct
smallxiǎo原 (yuán) — origin


Variant: 尣
lamewāng无 (wú) — negative; no; not
corpseshī尾 (wěi) — tail
sproutchè纯 (chún) — pure; clean; simple
mountainshān岁 (suì) — year; age; harvest


Variant: 巛 巜
riverchuān训 (xùn) — to train; to teach
workgōng红 (hóng) — red
oneself起 (qǐ) — to rise; to stand up
toweljīn帮 (bāng) — to help
drygān平 (píng) — level; peaceful
threadyāo系 (xì) — line; link; connection
广wideguǎng床 (chuáng) — bed
strideyǐn建 (jiàn) — to build
hands joinedgǒng开 (kāi) — to open; to start
shoot with a bow代 (dài) — generation
bowgōng引 (yǐn) — to attract; to pull


Variant: 彑
snout很 (hén) — very
hair; bristleshān影 (yǐng) — shadow; image; photograph
stepchì行 (xíng) — to go; to walk; okay


Variant: 忄
heartxīn态 (tài) — attitude
spear我 (wǒ) — I; me
door护 (hù) — to protect


Variant: 扌
handshǒu打 (dǎ) — to hit
branchzhī枝 (zhī) — branch; limb


Variant: 攵
tap敲 (qiāo) — to strike; to beat; to pound
scriptwén蚊 (wén) — mosquito
peck (unit of measurement)dǒu科 (kè) — science
axejīn听 (tīng) — to hear
squarefāng房 (fáng) — house
not芜 (wú) — luxuriant growth of weeds
sun易 (yì) — easy
sayyuē更 (gèng) — even more
moonyuè期 (qī) — time period
tree种 (zhǒng) — seed; type
lack; be deficientqiàn欢 (huān) — happy; pleased
stopzhǐ步 (bù) — step
wickeddǎi死 (sǐ) — death
weaponshū没 (méi) — not; have not


Variant: 毋
mother每 (měi) — each
compare批 (pī) — to criticize
furmáo笔 (bǐ) — writing brush; pen
clanshì纸 (zhǐ) — paper
steam氧 (yǎng) — oxygen


Variant: 氵
watershuǐ冰 (bīng) — ice; ice-cold


Variant: 灬
firehuǒ灯 (dēng) — lamp; lantern


Variant: 爫
clawzhǎo抓 (zhuā) — to clutch; to grab
father爸 (bà) — father; papa
lines on a trigramyáo爽 (shuǎng) — refreshing
half of a tree trunkqiáng装 (zhuāng) — to dress up
slicepiàn版 (bǎn) — edition; version
tooth邪 (xié) — evil


Variant: 牜
cowniú特 (tè) — special; unique


Variant: 犬
dogquǎn犯 (fàn) — to commit a crime
profoundxuán畜 (chù) — livestock


Variant: 王
jade宝 (bǎo) — treasure; valuable; precious
melonguā狐 (hú) — fox
tile; baked clay瓶 (píng) — bottle
sweetgān甜 (tián) — sweet
lifeshēng星 (xīng) — star; planet
useyòng通 (tōng) — pass through; to communicate
fieldtián果 (guǒ) — fruit
cloth楚 (chǔ) — clear; distinct
illbìng疗 (liáo) — cured; healed; recovered
legs登 (dēng) — to rise; to ascend
whitebái怕 (pà) — to fear
skin玻 (bō) — glass
dishmǐn盘 (pán) — plate; tray
eye眼 (yǎn) — eye
spearmáo柔 (róu) — soft
arrowshǐ知 (zhī) — to know
stoneshí确 (què) — certain; sure


Variant: 礻
spiritshì标 (biāo) — mark; symbol
trackróu遇 (yù) — come across
grain香 (xiāng) — fragrant
cavexuè空 (kōng) — hollow; empty
stand位 (wèi) — position; rank
bamboozhú笔 (bǐ) — writing brush; pen
rice数 (shù) — to count


Traditional: 糸
silk给 (gěi) — to give
jarfǒu淘 (táo) — to weed out


Variant: 罒
netwǎng罪 (zuì) — crime
sheepyáng样 (yàng) — style; pattern
feather翻 (fān) — to flip over
oldlǎo姥 (lǎo) — maternal grandmother
andér需 (xū) — to need
plowlěi耕 (gēng) — to cultivate
earěr联 (lián) — to connect
brush建 (jiàn) — to build
meatròu腐 (fǔ) — to rot
ministerchén藏 (cáng) — to hide
oneself息 (xi) — to rest
arrivezhì到 (dào) — to arrive
mortarjiù插 (chā) — to plug in
tongueshé话 (huà) — to speak
contrarychuǎn舞 (wǔ) — to dance
boatzhōu搬 (bān) — to move
mountaingèn很 (hén) — very
color绝 (jué) — to cut off
grasscǎo花 (huā) — flower
tiger虑 (lü) — anxiety
insectchóng虽 (suī) — although
bloodxuě恤 (xù) — to show pity
walkxíng街 (jiē) — street


Variant: 衤
clothes依 (yī) — to rely on
西

Variant: 覀
west要 (yào) — to want


Traditional: 見
seejiàn现 (xiàn) — to become visible
hornjiǎo确 (què) — certain; sure


Traditional: 言
speechyán话 (huà) — to speak
valley容 (róng) — appearance
beandòu短 (duǎn) — short
pigshǐ家 (jiā) — home; family
legless insectszhì貌 (mào) — countenance


Traditional: 貝
shellbèi员 (yuán) — worker; staff member
redchì赫 (hè) — bright
walkzǒu起 (qǐ) — to rise; to stand up
foot促 (cù) — to urge
bodyshēn谢 (xiè) — to thank


Traditional: 車
cartchē较 (jiào) — to compare
bitterxīn辩 (biàn) — to debate
morningchén晨 (chén) — daybreak
walkchuò这 (zhè) — this


Variant: 阝
city唈 (yì) — to sob
wineyǒu配 (pèi) — to mix; to be suited for
distinguishbiàn翻 (fān) — to flip over
village理 (li) — logic; truth


Variant: 金
metaljīn钱 (qián) — money


Traditional: 長
longcháng账 (zhàng) — account


Traditional: 門
gatemén问 (wèn) — to ask about


Variant: 阝
mound埠 (bù) — port city
slave康 (kāng) — health
short-tailed birdzhuī谁 (shéi) — who, question form
rain需 (xū) — to need
blueqīng请 (qíng) — please
wrongfēi罪 (zuì) — crime
facemiàn缅 (miǎn) — distant
leather鞋 (xié) — shoe


Traditional: 韋
soft leatherwěi伟 (wěi) — extraordinary
leekjiǔ韮 (jiǔ) — scallion
soundyīn意 (yī) — thought


Traditional: 頁
page题 (tí) — headline


Traditional: 風
windfēng疯 (fēng) — crazy


Traditional: 飛
flyfēi*


Variant: 飠 食
eatshí饿 (è) — hungry
headshǒu道 (dào) — path
fragrantxiāng馥 (fù) — scent


Traditional: 馬
horse妈 (mā) — mother
bone滑 (huá) — to slip
highgāo搞 (gǎo) — to clarify
long hairbiāo髦 (máo) — bangs
fightdòu*
sacrificial winechàng*
cauldron隔 (gé) — partition
ghostguǐ魔 (mó) — devil


Traditional: 魚
fish鲜 (xiān) — fresh


Traditional: 鳥
birdniǎo鸡 (jī) — chicken
salty鹾 (cuó) — salty
鹿deer漉 (lù) — to filter


Traditional: 麥
wheatmài麸 (fū) — bran
hemp磨 (mó) — to polish
yellowhuáng璜 (huáng) — a semicircular jade pendant
milletshǔ*
blackhēi墨 (mò) — ink
embroideryzhǐ*


Traditional: 黽
frogmǐn绳 (shéng) — rope
tripoddǐng*
drum瞽 (gǔ) — blind
ratshǔ癙 (shǔ) — illness caused by worry
nose鼾 (hān) — to snore loudly


Traditional: 齊
even挤 (jǐ) —to squeeze out
齿

Traditional: 齒
toothchǐ龄 (líng) — age; duration of time


Traditional: 龍
dragonlóng笼 (lóng) — cage; coop


Traditional: 龜
turtleguī阄 (jiū) — to cast by lots
fluteyuè瀹 (yuè) — to boil

Hearing complaints about how complicated Chinese is will remind you of how much work it takes to master Mandarin.

But remember the flipside: There are ways to create shortcuts for yourself in learning Chinese, the same as there are with any other language.

With a good understanding of character components and the occasional dash of creativity, you’ll be reading and writing Chinese like a boss.

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