“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 (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:
好 (hǎo — good) is a horizontal character, written left to right. The radical, on the left, is 女 (nü).
高 (gāo — high; tall) is a vertical character, written top to bottom. The radical, on top, is 亠 (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 is a pinky-out way of saying “what the character means or relates to.” For example, the character 爸 (bà — father) is a vertical character, written top to bottom. The top component 父 (fù) is the semantic component, which means “father.”
Phonetic components give you an idea of how to pronounce the character. Reusing the character 爸 (bà — father) as an example, the bottom component 巴 (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 家 (jiā — home). This character is made up of 宀 (mián — meaning “roof”) and 豕 (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 日 (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 赞 (zàn — to praise) is the Chinese word for “like,” which is used extensively on WeChat moments. 汗 (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 面 (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 我 (wǒ — I; me). 我 is made up of 手 (shǒu) and 戈 (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.
- 我 means “I; me”
手 (shǒu) means “hand” and has three horizontal strokes and one vertical stroke.
戈 (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.
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 music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning 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
|一||one||yī||不 (bù) — no|
|丨||line||shù; gǔn||个 (gè) — measure word for people or objects in general|
|丶||dot||zhǔ; diǎn||门 (mén) — door|
Variant: 乀 乁
|slash||piě||人 (rén) — person|
Variant: 乚 乛
|second||yǐ||吃 (chī) — to eat|
|亅||hook||jué; gōu||可 (kě) — may; can; -able|
|二||two||èr||仁 (rén) — benevolence|
|亠||lid||tóu||高 (gāo) — high; tall|
|person||rén||坐 (zuò) — to sit|
|儿||son; child||ér||兄 (xiōng) — older brother|
|入||enter||rù||内 (nèi) — inner|
|eight||bā||公 (gōng) — fairness|
|冂||wide||jiǒng||用 (yòng) — to use|
|冖||cover||mì||写 (xiě) — to write|
|冫||ice||bīng||冷 (léng) — cold|
|几||small table; several||jī, jǐ||风 (fēng) — wind|
|凵||receptacle||qiǎn; kǎn||出 (chū) — to go out|
|knife||dāo||到 (dào) — to arrive|
|力||power||lì||男 (nán) — man; male|
|勹||wrap||bāo||包 (bāo) — package|
|匕||ladle||bǐ; pìn||它 (tā) — it, as a third person pronoun|
|匚||box||fāng||区 (qū) — area|
|匸||conceal||xì||忙 (máng) — busy|
|十||ten||shí||早 (zǎo) — early|
|卜||divination||bǔ||下 (xià) — under; down; next|
|卩||seal||jié||命 (mìng) — life|
|厂||cliff||hàn||厅 (tīng) — hall; room|
|厶||private||sī||去 (qù) — to go|
|又||again||yòu||友 (yǒu) — friend|
|口||mouth||kǒu||口 (jiào) — to shout|
|囗||enclosure||wéi||国 (guó) — country; nation|
|土||earth||tǔ||走 (zǒu) — to walk|
|士||scholar||shì||喜 (xǐ — to like|
|夂||go||zhī||路 (lù) — road|
|夊||go slowly||suī||夏 (xià) — summer|
|夕||night||xī||多 (duō) — many|
|大||big||dà||天 (tiān) — sky; heaven; celestial|
|女||woman||nǚ||安 (ān) — peace|
|子||child||zǐ||学 (xué) — to study; to learn|
|宀||roof||gài||家 (jiā) — home; family|
|寸||inch||cùn||对 (duì) — correct|
|小||small||xiǎo||原 (yuán) — origin|
|lame||wāng||无 (wú) — negative; no; not|
|尸||corpse||shī||尾 (wěi) — tail|
|屮||sprout||chè||纯 (chún) — pure; clean; simple|
|山||mountain||shān||岁 (suì) — year; age; harvest|
Variant: 巛 巜
|river||chuān||训 (xùn) — to train; to teach|
|工||work||gōng||红 (hóng) — red|
|己||oneself||jǐ||起 (qǐ) — to rise; to stand up|
|巾||towel||jīn||帮 (bāng) — to help|
|干||dry||gān||平 (píng) — level; peaceful|
|幺||thread||yāo||系 (xì) — line; link; connection|
|广||wide||guǎng||床 (chuáng) — bed|
|廴||stride||yǐn||建 (jiàn) — to build|
|廾||hands joined||gǒng||开 (kāi) — to open; to start|
|弋||shoot with a bow||yì||代 (dài) — generation|
|弓||bow||gōng||引 (yǐn) — to attract; to pull|
|snout||jì||很 (hén) — very|
|彡||hair; bristle||shān||影 (yǐng) — shadow; image; photograph|
|彳||step||chì||行 (xíng) — to go; to walk; okay|
|heart||xīn||态 (tài) — attitude|
|戈||spear||gē||我 (wǒ) — I; me|
|户||door||hù||护 (hù) — to protect|
|hand||shǒu||打 (dǎ) — to hit|
|支||branch||zhī||枝 (zhī) — branch; limb|
|tap||pū||敲 (qiāo) — to strike; to beat; to pound|
|文||script||wén||蚊 (wén) — mosquito|
|斗||peck (unit of measurement)||dǒu||科 (kè) — science|
|斤||axe||jīn||听 (tīng) — to hear|
|方||square||fāng||房 (fáng) — house|
|无||not||wú||芜 (wú) — luxuriant growth of weeds|
|日||sun||rì||易 (yì) — easy|
|曰||say||yuē||更 (gèng) — even more|
|月||moon||yuè||期 (qī) — time period|
|木||tree||mù||种 (zhǒng) — seed; type|
|欠||lack; be deficient||qiàn||欢 (huān) — happy; pleased|
|止||stop||zhǐ||步 (bù) — step|
|歹||wicked||dǎi||死 (sǐ) — death|
|殳||weapon||shū||没 (méi) — not; have not|
|mother||mǔ||每 (měi) — each|
|比||compare||bǐ||批 (pī) — to criticize|
|毛||fur||máo||笔 (bǐ) — writing brush; pen|
|氏||clan||shì||纸 (zhǐ) — paper|
|气||steam||qì||氧 (yǎng) — oxygen|
|water||shuǐ||冰 (bīng) — ice; ice-cold|
|fire||huǒ||灯 (dēng) — lamp; lantern|
|claw||zhǎo||抓 (zhuā) — to clutch; to grab|
|父||father||fù||爸 (bà) — father; papa|
|爻||lines on a trigram||yáo||爽 (shuǎng) — refreshing|
|爿||half of a tree trunk||qiáng||装 (zhuāng) — to dress up|
|片||slice||piàn||版 (bǎn) — edition; version|
|牙||tooth||yá||邪 (xié) — evil|
|cow||niú||特 (tè) — special; unique|
|dog||quǎn||犯 (fàn) — to commit a crime|
|玄||profound||xuán||畜 (chù) — livestock|
|jade||yù||宝 (bǎo) — treasure; valuable; precious|
|瓜||melon||guā||狐 (hú) — fox|
|瓦||tile; baked clay||wǎ||瓶 (píng) — bottle|
|甘||sweet||gān||甜 (tián) — sweet|
|生||life||shēng||星 (xīng) — star; planet|
|用||use||yòng||通 (tōng) — pass through; to communicate|
|田||field||tián||果 (guǒ) — fruit|
|疋||cloth||pǐ||楚 (chǔ) — clear; distinct|
|疒||ill||bìng||疗 (liáo) — cured; healed; recovered|
|癶||legs||bō||登 (dēng) — to rise; to ascend|
|白||white||bái||怕 (pà) — to fear|
|皮||skin||pí||玻 (bō) — glass|
|皿||dish||mǐn||盘 (pán) — plate; tray|
|目||eye||mù||眼 (yǎn) — eye|
|矛||spear||máo||柔 (róu) — soft|
|矢||arrow||shǐ||知 (zhī) — to know|
|石||stone||shí||确 (què) — certain; sure|
|spirit||shì||标 (biāo) — mark; symbol|
|禸||track||róu||遇 (yù) — come across|
|禾||grain||hé||香 (xiāng) — fragrant|
|穴||cave||xuè||空 (kōng) — hollow; empty|
|立||stand||lì||位 (wèi) — position; rank|
|竹||bamboo||zhú||笔 (bǐ) — writing brush; pen|
|米||rice||mǐ||数 (shù) — to count|
|silk||sī||给 (gěi) — to give|
|缶||jar||fǒu||淘 (táo) — to weed out|
|net||wǎng||罪 (zuì) — crime|
|羊||sheep||yáng||样 (yàng) — style; pattern|
|羽||feather||yǔ||翻 (fān) — to flip over|
|老||old||lǎo||姥 (lǎo) — maternal grandmother|
|而||and||ér||需 (xū) — to need|
|耒||plow||lěi||耕 (gēng) — to cultivate|
|耳||ear||ěr||联 (lián) — to connect|
|聿||brush||yù||建 (jiàn) — to build|
|肉||meat||ròu||腐 (fǔ) — to rot|
|臣||minister||chén||藏 (cáng) — to hide|
|自||oneself||zì||息 (xi) — to rest|
|至||arrive||zhì||到 (dào) — to arrive|
|臼||mortar||jiù||插 (chā) — to plug in|
|舌||tongue||shé||话 (huà) — to speak|
|舛||contrary||chuǎn||舞 (wǔ) — to dance|
|舟||boat||zhōu||搬 (bān) — to move|
|艮||mountain||gèn||很 (hén) — very|
|色||color||sè||绝 (jué) — to cut off|
|艹||grass||cǎo||花 (huā) — flower|
|虍||tiger||hǔ||虑 (lü) — anxiety|
|虫||insect||chóng||虽 (suī) — although|
|血||blood||xuě||恤 (xù) — to show pity|
|行||walk||xíng||街 (jiē) — street|
|clothes||yī||依 (yī) — to rely on|
|west||xī||要 (yào) — to want|
|see||jiàn||现 (xiàn) — to become visible|
|角||horn||jiǎo||确 (què) — certain; sure|
|speech||yán||话 (huà) — to speak
|谷||valley||gǔ||容 (róng) — appearance|
|豆||bean||dòu||短 (duǎn) — short|
|豕||pig||shǐ||家 (jiā) — home; family|
|豸||legless insects||zhì||貌 (mào) — countenance|
|shell||bèi||员 (yuán) — worker; staff member|
|赤||red||chì||赫 (hè) — bright|
|走||walk||zǒu||起 (qǐ) — to rise; to stand up|
|足||foot||zú||促 (cù) — to urge|
|身||body||shēn||谢 (xiè) — to thank|
|cart||chē||较 (jiào) — to compare|
|辛||bitter||xīn||辩 (biàn) — to debate|
|辰||morning||chén||晨 (chén) — daybreak|
|辶||walk||chuò||这 (zhè) — this|
|city||yì||唈 (yì) — to sob
|酉||wine||yǒu||配 (pèi) — to mix; to be suited for|
|釆||distinguish||biàn||翻 (fān) — to flip over|
|里||village||lǐ||理 (li) — logic; truth|
|metal||jīn||钱 (qián) — money|
|long||cháng||账 (zhàng) — account|
|gate||mén||问 (wèn) — to ask about
|mound||fù||埠 (bù) — port city|
|隶||slave||lì||康 (kāng) — health|
|隹||short-tailed bird||zhuī||谁 (shéi) — who, question form|
|雨||rain||yǔ||需 (xū) — to need|
|青||blue||qīng||请 (qíng) — please|
|非||wrong||fēi||罪 (zuì) — crime|
|面||face||miàn||缅 (miǎn) — distant|
|革||leather||gé||鞋 (xié) — shoe|
|soft leather||wěi||伟 (wěi) — extraordinary|
|韭||leek||jiǔ||韮 (jiǔ) — scallion|
|音||sound||yīn||意 (yī) — thought|
|page||yè||题 (tí) — headline|
|wind||fēng||疯 (fēng) — crazy|
Variant: 飠 食
|eat||shí||饿 (è) — hungry|
|首||head||shǒu||道 (dào) — path|
|香||fragrant||xiāng||馥 (fù) — scent|
|horse||mǎ||妈 (mā) — mother|
|骨||bone||gǔ||滑 (huá) — to slip|
|高||high||gāo||搞 (gǎo) — to clarify|
|髟||long hair||biāo||髦 (máo) — bangs
|鬲||cauldron||lì||隔 (gé) — partition|
|鬼||ghost||guǐ||魔 (mó) — devil|
|fish||yú||鲜 (xiān) — fresh|
|bird||niǎo||鸡 (jī) — chicken
|卤||salty||lǔ||鹾 (cuó) — salty|
|鹿||deer||lù||漉 (lù) — to filter|
|wheat||mài||麸 (fū) — bran|
|麻||hemp||má||磨 (mó) — to polish
|黄||yellow||huáng||璜 (huáng) — a semicircular jade pendant|
|黑||black||hēi||墨 (mò) — ink|
|frog||mǐn||绳 (shéng) — rope|
|鼓||drum||gǔ||瞽 (gǔ) — blind|
|鼠||rat||shǔ||癙 (shǔ) — illness caused by worry|
|鼻||nose||bí||鼾 (hān) — to snore loudly|
|even||qí||挤 (jǐ) —to squeeze out|
|tooth||chǐ||龄 (líng) — age; duration of time
|dragon||lóng||笼 (lóng) — cage; coop|
|turtle||guī||阄 (jiū) — to cast by lots
|龠||flute||yuè||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.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.