Chinese Characters: Components and Radicals

Chloe KiteChloe Kite
May 31, 2014
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This is what I mean by radical

My last post concerned a brief introduction to Chinese characters - should you learn simplified or traditional? How many do you need to learn? This post now concerns learning Chinese characters in more detail (Simplified I’m afraid – that’s what I’ve learnt!)

One thing you may notice once you have a few characters under your belt is that most Chinese characters can be broken down into components, and that larger Chinese characters are actually made up of smaller ones. So, even though your target may be to learn thousands of Chinese characters, the number of components you’ll need to know are much less – you’ll just have to remember how to combine them. Therefore, the point is that Chinese characters are not completely random and are a lot easier to remember than you would first think.

Chinese characters are usually formed in these seven different ways:
1. Left and Right Structured: 好 (好hăo) which is formed by the radical 女 (nǚ) which means woman and the character 子 (zĭ) which means child.
2. Top and Base Structured: for example 男 (nán) which means man, and is made up of 田 (tián) which means ‘field’ and 力 (lì) which means ‘strength’.
3. Left, Middle and Right Structured: 掰 (bāi) which means to break with both hands. You can guess the meaning of the character from it’s components – on the left and right is the same character, 手 (shǒu) which means hands, and the middle character is 分 (fēn) which means divide or separate.
4. Top, Middle and Base Structured: for example 合  (hé) meaning join or combine, which is made up of 人 (rén) meaning person, 一 (yī) meaning one, and 口 (kǒu) meaning mouth.
5. Simple Structured: like 雨 (yǔ) meaning rain
6. Enclosed Structure: for example 国 (guó) which means ‘state’ and is made up of 玉 (yù) meaning jade,  and 口 (kǒu).
7. Half-Enclosed Structure: for example 周 (zhōu) which means circle, or week.

The most common component characters are what are known as radicals (I referred to these earlier). These are usually found on the left-hand sides of characters, but not always. Radicals are actually really useful to learn because they can give a hint as to the meaning of the character. Here are some examples:

1. 讠yán zì páng [言字旁] = meaning ‘speech’ or ‘words’ – so when you see characters like 说 (shuō – to say), 讲 (jiǎng – to speak, lecture),语 (yǔ – language) and 谈 (tán – to chat, discuss) you know it could have something to do with this. The same goes for the rest.
2. 扌tí shǒu páng [提手旁] = meaning hands (手) so when you see this radical you can assume it is an action involving this, for example:  打 (dǎ – hit),拉(lā – pull),捏 (niē – pinch),搓 (cuō – rub)
3. 氵sān diǎn shuǐ [三点水]  = when you see this radical you can assume it may have something to do with water or liquid, for example: 河 (hé – river),海 (hǎi – sea),洗 (xǐ  - wash),汤 (tāng – soup)
4. 犭fǎn quǎn páng [反犬旁] = indicates something to do with animals like 狗 (gǒu – dog),猪 (zhū – pig),猫 (māo – cat),狮  (shī – lion)
5. 艹 cǎo zì tóu [草字头] = indicates something to do with vegetables / plants like 菜 (cài – vegetable),草 (cǎo – grass),花 (huā – flowers),茶 (chá – tea)

Of course, this isn’t a hard and fast rule but getting to grips with the radicals and the potential meaning they carry can be really useful in the beginning. Check out here for the 100 most common radicals.

Next post? Phonetic components!

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