Chinese Radicals for Practical Learners

Most presentations of Chinese radicals tend to be exhaustive (you could read that as ‘exhausting’ and you wouldn’t be mistaken), giving you tables of the 214 radicals or some subset, slicing and dicing them in various ways.

This presentation is not like that.

Sometimes these presentations even make an attempt at organizing radicals by frequency. There are many ways you can measure frequency, but it seems that the common sense method is not in fashion, because the most helpful radicals are always missing from the top of the list.

So, what you will find here is a presentation of Chinese radicals that is sensible and practical.

I’ll get off of my soapbox now, so we can dig in and learn those most common Chinese radicals that are really going to give you the biggest bang for your buck.

What is a Chinese Radical?

The Chinese radicals we are talking about here are not the types stirring up trouble in Beijing. These are much less controversial. They are simply components made up of a few brush strokes (give or take) that take their place in part of a larger Chinese character.

We care about these radicals because they carry with them a bit of meaning, or sometimes a bit of a clue about the pronunciation of the character. They may lurk at the top, bottom, left or right.

Familiarity with some common Chinese radicals, like those given on this page, will help you learn characters with more ease. They will aid your ability to memorize Chinese characters as well as to write them.

The Must-learn Chinese Radicals (with examples)

1. 言 (yán)

This one is related to language or speech. When it's positioned at the left of the character it changes forms and looks kind of like a script letter 'i', as you can see in the examples below.

If you see this friendly little radical at the left, you can bet the character has something to do with language or speaking.

Some examples:

  • 说 (shuō) - to speak
  • 话 (huà) - speech, or what is said
  • 汉语 (hàn yǔ) - Chinese language

2. 心 (xīn) – heart

The concept of heart in Chinese is sometimes like the Western concept of mind. So you will see this radical appear in words like 想,which means idea or conception, or忘 which means to forget. All these things we imagine happen in the mind, the Chinese often point to the heart.

But things like feelings and affection also use the heart radical, just as we might expect.

When it’s to the left of the character, it changes form and looks like this: 情 (see the component on the left). But often it’s scrunched at the bottom of a character in its familiar form.

Examples:

  • 感情 (gǎn qíng) – affection (the radical is in both characters)
  • 想法 (xiǎng fǎ) – idea
  • 忘记 (wàng jì) - forget

3. 手 (shǒu) - hand

This one is used in characters related to actions done with the hand. In its abbreviated form, you'll find it positioned at the left of the character. Notice how it appears in this form.

Examples:

  • 打 (dǎ) - to hit
  • 换 (huàn) – to exchange or return something to somebody
  • 提 (tí) - to raise (usually used in an abstract sense, like to raise a question, or issue)

4. 口 (kǒu) – mouth

You’ll notice in the examples that this appears here to the left, kind of raised up a bit. Actually, the radical appears all over the place in Chinese – but here we’ll look at just this one type of character that uses this 口. These examples all belong to a part of speech called particles.

A particle in Chinese generally occurs at the end of the word and adds some kind of expressive tone to what you say – whether making it sound like a question, a suggestion, etc.

Examples:

  • 吗 (ma) - This one signals a question. It has a neutral tone, thus no tone mark in the pinyin.
  • 嗯 (èn) - This is a sound that just means ‘hmm’. With some tongue-in-cheek humor, I’ve included it in my list of 10 most useful Chinese phrases.
  • 吧 (ba) - Putting this Chinese particle at the end of a sentence softens the tone and makes the words sound like you are politely suggesting something, not commanding it.
5. 水 (shuǐ) - water

This Chinese radical is the character for water. But when it’s moved to the left, it changes form to those simple three strokes. Pretty straightforward as far as the words you might expect it to appear in.

Examples:

  • 河 (hé) – river
  • 湖 (hú) – lake
  • 大海 (dà hǎi) - ocean

6. 室 (not the whole character, but the 'hat' at the top of it)

This one was a favorite one for me when I was at a beginning Chinese level. I don’t know why – maybe because it’s fun to write. It carries the meaning of a house or dwelling. It sits at the top of the character, which makes it easy to remember because it appears to be like a roof, sheltering the rest of the character underneath it.

Examples:

  • 教室 (jiāo shì) – classroom (the first character is related to teaching; the second is a room)
  • 家 (jiā) - home
  • 宿舍 (sù shè) - dormitory

7. 病 (this is the character for 'sick', but we're concerned with the part that angles around the top and left side)

You can see how this radical, which is related to sickness, frames the character by angling over the top and left side.

As a side note, it’s interesting that the character for thin has this radical, which reveals how the Chinese traditionally see being thin as unhealthy. The reverse holds true, too – being a little plump is seen as being strong and healthy.

Examples:

  • 疾病 (jí bìng) – disease
  • 瘦 (shòu) - thin (for talking about people)
  • 癌症 (ái zhèng) - cancer

8. 目(mù) - eye

This one is related to the eye and seeing. It’s usually on the left.

Examples:

  • 眼睛 (yǎn jīng) – eye
  • 目前 (mù qián) – at present (literally: in front of the eyes)
  • 眼泪 (yǎn lèi) - tear, as in crying (you can see the radical for 'water' make its appearance here, too.)

9. 女 (nǚ) – woman or female

This is the character for ‘female’. Where it’s at the left, like in the examples below for words like ‘mother’, the meaning is obvious. But sometimes it appears in words where I’m not sure what makes the word feminine. So I like to imagine why that concept could be feminine and create my own little mnemonic device.

For example the character 好, which means good, has the 女in it. Whether you are coming from a guy or a gal’s perspective, either way, you can probably come up with a pretty good rationale for that one to make it more memorable.

Examples:

  • 她 (tā) – her or she
  • 妈妈 (mā mā) – mother (actually, more like ‘mom’)
  • 姐姐 (jiě jiě) – older sister
10. 月 (yuè) – moon; month

This Chinese radical’s meaning relates to the moon. But I find that it is most useful for learning Chinese writing where it is used as a component for characters that are body parts or organs of the body.

Sometimes these body parts and organs are lower frequency words (liver, lung, etc.). So when you’re reading Chinese, its often useful just to identify that they are talking about a part of the body. That will usually give you enough to go on for some good guesswork.

Examples:

  • 胳膊 (gē bó) - arm
  • 腿 (tuǐ) - leg
  • 脖子(bó zǐ) - neck

11. 犬 (quǎn) - dog

This is another Chinese radical that changes form to fit vertically on the left. That 2nd form is one you want to know (below). It’s great for identifying characters for animals. It actually looks claw-like, too.

Examples:

  • 猫 (māo) - cat
  • 狗 (gǒu) - dog
  • 狮子 (shī zǐ) - lion
  • 猴子 (hóu zǐ) - monkey

When the Relationship is a Mystery

These Chinese radicals are all frequently used and can help you in picking up quite a few new characters. But a lot of times you will learn a character just by seeing that character often, and will never stop to analyze just how the radical is related to its meaning.

Obviously, that’s fine.

In fact, sometimes it’s not really clear why that radical might be used in a particular word. It may not be worth it to try and figure it out – you can just memorize the character without paying any mind to the deeper relationships within it.

But sometimes you might want to use your imagination a bit to fit that Chinese radical in with your conception of the word. You may come up with some good mnemonic devices that way – tricks to help you memorize the character.

Have fun with it!

Learn the Chinese Names for the Radicals?

For actual daily communication, it’s not necessary to know the names of these Chinese radicals. But in fact, I would advise you to learn the Chinese names for them, even if you just do it gradually.

The reason this is useful is because when Chinese people describe for you how to write a character they will rely on these names in their description. A pen and paper is not always at hand, and sometimes just the verbal description is quicker anyway.

So if you know the names, you will be able to follow the description.

You'll see, as they name the radical, they will also waive their finger in the air or brush it over a tabletop, miming the brushstrokes as they speak.

As a side note, when you find you are miming brushstrokes with your finger as you talk about Chinese characters, you can consider that you’ve graduated to yet another level with your Mandarin Chinese.

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