Chinese Character Radicals. Don’t Do It.
Why you need to start thinking of characters in terms of functional components.
By John Renfroe
This advice is going to rub some people the wrong way, but that’s alright. We’re on a mission to teach you Chinese properly – not to rehash the way “things have always been done.”
Hopefully by the end of the article you’ll understand why I say this.
Chinese character radicals have a single purpose: indexing characters in a dictionary.
They are not designed to help you learn Chinese characters, and they are not the building blocks of characters. There, I said it.
Radicals are not designed for people to learn characters
There’s a huge misconception about how characters work. You see this sort of advice all the time: “Characters are made up of radicals, so you should learn the radicals first,” or “Make sure you learn the radicals. They’re the building blocks of Chinese characters.”
This is not true.
People who say this are well-intentioned but ill-informed about the nature of the characters.
Let’s take a look at the difference between radicals and functional components.
Start by knowing what a radical is
The word “radical” is best understood as “a Chinese character component that sometimes plays the role of radical,” NOT “a Chinese character component that has the nature of being a radical”.
For example, 大 dà “big” is a component that is on the list of radicals, but that doesn’t mean that 大 is always a radical when it appears in a character. A single character only has one radical, no matter how many character components it has.
And since the choice of which component will play the role of radical is up to the editor of a given dictionary, it may be different in different dictionaries—and may differ between Chinese and Japanese, and may even differ between simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese! That’s because a radical’s role is to organize dictionaries, not to explain character structure!
And yes, many of the components on the list of radicals do show up a lot in characters and therefore should be learned, but they should be learned as part of a system of functional components — components which express sound and meaning.
Just memorizing common radicals or radical names is going to leave you lost without a path towards literacy.
Radicals are for dictionary creators and users
So, if you’re talking about radicals, the conversation should focus on dictionary lookup. If you’re talking about how characters work, or about Chinese character etymology, then the conversation should be about semantic components and sound components. Getting the terminology straight helps to prevent confusing statements like “radicals are the building blocks of characters.” They're not. Functional components are.
The concept of radical, or 部首 bùshǒu, didn’t even exist until after the publication of the Shuōwén Jiězì 說文解字 (an ancient character dictionary) in 100 CE, at which point the writing system had already been around for well over 1500 years. The vast majority of Chinese characters in use today were invented before the Shuōwén was published.
Read that again and let it sink in.
The vast majority of Chinese characters in use today were invented before the Shuōwén was published.
If that’s the case, then there’s no way that “radicals” were what people had in mind when they were creating characters, because radicals didn’t even exist yet! There must have been something else going on.
“There’s no way that radicals were what people had in mind when they were creating characters.”
The word “radical” is really a poor translation into English of the Chinese word 部首 bùshǒu in the first place. Bùshǒu literally means “section head.” Following the model of the Shuōwén, character dictionaries are traditionally arranged into sections containing similar graphic components. These sections are called 部 bù. The first character in that section is the section head (部首 bùshǒu), or the “first of the section.”
Each character in that section is filed under that bùshǒu. Note that I didn’t say the character “has” one bùshǒu. It’s an important distinction to make. The character is filed under a 部 bù, or section. This is a choice made by the editor of a character dictionary, not an inherent part of the nature of characters.
Think about it—usually when you see a character's radical listed, you’ll also see a stroke count. In a dictionary entry for 家, you’ll likely see “宀 + 7” in the dictionary. This is because traditionally-arranged Chinese language dictionaries would first sort characters by radical, and then by stroke count or stroke order. So if you know the stroke order of the character you’re looking for, and can guess at which radical it might be filed under, then you’ll have an easier time finding that character in a dictionary.
Which section to file a character under can be a fairly arbitrary decision. Most people’s understanding is that the bùshǒu or radical gives a hint about meaning, and that the sound component (聲符/声符 shēngfú) gives a hint about the sound, and that the two are different entities. But that’s not always the case!
Sometimes, the bùshǒu is the sound component. For example, 刂 (刀 dāo, “knife”) is both the sound component and the radical in 到 dào “to arrive”, but it is not the meaning component. 至 zhì (the component on the left side of 到) is the meaning component, and it means “to arrive,” just like 到. Intuitively, you might think that radicals are assigned in a consistent manner, but sometimes the way they’re assigned can be pretty random, as we've seen.
Note that while 刂 and 刀 may look very different, they are actually variants of each other—many components have one or more variants that are considered to be essentially the same components.
You might be thinking, “Sure, there are exceptions, but radicals are usually related to the meaning of the character!”
But actually, that’s only true about 64% of the time! That means that in 36% of characters, the radical is not related to meaning. Would you ask a friend for driving directions if you knew he gets lost 36% of the time? I wouldn’t!
So again, characters are filed into a given section. This is a choice made by a human being, not an inherent part of the nature of Chinese characters, and it’s a flawed — but workable — system.
So hopefully, you can see that “radicals” (remember: section headings!) are useful for organizing and looking things up in a dictionary, but they’re not especially useful for explaining how characters work.
Introducing a better way: functional components
You should look at all Chinese characters in terms of their functional components. These are the real building blocks of characters, because they’re how characters were originally designed in the first place!
Character components can serve a few different functions, and you need to understand those functions instead of lumping them all under one category called “radicals,” as most people do.
There are three attributes that all characters have (using 大 as an example):
Form: What is it a picture of? 大 is a picture of a person (specifically, an adult).
Meaning: What does it mean? 大 means big, because adults are big in comparison to children.
Sound: What is its pronunciation? (Or, if it’s a sound component, what is the range of sounds it can represent?) 大 is pronounced dà in Chinese
The possible functions that a component can have derive directly from these three attributes. Let’s take a look at those functions now, and you’ll see how much sense it makes to learn the functional components that make up a character, rather than thinking in terms of radicals.
Three primary functions of functional components
A component can express meaning by way of its form.
Example: 大 is a picture of a person, and that is its function in, for example, the character for “beautiful” 美 měi. 美 is not a “big” 大 “sheep” 羊, but a depiction of a person 大 wearing a headdress (the headdress 𦍌 now resembles 羊, but it's unrelated). This is by far the most common way of expressing meaning in Chinese characters.
Other examples of 大 functioning in this way include:
天 tiān “heavens” (originally “person with a mark indicating the forehead”)
夫 fū “husband, man”
A component can express meaning by way of meaning. Example: 大 means “big,” and it expresses the meaning “big” in characters like 尖. This is how most people explain all semantic components, but in reality this function is much less common!
Form: “small” 小 over “big” 大
As for why “small” over “big” means “sharp,” take a look:
A component can express sound. Example: 大 can be pronounced either dà or dài in Mandarin (depending on the word it's being used in), and it’s the sound component in the character 太 tài “great, large; very, extremely.” The sounds of d- and t- are very similar, so the sounds of the two words are very closely related.
Then there is a fourth function that derives from the way characters evolved in form over time. A component can also serve as a placeholder for an earlier form that has now been corrupted.
This one is difficult to figure out without academic training in paleography, but the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters explains which components have been corrupted and how. Continuing with 大 as an example, there are 1) instances in which a component was originally 大 but has now changed to something else, and 2) instances in which a component started as something else but has corrupted to look like 大 today. That means you can’t trust your eyes—you need a reliable source to tell you what’s what!
The sound component in 達 is 𦍒 dá. The top part today looks like 土 tǔ “earth,” but it was originally 大, which was then corrupted over time. An uncorrupted version of this component would look like 羍 today.
Note that 𦍒 is also a semantic component in 達. 达 is a picture of a guy walking across the road. The original meaning was “to arrive at point b from point a”. 達 is the same thing, but has a guy leading a sheep from point A to point B.
Of course, today the simplified version of this character is written 达, restoring the original functional component!
In the character 莫 mò (“do not,” but it originally represented the word “sunset,” which is now written 暮 mù), what today looks like 大 on the bottom was originally 艸 cǎo “grass” (there was 艸 on both the top and bottom, and the character depicted the sun setting behind the grass), which then corrupted over time to look like 大.
So now you’ve seen how the same component can serve completely different functions in different characters, and how components can become corrupted over time, obscuring their original purpose. Here’s the interesting thing: out of the characters I’ve just discussed, 大 is only the radical in 天, 夫, and 太. In the others, it’s not a radical, no matter which function it’s serving! Here are the radicals in the other characters:
美：羊 (and remember—this character has nothing to do with sheep!)
It’s important to note that which side of a character a component shows up on has zero bearing on what its function is. There are some general trends, but lots of exceptions! So whether a component is on the right side or the left side of a character, you need a little help from a resource like the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters to help you figure out what the characters's real structure is!
Again, all this is not to say that you should completely throw radicals out the window. They’re good to know, but you should keep in mind what they’re used for: looking up characters in traditionally-arranged dictionaries. That’s it. They’re not the “building blocks of characters.” Functional components are! Radicals are an imperfect, man-made system of arranging and looking up characters in a dictionary. That's all. The concept of "radical" 部首 bùshǒu didn’t even exist when the vast majority of characters were being created.
But sound and semantic components did exist. Sound and semantic components are the building blocks of characters. Sound and semantic components are what people were thinking of whenever they made a new character. When you’re learning a new character, thinking in terms of these functional components (rather than radicals) will clarify a lot of confusing things about characters, and help you a lot with the memorization you need to do in order to learn all of the characters you need. And whether you enjoy using flashcards or mnemonics (or both!) to learn characters, you’ll find that learning their real structure via functional components will make it much easier to get through that list of characters you need to memorize!