Getting Radical about Radicals

Getting Radical about Radicals

Getting Radical about Radicals

Why you should think of characters in terms of functional components.

By John Renfroe

I know this advice is going to rub some people the wrong way, but hopefully by the end of the article you’ll understand why I say this: radicals are of little use for learning how characters work. Their purpose is indexing characters in a dictionary.

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 characters.” This is not true. People who say this are well-intentioned but ill-informed about the nature of the Chinese writing system.

The word “radical” is best understood as “a character component that sometimes plays the role of radical,” NOT “a character component that has the nature of being a radical”. For example, 大 "big" is a component that is on the list of radicals, but that doesn’t mean that 大 is always the radical when it appears in a character. A single character only has a single 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 yes, many of the components on the list of radicals do show up a lot in Chinese 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.

So, if you’re talking about radicals, the conversation should focus on dictionary lookup. If you’re talking about how characters work, or about etymology, then it should be about sound and meaning components. Getting the terminology straight helps to prevent confusing statements like "radicals are the building blocks of characters." They're not. Sound and meaning 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] in 100 CE, at which point the writing system had already been around for well over 1500 years. The vast majority of characters in use today were invented before the Shuōwén. Read that again and let it sink in. If that’s the case, then there’s no way that “radicals” were what people had in mind when they were creating characters. There must have been something else going on.

So what are radicals, really?

That’s an interesting question. The word “radical” is really a poor translation of 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 in Chinese. The first character in that section is the bùshǒu — the section head, or the first of the section. Each character in that section belongs to one bùshǒu. Note that I didn’t say the character “has” one 部首. It’s an important distinction to make. The character is filed under a 部 , or section. This is a choice made by the editor of a character dictionary, not an inherent part of the nature of Chinese characters.

Which section to file a character under can be a fairly arbitrary decision. Most people’s understanding is that the bùshǒu gives a hint about meaning and the sound component (聲符 shēngfú) gives a hint about the sound, and that the two are different entities. That’s not always the case. Sometimes, the bùshǒu is the sound component. For example, 刀 (刂 dāo, knife) is both the phonetic and the radical in 到 (dào “to arrive”), but it is not the meaning component. 至 zhì is, and it means “to arrive,” just like 到. Intuitively, one would think that radicals are assigned in a consistent manner, but sometimes the way they’re assigned can be very haphazard, even for characters that share the same structure:

Character Radical
彎 wān "curve" 弓 gōng "bow for shooting arrows"
戀 liàn "love" 心 xīn "heart"
蠻 mán "barbaric" 虫 huǐ "type of poisonous insect; early form of 虺 huǐ"
變 biàn "change" 言 yán "speech"

For the first three characters, the radical and meaning components are same. 變 is inconsistent with the others in that it’s filed under 言 (part of 䜌 luán, the sound component which the other characters all share1).

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 organising and looking things up in a dictionary, but they’re not especially useful for explaining how characters work.

But there’s a better way

You should look at characters in terms of their functional components. Character components can serve a few different functions, and you need to understand those functions rather than lump them all under one category called “radicals.”

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 Mandarin.

The possible functions that a component can have derive directly from these three attributes.

There are three primary functions:

  • A component can express meaning by way of form. Example: 大 is a picture of a person, and that is its function in characters like 美 měi “beautiful.” 美 is not a big 大 sheep 羊, but a depiction of a person wearing a headdress. This is by far the most common way of expressing meaning.

da mei.jpg

Other examples of 大 functioning in this way include:

wu tian fu.jpg

  • 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 meaning components, but in reality this function is very uncommon!

jian diagram.jpeg

  • A component can express sound. Example: 大 is pronounced dà in Mandarin, and it serves as a sound component in the simplified character 达2 "to arrive" (traditional: 達).

Then there is a fourth function that derives from the way Chinese 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 ascertain without training in palaeography, 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 (post forthcoming on how you can’t trust your eyes).

  1. The sound component in 達 is 𦍒 (dá). The top part today looks like 土 “earth”, but it was originally 大, which was then corrupted over time. An uncorrupted version of this component would look like 羍 today.3

da2.jpg

The form above is written in small seal script [小篆 xiǎozhuàn]. This is what 大 and 土 looked like in small seal, for comparison:

da tu.jpg

  1. 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.

mo corruption.jpg

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 and 夫. In the others, it’s not, no matter which function it’s serving. The radical in the other characters is:

尖:小

美:羊

吳:口

达/達:辶

莫:艹

Summary

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 Chinese characters” (that’s functional components!). They’re an imperfect, man-made system of arranging and looking up characters in a dictionary. The concept of 部首 didn’t even exist when the vast majority of characters were being created.

But sound and meaning components did exist. Sound and meaning components are the building blocks of Chinese characters. Sound and meaning components are what people were thinking of whenever they made a new Chinese 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 Chinese characters. Anything that tells you otherwise is inaccurate and (unintentionally) leading you astray.


  1. How can 䜌 luán be the sound component for 變 biàn? This most certainly looks impossible judging from the Mandarin pronunciation, but what’s important is the phonology of the language when the characters were invented. If we look a reconstruction of Old Chinese phonology (i.e., a reconstruction of the sounds of the language that was in use when these Chinese characters were invented thousands of years ago), we can get a glimpse at what the language probably looked like. In a future post, we’ll do an introduction to Old Chinese reconstruction and why it’s important for doing research in Chinese palaeography, but for now we’ll just take a look at some reconstructions. Keep in mind, it’s not important that you understand what all of these symbols mean exactly. What is important, is noticing the similarities and differences (the symbol * just means that you are looking at a reconstruction):

    䜌 *mə.rʕon (ballpark approximation “muh RON”)

    變 *pron-s (ballpark approximation “prons” or “prawns”)

    蠻 *mʕron (ballpark approximation “mrons” or “mrawns”)

    戀 *ron-s (ballpark approximation “rons” or “Ron’s”)

    The main thing to take away here, is that each of these words share the root *ron. Three of these words have prefixes: *mə, *p-, *m- and two have suffixes *-s. It is similar to how root words work in English. Take the root “get”: get, forget, beget, got, gotten. Imagine that Chinese characters had been used in Old English and the same sound component was used for each of these words. Even though the sounds aren’t exactly the same, they do share a root and the reader would have been able to figure out which was meant by context and by the addition of a meaning component. Keep in mind, I’m merely trying to make an analogy between two languages with very different histories, so be kind. The reconstructions above are from Baxter-Sagart OC v1. Check out their new book here.

  2. 达 is not a recent invention. It’s a variant of 達 attested as early as the oracle bone script [甲骨文 jiǎgǔwén].

  3. 𦍒 is also a meaning component. 达 is a picture of a guy walking across the road. The original meaning was “arrive at point b from point a”. 達 is the same thing, but has a guy leading a sheep from point a to b.

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