Why Learn Chinese Radicals? Top 8 Chinese Radicals To Know
To learn Chinese characters, it's always best to learn Chinese radicals. But why?
Known as the building blocks of Chinese, Chinese radicals offer clues to a character's meaning and pronunciations. So whether you're learning simplified or traditional characters, let's see why Chinese radicals are so important.
What are Chinese radicals?
Chinese characters, the foundation of the Chinese writing system, are composed of various elements called radicals. Think of radicals similar to the alphabet in English, as they are the building blocks for each character's form and meaning.
Each Chinese character has at least one radical; sometimes, a radical can represent a character. For example, the radical 女 (woman) can appear as character components related to the female gender, such as 妈妈 (mama), 妹妹 (younger sister), 姐姐 (older sister), and 奶奶 (grandmother). This example shows how radicals can hint at each character's meanings and pronunciation.
Taking time to learn Chinese radicals is a wise choice for anyone studying Chinese as it will pay off in the long run, especially when you want to understand, read, and write Chinese characters effectively.
Why learn Chinese radicals?
By understanding Chinese radicals, you not only decode characters more easily but also navigate Chinese dictionaries efficiently as radicals organize them.
Additionally, Chinese radicals will help you recognize patterns within characters, which will help you learn Chinese vocabulary faster and improve your comprehension. To learn Chinese radicals is an investment that will accelerate your Chinese language journal to make it less daunting and more accessible.
How many Chinese radicals are there?
There are 214 Chinese radicals that are the foundational components for thousands of Chinese characters. They provide key information about a character's definition and/or pronunciation.
But let's focus on 8 Chinese radicals that every beginner should learn about.
Top 8 most basic Chinese radicals for beginners
The 214 radicals, known as the Kangxi radicals, might be a lot to learn, but think of the bigger picture: Knowing the most common Chinese radicals will make it easier to memorize thousands of Chinese characters, words, and vocabulary, making it easier to write characters or become better at Chinese reading.
However, don't cram over 200 radicals into your brain all at once! Start with the most common radicals based on frequency. For this reason, below are the most basic radicals for every beginner to know.
1. The Water Radical: 水 ( 氵)
Chinese name: 三点水 (three drops of water)
This symbol, 水, is both a radical and a character.
水 or 氵will appear as Chinese character components that are directly and indirectly related to water, usually on the left side. Example characters include 海 (ocean), 江 (river), 河 (stream), 游 (to swim), and 洗 (to wash).
Like the name, it looks like three droplets of water, making it easy to spot and write.
*Note: Chinese language learners should be careful not to confuse the water radical with its point-deficient cousin—the ice radical, which only consists of two calligraphy marks: 冫.
2. The Grass Radical: 艹
Chinese name: 草字头 (grass on the head)
The Chinese radical 艹 is the modern form of the character 艸, which is now almost no longer used. 艹 is frequently found at the top of Chinese characters, referring to grass, herbs, and plants. Still, it can also appear in characters that have nothing to do with vegetation.
There is no strict guideline when it comes to these sorts of exceptions. But, they are usually the result of the history and evolution of the Chinese character through time. So, if you want to dig deeper into why certain words contain 艹 but aren’t linked to plants, look up the word’s etymology and historical background.
Some example characters that use the grass radical include 草 (grass), 花 (flower), 茶 (tea), 芙 (lotus), 菜 (vegetables), and 药 (medicine).
3. The Wood Radical: 木
Chinese name: 木字旁 (beside the wooden character)
Like the water radical, 木 can act as both a radical and a character.
It can mean trees, wood, timber, and things associated with wood. For example, put two 木 (mù) together, and you’d get 林 (lín), which indicates woods or a grove of trees. When you add another 木 on top, you will get 森 (sēn), which means forest or dark & gloomy. The word widely used for a forest is 森林 (sēnlín).
4. The Hand Radical: 手( 扌)
Chinese name: 提手旁 (hand-carrying side)
Another common radical, typically seen in novels or newspapers and refers to an action using your hands, is the radical: 手.
The radical is almost always written as a vertical character, 扌, when appearing as a left-side component. It also becomes compressed when appearing as a bottom component.
Some examples are 打(to hit), 扔 (to throw), 拍 (to pat), 推 (to push), and 拉 (to pull).
5. The Mouth Radical: 口
You’ll see 口 in characters connected to the mouth, openings, and entrances. The mouth radical also appears in characters that express the sun, doors, and time.
For example: 说 (to speak), 喉咙 (throat), 语 (language, dialect), 出口 (to export.)
Pay special attention to the slight difference between the mouth radical 口 and the enclosure radical 囗 as they look identical. A tip to distinguish them is the mouth radical often appears smaller to the left of a character. In contrast, the enclosure radical appears as the largest element, written last to ‘enclose’ all the other radicals.
6. The Heart Radical: 心 (忄)
Chinese name: 竖心旁 (vertical heart side)
The Chinese heart radical, 心, is often seen in characters relating to emotions, feelings, thoughts, and other words associated with the heart.
When the radical is written as a left component, it looks like this:忄, with three strokes. When appearing at the bottom, it sometimes transforms into ⺗.
Some characters containing the heart radical are 忆 (memory), 忘 (to forget), 必 (must), and 愁 (to worry).
7. The Female Radical: 女
You’ll find this Chinese radical in female-centric characters.
The female radical also expresses gender, femininity, motherhood, or beauty. For example, 她 (she; her), 妈 (mother), 奶 (to breastfeed.)
Because women in ancient Chinese culture were not always respected, the radical also appears in bad-meaning words such as 嫉妒 (jealousy), 奸 (adultery), or 奴 (enslaved person).
8. The Fire Radical: 火
It really does look like a fire with flames and sparks, doesn’t it?
You can use 火 as a radical or a character. The fire Chinese radical appears in words related to fire, light, or actions involving light or fire. For instance, it appears in these words: 灭 (to extinguish; to put out), 灯 (lamp; lantern; light), 炒 (to stir-fry), 烟 (smoke; cigarette).
The fire radical is usually easy to spot. Remember, though, it will change the form into this 灬 when placed at the bottom. You can see the Chinese radical in 热 (heat; hot; fever) and 照 (to shine; to illuminate).
Where can I learn Chinese radicals?
Pandanese is the fastest way to learn Chinese radicals. It will teach you the most frequently used Chinese radicals first and super easy characters afterward.
All the Chinese radicals you learn with Pandanese are not just for fun. After learning a certain radical, you will see how the radicals are part of the Chinese characters and vocabulary you will learn.
Unlike other Chinese learning apps, Pandanese uses SRS and mnemonics to help you memorize each character's meaning, reading, and pronunciation.
To learn Chinese radicals is to understand the structural meaning of Chinese characters. And by focusing on the most common radicals, it allows you to recognize characters faster and even understand more complex characters without knowing it’s full translation.
Start with these 8 basic radicals and see how often they appear when building up your Chinese vocabulary.