The system of Chinese radicals and radical ways to learn it

Ever wondered if there was a strategic way to learn characters? Or if there was any shortcut to figuring out their meaning? You’re in luck, there is! Radicals are the key to becoming a Chinese master.

A radical, or key (= 部首, bùshǒu), is a graphical component of a Chinese character. This means that every Chinese character contains a radical, but what does it tell you about the character?

When you find the radical in the Chinese character it will give you an indication of the meaning of that character. Complex characters are made up of radicals. This means that it’s important for beginners to know the radicals and their meaning.

A radial has several functions: it allows you to search a character in a dictionary, it hints at the characters meaning and it may even suggest the pronunciation! The modern system of Chinese radicals has 214 elements. So basically, every character in modern Chinese can be divided into these elements. Simple, right?

The more you know the radicals, the easier you will be able to remember how to combine them with each other to form other characters.

For example, the character for good, 好 , consists of 2 radicals. 女(woman) and 子(son). These exist as characters on their own, but form a different one when put together.

Character Radicals

Still following?

All of the radicals under the sun are listed in the standard table of radicals (see below). Now, learning this table might be a long and boring process, so aside from learning in class, here are some tips that can help.

Tip 1: Use Visual Aids

Some radicals look like their meaning. Yes, you read that right. Lets take a closer look at 家, which means family or home. The top part of this character is the radical for “roof”,宀. The bottom part of the character is 豕, which means “pig”. Traditionally, the pig was a very important animal in Chinese households and was associated with prosperity. So the character 家 came to be as every household had a pig under their roof.

Chinese water radical

Need another example? The character for water, 水, is simplified to 氵when used as a radical. When you see this in front of a character, it gives away its meaning. For example, it can be found in the characters for lake 湖 and river 江! Think you’re getting the hang of it now?

Tip 2: Group those characters!

When studying, group your new characters by their radicals. The characters for ‘she’ 她 and ‘good’ 好  both have the woman radical,女, in them. Making your own tables for the radicals you come across while learning may look a little something like this:

Radical Characters with this radical

Tip 3: Identify those radicals

Try looking for familiar radicals, even in unfamiliar characters! Take a look at the character 河. Even if you don’t know this character yet, you can try to figure out its meaning thanks to the radical.

See anything familiar? That’s right! It contains the 氵radical (for water). Now you know that this character has something to do with water. (Know what it means? Let us know below!)

Ready for the daunting list of radicals? By following our tips, or any tips that are useful to you, you will master it!

Up for a challenge?

Take a look at these characters: 馅,蜂.

If you’re familiar with them, congratulations, you are definitely a skilled speaker! HSK 6 is probably a piece of cake for you and you don’t need to bother with that radicals table.

If you aren’t familiar with them, let’s try and figure them out together.

馅 has the radical ⻠ (traditionally ⻝), which means food. Now you now that 馅 has something to do with food. It’s meaning is ‘stuffing’, such as 肉馅饺子 (meat stuffed dumplings). You’ll see this radical often on menu’s, keep an eye out for it!

Last one, lets take a look at 蜂. The radical here is ⾍, which stands for insects. Any time you see this radical, you’ll be sure the meaning of the character is some sort of insect. In this case, 蜂, means bee!

If you have any questions or want to share your own tips, please leave a comment!

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