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This is the third year I teach the introduction course in Chinese at Linköping University here in Sweden. Each time I’ve taught this course, I’ve felt the lack of a beginner-friendly radical list. I often tell students that learning character components is essential, that it’s a long-term investment that will pay off several times over the course of their Chinese studies. I then show them some of the most common radicals. But then what? Beginners often find it hard to distinguish which parts are common and which aren’t. Sure, you can use the “if you see it more than twice, learn it” rule, but that’s not terribly helpful.

Filling a gap

Curiously, I have been unable to find a good list of the most common radicals. Before you post a comment telling me that there are many, hear me out. If you don’t want to here me out and just want the list, click here to scroll down.

Most importantly, all lists sorted on frequency that I have seen (such as the article on the Kangxi radicals on Wikipedia) are based on data from a very large volume of characters. If you base such a list on the 50 000 characters in the Kangxi dictionary, you will end up believing that 鸟/鳥(bird) is one of the most common radicals. It’s not. If you only take the most commonly used 2000 characters into account, it only occurs nine times. That means it doesn’t even make the top 100. Thus, most of the 750 occurrences of this character in the Kangxi dictionary are not common characters. Other lists I’ve found are based on the 8000 most commonly used characters, which is much more useful, but still not suited for beginners.

The most common radicals among the most common characters

The list I have compiled is based on the frequency of the radicals among the 2000 most commonly used characters. This means that all these radicals are essential. Almost all occur in at least ten characters, most of them in much more than that. This means that as a beginner, you can learn all the radicals in this list without fearing that you’re learning things that actually aren’t that common. It’s meant to be a solid foundation on which to build. The alternative is to learn all the radicals, but some of them are very rare indeed.

The list and what it contains

The list I have compiled is available both as a tab-delimited text file and as a shared deck in Anki (available here), download whichever version suits your needs.

  • The 100 most common radicals in .anki format (this is the old Anki format, if you’re using a new version of Anki, you can just use this link, if you want better formatting of the cards, please refer to this text file, created by Gregory)
  • The 100 most common radicals in .txt format (for use in other programs or for easy editing or viewing, change character encoding if it doesn’t show properly; in Firefox, do View >> Character encoding, in Internet Explorer, right click and the Encoding, this should be set to Unicode)
  • The 100 most common radicals as a PDF (suitable for printing). There are two PDF versions available, so download both and see which one you like the most. The first was created by Markus Ackermann and can be downloaded here.  The second is created by Peter Lee and can be downloaded here.

These are the columns used in the list:

  1. Simplified – This shows the simplified version of the radical as it appears in most characters.
  2. Traditional - This shows the traditional character as it appears in most characters.
  3. Variants - This shows other common variants of the same radical or the original character.
  4. Meaning – This is the basic meaning(s) of the radical in English.
  5. Pronunciation -Pinyin. If written in parentheses, it is not among the most common 2000.
  6. Examples -Five examples chosen from the 2000 most common (simplified) characters.
  7. Comment - My notes for the radical with extra clarification and warnings about similar radicals.
  8. Colloquial name - The name Chinese people use to refer to the radical. Beginners can ignore this.

How to use the list

As a beginner, you can use the list to boost your understanding of Chinese characters. Learning these 100 fairly simple characters will enable you to recognise parts of almost any character you will encounter. Of course, you won’t recognise all parts of every character, but it is a good start.

As a teacher, you can use this list (or a section of it) to introduce students to radicals. You can also provide as extra material for students who want to learn more than what is offered on the curriculum. Even if you don’t teach all the radicals yourself, you should at least make it easy for people who wish to do so.

Kickstarting your understanding of Chinese characters

Chinese is a wonderful language to learn, partly because it can be hacked very efficiently. Learning Chinese characters by pure rote takes huge amounts of time, but learning basic components (such as those in this list), you can make learning characters both meaningful and fun. Instead of simply writing a character over and over, take a close look at the parts and find creative ways of linking them together.

I have written more about how to use mnemonics to learn characters and words elsewhere, check these articles:

Future development

This list isn’t perfect. In essence, there are two things I would like to do, but don’t have the time to do right now. First, even though this list is weighted according to character frequency (I only looked at the 2000 most common), it’s not properly done. The best solution would be to look at each character among the 2000 most common and assign each character a frequency. This number would then be taken into consideration when determining how common a radical was. Thus, the 亻 in 他 should give a higher score than the 亻 in 伪 (僞).

Second, radicals aren’t necessarily the most important building blocks. This means that there are other character parts which are really common, but which aren’t radicals. For instance, 肖 and 且 appears many times in the most common 2000 characters and it’s useful to know what it means as a building block. I think the only solution to create a list of the most useful 100 building blocks would be to break down the 2000 most common characters manually (or semi-automatically) and see which occurs most often, regardless of radical status. This, however, is very time-consuming indeed.

Thus, this list is a compromise. It’s the best I can do with the time I have available. I do think it’s useful and learning all these radicals will be genuinely helpful when learning Chinese. If you have suggestions for how to make the list even better, let me know!


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51 Responses to Kickstart your character learning with the 100 most common radicals

  1. Joe Lemien says:

    Nice resource.

    Your observation that “Chinese is a wonderful language to learn, partly because it can be hacked very efficiently,” is something that I find more and more true the more time I spend reading about it. I really which I had known all these strategies several years ago before I learned Chinese!

    • Olle Linge says:

      This is partly why I enjoy writing articles here on Hacking Chinese! I write about things I know now that I wish someone would have told me about years ago. If you have any particular hacks, don’t hesitate to share!

      • Bob says:

        It’s “I wish someone HAD told me about years ago”, not “would have told me….”

        Example of the correct usage: “If I HAD asked my friend, he WOULD HAVE told me years ago”.

        • Olle Linge says:

          Even though your version is definitely correct, I think both versions are acceptable. I searched a bit for similar sentences online and it seems like “I wish he would have told me” is acceptable in AmE, but in BrE, “I wish he had told me” is preferred. I’m not a native speaker, but I found several references to native speakers who find that “I wish he would have told me” is grammatical:

          http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=2762502
          http://www.antimoon.com/forum/t3112-0.htm

          Interesting point, though, I haven’t noticed this before. Since I try to stick to BrE in general, your comment definitely makes sense, thanks!

          • Bob says:

            Hi Olle,

            Thanks for your reply. I wouldn’t like to presume you weren’t a native speaker, even though your name doesn’t ‘sound’ American/British/Canadian, etc, without having it confirmed by you first. I’d guess that you’re Scandinavian of origin, perhaps Norwegian? Not sure, though.

            I’m an English teacher – and, yes, I am from the U.K. I think that the ‘would have told (or other verb)’ may be deemed ‘acceptable’, as you state – perhaps by North Americans, perhaps by others, too -, but I’m pretty sure that, in a strictly grammatical sense, it is incorrect. The meaning is clear, through context, but it is not correct.

            I’m not sure whether you watch football (‘soccer’ – eeekkk!), but many English footballers will say such things as, “He’s went in on goal” (He approached….), or “We was having a bad run recently” (‘were’), or, from my own region, near Liverpool, “Youse lot are a stronger team….” (‘You are a….’). These are acceptable as dialectal variations, perhaps, but are grammatically incorrect in terms of ‘standard’ English.

            Thanks again, and congratulations on the Web-site. Most informative!

            • Danny says:

              English is spoken correctly in many different countries. As such there are different dictionaries that apply to the US dialect, British dialect, ect.

              Most languages actually have multiple different dialects and one might say it is a little over-reaching to say that there is only one correct version of a sentence.

              • Trent says:

                I must agree with Danny. More so, because we’re on a website that’s purpose is to facilitate the teaching of a foreign language. Those studying other languages very often hear the term dialect.

                Dialects may be easy to disregard if you’re just an English teacher, but while learning another language one cannot forget dialects and the fact that even popular mistakes can be given credit if they’re supported by a dialect.

                After all, languages are a living thing, changing constantly and growing with each generation.

                I don’t mean to say that proper English has no place, I just mean to say that both have a place.

            • Edward says:

              God, what a frightful pedant you are.

  2. Thanking for making the effort and and giving this radicals list to us. I think it’s very useful for beginners to learn the radicals, something my first Chinese teacher (in Finland) never made us to do.

    When learning characters, especially in the beginning, I also found MDBG dictionarys Character decomposition tool very helpful. (It’s inside the dictionary and doesn’t include all the characters, but many.)

    Also thank you for adding the colloquial names of the radicals, that’s very helpful for me because I only know a few of the names.

  3. Denise Heikinen says:

    I tried to download both links but I don’t have the program to read the first link and the font in the text link is partly corrupted or somehow partly unreadable: e.g. Âãπ Âãπ embrace, wrap (bao1) ÂåÖÂãøÂãæÂã∫Â㪠ÂåÖÂ≠ó§¥
    Is there another way to download this list? Thanks.

    • Olle Linge says:

      I have added instructions for how to get the list to display properly. Your browser is probably trying to view this in a character set other than Unicode. If you use IE, right click and change encoding to unicode. In FF, go to view and then character encoding and change to Unicode. Other browsers should work the same way. If this doesn’t help, let me know! It really should work, though (it does for me on other computers).

  4. Denise Heikinen says:

    OK I now have a folder of sever files on my desktop. And I just downloaded Anki. I am trying to figure out the correct file to Anki.

  5. Great informative content as usual. I have some content / tools (e.g. frequency search) that might help you with this lists’s future plans. Send me a note.

  6. gavin says:

    Great website! Super inspiring, I absolutely love it! About the files, the anti file above downloads ok to my Android phone, but it seems to be a text file, not an anki file, and will not open with anki on my phone. Any idea why?

    • Olle Linge says:

      The easiest thing to do is download the deck from within Anki. It’s called “The 100 most common Chinese radicals”, you should be able to find and download it without problems. Let me know if this works, I just uploaded it.

  7. Well said Olle. My college in the US forced intro level students to learn roughly sixty radicals during the first week. I hated it at the time since I thought they were essentially characters that I would never write, but it has improved my written Chinese immensely since. Unfortunately not all programs are like this, especially here in Taiwan.

  8. Sue says:

    Awesome Ollie! Thanks! I went the Shida route for six months a few years ago and realised there was a huge hole in the way that they taught characters to beginners. Decided recently to begin serious study again. Thought about the way that my kids talk about characters when they’re asking how to write something, and came to the conclusion myself that I need to learn radicals. Also came to realization by myself that all the radical lists I could find were radically flawed in some way or other. Have been learning the 214 from Wiki, but know that many of them are unnecessary to me, and many of the meanings given don’t match modern usage. So good to read this and find your list! THANKS!

  9. John says:

    Thank you very much for making a list of the most common radicals. I have downloaded the Anki format file from the link you provided, but for some reason I can’t see the whole radical. The right part of the radical is being cut off for some reason, so I can only see about 70% of it. Any idea what could be wrong?

  10. CJ says:

    Hi Olle, first off thanks you SO much for all the help your site provides!

    I have been going over the 100 most common radicals list you generously provided in Anki, and I have a quick question:

    On some of the radicals, the tone, meaning, or even pronunciation that I have learned is not listed. For example on 厂, my tutor taught me chang3 – factory, but in the 100 most common radicals list it is han4 – cliff. On archchinese there is also no mention of han4, just chang3.

    I was just wondering what the difference is and why you chose han4 (I am a beginner, this is a genuine question, not a “you are wrong” type of statement).

    Thanks again for everything you’re doing for the community!

    • Olle Linge says:

      This is slightly complicated, but in essence, there are two 厂. One is the original radical, which is indeed pronounced han4, although my guess is that almost no-one uses that reading (that’s why it’s written within brackets). The radical is the original semantic part of the character. Then there is the simplified character 厂 (traditional: 廠), which is a character pronounced chang3 as you suggest. Your teacher taught you the character, not the original radical. They happen to look the same in simplified Chinese. However, you don’t need to know this. You don’t need to learn the pronunciation of any radicals unless they are also common characters, in which case you will encounter them in texts you read or language you hear.

      References:

      http://www.zdic.net/zd/zi/ZdicE5Zdic8EZdic82.htm
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kangxi_radicals
      http://zhongwen.com/d/201/x68.htm

  11. Daniel says:

    Thanks for that nice article! I stumbled upon it by googling for a way to find out, what radicals are used in a piece of vocabulary. I will go and try learning those radicals; my teacher already encouraged me to do that to improve my writing skills but by now I just couldnt overcome my laziness. It is so hard to invest into future learning and not just learn vocabulary right away. But I will definitely try now.

    However I was not successful googling, so here is my question: How can I find out, what radicals are used in a character?

    E.g. 空 has the radicals “mian” and “gong” in it. How can I be sure that the rest of the character is not a radical but just ornament? What I am looking for is a dictionary that shows me not only the translation for a character but also classifiers+radicals. Do you know of such a thing?

    Ofcourse this is no important point – I can go on and learn radicals and after a while will recognize them in characters. That would just be a fun way for me to make things easier…

  12. [...] ‘meaning’ parts are known as ‘radicals’. It’s worth learning them (see this page) as they will help you figure out the meaning of unknown characters. Read about [...]

  13. Bill says:

    I’ve found something new that tries to order with respect to frequency as components in common characters. I can’t yet comment on how well it does it, but I’m using the ordered characters fruitfully…

    http://www.learnm.org/decompE.php

  14. As part of a new project I’m working on I took this list and put it on a web page here. Each radical links to its Wikipedia page as well.

  15. Andrew says:

    Great article. I can see the importance of learning radicals. Any chance that someone has this in Pleco format?

  16. […] but two were quite helpful. I consulted nciku a lot to gather and check information. But it was Hacking Chinese that helped the most, both in identifying the 100 most common radicals and in providing a very good […]

  17. B says:

    Hi!
    At first – thank You so much for giving me hope for learning chinese characters and actually REMEMBER them.
    I used to wirte every single character like many times until lerning it by heart. I was all happy but then, after writing 50 more characters I realised I already forgot the first one. Then learning it again, then forgot. Vicious cycle.
    I started using mnemonics techniques I found on Your site and it’s like I won the lottery:)
    But for now – as a fresh Sinology student – I have to memorize ALL kangxi radicals(radical, meaning, number and pronunciation) and have no idea how to memorize them! Especially those which are not really useful and it’s hard to make up connotation between the character and it’s number(and pinyin).
    Do You have any ideas?
    And once again – thank You so much!

    • Olle Linge says:

      When it comes to the very basics, sometimes you just have to spend some time and write the radicals enough to commit them to memory. For instance, you might remember 火 because it actually looks a little bit like a flame, but it’s not a good idea to try to use mnemonics to learn how to write this. I generally don’t use mnemonics for very elementary parts, but use lots of mnemonics for combining these parts.

      • B says:

        Well, I already know roughly 500 characters( traditional and their simplified version if they have one) so it’s not like 火 is not my close friend;) I was talking about not-so-popular ones like 掛號 for instance. I know the components but not all actual radicals in order… I need to remeber the exact list for my “chinese dictionaries” classes and i wanned advice on that;)

        • Olle Linge says:

          I think there must be some terminology confusion going on. A single character only ever has one radical and that’s the semantic part that is used to sort the character in dictionaries. It’s usually related to the meaning of the character (rather than the sound). So, if you take a word like 掛號, there are only two radicals and I don’t really understand what you mean by “radicals in order” and “the exact list”?

  18. […] the meaning of lots of characters can be very useful at a certain stage when learning Chinese, just as learning radicals can, but at some point, this stops being meaningful. Don’t hesitate to delete, change or add […]

  19. chiara says:

    HI! the link to nciku doesn’t seem to be working… or is it just my computer?

  20. Lili says:

    So grateful to have this list for our 101 days challenge! It’s so useful to systematically learn. Thank you!

  21. Gregory says:

    Olle, thank you for sharing this list. It saves me so much time. Two things that can improve this deck even more is to :

    1. Add another field that shares your tips on how to remember or associate that radical with the meaning in English. Many of the radicals look nothing like its meaning. (Hope I’m not asking for too much)

    2. Improve the styling on the card. Espiecialy the font and font size used for the Chinese is not the best. I have attached my own styling that works well form me. It also makes it more customizable. Some users at Anki have complained about the Chinese font size without realizing that they can customize it themselves.

    To use this styling at the Deck, click on [Browse], then click on [Cards ...]

    Editor’s note: Because of display problems, the code provided here has been moved to a separate text file.

    • Olle Linge says:

      Hi Gregory,

      I definitely agree that the list could be improved. In fact, I have been thinking about doing something much more in-depth about character components which would actually be more aimed at learning characters rather than just listing the radicals. I don’t use Anki much at the moment and updating lists is a bit of a hassle in Anki (or it was last time I checked anyway), but I will update it next time I check through decks I share. In the meantime, I’ll include your instructions in the article so at least people who don’t know how to achieve that on their own can still get it to work. Thanks!

  22. Hi Olle,

    Just wanted to let you know that I had some fun with perl, awk and LaTeX, and created a nicely typeset PDF from your table of the most common radicals. All radicals and example characters are hyperlinked into http://www.archchinese.com.

    The PDF and everything to recreate it is up on . I wasn’t sure about the license terms for your data. Would you be ok with CC-BY-SA (creative commons-attribution-share alike)?

  23. Otakumike says:

    For those who use Skritter, I published these 100 radicals as a new word list:
    Simplified
    Traditional

    • Olle Linge says:

      Thanks! I had that on my to-do list, but it risked remaining there forever, so I’m really grateful you took the time to convert this to Skritter, I will definitely share!

  24. […] the radicals and the potential meaning they carry can be really useful in the beginning. Check out here for the 100 most common […]

  25. Andrew says:

    Hey, this looks wonderful. I was wondering if there were anyway to get this as a file which is compatible with Pleco?

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