Why you should think of characters in terms of functional components

da2This is a guest article written by John Renfroe over at Outlier Linguistics. They’re working on a dictionary meant to teach us about functional components of Chinese characters and in this article, John describes why we should think about functional components instead of obsessing over radicals.

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 and NOT a 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 it is not the case that 大 always plays the role of radical when it appears in a character. A single character only has a single radical, no matter how many character components it has. And which of its components plays the role of radical 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 being part of a system of functional components – components which express sound and meaning.

The concept of radical, or 部首 bùshǒu, didn’t even exist until after the publication of the Shuōwén Jiězì [說文解字], at which point the writing system had already been around for well over 1500 years, and 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 be 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. 部首 literally means section head. Following the model of the 說文, character dictionaries are traditionally arranged into sections containing similar graphic components.

These sections are called 部 bù in Chinese. The first character in that section is the 部首, the section head, or the first of the section. Each character in that section belongs to one 部首. 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 部首 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 部首 is the sound component. For example 刀 (刂 dāo, knife) is both the phonetic and the radical in 到, but it is not the meaning component – 至 zhì is (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 snake; 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 luán, the sound component which the other characters all share #1).

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, not necessarily meaning components!) 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.

da1There 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 (which is not a big 大 sheep 羊, but a person wearing a headdress). This is by far the most common way of expressing meaning.mei1
    Other examples of 大 functioning in this way include:
  • 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!sharp
  • 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) dá “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 our dictionary will explain 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 da3 (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 (#3).da2
    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:tu1
  2. In the character 莫 mò (do not, but 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.

mo1

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.

Thanks to John for sharing his insights in this article! I would like to point out that this is close to what I advocate myself, I avoid using the word radical and say character component instead. I have also written two articles about phonetic components (part 1, part 2). I like this article by John because it explains why we shouldn’t obsess about radicals. Naturally, some of the most commonly used character components will also be found in a radical list, but confusing radicals with functional components will lead to confusion.

Footnotes

1 – How can 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 paleography, 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 “mron” or “mrawn”)
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: *məә, *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 – da3 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.

Focusing on radicals, character components and building blocks

Image credit:  christian-ferrari.blogspot.com/
Image credit:
christian-ferrari.blogspot.com/

Language learning can be divided into two major “directions”: bottom-up and top-down. Bottom-up learning means that you focus on the parts, then learn to combine these parts to access larger units. Top-down is the opposite, where you look at the whole first and then break it down into smaller pieces in order to understand it.

Bottom-up vs. top-down learning

If we adopt the first approach, we learn each component of a character or each part of a sentence before we combine these into larger, meaningful wholes. If we adopt the second approach, we go for the meaning of the sentence or the character first and only try to see how the different parts contribute to this meaning later.

I’m a big fan of top-down learning because it’s very hard to learn things that have no context, so by focusing on the bigger picture first, we create a framework that we can then use to fix new information in our minds.

At some point, though, you need to understand the smaller units as well. You can just learn chunks when you’re a beginner, but in order to really understand grammar, tone changes and learn thousands of characters, you have to start looking at building blocks.

In other words, we need a mix of top-down and bottom-up learning. The question is how to mix the two.

Is it good to learn character components from a list?

What I said above might sound contradictory to what I have published here on Hacking Chinese before, such as a list with the 100 most common radicals, but I think there is no contradiction, it’s all a matter of proportion. Learning the 100 most common radicals is never a bad idea because they are so common that you will see them everywhere.

Also, the amount is limited, I’m not asking you to learn 1000 building blocks before you can do anything useful, I’m asking you to learn 100 simple characters that you have probably already seen numerous times if you’ve made it through a few chapters in a beginner textbook. However,  you should never feel that you have to learn more components to learn characters or more words to read or create sentences in Chinese.

Not seeing the building for all the building blocks

If you’re an ambitious student who want to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible, there is definitely a real risk of focusing too much on building blocks. The problem with this is that you risk losing site of the real goal: Learning Chinese.

Learning 3000 characters will not make you literate in Chinese. Knowing all character components won’t enable you to read 3000 characters either, for that matter. Sure, knowing that many characters will mean that it’s a lot easier to become literate and knowing components will make it smoother to learn characters, but making a process easier is not the same thing as completing it.

The most important carriers of information in Chinese are words and these typically contain two characters, combined in a way that is seldom obvious. If we return to the house metaphor again, you want to live in a house, not a brick yard. If you want to build a house, you need lots of bricks, but the bricks themselves aren’t the point, they only become useful when you incorporate them into a larger structure.

Advantages with focusing on building blocks

Image credit:  christian-ferrari.blogspot.com/
Image credit:
christian-ferrari.blogspot.com/

The most obvious advantage with focusing on building blocks is that it gives you access to meaning later. It means that with some important building blocks, you stand a better chance of being able to make sense of larger units of Chinese without being told what they mean by your textbook or teacher. Learning a bunch of random strokes is very hard, but once they acquire meaning in the shape of character components, it isn’t all that bad.

Furthermore, learning the building blocks helps you understand the way Chinese is structured. The most obvious example of this would be phonetic components. If you have no clue what the parts of a character mean and how they are pronounced, the hidden information about how the character is pronounced would be completely lost on you.

Which building blocks do you need?

It seems obvious from the above reasoning that you should avoid the extremes of either neglecting building blocks at all or breaking everything down to the smallest component. The first means that you’re just copying without understanding, the second means that you’re not really learning anything useful. Something in between works well.

This generates the next question: How do you know which building blocks you should focus on?

Here are two suggestions:

  • The rule of three: Whenever you see a building block you don’t know appear in three different situations (a character component in three different characters, a character in three different words), it’s high time to look it up and study that building block. It’s likely to be quite important and there will surely be many, many other cases where it will come in handy.

  • Trust your teacher: When you have reached an advanced level, you will have a good intuitive grasp of which building blocks are necessary to focus on and which can be safely ignored. The problem is that you don’t have that intuition as a beginner, so one reasonable way of doing it is simply to trust your teacher. In the case of the 100 common radicals list, you can trust me when I say that you need to learn those radicals. If your textbook highlight important components of some kind, you probably need to learn them.

Conclusion

In essence, my way of learning Chinese is mainly top-down, meaning that almost everything I learn is based on an attempt to understand something bigger. The words and characters I learn typically come from a specific context and I have added them because the seem to be important in that context.

Naturally, I also do bottom-up learning, such as focusing on learning individual characters because I think this helps me in the long run, making it easier to learn words or guess the meaning of words I have never seen. However, I’m fully aware that learning individual characters will do little to improve my Chinese in the short run.

Exactly where you choose to place yourself on the spectrum depends on how long-term your learning is. If you want to be able to use what you know quickly, focus less on building blocks and more on larger chunks. If you want to accelerate your learning in the long run, focus more on building blocks and make long-term investments that will pay off eventually.

Kickstart your character learning with the 100 most common radicals

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.

Learn to write characters online or on your mobile device.
Learn to write characters online or on your mobile device.

If you want a good tool to learn characters in general, I suggest using Skritter. It’s the only tool that gives you instructive feedback and requires you to write correct characters. It also uses spaced repetition, making learning characters much more efficient. If you want to study the list on Skritter, go to user-made lists, search for “Hackingchinese.com” and choose simplified or traditional characters.

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. A radical is really just the part of a character under which the character is sorted in dictionaries. This means that there are other character parts which are really common, but which aren’t radicals and that even if you learn a radical, it’s not necessarily the radical if it appears in another character. I used radicals for this list because it was easier to do and there is no commonly agreed on way of listing components in general.

There are many other components that normally carry information about how a character is pronounced. I have written about phonetic components already (Phonetic components, part 1: The key to 80% of all Chinese characters), but I haven’t been able to produce a list similar to this one for sound components. The ideal thing would be to have two lists, one for components that carry meaning and one for components that carry sound, but that’s a project still in progress.

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!

Creating a powerful toolkit: Individual characters

Learning to read and write Chinese is not like learning to read and write most other languages. Chinese doesn’t make use of a simple alphabet to represent all the sounds of the spoken language, but rather many thousands of characters to represent various concepts. Thus, if your goal is to learn Chinese properly, it’s likely that learning to read and write is what will take you the longest time to accomplish. Fortunately, this is also an area where there are lots of hacks that will make the process a lot easier.

Before reading this article, I assume that you have already started building the first part of your toolkit for learning Chinese, i.e. you have to know about radicals and character components. If you haven’t, read the first article here about the toolkit hereon Hacking Chinese.

Articles in this series

  1. Character components
  2. Individual characters (this article)
  3. Characters and words
  4. Learning words really fast

Learning characters with few strokes

Some characters, such as many radicals or some simplified characters, have very few strokes. Sometimes, they are pictures or represent logical concepts and these cases are easy to learn as long as you know what the character means. For instance, remembering that 一 means one and 人 means human is fairly obvious.

If you can’t figure it out just by looking at it (which you rarely can), head over to Zhongewen.com or Yellow Bridge and find the character you’re looking for. As soon as you’ve seen the logic behind the character, it becomes reasonably easy to remember that means under, means over and means big (click the characters to follow links that will explain them). Even non-obvious explanations might help, such as for the character (water). It’s probably impossible to guess the meaning of this character based only on what it looks like, but it’s not that hard to see it once you know the answer. Thus, knowing what a character represents is essential for remembering.

However, there are cases where the etymology is unhelpful, so you often have to come up with a mnemonic of your own to remember the character. This might also happen for some simplified characters which have simply lost their original moaning. It doesn’t matter what kind of trick you use to remember the character, anything goes as long as it help you remember it. It’s pointless to learn the real etymology of a character if it doesn’t help you remembering it!

Learning characters with many components

Most of the characters you will learn are fairly complex; they consist of many different parts that together make up a single character. This is even more true if you study traditional characters, but remember that most characters aren’t simplified at all and most of those that are still might be fairly complex (see this article for more about simplified and traditional Chinese). To learn these, you need to know what the component parts mean and then link them together using memory techniques. Again, you don’t need to care too much about the real origin of the word, as long as you use the real meaning of the component parts, you’re on the right track.

Here are three examples to show you how powerful this method can be:

(chóu) – sorrow, worry

This character consists of three parts: 禾 (grain), 火 (fire) and 心 (heart). The two first are combined into 秋 (autumn). This is in reality a phonetic combination, but it’s easy (at least for me as a Swede) to see how plants in nature turn into fire as autumn approaches. According to the dictionary, the combination “autumn” added to “heart” is also phonetic (秋 and 愁 are pronounced similarly), but again, we don’t really care about that now. Doesn’t feeling like there’s autumn in your heart mean that you’re sorrowful? Approaching winter is also a reason to worry, especially if your harvest has burnt down.

(zhèng) – politics, government

This is a character that has a useful mnemonic in it already, you don’t need to come up with something on your own. The character is constituted by two component parts 正 (correct) and 攵 (strike), so who, if not the government, corrects bad behaviour by hitting people? It might be a cynical view of the state, but the image is easy to understand and remember. Since this is what we’re after, this is a good association.

(jì) – covet, desire

The component parts are 山 (mountain), 豆 (bean) and 見 (see). The real origin of the word involves combining “see” with another character that has a similar sound, but which meaning is completely unrelated. However, adding some humour to learning Chinese, it’s easy to create a new idiom: “the other man’s bean mountain is always taller”. Having come up with this mnemonic, I will never ever forget this character.

How to avoid the “it looks like a man with a hat” trap

For the simple characters I’ve said that anything that helps you remember works. This is not true for complex characters with many parts. If you’ve just started studying Chinese and encounter a character which looks like a man wearing a hat, don’t create a mnemonic based on that. It will work for a while, but what you have to realise is that soon you will have fifty characters which all look like different people in various kinds of hats and the system breaks down completely. Also, you can’t create thousands of these pictures without going insane. The solution is to use the real meaning of the component parts and then make mnemonics based on those! Feel free to go crazy, but do it using a solid foundation.

Be creative, have fun!

When you’ve been creating these kinds of memory aids for yourself for a while, you will get very good at it. Take it easy in the beginning and have fun, try to find as cool mnemonics as you can and share them here! I think that my “the other man’s bean mountain is always taller” is almost unbeatable, but perhaps you’ve found something better for another character?

Knowing how to learn individual characters, you are close to discovering how to learn words really fast, but first we need to look a little bit closer into characters and words.

Creating a powerful toolkit: Character components

If you plan to learn to read or write Chinese on any kind of decent level, you will need to learn parts of characters (components) and parts of words (characters). There are an untold number of combinations of character components, and studying only the multitude of end-results is horrendously inefficient. This would be a little bit like learning maths by studying thousands of examples, but never actually looking at the underlying equations.

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/thiagofest

Thus, you need to start assembling a toolkit for learning Chinese. The tools might not be useful in themselves (though some are), but they will enable you to learn Chinese much faster. This is a long-term investment that will continue to pay off for as long as you study Chinese.

Your toolkit consists of many different levels, from the detailed to the more general. In this article, we’re going to look at the most basic level, the character components.

Articles in this series

  1. Character components (this article)
  2. Individual characters
  3. Characters and words
  4. Learning words really fast

Character components and radicals

All Chinese characters can be broken down into components, or are so basic that they themselves are already in the simplest form. The important thing to realise is that even if you want to learn thousands of characters, the commonly used components are much fewer than that, so what you should do is learn components, then learn how to combine these into all the other characters.

I can hear some people mouthing the word “radical” now, so it’s time to explain what’s what. A character component is simply just that, a part of a character. There is no complete list of these and it’s a  vague term. A radical on the other hand, is also a part of a character that is also part of predefined list that is used to index Chinese characters (in dictionaries, for example).

These days, you never have to use a printed dictionary if you don’t want to, so the distinction between character components and radicals is not very important when we’re building our toolkit. However, as we shall see, radicals are useful because some of them are very common parts of characters. In other words, a character component can have several different function in a character.

Different character components

Character component typically have one of two functions:

  1. They indicate the meaning of the whole character (called semantic components)
  2. They indicate the sound of the whole character (called phonetic components)

This article is about the first kind, but the other is perhaps even more important! I have written two separate articles about those components:

Getting started with semantic components

If you just started learning Chinese, I suggest that you look at a list of common radicals and their meaning. Don’t learn how they are pronounced, focus on what they look like, how they are written and what they mean. There are only 214 radicals in all, but of these, the latter half is more rarely used, so learning 100 or so would take you very far.

Learning these shouldn’t be too hard. Many of them are pictographic, meaning that they are actual drawings of objects in the world. You will also see and use these characters so often that you will learn them sooner or later. If you want to practise handwriting characters with feedback, I suggest using Skritter, which combines responsive feedback and spaced repetition, making learning characters a more convenient.

After having learnt the most commonly used radicals, things become fairly straightforward. If you see something weird once or twice, you can safely ignore it because it probably isn’t important, but if you see it more than that, you should look it up. Slowly, you will build up a register of character components you are comfortable with. This is the key to learning new characters with ease.

You don’t need to catch ’em all

As I’ve said earlier, not all character components are radicals, so don’t be too loyal to your list of radicals. The easiest way to break characters down is using one of various websites or computer programs made for this purpose (there are also books, especially for beginners). These are usually interactive, so you can just click on a specific part of a character to see what it means. I’ve used such tools a lot and it saves more and more time the more characters I learn.

  • HanziCraft I used to recommend a lot of other resources, but nowadays I almost only use HanziCraft. If I want more information, I sometimes use Zhongwen.com, but I seldom use other tools to look up character components.

After you have understood the basics of Chinese characters, the matter of learning the most commonly used components is not something you need to study separately, you simply do it when you encounter something you need but can’t find in your toolkit. This ensures that you don’t waste time learning components that only appear in a few characters, perhaps characters that aren’t very useful anyway!

What the tools are for

As I said in the beginning, few of the character components will be useful in themselves, even though some of them are characters on their own. The point is that knowing a lot of components will enable you to learn characters easily. It also enables you to learn to write properly. These benefits, however, aren’t within the scope of this article, so please keep on reading about how to learn characters!