I’ve taught many introduction courses in Chinese. Each time, 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 components are common and which aren’t. Sure, you can use the “if you see it more than twice, learn it” rule, but I think we can do better!
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 my list, click here to scroll down.
The most important difference between my list and the others is that all lists sorted by 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 bird 鸟/鳥 (the first character is simplified Chinese, the second is traditional Chinese; learn more here) is one of the most common radicals.
If you only take the most commonly used 2000 characters into account, 鸟/鳥 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 in characters you need to learn as a beginner.
The most common radicals among the most common characters
The list I have compiled here 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 more than that.
This means that as a beginner, you can learn all the radicals on this list without fearing that you’re learning things you don’t actually need. It’s meant to be a solid foundation on which to build.
The list I have compiled is presented at the very end of this article (click here to skip to it). However, it’s probably more useful in a downloadable format, so I have also provided the following:
- The 100 most common radicals as a PDF (suitable for printing). There are two PDF versions available, so if you don’t like that one (created by Markus Ackermann), you can try this version, made by Peter Lee. Thanks for creating the PDFs for me, guys!
- The 100 most common radicals in .txt format (for importing to other programs or for easy editing or viewing). If the Chinese characters are not displayed properly, try this file instead (the first is UTF-16, the other UTF-8).
- 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).
These are the columns used in the list:
- Simplified – This shows the simplified version of the radical as it appears in most characters.
- Traditional – This shows the traditional character as it appears in most characters.
- Variants – This shows other common variants of the same radical or the original character.
- Meaning – This is the basic meaning(s) of the radical in English.
- Pronunciation – Pinyin. If written in brackets, the character when used on its own is not part of the 2000 most common, which means you don’t need to learn the pronunciation! Even native speakers don’t know some of these pronunciations.
- Examples – Five examples chosen from the 2000 most common (simplified) characters to show you the radical in context.
- Comment – My notes for the radical with extra clarification and warnings about similar radicals.
- Colloquial name – The name Chinese people use to refer to the radical. Beginners can ignore this, but being able to talk about Chinese characters in Chinese can be very helpful!
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!
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 this radical list on Skritter, you can find it by clicking here.
As a teacher, you can use this list (or a section of it) to introduce characters and radicals. You can also provide it as extra material for students who want to learn more than what is required by the curriculum. Even if you don’t teach all the radicals yourself, you should at least make it easy for students who wish to do so.
Kickstart your understanding of Chinese characters
Chinese is a wonderful language to learn, partly because it can be hacked so efficiently. Learning Chinese characters by pure rote takes huge amounts of time, but by 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 learn Chinese characters:
- How to learn Chinese characters as a beginner
- My best advice on how to learn Chinese characters
- Is it necessary to learn to write Chinese characters by hand?
- Is it necessary to learn the stroke order of Chinese characters?
- A minimum-effort approach to writing Chinese characters by hand
This list isn’t perfect. In essence, there are two things I would like to do. 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 solution 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.
I hope you will find this list useful, and that with it, learning Chinese characters will be meaningful and interesting rather than confusing and frustrating
Kickstart your character learning with the 100 most common radicals
Below, I have tried to squeeze the list into the format of this article. It’s not likely to look good on a small screen, so if you’re on your phone, either use one of the files/links provided above or switch to a computer.
|人||人||亻||person||ren2||今仁休位他||Note similarity with 八, which means eight.||单人旁（亻），人字头（人）|
|口||口||mouth, opening||kou3||古可名告知||Note similarity with 囗, which always encloses characters, and means enclosure.||口字旁|
|土||土||earth||tu3||在地型城地||Note similarity with 士, which has a longer upper stroke and shorter bottom one, and means scholar.||提土旁|
|日||日||sun, day||ri4||白百明时晩||Note similarity with 曰, which is broader and lower, and means to say. Also note 白 which means white.||日字旁|
|月||月||moon, month||yue4||有服青朝明||This radical is actually two: moon 月 and meat 肉, but in modern Chinese, they look the same in most cases。||月字旁|
|木||木||tree||mu4||板相根本林||Note similarity with 禾, which means grain.||木字旁|
|氵||氵||水，氺||water||shui3||永泳海洋沙||Note similarity with 冫, which means ice.||水字旁（水），三点水（氵），泰字底水（氺）|
|艹||艹||艸||grass||cao3||花英苦草茶||Note that when the radical is on top, the traditional variant has four strokes.||草字头（艹）|
|刂||刂||刀||knife, sword||dao1||分切初利刻||Note similarity with 力, which means force.||立刀旁（刂），刀字旁（刀）|
|宀||宀||roof||(mian2)||守家室字宅||Note similarity with 冖, which means cover, and with 亠, which means lid.||宝盖头|
|贝||貝||shell||bei4||财贪货贸员||Note similarity with 见, which means to see.||贝字旁|
|力||力||power, force||li4||力加助勉男||Note similarity with 刀, which means knife.||力字旁|
|犭||犭||犬||dog||(quan3)||犯狂狗献猪||Note similarity with 大, which means big.||反犬旁（犭），犬字旁（犬）|
|禾||禾||grain||(he)||利私季和香||Note similarity with 木, which means tree.||禾木旁|
|虫||虫||insect||chong2||強独蛇蛋蚊||Even though this radical means insect, it’s used for many organisms which aren’t insects according to our taxonomy.||虫字旁|
|阜||阝left||mound, dam||(fu4)||防阻陆院陈||Note that there are two radicals which look like this. On the left, it means mound, dam, and on the right, it means city.||双耳刀（左耳刀）|
|广||广||house on cliff||guang3||店府度座庭||Note similarity with 厂, which means cliff (i.e. without the house).||广字旁|
|目||目||罒||eye||mu4||眼睛看相省||Note that the horizontal version can also mean net.||目字旁（目），四字头（罒）|
|衤||衤||衣||clothes||yi1||初被裁裤袜||Note similarity with 礻, which means sign, show or spirit.||衣字旁（衤）|
|八||八||eight||ba1||公分趴兵共||Note similarity with 人, which means human, person.||八字旁（头）|
|尸||尸||corpse||shi1||尺局尾居展||Note similarity with 戶, which means door, family.||尸字头|
|攵||攵||攴||knock, tap||(pu1)||收改攻做政||Note similarity with 夊, which means to walk (slowly).||反文旁（攵），旧反文旁（攴）|
|彳||彳||(small) step||(chi2)||彼很律微德||Note similarity with 亻, which means human, person.||双人旁|
|儿||儿||human, legs||er2||元四光兄充||Note similarity with 人, which means human, person, and with 八 which means eight.||儿座底|
|亠||亠||lid||(tou2)||亡交京||Note similarity with 宀, which means roof, and 冖 which means cover.||点横头|
|王||王||玉||jade, king||yu4, wang2||主弄皇理现||This radical is 玉, but when in composition, it looks like 王, king, and is probably more easily remembered like that.||王字旁|
|白||白||white||bai2||的皆皇怕迫||Note similarity with 日, which means sun.||白字旁|
|厂||厂||cliff||(han4)||厚原厉厅厕||Note similarity with 广, which has ha house on top (the dot).||厂字旁|
|礻||礻||示||sign, spirit, show||shi4||社神视祝祥||Note similarity with 衤, which means clothes.||示字旁|
|囗||囗||enclosure||(wei2)||回国因图团||Note similarity with 口, which does not enclose other components and means mouth.||国字框|
|阝right||阝right||邑||city||(yi4)||那邦部都邮||Note that there are two radicals which look like this. On the left, it means mound, dam, and on the right, it means city.||双耳刀（右耳刀）|
|户||户||戶||door, house||hu4||所房炉护启||Note similarity with 尸, which means corpse.||户字旁|
|夂||夂||go (slowly)||(sui1)||各條复备夏||Note similarity with 攵, which means to knock, to rap.||折文旁|
|见||見||see||jian4||观规视现觉||Note similarity with 贝, which means shell.||见字旁|
|罒||罒||网||net||wang3||罗罚罢罪罩||Note that the horizontal version can also mean net.||四字头（罒）|
|士||士||scholar||shi4||吉壶志声壮||Note similarity with 土, which means earth.||士字旁|