When speaking about the Chinese language, one of the most disturbing “facts” is that there is no alphabet. “So how do they do it? Is every word different? And how do they remember how it is written?”
It’s not easy to respond to these and other similar questions without understanding a little bit more about Chinese writing. In this article I will try to speak about the “alternative” system to the alphabet, that of radicals: perhaps, after having read it, you too will better understand the logic behind the Chinese language!
The radicals – Index
The smallest unit
What is the smallest unit of the Chinese language? For us it is the letter: a graphic symbol that indicates a sound (technically called a phenome). This makes English (along with Italian, Spanish, and German) an alphabetical language.
The smallest unit of the Chinese language is the syllable: this means that the characters (the units of writing that have the same function of our letters), in Chinese 汉字 (Hànzì, “Han characters”), correspond not to a single sound but to a syllable – making Chinese a syllabic language.
There are very few exceptions, such as for example 儿 (r), used to indicate the retroactive “r” of the Beijing dialect and 嗯 (ń), that indicates a non verbal expression, a type of mumble (like our mmh of affirmation or doubt).
This makes it difficult, for example, to transcribe words and names in foreign languages using Chinese characters, because there’s only a limited number of syllables that exist in Chinese.
Therefore, the smallest graphic unit of the Chinese language, which corresponds to the syllable, is the character, which at times is also called a sinogram. Each character then corresponds not only to a syllabic sound but also to a meaning. This is a “three-faced” unit: sound, graphic sign and meaning (this is why they often speak of a sememes, as opposed to phonemes or graphemes).
As a comparison, our letters only have two “faces”, the graphic sign and the sound. For a meaning you usually need to put several letters together.
The characters, though, can be broken down into smaller units which are simply the strokes of a pen (or a brush) needed to write them.
The strokes (笔画 bǐhuà, also written as 笔划 with the same pronunciation) are the single lines of which a character is formed. The eight basic strokes, taught in any Chinese language or calligraphy course are:
1. the dot 点 (diǎn)
2. the horizontal stroke 横 (héng)
3. the vertical stroke 竖 (shù)
4. the hook 钩 (gōu), which could be added to other strokes
5. the left or right rising stroke that ends in a point 提 (tí)
6. the curve 弯 (wān), which can also be combined with other strokes
7. the left or right descending stroke that ends in a point 撇 (piě)
8. the left or right descending stroke that ends “flat” 捺 (nà)
These are the basic strokes of Chinese characters, which are all contained in the character 永 (yǒng). If you’ve taken a Chinese calligraphy course (or even a single lesson) you’ll most certainly have come across it!
The other strokes are the result of a combination of these eight basic lines. It is also important to note that the strokes, like our letters, almost always have no meaning of their own (the only exception I managed to find is 一 yī, “one”, which corresponds to the horizontal stroke 横 héng).
Nevertheless, even though they have a name (which is useful for identifying them when asked to write a specific stroke or describe the process of writing a character), the strokes don’t have a sound: they are just a series of graphic symbols to put together in order to form characters.
You’ll note though, that the characters can, quite often be broken up into two distinct parts, and these parts are repeated within other characters.
Staying on the first words one learns when starting to learn Chinese, you’ll certainly have noticed that the left part of 你 (nǐ, “you”) is identical to 他 (tā, him), or the left part of 好 (hǎo, “well”) is the same as 她 (tā, “her”). In addition, the right side of 他 is the same as 她: here, there are units, not the minimum as in strokes, where you can subdivide the characters.
The “components” (we’ll now call them that) here used are 亻, 尔, 也, 女, 子, and I’m sure that you can find lots of other characters that contain them; the last three, even by themselves, are very common characters (也 yě “even”, 女 nǚ “woman”, 子 zǐ “son”). But what functions do these components have? What are they called? Can they be compared to our letters?
Halfway between a stroke and character there’s another unit into which you can divide the sinograms. There are various terms to designate this unit depending on the part being brought out.
The term 部件 (bùjiàn) can be used to indicate a “part”, without specifying its function; similarly, as we’ll see later on, you can use the word 偏旁 (piānpáng). Essentially these are the recognizable and separable parts as those seen above.
They are divided into 成字的部件 (chéng zì de bùjiàn), or parts that can also be characters, and 非成字的部件 (fēi chéng zì de bùjiàn), which can’t be their own characters. To give a simple example 女 (nǚ) and 子 (zǐ) are two autonomous characters which respectively mean “woman” and “child”, but become components within the character 好 (hǎo).
Other components, such as the vertical stroke丨 (gùn), the dot 丶 (diǎn or zhǔ) or the left curving stroke 丿 (piě), exclusively appear in combination and don’t exist as single characters represented by a single stroke as in 宀 (mián) roof, 彡 (shān) root for lines, hair etc., and 阝(fù) city, which don’t exist as single characters (or at least not in modern Chinese).
Some characters have different shapes when they appear as components, which are essentially adaptations or graphic compressions: 亻 = 人 (rén), person; 灬 = 火 (huǒ), fire; 刂 = 刀 (dāo), knife.
Lastly, some radicals can in turn be broken down into other components like 音 (yīn), “sound”, formed by 日 (rì) “day/sun” and 立 (lì) “to stand”. Non-simple characters can be made up not only of a collection of radicals but also previously existing characters, which in turn can be broken down into smaller parts.
You also need to keep in mind the simplification of characters that took place in Mainland China starting in the Sixties, which also intervened on the components and changed their appearance in all characters that contain them. Some examples are 門 → 门 (mén, door), 見 → 见 (jiàn, to see) and 馬 → 马 (mǎ, horse): if you’re interested in the subject you can find all the details on simplification in this article.
If with 部件 (bùjiàn) we refer to “parts” in a very general way, the subject changes when talking about 部首 (bùshǒu), that is the radicals. This term comes from the first Chinese dictionary, the 说文解字 (Shuōwén Jiězì), compiled by Xu Shen 许慎 (Xǔ Shèn) in 121 A.D., where the characters were grouped together by common “parts”: the 9353 characters of the dictionary were classified under 540 radicals.
To give an example, the characters 妈 (mā), 妹 (mèi), 妙 (miào), 姑 (gū) and many others were grouped in one part (部分 bùfen) of the dictionary under the character 女 (nǚ), which served as the “first” (首 shǒu) of the section (部 bù), and from here comes the term 部首 (bùshǒu, the “first of the section”).
The radicals hide the function of ordering the characters, since they’re impossible to put into alphabetical order (to learn more about how Chinese dictionaries work you can read this article).
Presently the standard is made up of 214 radicals. They were made official in the Kāngxī Dictionary (康熙字典 Kāngxī Zìdiǎn), compiled during the Qing Era (清朝 Qīngcháo, 1644-1911 A.D.), and for this reason they’re also called Kangxi radicals (康熙部首, Kāngxī bùshǒu). They can be formed by a number of strokes from one to 17; some, especially among those with a higher number of strokes, are very rare. You can find a table of the 214 Kangxi radicals here.
In reality, even for the Chinese, when talking about “radicals” there’s a certain ambiguity, because today this word is used indifferently to indicate two different concepts: let’s see which.
“radicals for consulting a dictionary”
The basic function of the radicals, the ones for which the system itself was created, is for consulting a dictionary. In this case we’re speaking about “radicals for consulting the dictionary” 检字部首 (jiǎnzì bùshǒu).
The majority of Chinese dictionaries start with an index of radicals (部首检字表, bùshǒu jiǎnzìbiǎo), where characters are grouped under the reference root as in the first dictionaries.
In a dictionary the section of all characters contained within a specific root is called by the name of the root followed by 部 (bù). In the section “言部” (yán bù), for example, all the characters containing the root of the word are gathered, under “雨部” (yǔ bù) all those with the root of rain and so on. Usually the root under which the character is found is on the left or above (but not necessarily).
Combined characters at times appear in both sections of components. For example, with a simple search in a pocket dictionary I was able to verify that 和 (hé, “and”) appears in both the section 口 (kǒu) and under the root 禾 (hé).
All Chinese characters have a root “from the dictionary”, even if its a purely graphic criteria. Strokes from simple characters (those that don’t break down into other parts), the composite character’s strokes can all be represented by the indexing of a character, which could be both a single stroke or a complex part.
Indexing is the only function of this type of radical. For example, knowing that the character 恭 (gōng) belongs to the section “—部” doesn’t give us any information about its meaning, appearance or pronunciation, something that the second type of radicals offer.
“radicals for learning characters”
In China, when elementary school students learn characters, they start with terms like 三点水 (sāndiǎn shuǐ) “the three dots of water”, that is the root 氵, or the “root of hand” 提手旁 (tíshǒu páng) (扌), the “four points below” 四点底 (sì diǎn dǐ) (灬) or the “root of the vertical heart” 竖心旁 (shùxīnpáng) (忄). These radicals are called “radicals for learning characters” 识字部首 (shízì bùshǒu).
The two types of radicals in the majority of cases coincide in the sense that they indicate almost the same components. The radicals for the dictionary however have a single function, namely to index the search method for dictionary radicals (部首查字法 bùshǒu cházìfǎ), and are based on the graphic element.
“Student” radicals instead have many functions, which we’ll see afterwards and can be extremely useful for you in learning Chinese.
Function 1: indicating the shape of a character
You’ll surely have noticed that radicals are not arranged in a linear way, like our letters, but can be distributed in various ways in a “squared space” occupied by the character.
There are Chinese terms to indicate the position (部位 bùwèi) of a root within a character that can be used to describe its appearance, which parts it is made of and how they are arranged. They are grouped in pairs:
- “旁” (páng) to the left, like the vertical heart root 竖心旁 (shùxīnpáng) in the character 性 (xìng)
“边” (biān) to the right, like the root of wood 木字边 (mù zì biān) in the character 体 (tǐ)
- “头” (tóu) above, like the root eight 八字头 (bāzì tóu) in the character 分 (fēn)
“底” (dǐ) below, as in the root heart 心字底 (xīn zì dǐ) in the character 想 (xiǎng)
- “框” (kuàng) outside, such as the root for door 门字框 (mén zì kuàng) in the character 闷 (mēn)
“心” (xīn) inside, as in the root for jade 玉字心 (yù zì xīn) in the character 国 (guó)
- “腰” (yāo) in the middle, which can be used horizontally like the root of “old” 古字腰 (gǔzì yāo) in the character 湖 (hú), or vertically, like the root of four 四字腰 (sì zìyāo) in the character 曼 (màn)
“角” (jiǎo) on the corners, like the radical of mouth 口字角 (kǒu zì jiǎo) in the character 器 (qì)
These expressions can be used to describe how a character is formed, even headings, and act as actual “names” for the radicals:
分 (fēn) 八字头，刀字底 (the upper part is 八 bā, the part below is 刀 dāo)
骂 (mà) 双口头，马字底 (the upper part has a double 口 kǒu, the part below is 马 mǎ)
晴 (qíng) 日字旁，青字边 (the part on the right is 日 rì, the left part is 青 qīng)
囚 (qiú) 人字心，大口框 (the center part is 人 rén, the outer part is a big 口 kǒu)*
湖 (hú) 米字旁，古字腰，月字边 (to the left there’s 米 mǐ, in the middle 古 gǔ, to the right 月 yuè)
曼 (màn) 曰字头，四字腰，又字底 (above there’s 曰 yuē, in the center 四 sì, below there’s 又 yòu)
器 (qì) 口字角，犬字腰 (on the corner there’s four 口 kǒu, in the middle 犬 quǎn)
*口 (kǒu), “mouth” and 囗 (wéi), “around”, differ only in size, and the second is quite often, as in this case, called 大口 (dà kǒu). 囗 (wéi) for example appears in 国 (guó) “country” and 园 (yuán) “garden”.
The same root can appear in different positions, as you can note above with 口 (kǒu), as a frame and on the angles but also appearing in the middle (for example in 问 wèn) or on the left (as in 吗 ma). Some radicals have a “preference” for a specific location where it most often appears.
For example, the radicals 邑/⻏ (fù), relative to a city or places in general, and 阜/阝(fù), which has to do with land and nature, are very similar and are only different in their position: whereas the first appears always on the right, as in 都 (dū, metropolises), the second is found on the left as in 院 (yuàn, courtyard).
Other radicals that are easy to confuse are 礻 (shì, altar) and 衤 (yī, suit), which are only differentiated by a single additional stroke (the last point on the right), and “moon” 月 (yuè) and “meat” 肉 (ròu), which are both commonly written as 月, even though the correct writing of the second would be ⺼ (for example it appears in 脸 liaň, face and 脚 jiǎo, foot).
Knowing these components is fundamental for those learning Chinese writing. From a graphic point of view, these are “fixed” elements: knowing how a root is written, you already know the order and number of strokes of that part in all characters that contain it; breaking a character into parts then helps you better understand the structure and ease of clear and legible writing.
Lastly, radicals also help with memorization, since you don’t learn “casual” lines but a series of graphic symbols to combine to create characters: just think that the characters contained in the “three dots of water” 三点水 (sāndiǎn shuǐ) are more than 500!
Function 2: suggest the meaning of a character
Another function of radicals is to suggest the meaning and pronunciation of a character. I purposely used the word “suggest”, because this is not an absolute rule, as we will see.
radicals and characters inserted as components in other characters obviously have a meaning and pronunciation all their own, which often are somehow tied to the characters in which they appear.
When it comes to meaning, for example, in many words connected with water there’s the root of the “three dots of water”, 三点水 (sāndiǎn shuǐ) (氵), as in 海 (hǎi, sea), 江 (jiāng, river), 洋 (yáng, ocean), 港 (gǎng, port).
But there are some exceptions that will make you smile: for example 沙漠 (shāmò), “desert”, a place notorious for its lack of water, which instead has the root for water in both characters that make up the word. Usually the root that indicates meaning is located on the left or above.
The “three dots” are the “stylized” version of the character 水 (shuǐ, water). Other very common radicals that suggest a meaning are 女 (nǚ, woman), which we saw a few examples of above, but is also contained for example in 妈妈 (māma, mama) 妹妹 (mèimei, little sister) 姐姐 (jiějie, big sister) 奶奶 (nǎinai, paternal grandmother). Do you see the “graphical” similarity?
Thanks to the radicals, you can “see” these words “have to do” with something feminine, even if you don’t know the precise meaning.
Often there are pictographic elements that are directly derived from primordial “little designs” represented in nature. So many words with meanings tied to “light” or time will have the root 日 (rì, sun/day) or 月 (yuè, moon), for one 明 (míng), “luminous”; lots of particles of the spoken language (吗 ma, 呢 ne, 哪 nǎ) and words that have to do with the act of speaking (说shuō) or eating (吃 chī) contain the root of mouth 口 (kǒu).
木 (mù, tree) is in many words having to do with various species of trees (树 shù),目 (mù, eye) in words having to do with vision, such as the verbs to look (看kàn) and to see (见 jiàn, in its traditional form 見); 火 (huǒ, fire), even in its alternative form 灬 in words with meanings tied to heat (热 rè, hot), 山 (shān, mountain) in words that suggest height like 峰 (fēng), “summit”, 心 (xīn, heart, also written 忄or ⺗) found in words related to feelings.
I’m sure many other words that contain them have come to mind! Thanks to the radicals you can “guess” the meaning of a word you don’t know if it contains a part that you’ve already seen.
Function 3: suggest the sound of a character
The root 人 (rén, person, also written as 亻) appears on the right in 他 (tā, him) 们 (men, suffix of the plural) 你 (nǐ, you); however it also appears on the right, for example in the characters 认 (rèn) contained in the words 认为 (rènwéi, to think) and 认识 (rènshi, to know). Did you notice? The pronunciation is the same! Or better yet… not exactly.
Another term to indicate the character’s components, used in 现代汉语 (Xiàndài Hànyǔ, “Contemporary Chinese”), a Chinese authority on grammar, is 偏旁 (piānpáng), meaning “components”.
As you could see above, the left part of a character is called 偏 (piān) and the right part 旁 (páng), of which the word indicates both.
Today, lots of characters are formed by a semantic part 形旁 (xíngpáng), which suggests the meaning of the character, and a phonetic part 声旁 (shēngpáng), which instead indicates its sound; the term 偏旁 indicates the total of the two parts.
The semantic part corresponds to the radicals seen above, when they are understood as part of the character that suggests the meaning; so as not to get confused, just consider the radicals as components, but not all components are radicals.
The semantic part, as we’ve already seen, tends to show up above or on the left; the phonetic part instead often shows up on the right, below or inside the character.
Here’s a few examples:
- The character 语 (yǔ, language) is formed by the semantic part 言 (yán, word, simplified from its original form 語 has become 讠) and the phonetic part 吾 (wú, an old way of saying “I”). The semantic part tells us that the character has to do with the setting of the “words” while the phonetic part tells us that it has a sound “similar to wú”;
- the character 盆 (pén, pan) is formed from the semantic part 皿 (mǐn, tool) and the phonetic part 分 (fēn, fraction);
- the character 问 (wèn, to ask) is made up of the semantic part 口 (kǒu, mouth) and the phonetic part 门 (mén, door).
You surely noted something common about the pronunciation of one of the two parts of the word; it’s the only way to “guess” the reading of a Chinese character: unfortunately, there’s no clear correspondence between characters and pronunciation (as you will have noticed from the large number of homophonic words pronounced the same way), and then there’s the tones that complicate everything.
Like with the “suggestion” of the meaning, not even the sound can be accurate due to two important problems with this system that keep it from being completely trustworthy. The first is there’s no way to tell the tone of the character: it could be the same or less, without a precise criteria.
The second, is that we don’t know “how similar” the pronunciation might be: it could be equal as between 木 (mù) “wood” and 沐 (mù) “wash one’s hair” or, as in 人 (rén) and 认 (rèn) seen above, or in 们 (men) and 门 (mén, door), which are written the same but change the tone.
Lastly there’s the chance of a partial similarity between the two pronunciations, usually in the final part of the syllable, which often involves pairs of very similar sounds such as the pairs seen above 盆 (pén)/分 (fēn) and 问 (wèn)/门 (mén).
Obviously a last possibility is that in the natural evolution of the language, which in the case of the Chinese has brought about a pronunciation that is very different than the original, some similarities have been lost and therefore there’s no “phonetic index”.
There’s no more than a hundred commonly used radicals (the semantic parts); on the other hand, the phonetic components, also called keys to reading, are more than a thousand. Of these almost 90% are also autonomous characters (成字声旁 chéng zì shēngpáng).
Learning some of these can be very useful to you if you find yourself having to read out loud a text you’ve never seen before: you could “improvise” a possible pronunciation of the words you don’t know and eventually discover that it’s very similar to some words you’ve already learned (and sometimes even guess the right pronunciation!).
Here are some of the most recurring “keys to reading” with relative examples that are also common:
巴 (bā): 吧 (bā), 把 (bǎ), 爸 (bà), 爬 (pá)
包 (bāo): 炮 (bāo/pào), 饱 (bǎo), 抱 (bào), 泡 (pào), 跑 (pǎo)
方 (fāng): 芳 (fāng), 房 (fáng), 放 (fàng), 仿 (fàng)
马 (mǎ): 码 (mǎ), 玛 (mǎ), 蚂 (mǎ), 骂 (mà)
青 (qīng): 清 (qīng), 情 (qíng), 晴 (qíng), 请 (qǐng), 睛 (jīng), 精 (jīng)
中 (zhōng): 忠 (zhōng), 钟 (zhōng), 种 (zhǒng), 冲 (chōng)
The functions of radicals
You’ve come to see now that the Chinese system of writing/reading is not only very different than what we’re used to but also much less “certain”. Where we have letters that correspond to sounds (which in Italian are very fixed but less so in languages like English), the Chinese have a much more complicated system that involves writing, reading and meaning.
In Italian we might now how to pronounce a word but not know its meaning; in Chinese you could guess the meaning of a word without being able to read it.
There are various reasons and we won’t get into this rather complex subject; however before leaving you, here’s a small review of all of functions radicals have which will certainly be useful for those learning the language.
1. The first is the reason why they were created, namely to be indexed in dictionaries. Even apps like Pleco have a function for searching radicals that is almost always gets snubbed in favor of writing by hand which is much more practical and intuitive.
2. Then there’s their function as a graphic unit: learning to write a single component, following the right order of strokes, you can write characters correctly even when you’ve never seen it before.
3. The semantic function allows you to guess the meaning of a character by looking at its root (usually placed to the left or above), in a very generic way.
4. The phonetic function gives us indications, though not precise, about the pronunciation of the character. The phonetic component usually appears on the right, below or inside the character.
5. Lastly, radicals also have a mnemonic function, which is used by young Chinese when learning the “components” of the characters of which they’re formed. Remembering which “parts” a character is made up of will be easier when it comes to remembering what it looks like, its meaning and being able to read it.
The process for learning to write and read Chinese is far more labor intensive than those of alphabetical writing, but perhaps it’s for this reason that there’s a fascination with the Chinese language… I hope that after having read this article it will be a little clearer for you.
If it was helpful, leave me a comment!
[Photo Credits (Creative Commons License): www.flickr.com/photos/mliu92/]