Many Chinese-language learners are fascinated by the characters of the language when getting to know the meaning and historical stories behind them. This foundational knowledge of Chinese characters helps you memorize Chinese vocabulary more effectively as characters make up words.
You can take this method one step further by learning radicals. When you break down any Chinese character, you’ll get one smaller element called a radical. Learning and memorizing these makes for a deeper understanding and a more efficient way of learning Chinese characters & vocabulary.
In this article, we will explain what Chinese radicals are and show you the top 8 must-learn Chinese radicals for newbie learners.
What are Chinese radicals?
Every Chinese character contains one radical; sometimes, a radical represents a character itself. Radicals are the graphical components or building blocks of Chinese characters. Plus, they are as important to Chinese as the alphabet is to English because characters are listed in the dictionary by radicals, then the number of strokes.
Radicals can also give you a pretty good hint about what the character means and how it sounds. A very common example to show that radicals suggest a meaning is the radical 女 (woman.) It appears in many female gender words such as 妈妈 (mama), 妹妹 (younger sister), 姐姐 (older sister), and 奶奶 (grandmother).
Learning radicals is a long-term investment, allowing you to accelerate your learning, understanding, and writing Chinese.
Top 8 most basic Chinese radicals for beginners
There are 214 radicals in total, also known as the standard Kangxi radicals. It may sound like a lot to learn, but you should think of the bigger picture: those radicals will make it much easier for you to memorize the thousands of characters and vocabulary necessary to read and write Chinese.
However, we don’t suggest cramming over 200 radicals all at once! The best way is to start with the most common radicals that you frequently see in characters. For that reason, we’ve listed below the top eight most basic radicals in the Chinese language. Check them out below
1. The Water Radical: 水 ( 氵)
Chinese name: 三点水 (three drops of water)
水 is both a radical and a character. The water radical appears in almost every Chinese character directly & indirectly linked with water, generally to the character’s left side. The radical looks like this 氵in characters, for example, 海 (ocean), 江 (river), 河 (stream), 游 (to swim), and 洗 (to wash). As the name suggests, it looks just like three drops of water, making it easy to spot and write.
On a side note, Chinese-language learners should be careful not to confuse the water radical with its point-deficient cousin – the ice radical, which only consists of two calligraphy marks 冫.
2. The Grass Radical: 艹
Chinese name: 草字头 (grass on the head)
The Chinese radical 艹 is the modern form of the character 艸, which is now almost no longer used. The grass radical is frequently found at the top of Chinese characters, referring to grass, herbs, and plants.
艹 is a prevalent component in Chinese characters, and it sometimes appears in characters that have nothing to do with vegetation. There is no absolute guideline to follow when it comes to these exceptions. However, they are frequently the result of history and the evolution of the Chinese character through time. So if you want to dig deeper into why certain words contain 艹 but aren’t linked to plant, look up the word’s etymology and historical background.
Here are some characters that use the grass radical: 草 (grass), 花 (flower), 茶 (tea), 芙 (lotus), 菜 (vegetables), 药 (medicine)
3. The Wood Radical: 木
Chinese name: 木字旁 (beside the wooden character)
木 can act as both a radical and a character. It can mean tree, wood, timber, and things associated with wood. For example, put two 木 (mù) together, and you’d get 林 (lín), which indicates woods or a grove of trees. When you add another 木 (mù) on top, and you’d get 森 (sēn), which means forest, or dark & gloomy. The word widely used for a forest is 森林 (sēnlín).
4. The Hand Radical: 手( 扌)
Chinese name: 提手旁 (hand-carrying side)
Another common radical, typically seen in novels or newspapers, is the hand radical. The radical is almost always written as 扌when appearing as a left-side component, but it becomes a vertically compressed 手 when appearing as a bottom component. Characters that have this radical usually refer to an action using hands. Some examples are 打(to hit), 扔 (to throw), 拍 (to pat), 推 (to push), and 拉 (to pull.)
5. The Mouth Radical: 口
You’ll see 口 in characters connected to the mouth, openings, and entrances. The mouth radical also appears in characters that express the sun, doors, and time.
For example: 说 (to speak), 喉咙 (throat), 语 (language, dialect), 出口 (to export.)
Pay special attention to the slight difference between the mouth radical 口 and the enclosure radical 囗 as they look identical. A tip to distinguish them is the mouth radical often appears smaller to the left of a character. In contrast, the enclosure radical appears as the largest element, written last to ‘enclose’ all the other radicals.
6. The Heart Radical: 心 (忄)
Chinese name: 竖心旁 (vertical heart side)
The radical heart 心 is often seen in characters relating to emotions, thoughts, and other words associated with the heart. When the radical is present at the left side of a Chinese character, it shows as 忄, which has three strokes. When appearing at the bottom, it sometimes transforms into ⺗.
Some characters containing the heart radical are: 忆 (memory), 忘 (to forget), 必 (must), 愁 (to worry.)
7. The Female Radical: 女
You’ll find it in female-centric characters. The female radical is also used to express gender, femininity, motherhood, or beauty. For example 她 (she; her), 妈 (mother), 奶 (to breastfeed.)
Because women in ancient Chinese culture were not always respected, the radical sometimes appears in bad-meaning words such as 嫉妒 (jealousy), 奸 (adultery), or 奴 (slave.)
8. The Fire Radical: 火
It really does look like a fire with flames and sparks, doesn’t it?
You can use 火 as a radical or a character. The fire radical is present in words related to fire and light or actions involving light or fire. For instance, it appears in these words: 灭
(to extinguish; to put out), 灯 (lamp; lantern; light), 炒 (to stir-fry), 烟 (smoke; cigarette).
The fire radical is usually easy to spot. Remember, though, it will change the form into this 灬 when placed in the bottom. For example, 热 (heat; hot; fever) and 照 (to shine; to illuminate).
Chinese is a beautiful & fun-to-learn language, and you can apply many study hacks to learn it more efficiently. Starting with the most basic Chinese radicals to build up your vocabulary is just one of those. It can be even more simple and fun with Pandanese! As you can see in the images above, Pandanese provides short, fun stories along with every radical, character, and vocabulary, helping you remember them for a long time.
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