Radical Tips on Reading Chinese



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It is commonly known that Chinese is one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn. This is true, to some degree, but this is mostly due to its writing system. The Chinese writing system is comprised of thousands of pictographs called “characters” in the non-alphabetic writing system. It takes a long time and years of study to remember them. Moreover, as a “tonal” language, Chinese can generate multiple words with different meanings by simply changing a single syllable. However, by learning Chinese radicals, you will find Chinese is not that hard to study since there are some basic rules and patterns you can follow.

What is a “radical”?

The most important part of Chinese characters is what are called radicals. A Chinese radical (部首 bù shǒu) is “a graphical component of a Chinese character.” It is also used as a benchmark for classification of Chinese characters.

How do radicals work?

Chinese radicals can appear in any position in a character, but a radical is usually found on the left hand side, or underneath a character. If some Chinese characters share the same radical, it means those characters are under the same broad category.

A simple example is the “female” radical, based on the Chinese character for female, 女 nǚ. This character can then be found as a radical in many words related to female people, such as 姐姐 jiejie (big sister) or 奶奶 nǎinai (grandmother).

Another example is the “metal” radical, 金 jīn, it normally means things related to metal or gold, such as 钢 gāng (steel), 铁 tiě (iron), 铅 qiān (lead). There words are under the same broad category—things related to the metal/gold.

Tips for reading unknown characters

A great number of Chinese learners will find difficulties in reading a text full of unknown characters. It would be impossible to guess the meaning of every character. However, by understanding radicals, it becomes much easier to guess the meaning of a noun.

Once you’ve started learning and understanding Chinese grammar, it’s not so hard to tell which words in a sentence are nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Therefore, at least, it is often possible to understand what kind of object an unknown word is based on its radicals and knowledge of the content. For instance, words with the “water” radical 氵(sān diǎn shuǐ) generally refer to water, sea, river, etc, while something with the “talk” radical 言 (yán) is likely to refer to a sort of conversation.

The following are some common radicals in Chinese. Please note that each Chinese symbol has multiple meanings; here we give the most common English translation for each example.

Radicals Example

ice
次、冷、准
times, cold, accurate

cover
写、军、冠
write, army, crown

speech
计、论、识
theory, discuss, knowledge

cliff
厅、历、厚
hall, calendar, thick

right open box
区、匠、匣
area, carpenter, box

knife
列、别、剑
column, depart, sword

down box
冈、网、周
ridge, net, week
亻(also 人)
man
仁、位、你
benevolence, place, you

wrap
勺、勾、旬
spoon, draw, ten days

private
允、去、矣
allow, go, past tense particle

long stride
廷、延、建
the court of a feudal ruler, delay, built

seal
卫、印、却
defend, imprint, but

city
防、阻、院
prevent, resistance, courtyard
邦、那、郊
state, that, suburbs
氵(also 水)
water
江、汪、活
river, expanse of water, live
丬(爿)
half tree trunk
壮、状、将
strong, condition, will be
忄(also 心)
heart
怀、快、性
pregnant, fast, sex

roof
宇、定、宾
universe, to decide, guest
广
dotted cliff
庄、店、席
village, shop, seats

walk
过、还、送
over, but also, sent

earth
地、场、城
land, field, city
艹 (also 艸)
grass
艾、花、英
moxa, flower, flower

two hands
开、弁、异
open, a man’s cap used in ancient times, different

lame
尤、龙、尥
especially, dragon, kick
扌(also 手)
hand
扛、担、摘
carry, bear, pick
 口
mouth
吃、喝、听
eat, drink, listen

step
行、征、徒
line, sign, apprentice

bristle
形、参、须
shape, join, must

go
冬、处、夏
winter, place, summer
犭(also 犬)
dog
狂、独、狠
mad, alone, ruthless

eat
饮、饲、饰
drink, feed, decoration

child
孔、孙、孩
hole, grandson, child

silk
红、约、纯
red, about, pure

river
甾、邕、巢
steroids, harmonious, nest

fire
杰、点、热
outstanding, point, hot

fire
灯、灿、烛
lights, bright, candles
礻(also 示)
spirit
礼、社、祖
ceremony, community, ancestral

jade
玩、珍、班
play, treasure, class

wood
朴、杜、栋
simple, prevent, ridgepole

cow
牡、物、牲
male, material, animal

go
收、政、教
income, politics, teaching

sickness
症、疼、痕
disease, pain, mark

clothes
初、袖、被
early, sleeves, quilt

net
罗、罢、罪
display, strike, sin

dish
盂、益、盔
jar, benefit, helmet

gold
钢、钦、铃
steel, admire, bell

grain
和、秋、种
and, autumn, kind

legs
癸、登、凳
decane, mount, stool

rice
粉、料、粮
powder, material, grain

tiger
虏、虑、虚
prison, consider, virtual

female, woman
妈、好、她
mom, good, she

sun, day
时、旧、昨
time, old, yesterday

moon
脸、肚、胖
face, belly, fat

mountain
峰、岁、岸
peak, age, shore

This post just scratches the surface of reading and writing in Mandarin Chinese. If you want to learn more Chinese, start here. Our physical course packages also feature a guide that will teach you how to read and write in Chinese.