Yit-Seng YOW

Chinese word radicals are the building blocks of most of Chinese words. Each radical conveys a certain message, be it an object or an abstract notion. Understanding of the Chinese word radicals is crucial to the appreciation of Chinese language.

A Chinese word radical (bushou. ??) is a semantic marker that links certain core ideas with a word. Written Chinese words are expressed in pictograms, which are made up of certain elements, including radicals. Each element has a specific meaning. The elements collectively mold a specific object or idea into the pictogram.

The Chinese system of word radicals is the world’s earliest large-scale, across-the-board classification of knowledge at the fundamental level. The system is unique in its capacity to associate a range of objects or ideas under a single umbrella. It contributes to the notion that complex matters are made up of simpler components. The system also reinforces lateral thinking and the notion of association: An object or notion should somehow be classified under a category or grouping.

Some of the word radicals exist only as components of words and have no meaning by themselves. For example, the radical ?(si) alone means nothing though it implies something related to “textile.” Similarly, the radical ?(ren) is not a word in its own right though it is used for words related to “people” or “human.”

Most radicals, however, have semantic importance; that is, they carry specific meaning, as the following examples show. Words related to sentiments or emotions normally have ? or ? (xin, heart) as the radical. These include angry, bored, forget, loyal, tolerance, fear, feeling, love, sad, and thought. Most objects or concepts related to water—words such as cool, river, stream, swamp, sweat, flow, ocean, flush, gush, soup, tears—incorporate ? or ? (shui, water) as the word radical. Most words for metals and minerals have the radical ? (metal). The radical ? (shi, food) is used in words related to eating and to certain types of foods. Some of the word radicals are more easily understood than others.

The number of radicals included in a particular dictionary might vary, depending on how many Chinese words that dictionary accepts. The first Chinese dictionary, shu?weÏnji?zì, ????, compiled around 100 CE, collected 9,353 characters. The most comprehensive dictionary, the Kangxi Dictionary, K?ngxizìdi?n, ???? lists about 40,000 characters although, as with the entries in the Oxford English Dictionary, many are archaic or obsolete.

Examples of some of the 190 to 214 radicals commonly used are as follows:

? Speech (?) found in speech ?; remember ?; permission ?; and promise ?

? Knife (?), found in cut ?; distribute ?; and fight for ?

? Strength (?), found in add ? work ? and effort ?

? Three dotted drops of water ?, found in full ?; river ?; soup ?; sprinkle, pour water over ?; wave ?; sea ?; and ocean ?

? Upright heart ?, found in remembrance ?; busy ?; worry ?; faint hearted ?; and anger ?

? Movement ?, found in passing by ?; reach ?; near ?; and enter, advance ?

? Grass ?, found in grass ?; flower ?; and fragrance ?

? Hand ?, found in hit ?; search ?; bend ?; and shift ?

? Mouth ?, found in call ?; and animal cry ?

? Mountain ?, found in peak ?; and collapse ?

? Food ?, found in hungry ?; drink ?; and rice ?

? Bow ?, found in draw in ?; extend ?; and weak ?

? Female ?, found in mother ?; elder sister ?; younger sister ?; and woman ?

? Child ?, found in grandchild ?; and learn ?

? Horse ?, found in drive ?; proud ?; and tame ?

? Fire ?, found in heat treatment ?; heat ?; cigarette, smoke ?; and beacon ?

? Heart ?, found in thoughts ?; tolerate ?; loyal ?; and love ?

? Wood ?, found in forest ?; jungle ?; tree ?; plank; ? and material ?

Examples of Word Radical Combinations

The character ? (zhong) refers to “middle,” “central,” or “center.” The character depicts a line drawn through the center of a rectangle. The character ? (xin) refers to “the heart.” When these two characters are combined as radicals, they form the word loyalty ?, the scenario whereby the heart remains central, not swayed by circumstances, giving rise to the notion of loyalty.

The word nation ? comprises a well defined boundary or territory, as shown by the outer frame ?. Within the territory a straight line at the bottom _ depicts land on which people, represented by mouth ?, reside. Within the framework there is spear ?, signifying defense of the territory. The notion of “nation” is, therefore, a territory with its land and its people who defend the associated assets and values.

The word love ? incorporates the radical heart ? at the core, representing emotion, feeling, or sentiment. The closest character that lies beneath the heart is friend ?, indicating that there are strong emotional links between friends. The sentiment and emotion is capped ? (enclosure above the heart), confirming that the relationship is exclusive, not open to anyone else. Finally, there is the claw component ? on top, implying a powerful grip, emotional or physical, on the people concerned. Such are the power and emotions involved in love.

The importance of word radicals cannot be overestimated. Radicals form an integral part of written Chinese. Until the development of phonetics, the radical was the main tool to search for words in Chinese dictionaries. An understanding of word radicals is fundamental to the study of the Chinese language.

Further Reading

Theobald, U. (2000). The 214 Radicals (bushou). CHINA KNOWLEDGE—a universal guide for China studies. Retrieved October 17, 2008, from http://www.chinaknowledge.de/Literature/radicals.html

Xiandai hanyu cidian [Modern Chinese dictionary]. (1979). Beijing: Language Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Science.

Yow, Yit Seng. (2006). The Chinese dimensions: Their roots, mindset, psyche. Selangor Darul Ehsan, Malaysia: Pelanduk Publications (M) SDN BHD.

Source: Yow, Yit-Seng. (2009). Word Radicals. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encycl
opedia of China
, pp. 2459–2460. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Word Radicals (Bùsh?u ??)|Bùsh?u ?? (Word Radicals)

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