Radical (Chinese character)

From Academic Kids

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The left part of , a chinese character meaning "mother," is a radical that means "woman"

A radical (from Latin radix, meaning "root") is a basic identifiable component of every Chinese character. (This includes not only Chinese Hanzi, but also the Japanese Kanji, Korean Hanja and Vietnamese Chữ nm and Chữ nho.) In languages that use Chinese characters, a radical is called 部首 (Pinyin: bshǒu; Japanese bushu and Korean busu), literally meaning "head part". Radicals are important to the organisation and use of Chinese dictionaries, Japanese Kanji dictionaries, and Korean Hanja dictionaries.

Despite initial appearances, Chinese characters are not unstructured glyphs. They are composed of some number of distinct, simpler elements composed of one or more lines (generally called strokes when referring to Chinese writing). It would be hard to imagine maintaining a system as long lasting as Chinese writing without some internal structure because it would be nearly impossible to memorize so many characters if each were constructed completely arbitrarily. Instead, Chinese characters are in practice built out of specific components called radicals.


The Origins of Radical System

Originally, Chinese writing seems not to have had any particular structure. The earliest attested Chinese characters appear to actually be stylized drawings of the things they represent (as the archaic Seal script sometimes still shows). However, the system quickly became more systematic and coherent as characters were increasingly composed of a finite set of components, with fewer new elements being invented.

The radical system appears to have been the work of Chinese lexicographers. In order to collect and document Chinese characters, early lexicographers had to develop a system for indexing them. Xu Shen (許慎/许慎; Pinyin: Xǔ Shn; 58-147) wrote the seminal dictionary of Chinese, the 15-volume Shuowen dictionary (說文解字/说文解字; Pinyin: Shuōwn jiěz; "Explaining Simple and Analyzing Compound Characters"), in 121, during the Han dynasty. This was the first attempt to construct a comprehensive dictionary of Chinese and the first to catalogue its roughly 10000 characters in a systematic way. Xu Shen catagorized all the characters in his dictionary using a system of 540 graphical elements that he called bshǒu (部首) or head part, found in different characters and often reflecting some common semantic or phonetic characteristic. This set of elements was the basis of the radical system.

The characters in the Shuowen dictionary fall primarily into the following classes:

  • Pictograms (象形; Pinyin: xingxng; "form imitation"): Characters composed of just one meaningful radical.
  • Simple Ideograms (指示; Pinyin: zhǐsh; "indication"): Characters composed of a single radical or a modified version of a single radical, used to indicate a single concept.
  • Composed Ideograms (會意; Pinyin: huy; "joined meaning"): Characters composed of two or more radicals that are associated in order to indicate a single concept.
  • Phono-semantic compounds (形聲; Pinyin: xngshēng; "form and sound"): Characters composed of a meaningful radical and a radical used to indicate its pronunciation.

These categories are more fully explored in the context of modern Chinese in the article Chinese character classification.

This list of radicals was later trimmed to 214 in the 1615 dictionary Zhu (字彙/字汇; "Lexicon") by Mi Yngzu (梅膺祚). The Kangxi dictionary of 1716 was indexed using the Zhu radicals, and they form the standard radical list still used today. Although there is some variation in radical lists - depending primarily on what secondary radicals are also indexed - the canonical 214 radicals of the Kangxi dictionary still serve as the basis for most modern Chinese dictionaries.

Mei Yingzuo's Zhu was also the first dictionary to order the characters for each radical using stroke count - the "radical-and-stroke-count" method still used in the vast majority of present-day Chinese dictionaries.

In modern times, all new characters have been composed, in whole or in part, of radicals from the Kangxi list. However, they may in some characters be distorted somewhat in order to meet the requirement that all Chinese characters fit into a unit square. Viewed exclusively as graphic elements without connection to sound or meaning, it is always possible to completely decompose any Chinese character into a set of fundamental radical elements, although this requires some 500 radicals rather than the 214 Kangxi radicals used to index characters in more recent dictionaries.

The Kangxi radicals themselves are listed in the article List of Kangxi radicals.

Identifying Radicals in Characters

In the images below, the red part of the character is the radical.

In the characters 妞, 媽, 她, 好, 姓 and 妾, you can see that each character has a common graphical element: . In 妾, you can see that it is somewhat deformed in order to make the whole character fit into a unit square, but it is in each case present. is also an independent character (Pinyin: ), signifying a woman or the concept of femininity. This meaning is in some respect reflected in the characters above, although the relationship is sometimes historical, culture-specific, or even simply remote and uncertain. The other part of each of the above characters is used either for its phonetic value, playing no part in the meaning of the character but indicating something about its pronunciation; or as an indicator of meaning which has in some way been modified by the addition of 女 or which is used to modify the radical's meaning, as shown in the table below:

Radical + phonetic
Radical + radical
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jiě "elder sister" → "woman" + phonetic element 且 qiě

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hǎo "good" → "woman" + 子 "child" (a cultural clich of a woman with a child being the symbol of goodness)

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"mother" → "woman" + phonetic element 馬

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xng "surname" → "woman" + 生 shēng "birth" (possibly a reference to ancient matrilineal customs)

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"she", "her" - a pronoun modeled on its homophone 他 ( "he", "him") by replacing the radical 亻 ("man").

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qi "empress", "mistress", "concubine" → "woman" + 帝 d "emperor".

These examples intentionally use the radical for its semantic value, but this not always the case. Furthermore, in these examples it is easy to identify 女 as a graphic element separate from the rest of the character. In other cases, identifying the radical is not so simple.

Shape and position of radicals in characters

In the examples above, five of the six characters have the radical on the left side (妞, 媽, 她, 好 and 姓) but it appears at the bottom in 妾. There is no fixed rule about where it can go in a character - it may appear in any position in a character. However, there is one pair of radicals that have the same shape, but are indexed as different radicals depending on where they appear in the character: ⻏ ("town" - the abbreviated radical form of 邑, Pinyin: y; see below) is always on the right side of characters, while ⻖ ("hill" - the abbreviated radical form of 阜, Pinyin f) is always on the left.

The section below uses Unicode characters from the Kangxi Radicals block. These characters are not always available in common fonts.

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Radicals and their variants

In writing, many radicals are distored or change in form in order to fit into a block with other radicals. They may be narrowed, shortened, or may have different shapes entirely. Changes in shape, rather than simple distortion, may result in a reduction in the number of strokes used to write it. In some cases, these written forms may have several variants. The actual shape of the radical when it is used in a character can depend on its placement with respect to the other elements in the character. In the image to the right, the colour blue is used for "irregular" forms.

Some of the most important variant written forms (except for ⻏ → 邑 et ⻖ → 阜 which have already been discussed):

  • 刀 "knife" → 刂 when placed to the right of other elements:
    • examples: 分, 召 ~ 刖
    • counter-example: 切
  • 人 "man" → 亻 on the left:
    • 囚, 仄, 坐 ~ 他
  • 心 "heart" → 忄 on the left (rarely: 㣺):
    • 杺, 您, 恭* ~ 快
(*) 心 becomes ⺗ when written at the bottom of a character.
  • 手 "hand" → 扌 on the left:
    • 杽, 拏, 掱 ~ 扡,
    • counter-example: 掰,
  • 水 "water" → 氵 on the left:
    • 汆, 呇, 沊 ~ 池,
    • counter-example: 沝,
  • 火 "fire" → 灬 at the bottom:
    • 伙, 緋, 灱 ~ 黑,
    • counter-example: 災,
  • 犬 "dog" → 犭 on the left:
    • 伏, 突, 嵇 ~ 狙,
  • 目 "eye" → ⺫ at the top:
    • 助, 見, 盲 ~ 曼.

In the above examples, it makes no difference if the radical is used for its meaning or not. The changes in form remain the same.

The character simplification adopted in the People's Republic of China and elsewhere has modified a number of radicals. This has created a number of new radical forms: 食 is written 飠 when it forms a part of other traditional characters, but is written 饣 in simplified characters.

Limitations of the radical system

Some of the radicals used in Chinese dictionaries, even in the era of Kangxi, were not genuinely distinctive graphic elements. They serve only to index certain unique characters that do not have more obvious possible radicals. The radical 鬯 (Pinyin: chng, "sacrificial wine") is used to to index only one character: 鬱 (Pinyin: y, "luxuriant", "dense", or "moody"). Modern dictionaries tend to eliminate these kinds of radicals, at least when it is possible to find some more widely used alternative graphic element under which a character can be categorised.

Furthermore, classification using semantic radicals is not always easy. Often, the relationship between the meaning of a character and the meaning of its radical is etymological. It is sometimes only possible to make the connection by knowing the history of the character and its origins because the meaning has shifted over time. This problem applies equally to phonetic radicals. Their presence in a modern character often reflects ancient pronunciations and may no longer have any relationship to modern pronunciation.

In many modern dictionaries, characters may be indexed under more than one radical in order to make it easier to find characters. This has promoted an increasingly exclusively graphical conception of radicals instead of a semantic one.

Learning and using radicals

Character Decomposition

Missing image

Learning to write Chinese characters, even the most complicated, means mastering the fundamental graphic components of characters and then learning which ones are used in particular characters and how they are combined. This is much easier than learning to write each character as a whole through pure memorisation. For example, you can remember how to write 義 (y, "right conduct") by knowing that it consists of a 羊 (yng , "sheep") above 我 (, "I", "me" - one of the first characters learned in Chinese classes, but not listed as a radical in dictionaries). The same applies to the very complicated 30-stroke character 鸞 (lun, a mythical bird from Chinese mythology): 糸, 言, 糸 over 鳥. (See the image to the left.) In this case, all four components are dictionary radicals. Even though there are in total some 50,000 Chinese characters (although a far smaller number - some 4,000 to 6,000 - see daily use), all characters no matter how complex can be decomposed in this this way.

Learing to write characters based on graphical decomposition requires no knowledge of whether the component elements relate to the character's meaning or to its pronunciation. Once the 200-odd dictionary radicals have been mastered, the amount of memorisation needed to master Chinese writing is dramatically diminished. This is somewhat like learning the alphabet in languages that use them: Once a relatively small set of letters have been mastered, the spelling of a word involves only memorising the chain of letter used to write it. Although Chinese radicals are not comparable in function to alphabet letters, they play to some extent a similar role in Chinese writing.

Dictionary lookup

Most dictionaries use radical classification to index and lookup characters, although many present-day dictionaries supplement it with other methods as well. Following the "radical-and-stroke-count" method of Mei Yingzuo, characters are listed by their radical and then ordered by the number of strokes needed to write them.

The steps involved in looking up a character are:

  1. Identify the radical under which the character is most likely to have been indexed.
  2. Find the section of the dictionary associated with that radical.
  3. Count the number of brush or pen strokes in the non-radical portion of the character.
  4. Find the pages listing characters under that radical that have that number of additional strokes.
  5. Find the appropriate entry or experiment with different choices for steps 1 and 3.

For example, consider the character 信 (mouth with sound - a "human" standing next to his "words") meaning "truth", "faith", "sincerity", and "trust". Its index radical is "human" (人) and there are 7 additional strokes in the remaining portion (言). To look this character up in a dictionary, one finds the radical for "human" in the part of dictionary that indexes radicals, finds the page for that radical, and then passes through the lists of characters with one additional stroke, 2 additional strokes, etc. until one reaches the entries with 7 additional strokes. If the radical chosen by the user matches the radical used by the dictionary compiler (which can be difficult to guaratee for more complicated characters), and if both the user and the dictionary compiler count strokes the same way (also often a problem with characters that the user is unfamiliar with), the entry will be in that list, and will appear next to an entry number or a page number where the full dictionary entry for that character can be found.

As a rule of thumb, radicals in the left or top of the character, or elements which surround the rest of the character are the ones most likely to be used as index radicals. For example, 信 is typically indexed under the left-side radical 人 instead of the right-side 言; and 套 is typically indexed under the top 大 instead of the bottom 長. There are, however, ideosyncratic differences between dictionaries, and except for simple cases, the same character cannot be assumed to be indexed the same way in two different dictionaries.

In order to further ease dictionary lookup, dictionaries sometimes list radicals both under the number of strokes used to write their canonical form and under the number of strokes used to write their variant forms. For example, 心 can be listed as a four-stroke radical but might also be listed as a three-stroke radical because it is usually written as 忄 when it forms a part of another character. This means that the dictionary user need not know that the two are etymologically identical.

Because of the difficulty in determining what part of a character is a semantic radical, most dictionaries assign radicals exclusively by graphical principles, which makes it sometimes possible to find a single character indexed under multiple radicals. For example, many dictionaries list 義 under either 羊 or 戈 (the radical of its lower part 我), even though 羊 is traditionally considered its sole semantic radical. Furthermore, with digital dictionaries, it is now possible to search for characters by cross-reference. Using this multi-radical method (which you can try out at Jim Breen's WWWJDIC Server (http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/cgi-bin/cgiwrap/jwb/wwwjdic?1R)), a relatively new development enabled by computing technology, the user can select all of a character's radicals from a table and the computer will present a list of matching characters. This eliminates the guesswork of choosing the correct index radical and calculating the correct stroke count, and cuts down searching time significantly. One can query for characters containing both 羊 and 戈, and get back only five characters (羢, 義, 儀, 羬 and 羲) to search through.

Variations in the number of radicals

Though radicals are widely accepted as a method to categorize Chinese characters and to locate a certain character in a dictionary, there is no universal agreement about either the exact number of radicals, or the set of radicals. This situation is still further complicated by the dichotomy between traditional Chinese characters and simplified ones.

The Kangxi radicals act as a de facto standard, which may not be duplicated exactly in every Chinese dictionary, but which few dictionary compilers can afford to completely ignore. They serve as the basis for many computer encoding systems. Specifically, the Unicode standard's radical-stroke charts are based on the Kangxi radicals.

The count of commonly used radicals in modern abridged dictionaries is often less than 214. The Oxford Concise English-Chinese Dictionary (ISBN 0195911512), for example, has 189. A few dictionaries also introduce new radicals based on the principles first used by Xu Shen, treating groups of radicals that are used together in many different characters as a kind of radical.

In modern practice, radicals are primarily used as lexicographic tools and as learning aids when writing characters. They have become increasingly disconnected from meaning, etymology or phonetics.

See Also

External links

fr:Radical (sinogramme) ja:部首


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