Radical (Chinese character)

Radical (Chinese character)
The Chinese character 採 cǎi, meaning ‘to pick’, with its ‘root’, the original, semantic (meaning-bearing) graph on the right, colored red; and its later-added, redundant semantic determinative (which also happens to serve as its dictionary classifier), or section header (部首 bùshǒu) on the left in black. Both portions have been called the ‘radical’ (although nowadays generally the left side), leading to confusion.
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A Chinese radical (from the Latin radix, meaning "root") is a component of a Chinese character. The term may variously refer to the original semantic (meaning-bearing) element of a character, or to any semantic element, or, loosely, to any element whatever its origin or purpose. The term is commonly used to describe the element under which a character is traditionally listed in a Chinese dictionary, which is often semantic but may sometimes be a phonetic or merely artificially extracted portion of the character. When used in this way as dictionary section headers (Chinese: 部首; pinyin: bùshǒu), radicals form the basis of an indexing system that has classified Chinese characters throughout the ages, from ancient Shuōwén Jiézì characters to their modern successors.


Simplified vs. Traditional

In an effort to make learning Chinese easier and boost literacy rates, in 1956 and again in 1964 the People's Republic of China released a list of "simplified" Chinese characters which contain fewer strokes than their traditional equivalents. Although simplification of Chinese characters has occurred since the advent of Chinese script, this was the most intensive effort undertaken in modern times. In most cases radicals were simplified according to two basic rules:

  • Several lines and/or dots became one line
  • The traditional character or radical was replaced by a small, unique portion thereof

In some cases a combination of the rules was used although the difference between the traditional and simplified version of the same character can lie solely in the visual appearance of the radical. One example is the character for "language"; the traditional character is 語, whilst in the simplified 语 only the radical is altered.

Ambiguity of meaning

Some academics have criticised the usage of the word radical because of its supposed ambiguity.[1] At one time radical referred to the semantic component of a Chinese character, because most (but not all) dictionary section headers are closely linked with the meaning of the characters listed under them. There is a widespread perception that the character elements used as section headers are always, by definition, semantic in their role,[2] but this is not always the case. For example, 木 ("tree"), a common character element with semantic purpose in many characters, is actually phonetic in the character 沐 ("bathe", "wash"), and the character's meaning-bearing radical is the left-hand element, 氵, "water". Another common misunderstanding[citation needed] is that radical means any component of a character. But this is inconsistent with all of its various historical uses.[citation needed] Russian language literature, as well as Russian-influenced literature, uses the word ключ (meaning key). Cf. the usage of the English-language term key in phrases like search key, sort key, index key.


This section discusses various historical and current uses of the term radical.

Semantic roots

The word radical is coined with the meaning "semantic root" (original portion, bearing meaning), from Latin radix, meaning "root". As Wieger (1927, p. 14) explains:

The inflected words of European languages are decomposed into radical and termination. The radical gives the meaning; the termination indicates case, time, mood. The first sinologists applied those grammatical terms belonging to inflected languages, to the Chinese language which is not an inflected one.

For example, 采 cǎi ‘to pick, pluck’ is an associative compound[3] comprising two elements or components, a hand 爫 (zhǎo or zhuǎ) picking items[4] from a tree 木 (); that is, it is originally a two-part graph. Later, a redundant hand 扌 (shǒu) element was added in the traditional form of the graph to form the character 採 (the simplified version used in the PRC then dropped this extra element). The compound then comprised a later-added semantic determinative, 扌, plus what is now often termed an etymon (the original part, or ‘root’), 采. According to the coinage of radical based on ‘root’, the etymonic 采 portion would be the radical, colored in red in the picture to the above right, though in dictionaries the character is actually classified under the left-hand element 扌.

Those who focus on the root meaning of radical (that is, those who equate radical with root and etymon) criticize other uses of the term radical.[5] However, even critics of other uses of the term radical will generally avoid the usage of it in the "semantic root" sense due to the confusion over the term, instead calling such original graphs the original form, or etymon. One reason for avoiding this usage is that people may generally now refer to some other part of a character as the radical (e.g., 扌rather than 采 in the above example), based on the use of "radical" to mean "any semantic element" or the section header under which the character appears in a Chinese dictionary, as described below.

Semantic elements

Since the radical of a European word is not only its root but also the portion bearing the core of its meaning, some have applied the term radical not to the original root of a character, such as the 采 in the above example, but to any portion bearing meaning. Ramsey (1987, pp. 136–137) uses the term radical this way, clearly equating any “meaning determinant” with “radical”. Wieger (e.g., p. 14-15) also used the term radical this way, for the “formal element which gives meaning” and divided components into radicals and phonetics depending on their usage in particular characters; e.g., he interpreted 木 ‘tree’ as radical in 柏 ‘cypress’, but as phonetic in 沐 ‘to bathe’. In neither character is there an original root portion, as both characters were created as is, as phonetic-semantic compounds. Note that to avoid confusion with meaning #3 below, this meaning of “any portion bearing meaning rather than purely sound” is now generally termed a semantic component or element,[6] a determinative,[7] or a signific.[8][9]

Section headers of a Chinese dictionary

The term radical may also be applied to the graphic portion of a character (regardless of its role—phonetic, semantic, both,[10] or none—in that character) under which it is listed in the dictionary, known in Chinese as 部首 bùshǒu (Japanese bushu, Korean busu). Section headers is the literal translation, but these are also known as dictionary classifiers[11] or index keys.[12]

This is de facto the prevailing usage of the term radical today. However, some[13] object to the term, because of confusion due to the other uses of the term radical, meaning root and semantic component, as well as because most (but not all) section headers do happen[14] to play a semantic role in the characters listed under them. As a result, many are misled into thinking that the section headers are by definition either semantic roots or semantic components in those characters. This is definitely not correct. There are numerous instances of characters listed under section headers which are merely artificial extractions of portions of those characters, and some of these portions are not even actual graphs with an independent existence (e.g., 亅 jué or juě in 了 liǎo), as explained by Serruys (1984), who therefore prefers the term ‘glyph’ extraction rather than graphic extraction (p. 657). This is even truer of modern dictionaries, which reduce the number of section headers to less than half the number in Shuōwén, at which point it becomes impossible to have enough section headers to cover semantic elements in every character. In the Far Eastern Chinese English Dictionary for instance, 一 is a mere artificial extraction of a stroke from most of its subentries such as 丁 dīng and 且 qǐe; the same is true of 乙 in 九 jiǔ; 亅 jué or juě in 了 liǎo, le; 二 èr in 亞 and ; 田 tián in 禺 ; 豕 shǐ in 象 xiàng ‘elephant’, and so on. There are also instances of section headers which play a phonetic and not a semantic role in those characters, such as 臼 jiù ‘a mortar’ in 舅 jiù ‘maternal uncle’ (Shuōwén lists this under its semantic 男 nán, ‘male’, but modern dictionaries, with only 200-odd section headers, simply do not have enough to cover a semantic for every character) and 舊 jiù ‘owl; old’ (listed in the Far East on p. 1141 under the header 臼); 虎 ‘tiger’ in 虖 ‘shout’; 鬼 guǐ (originally ‘helmet’[15]), now ‘ghost’, in 魁 kúi, ‘leader’; 鹿 ‘deer’ in 麓 , foothills; 麻 ‘hemp’ in 麼 ma, ‘tiny’; 黃 huáng ‘yellow’ in 黌 hóng ‘a school’; 羽 ‘feather’ in 翌 ‘next’ (Qiú 2000, p. 7); 齊 in 齎 ‘to present’; 青 qīng in 靖 jìng ‘peaceful’, 靚 jìng ‘to ornament; quiet’; and 靜 jìng ‘quiet’, and so on. In other words, although most section headers happen to play a semantic role in the characters listed under them, they are not fundamentally semantic, but rather, are somewhat arbitrarily chosen[14] classifiers used to group characters for lexicographic convenience. As Professor Jerry Norman (1988) writes (referring to semantic elements as “significs”):

The Shuōwén Jiézì contains 9,353 characters (Liú 1963). Xǔ arranged these characters under 540 radicals or graphic classifiers. These radicals are elements which a number of characters have in common, and which can thus be used as a means of classifying those characters' graphic shapes; frequently they correspond to the characters' significs, but this is not necessarily always the case. (p.69)

Professor Woon Wee Lee (1987) also explains:

It is important to note that the concepts of semantic element and 'section heading' (部首 bùshǒu) are different, and should be clearly distinguished. The semantic element is parallel to the phonetic element in terms of the phonetic compound, while the section heading is a terminology of Chinese lexicography, which is a generic heading for the characters arranged in each section of a dictionary according to the system established by Xu Shen. It is the 'head' of a section, assigned for convenience only. Thus, a section heading is usually the element common to all characters belonging to the same section. (Cf. L. Wang, 1962:1.151). The semantic elements of phonetic compounds were usually also used as section headings. However, characters in the same section are not necessarily all phonetic compounds. ...In some sections, such as 品 pin3 'the masses' (S. Xu 1963:48) and 爪 zhua3 'a hand' (S. Xu 1963:63), no phonetic compound is incorporated. In other words, the section heading was not commonly used as a semantic element...To sum up, the selection of a section heading is to some extent arbitrary. (p.147-8)

Other uses

Radical may also be used to refer to:

  • Any character which is also used as a dictionary’s section header: Some have failed to recognize the distinction between a character and that character’s role in a particular situation, thus coming to think of a character which is used as a section header as being a radical in and of itself, or a character which is phonetic in some instance as being a phonetic in and of itself. This is incorrect.
  • Any component of a character. So great is the confusion among the various uses, that some[who?] have inferred that radical must simply mean any component or element of a character. This is of course fundamentally incorrect.

Position of radical within character

There are fourteen different radical positions, seven basic types and seven variant. The following table lists radical types with Japanese name and position in red and indicate how Kanji is formed by radical with example.

Position Japanese name Chinese Meaning Example
Busyu - hen.png hen (?) Left sided element consists of Radical 102 and .
Busyu - tsukuri.png tsukuri (?) Right accompanying element consists of Radical 74 and .
Busyu - kanmuri.png kanmuri (?) Crown element consists of Radical 77 and , consist of Radical 102 and .

Note that single radical (e.g., Radical 102 ) is used for other type as well, and lesser strokes simple Kanji works as a radical, like is also Radical 19.

Busyu - ashi.png ashi (?) Foot element consists of Radical 61 and , consists of Radical 102 and .

Also note that single radical is interchangeably used for other type as well, and is Radical 106 too, but not used as crown type for .

Busyu - ashi(2).png ashi variant Top and bottom element consists of Radical 7 and .
Busyu - ashi(3).png ashi variant Center element consists of Radical 72 with upper and lower .
Busyu - tare.png tare (?) Dangle / left shoulder element consists of Radical 63 and .
Busyu - nyou.png nyō (?) Surround / left and bottom element consists of Radical 156 and .
Busyu - kamae(1).png kamae (?) Posture (box, enclosure) element consists of Radical 31 and .
Busyu - kamae(2).png kamae variant Box, bottom open consists of Radical 169 and .
Busyu - kamae(3).png kamae variant Box, top open consists of Radical 17 and .
Busyu - kamae(4).png kamae variant Box, right open consists of Radical 22 and .
Busyu - kamae(5).png kamae variant Right shoulder consists of Radical 56 and .
Busyu - kamae(6).png kamae variant Left and right sided consists of Radical 144 and .

Lists of radicals

See also


  1. ^ Boltz, William G. (1994; revised 2003). The Origin and Early Development of the Chinese Writing System. American Oriental Series, vol. 78. American Oriental Society, New Haven, Connecticut, USA. ISBN 0-940490-18-8. 
  2. ^ Wieger S.J., Dr. L. (1927). Chinese Characters: Their Origin, Etymology, History, Classification and Signification. A Thorough Study from Chinese Documents. Translated from the French original ca. 1915 by L. Davrout, S.J., orig. Catholic Mission Press; reprinted in US – Dover; Taiwan – Lucky Book Co.. ISBN 0-486-21321-8.  p. 14-15
  3. ^ Chinese huìyì (會意); also termed compound indicative, or logical aggregate
  4. ^ Some of the oracle bone script graphs of this character show Chinese character 采 cai3 pick Oracle Bone form.gif a hand plus a tree with small items on it, which are variously interpreted as fruits (Wú, T.L. 1990, p.200; & Luó Zhènyù 1958, p.177, cited in Wú) or leaves (Prof. Woon 1987, p.112; & Prof. Lǐ Xiàodìng 1970, v.6, pp.2005–13, cited in Woon) being picked; the items were eliminated in simplified forms in bronze inscriptions, leaving only the tree
  5. ^ e.g., Prof. Boltz (2003 & 1994), pp. 67–8, who writes: “Because such determinatives came later to constitute a basis for lexicographic classification they are sometimes also called semantic classifiers. In modern parlance they are often inaccurately called “radicals”. Given that they are, without exception, secondary accretions to an original graph, they are precisely not radicals, i.e., they do not reflect in any way the “root: or “core” of the graph.”
  6. ^ Woon (1987) p.147–8
  7. ^ Boltz (1994 & 2003), pp.67–8, for instance, uses the term determinative here, specifically for the later-added semantic components
  8. ^ Norman (1988), p.68
  9. ^ Woon 1987, p.291 gives an extensive list of the various translations of 義符 yìfú: semantic element, radical, determinative, signific, signifying part, significant, significant part, semantic part, meaning element, meaning part, sense-indicator, radical-determinative, lexical morpheme symbol, ideographic element, and logographic part. Among these, ‘radical’ and ‘ideographic’ have both been strenuously objected to as misleading.
  10. ^ When an etymon (original ‘root’ form of a graph, such as 采 cǎi ‘to pick’, in 採 cǎi ‘to pick’) is analyzed alongside the remaining element(s), it cannot be said to be playing only a phonetic role. For instance, operating under the two misconceptions that a) all characters have exactly one semantic and one phonetic part, and b) each part can only play one role, many would mistakenly dissect 採 as comprising 扌 shǒu ‘hand’ semantic and 采 cǎi phonetic. However, being the original graph, it must necessarily impart its original semantic meaning (showing as it does a hand picking from a tree) as well as its sound. In the case of 陷 xiàn ‘pit trap; fall into’, for instance, 段玉裁 Duàn Yùcái notes in his annotation of Shuōwén Jiézì (v.14, p.732) that the Dà Xú 大徐 edition acknowledges that 臽 plays the dual roles of phonetic and semantic in 陷, stating “从阝, 从臽 , 臽 亦聲”.
  11. ^ Boltz 1994 & 2003, for instance, uses this translation of “classifiers” for 部首 bùshǒu (p.68), explicitly rejecting ‘radical’ due to its connotation of “root” or “core”
  12. ^ Wieger 1927 p.14 uses the terms “keys of the dictionary” and “the 214 keys of K’ang-hsi” for 部首 bùshǒu, reserving the term ‘radical’ for any element (not just the root portion) bearing meaning. Note that Shuōwén had 540 such section headers.
  13. ^ E.g., Boltz 1994 & 2003
  14. ^ a b Prof. Woon (1987) p.148
  15. ^ Wú 1990, p.350

Further reading

  • Boltz, William G. (1994; revised 2003). The Origin and Early Development of the Chinese Writing System. American Oriental Series, vol. 78. American Oriental Society, New Haven, Connecticut, USA. ISBN 0-940490-18-8
  • Norman, Jerry (1988). Chinese. Cambridge University Press, UK. ISBN 0521228093; 0521296536.
  • Wieger, Dr. L., S.J. (1927) Chinese Characters: Their Origin, Etymology, History, Classification and Signification. A Thorough Study from Chinese Documents. Translated from the French original ca. 1915 by L. Davrout, S.J., orig. Catholic Mission Press; reprinted in US – Dover; Taiwan – Lucky Book Co.. Dover paperback ISBN 0-486-21321-8
  • Serruys, Paul L-M. (1984) "On the System of the Pu Shou 部首 in the Shuo-wen

chieh-tzu 說文解字", in 中央研究院歷史語言研究所集刊 Zhōngyāng Yánjiūyuàn Lìshǐ Yǔyán Yánjiūsuǒ Jíkān, v.55:4, pp. 651–754.

  • Woon, Wee Lee (雲惟利, 1987). Chinese Writing: Its Origin and Evolution. (in English; Chinese title漢字的原始和演變). Originally publ. by the Univ. of East Asia, Macau (no ISBN); now available through Joint Publishing, jpchk@jointpublishing.com (be sure to provide Chinese author and title).
  • Wú, Teresa L. (1990). The Origin and Dissemination of Chinese Characters (中國文字只起源與繁衍). Caves Books, Taipei ISBN 957-606-002-8
  • Xǔ Shèn (許慎) Shuōwén Jǐezì (說文解字), is most often accessed in annotated versions, the most famous of which is段玉裁 Duàn Yùcái (Tuan Yu-tsai; 1815). 說文解字注 Shuōwén Jǐezì Zhù (commentary on the Shuōwén Jíezì), compiled 1776–1807, and still reproduced in facsimile by various publishers. The reproduction by天工書局 Tiāngōng Books (1998) in Taibei is useful because the seal characters are highlighted in red ink.

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