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chinese-radicals-755x400 All Chinese characters are made up of the same 200 Chinese radicals!

All Chinese characters are made up of the same 200 Chinese radicals!

This is part of our How to Learn Chinese. Check out the How to Learn Chinese series to get a lot more tips on how to learn Chinese.

Every single character in Chinese, both Traditional and Simplified, is made up of around 200 small “pieces” that act very roughly like an alphabet. Learn these 200 pieces and you’ll be able to easily identify and remember meanings as well as get clues about how to pronounce the character.

Every character! Even this monster:  All Chinese characters are made up of the same 200 Chinese radicals!All Chinese characters are made up of the same 200 Chinese radicals!All Chinese characters are made up of the same 200 Chinese radicals!biangbiang面 “biángbiáng” noodles.

Break it down

When first starting to learn Chinese each and every character looks utterly different.  The only similarity was that they all looked super complex and totally unlearn-able!

Thankfully this is not the case. There are in fact a limited number of “pieces” that make up each and every character in the Chinese language. Once you realize that the written language is made up of these pieces, and that there is a relatively limited number of these pieces the language becomes a lot more understandable and logical.

So what are these pieces? Let’s look at an example before getting stuck in detail.

One of the first words you will learn in Chinese is 你好 nǐhǎo meaning “hello”. This word is made up of two characters 你 (“you”) and 好 (“good”) – let’s just take the character 好.

好, as you may know, is made up of two piece – 女 and 子, “woman” and “child”. The 女 is a little bit squished up in 好 but it’s still 女.

好 is a simple example that a lot of people know so maybe this isn’t too impressive. What you may not realize though is that every single character in the Chinese language works this way and that there are only ~200 of these pieces in total.

Check out Wikipedia’s list of Radicals to find out what all of these pieces are and check the bottom of the article to find a lot more useful resources. 

Also download our Chinese Radicals Poster here

All Chinese characters are made up of the same 200 Chinese radicals!

Example with 矿物

We could do this with any character in Chinese. Let’s go for a random yet relatively difficult one. Here’s a word I’ve picked at random: 矿物 (kuàngwù) which means “mineral”.  The traditional version is 礦物,which we’ll get to shortly, mainly to show the main differences between simplified and traditional.

The first character of 矿物 is 矿 kuàng which means “mine” or “ore”. 矿 has two pieces – one on the left and one one the right. This left-right structure is very very common in Chinese. We saw it above with 好. On the left of 矿 is 石 which means “stone” and one the left is 广 which means “wide”.

Neat! – an ORE MINE is a place with a WIDE expanse of STONE. That makes sense! So the character “mine” in Chinese is made up of the smaller pieces “stone” and “wide”.

The second character in 矿物 is 物 which generally means “thing”, especially a physical “thing”. On the left is 牛 which means “cow” and on the right is 勿 which means “must not”.

Huh. This one is a bit more tricky! COW + MUST NOT = physical THING.

Pardon the slight vulgarity (though vulgarity will help you remember!) : Hey! Guy! You MUST NOT BULL (cow) me! I want to see the real PHYSICAL THING before you get the cash!

So now we have 矿物 which means “mineral” and know that it is made up of 矿 ”ore”/”mine” and 物 “physical thing”. But by realizing that every Chinese character has further pieces we can break down “ore”/”mine” into STONE + WIDE and “physical thing” into COW + MUST NOT.

This is not because I happened to choose a word that this works with. We can do this with every single character in the Chinese language.

And here’s the thing I really wish I knew : there are only around 200 of these “pieces” that make up every single character.

It’s almost like a (albeit very complicated) alphabet. I hesitate to use the word as it is misleading but I think still a useful metaphor – each character can be decomposed into these ~200 pieces much like every English word in made of the 26 letters. Don’t take this too far though – Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet!

Radicals vs. Components vs. Pieces

Sometimes you’ll hear about Chinese radicals – these are the 214 official “pieces” set by an old Chinese dictionary. However when we are decomposing characters the pieces we get are not always these radicals, sometimes it will just be a character (which is in turn made of radicals).

The difference is not that important and only argued by people who care too much about these kind of things (I’m one of them…). The main thing to know is that every single character can be broken into smaller pieces and that there are only around 200 of these small pieces.

When you realize this and start to learn and recognize some of these pieces suddenly Chinese characters are not so scary. Even characters you don’t know you’ll be able to look at and say ‘Oh, that has “water” and “mouth” in it. I don’t know what it is but I recognize those pieces at least.”

Suddenly Chinese becomes less foreign and terrifying. Once you really get a grasp of these pieces you can unlock some very powerful tools – namely being able to guess at the meaning and, drum-roll, being able to guess at how it is pronounced. This is the topic of the next article in this series though on phono-semantic characters.

Interested in Traditional characters? If not skip ahead to where we discuss How to Learn these Pieces.

What about Traditional Chinese characters?

Here’s an aside on the difference between Simplified and Traditional characters. If you are learning Traditional then this will show how we break down 礦物 as we did with the simplified 矿物 above. Even if you aren’t learning Traditional this should be useful.

First, the 物 in 礦物 in both Simplified and Traditional is exactly the same. This happens with a lot of characters, which makes the difference between the two scripts more manageable.

The difference appears in the 礦. In Traditional there is an extra “piece” under the 广. In Simplified the word for “wide” is simply 广. In Traditional it is 廣. Therefore in the character 礦 in Traditional script the “wide” piece is different.

We can still consider this one piece with the meaning wide, so we can still think of the character as STONE + WIDE.

The piece 广 in Traditional itself has two pieces. Aha! In Traditional 广 is composed of 广 “wide” and
黄 “yellow”. All that has happened when the Chinese script was simplified was that the 黄 piece was
removed.

Simplified characters are just Traditional characters with less pieces in order to make them easier to write. Vitally important though is the fact that the pieces, even though there may be less of them used in a Simplified character, are the same.

There are a few cases where the radicals themselves are different ( 讠 in Simplified vs. 言 in Traditional) but this is a very small number that can be learned in 5 minutes.

The vast majority of variance is instead from simply having less of the same pieces per character.

Therefore if you focus on learning the pieces that make up Chinese characters you can apply this knowledge to both Simplified and Traditional scripts and also more easily transition between the two. Chinese is giving you a break for once!

How to Learn

Basically as long as you are aware that all of the characters are made of these pieces you will start to notice them more and more. For now check out these tools and websites to find out more about the structure and process of Chinese characters.

 

This is part of our How to Learn Chinese series. Check out the How to Learn Chinese page to get a lot more tips on how to learn Chinese.

  • Ok nice, but what are the actual 200 characters? And why am I writing with caps lock turned on?

    • sensiblechinese

      I don’t see the caps lock so think you are ok!
      They aren’t characters but the components of characters. If you check the bottom of the article there’s a list of resources for starting to learn the components. There’s a complete list on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kangxi_radical.
      Hanzicraft is also a great place to start playing around with the components and seeing how characters are composed.

  • kleronomia

    This is wonderful! What are the 200 pieces in Traditional Characters? Where can you get the list?

    • sensiblechinese

      Hi there! Glad it helps. The wikipedia article actually has all the Traditional AND the Simplified (in a separate row). The best link is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kangxi_radical
      Also, I’ve added a link to download a free radical poster to the article. It’s something normally sold at hanziwallchart.com but I’m making it available free here too.

  • Tony Bailey

    Great chart/tool, thanks. Though you
    might want to look at the 7th character on the first row. 虫 is shown in
    pinyin as hui3. I’m only in the early stages of learning to read &
    write but the far more common use is chong2! KTdict C-E dictionary has
    both listed for the character but when searching it for 虫 has no examples of
    compound characters sounded as hui3 and every multi character word using 虫 use Chong2 as the sound/pinyin . The only use of “hui” I can find is hui1 (蛔).

  • Pingback: How to Write in Chinese - A Beginner's Guide()

  • David Chung Chai Tsang

    I looked everywhere on the internet for a list of all chinese radicals, but I still cant find any.
    I cant find 勿 in your PDF.
    Please show me where it is

  • Comfortably Memorizing Chinese Characters

    Chinese character decomposition saves a lot of time and effort to memorize
    Chinese characters!

    Decomposition example of the Chinese character 百 bǎi ‘hundred’

    一 yī one
    白 bái white
    丿 piě slash
    日 rì sun
    冂 jiōng down box
    二 èr two

    百 bǎi ‘hundred’
    一白丿日冂二

  • Decomposition of the Chinese Character 田 tián ‘field’

    口 kǒu ‘mouth’,
    冂 jiōng ‘down box’,
    一 yī ‘one’,
    十 shí ‘ten’,
    一 yī ‘one’,
    丨 gǔn ‘line’

    口冂一十一丨

  • Decomposition Option of the Chinese Character 天 tiān ‘sky’

    天 tiān ‘sky’
    一 yī one
    大 dà big
    一 yī one
    人 rén man

    天一 大 一 人

    NB. Synonyms: Structural analysis of the Chinese characters, Breakdown of the Chinese characters, Chinese characters split.

  • The Chinese Character Decomposition: The Technological Process

    The Chinese character decomposition is very understandable in its nature and serves for the purpose ‘make simple from complicated’.

    If we take the Chinese character 门 mén ‘gate’, consisting of 3 strokes, everyone can easily break it down to simple radicals:

    丶 zhǔ dot,
    丨 gǔn line,
    ㇆ yǐ second,

    What if we have to decompose a more complicated character, for example 齉 nàng ‘snuffle, twang, speak through one’s nose’, consisting of 36 strokes?

    Nothing difficult. We keep again the main principle of the Chinese character decomposition process ‘make simple from complicated’!

    A quick review of the character 齉 nàng ‘snuffle, twang, speak through one’s nose’ shows that it consists of a radical and a character:

    1. Radical – 鼻 bí ‘nose’ – 14 strokes
    2. Character – 囊 náng ‘bag, pocket’ – 22 strokes

    We have to take into consideration that the Chinese radical鼻 bí ‘nose’ includes one rare component – 畁 bì ‘give, allow’.

    The Chinese character 囊 náng ‘bag, pocket’ also includes one rare component – 吅 xuān ‘sue, argue’.

    Having done such structural analysis of the Chinese character 齉 nàng ‘snuffle, twang, speak through one’s nose’, the rest we have to do is to decompose each component into simple Chinese radicals and components. I repeat not into strokes but into the Chinese radicals and components.

    Thus, the overall decomposition of the Chinese character 齉 nàng ‘snuffle, twang, speak through one’s nose’ looks like the following:

    齉 nàng ‘snuffle, twang, speak through one’s nose’,

    鼻 bí nose,
    自 zì self,
    丿 piě slash,
    目 mù eye,
    冂 jiōng down box,
    三 sān three,
    一 yī one,
    二 èr two,

    畁 bì give, allow,
    由 tián field,
    囗 wéi enclosure,
    冂 jiōng down box,
    十 shí ten,
    一 yī one,
    丨 gǔn line,
    一 yī one,

    兀 yóu lame,
    一 yī one,
    儿 ér boy,
    丿 piě slash,
    乚 yǐ second,

    囊 náng bag, pocket,

    一 yī one,
    中 zhōng centre,
    口 kǒu mouth,
    冂 jiōng down box,
    一 yī one,
    丨 gǔn line,

    冖 mì cover,
    吅 xuān sue, argue,
    口 kǒu mouth,
    冂 jiōng down box,
    一 yī one,
    口 kǒu mouth,
    冂 jiōng down box,
    一 yī one,

    井 jǐng well,
    一 yī one,
    廾 gǒng two hands,
    一 yī one,
    丿 piě slash,
    丨 gǔn line,

    衣 yī clothing (reduced radical without丶 zhǔ ‘dot’),
    亠 tóu lid,
    丶 zhǔ dot,
    一 yī one,
    匚 fāng right open box,
    一 yī one,
    丿 piě slash,

    A lot of components, isn’t it? Now we understand all the components. And writing of the Chinese character 齉 nàng ‘snuffle, twang, speak through one’s nose’ is not a problem for us any more: we just need to remember the sequence of the components!

    The Chinese character decomposition saves a huge amount of time learning how to write a Chinese character!

  • Decomposition of the Chinese Character 三 sān ‘three’

    三 sān three
    一 yī one
    二 èr two

    NB. Synonyms: Structural analysis of the Chinese characters, Breakdown of the Chinese characters, Chinese characters split.

  • Decomposition of the Chinese Character 云 yún ‘cloud’

    云 yún cloud
    二 èr two
    厶 sī private

  • Decomposition of the Chinese Character 十 shí ‘ten’

    十 shí ten
    一 yī one
    丨 gǔn line

    NB. Synonyms: Structural analysis of the Chinese characters, Breakdown of the Chinese characters, Chinese characters split.

  • Analytical Habits and Split Practice

    The Chinese character decomposition is not as difficult as it might seem. The major obstacle that the Chinese language learners come across is the lack of analytical habits, Chinese characters split practice.

    The Chinese characters decomposition is very simple, the learner has to understand the Chinese characters breakdown process and its sequence.

    Once the Chinese character is analyzed and understood it will be easily memorized and the learner will not have to spend hours writing it for memorization.

    The simplicity of the Chinese character structural analysis you can see here:

    Decomposition of the Chinese character 千 qiān ‘thousand’:

    千 qiān thousand
    丿 piě slash
    十 shí ten
    一 yī one
    丨 gǔn line

    千 丿 十 一 丨

    If you analyse a couple of the Chinese characters more you will like this process and realize how the Chinese characters are simple indeed.

    More about Chinese character decomposition you can check ‘The Chinese Character Decomposition Guidance’ by Polina Shinkina
    http://www.lulu.com/content/e-book/the-chinese-character-decomposition-guidance/18847104 and http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/polina985

  • Decomposition of the Chinese Character 子 zǐ ‘child’

    子 zǐ child
    了 jué hook
    一 yī one

    NB. Synonyms: Structural analysis of the Chinese characters, Breakdown of the Chinese characters, Chinese characters split.

  • The Chinese Language Core Aspect

    The Chinese character decomposition is one aspect of the Chinese language learning. The core aspect is practical usage of the language. How to find an interesting and a well-paid job with the Chinese language, how to make life interesting and full of sense?

    International business sphere is the right answer for these questions. Marketing, financial and commercial relations with China and other Chinese speaking territories is a perfect solution for the Chinese language practical application.

    Commercial relations require strong habits in business writing and a perfect basis of the negotiation terminology.

    Very interesting and simple to understand Chinese commercial textbooks are available on this website: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/polina985

  • The Brief Analysis of the Chinese Character Biáng, 57 Strokes

    The Chinese character biáng, 57 strokes, includes eleven main components:

    穴, 言, 幺, 幺, 馬, 長, 長, 月, 刂, 心, 辶,

    1. 穴 xué, cave – 5 strokes,
    2. 言 yán, speech – 7 strokes,
    3. 幺 yāo, short thread – 3 strokes,
    4. 幺 yāo, short thread – 3 strokes,
    5. 馬 mǎ, horse – 10 strokes,
    6. 長 cháng, long – 8 strokes,
    7. 長 cháng, long – 8 strokes,
    8. 月 yuè, moon – 4 strokes,
    9. 刂 dāo, knife – 2 strokes,
    10. 心 xīn, heart – 4 strokes,
    11. 辶 chuò, walk – 3 strokes,

    Combination of the main components creates five rarely used Chinese characters:

    迌, 悥, 刖, 脹, 這,

    1. 迌 tù, crafty,
    2. 悥 yì, old synonym for 念 niàn, read,
    3. 刖 yuè, cutting off feet as a form of punishment,
    4. 脹 zhàng, swell,
    5. 這 zhè, this, these,

    More about the Chinese characters and radicals: Polina Shinkina’s Author Spotlight page http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/polina985