All characters contain a particular component called “radical” or “side“. These elements were once characters themselves, but some are no longer recognizable as such. Learning the radicals helps to categorize and memorize characters; the presence of a certain radical can even suggest the meaning of the whole character, which often relates to the original form of the radical. On the other hand, the non-radical component of the character often suggests its pronunciation, or viceversa.
Chinese dictionaries contain more than 200 radicals, but you will easily memorize the most common ones. In the following lessons we’ll present 60 radicals, each of them followed by three characters that contain them, by compounds and notes on their use.
Please note that the shape of a radical changes according to its position in the character, and that the same radical could well be found at the top of a character and on the left side of another: our examples couldn’t always show all of the possibilities. As for the pinyin transcription, we didn’t put the tones (pronunciation doesn’t really concern us by now) nor the umlauts that certain syllables have.
#1 The first radical is called the “two drops of water”; it usually appears in characters that have to do with coldness. It’s placed at the left side of characters.
#2 This radical always stays on top of characters.
#3 This radical is called “speech”, and it appears at the left side of characters that have to do with language.
#4 The original form of the “knife” is also a radical; it’s found at the bottom of characters, as in the first of the following. The second character shows a third form of this radical (placed on top):
#5 The fifth radical is called the “standing person”, and is always placed at the left side of characters. The character it comes from can also be used as a radical; in that case it always stays on top, as in the following character: