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To Conquer Characters, Rethink Radicals

When I began learning Chinese at age twenty-one, I was encouraged to discover that every character has a "radical", a component which communicates meaning. Characters containing the "three dots", for example, denote something to do with water. River and lake , wash and rinse , and sweat and tears all contain the water radical on the left.

Having learned 30 or so radicals I thought I was on my way to mastering Chinese characters. I soon hit a wall, however. Radicals became less and less helpful as I learned more characters. Why?

Common radicals are too common to help you remember characters very well. The water radical, for example, is in more than 400 different characters.

Often the connection between the radical and a character's meaning is vague or uncertain. For example, what does water have to do with gathering , the Han Dynasty , or dirt ?

Meanwhile, the meaning of many radicals is not well known. Do you understand or ? Single stroke radicals, such as , , and have no semantic value, while some radicals include two similarly shaped variants, e.g. and and , with unrelated meanings.

It turns out I misunderstood. Chinese radicals are not how characters express meaning, though they often do so. Rather radicals are an indexing system, akin to "alphabetical order" in English.

The Chinese word for "radical" , can be literally translated "head component". Often the head component, (rain) for example, gives you a hint as to the meaning, (thunder) for example, but nearly as often the remaining components of the character also contribute. Hao (as in nihao) is an example of this, where the meaning, "good," is derived from the association of both sides, the woman and the baby .

So today, no longer a student but a Chinese teacher, I have a message for non-native students of Chinese: radicals are a woefully inadequate method to master characters. Neither are radicals good even for indexing, especially if you do not write fluently.

Happily, since the adoption of a standard romanization of characters, Chinese dictionaries are indexed by their pinyin pronunciations. You can look up any character using the same alphabetical order we use for English, if you know its pronunciation.

Unhappily, to look up a character you cannot pronounce, you still need radicals.

To show how unhappy this is, let us walk through the look-up process.

First, it is not always obvious which part of a character is the radical. Look for the biggest component which spans the length or width of the character. Most often on the left (as in , with a radical) or top (as in , with a radical), it can also be on the right (as in , with a radical) or bottom (as in , with a radical).

Count the number of strokes in the radical; has four. Then look up the radical's number in the radical table. Of about 200 total, there are over thirty radicals listed under "four strokes" to sift through. The (tree) radical's number is 64 in the dictionary I use.

Then look to a second table (section 64 in this case) to find over 400 characters with the radical , arranged by how many strokes the rest of the character contains. Count them. In , there are eight strokes remaining after the ; it is one of over sixty eight-strokes-remaining characters. Go through this list, and when you find , next to it you see a dictionary page number.

Turn to that page and you will find the pronunciation of that character (min) along with its definition (cotton). Phew.

Even electronic dictionaries require three steps: scroll through the radical list, and after clicking the one you want, scroll again through a long list of characters which include that radical, and finally click through to that character's definition. [Software for handwriting recognition and optical character recognition is improving but not yet practical for most students.]

There has to be a better way!

In my mind, the way forward is for students to learn all the components and their meanings, not just the "head" components.

A few years ago I came across the work of Ye Changyuan, which inspired me to design a new indexing system specifically for non-native students of Chinese to master simplified characters without stroke counting!

The system works best on touch screens. To look up , tap the (tree) key and the (white) key, and immediately your search shows only three matching characters: , and the one you want . If you had also tapped the (kerchief) key, you would have found only in one step. You notice right away how the meaning of "cotton" is related not only to (which is used for many kinds of plants) but also to (cotton is white) and (kerchiefs are often made of cotton). Knowing all three parts makes much more memorable, don't you think?

The good news is there are only 170 components you must learn to analyze every part (not just the head part) of every character. To make it easy to find the 170 keys, they are organized into 10 categories, such as "animals" and "tools". Those components I mentioned above? (mound) is in the "earth" category, while (crossroad), (right foot) and (feet) are in the "limbs" category.

I'll describe this system in detail in an upcoming post, but if you can't wait, download "Laokang Character Conqueror", for iOS devices, on the Apple app store.

Image credit: Wo Ai Ni, by Emily H., via Flickr

Paul Condrell

Paul Condrell, whose Chinese name is Kang Baole 康保乐, grew up in Washington, D.C., and has lived in China since 1988. He is founder and chairman of consumer products retailer 小康之家 is developing apps, under the "Laokang" brand, for Apple iOS devices to help students master Chinese. He teaches... View Full Bio