EDIT: click the thumbnail with the radicals to see the high resolution version.

To be considered legally literate, one has to know at least 1500 characters. Being able to read the newspaper requires one to recognize about 3000 characters. Common first thought: how can you ever remember 3000 unique characters?!

The Chinese Radicals

Recognizing a Chinese character is easier than it seems. A Chinese character is composed of one or more radicals. There are 214 radicals. Although the purists will probably not agree, I like to think of the radicals as the letters that make up a word. 214 might seem like a lot, but consider that the English alphabet has 52 different characters, lowercase + uppercase, and the Cyrillic alphabet has 66 characters.

Identifying the radicals in a Chinese character has several purposes:

  • The characters in a dictionary are sorted by radical (and stroke count)
  • The radicals might give an indication of the meaning
  • The radicals might give an indication of the pronunciation

And here’s where it gets tricky. Characters which are composed of more than 1 radical still only appear under 1 radical in the dictionary. When you know under which radical to look, you need to know how many additional strokes are needed to write the character. For example, some characters are composed of only one radical and nothing else. At the radical’s section in the dictionary, these characters appear first since they have 0 additional strokes.

Another tricky part is the might: a radical might given an indication of the meaning or the pronunciation. Sometimes you can guess how a character is pronounced (more or less) and other times you can guess what a character means. For example, the character 口 (pronounced [kou] and looks like a square) means mouth or opening. Many characters that are related to eating or drinking start with the radical 口: 吃 [chi] to eat, 喝 [he] to drink, 咖啡 [kafei] coffee.