Chinese Corner

Radical Characters4 min read

The real building blocks of the Chinese writing system – John Renfroe

If you’re learning to write in Chinese, you’ve probably been advised to learn the 214 standard “radicals,” those alleged “building blocks” of the character system. Perhaps you’ve tried to discern the meaning of an unfamiliar character through dissection, prying the “roof” 宀 off the “house” 家 to see what’s inside. Perhaps you haven’t gotten very far.

There’s a reason for your frustration: what you’ve been taught is all wrong.

Allow me to get radical about radicals. In the beginning there was speech, a combination of sound and meaning. You utter a sound with your mouth, and other people understand that sound to have a certain meaning.

Then came the realization that you could visually represent speech. We went from communication as a one-time, temporal thing to being able to record it for perpetuity. That is, we gave physical form to speech.

So writing is a physical form which represents a sound-meaning combination (speech). We can say that writing has three attributes: form, meaning, and sound.

In early Chinese writing, the forms usually depicted something. The character for “fire” looked like fire, the character for “dog” looked like a dog. But that can only take you so far before you have to get creative. It’s difficult to pictographically represent words like “sweet,” “love” and “tomorrow,” so people started combining characters to create new characters.

Sometimes they’d use a particular component for its pictorial value. These are called form components. For example, the written version of the verb “to take,” 取, shows a hand 又 taking an ear 耳. Ear removal was a common way of counting casualties after a battle – yikes!

Sometimes a component was used for its meaning. These are called meaning components. Note that what a component depicts and what it means can be two different things. For instance, the character xīn 心 depicts a human heart, but it often alludes to the mind or to the emotions when it appears as a component in other characters, much as we English speakers consider the heart to be the metaphorical seat of emotions.

Components are frequently used for their sound to indicate a character’s pronunciation. These are called sound components. In many characters, one component indicates the meaning, while the other indicates the sound. An example is “feeling” qíng 情, which contains the meaning component 忄(“heart” 心 smushed to fit into a nice square-shaped character) and the sound component qīng 青.

The three main types of functional components correspond to the three attributes of writing: form, meaning and sound. Pretty logical, right?

Unfortunately, some components don’t fall into any of those categories – they offer no hints about a character’s sound or meaning. These empty components are often corruptions of characters as they are copied and re-copied by many hands, the result of a millennia-long game of written telephone.

So, what about radicals?

Nearly 2,000 years ago, the pioneering lexicographer Xu Shen created a character dictionary called the Shuōwén Jiězì 說文解字. He grouped characters which shared a graphical component into sections, or 部. At the head, the shǒu 首, of each section, he placed the component which all other characters in that section shared, just like an English dictionary has a big “A” at the head of the section containing all the words that start with “a.” This titular component was referred to as the section head, or bùshǒu 部首.

In English, we call these section heads, these bushou, “radicals.” This is a misleading translation of “section head.” “Radical” here means “root” or “radix,” suggesting that bushou are the most basic element from which other characters are derived. But as we’ve seen, most characters contain multiple components referring to form, meaning or sound. There is no one “root.”

Xu Shen used bushou to organize his dictionary, not as a comprehensive set of functional components. In fact, a lot of the sections don’t have any characters under the bushou. Xu Shen only put them there so that the Shuowen had 540 sections, an auspicious number. Modern dictionaries use different numbers of sections, but most have the 214 bushou found in the Kangxi Emperor’s 1716 dictionary.

When Xu Shen wrote his dictionary, the Chinese writing system had been around for nearly 1,500 years and had changed tremendously – much more than it has in the 2,000 years since. And since Xu Shen didn’t have access to oracle bones or bamboo-slip manuscripts, his understanding of the writing system, while quite erudite for his time, was limited.

So “radicals” are simply a means of organizing dictionaries, while functional components are the real “building blocks” of Chinese characters. How radical is that? ∎

Featured image via Wikipedia.