Learn Basic Chinese Radicals
Posted by Mollan Mo on 2016-06-15 12:13:48 3281

Except for the photographic characters that originated from carved symbols, other characters have a radical or are themselves radicals. In the most widely accepted table of radicals, there are 214. A radical is used in front of another character to tell something about the meaning of the word symbolized by the particular character, such as whether it is made of metal, is tall, etc. For example, 女 is the character for woman. It is also the radical for many female things: 姐姐 for elder sister, 妈妈 for mom, etc.

Western culture talks about four elements (earth, air, fire, and water). The Chinese named five elements: metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. Symbolized by characters, each can serve as an independent radical with at least one form. Today, we are going to see these and their variations.

According to the Chinese traditional medicine and philosophy, the five elements are the fundamental components of the universe.

1. 金 jīn “gold”

The character above is the radical for gold and also can be considered to carry the meaning of metal. So when you see a word that has this radical, you’ll know it has something to do with metal. Individually, the character for gold is written like this: 金. When it becomes radical, it will be on the left of the radical, written like this: 钅.

Chinese radical


The most common character you see and use every day that carries this radical is 银行 yín hang, “bank.”

2. 木 mù, “wood”

This is the radical for wood. When you see a character with this radical, you’ll know it has something to do with wood. Be careful, however, with the written forms of the character of wood and the radical. The radical is smaller, thinner and always on the left of the other character, or smaller underneath the other character.

Chinese radical Mu

Interestingly, if you put two “木” together, it becomes “林” lín, meaning forest. And three “木” means a large forest, written as “森”, sēn.

3. 水 shuǐ 氵/冫/灬

The individual character for water has three variations when it is used as a radical, which are three drops of water. It is 氵with two drops of water (shown below on the left) 冫with one drop of water (shown in the middle), and four drops of water 灬 (shown on the right; this form is always used at at the bottom of the second character).

Chinese radical shui

Radicals of water are commonly used since the element of water also exists in various forms.

4. 火 huǒ fire

This radical carries the meaning of fire, and in modern life, you’ll see it with the characters meaning light and cooking methods since ancient people used fire for lighting and to cook. Remember the radical of fire is always written on the left with a smaller form.

Chinese radical huo

5. 土 tǔ earth

The radical for earth has two forms. The first one is smaller, and its second horizontal stroke turns into a right-rising stroke and is always placed on the left; and the second form is a wider one placed at the bottom of a character.

Chinese radical tu

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