Kangxi Radicals Explained (Part 1)
What are the Kangxi Radicals?
First, you need to understand what they are for.
They are part of a system, dating back to 1615 (but building on still earlier systems), for categorizing/sorting/classifying/ordering/organizing Chinese characters.
The other important part of that system is the classification of characters by number of strokes. This means simply how many strokes (of brush or pen) it takes to write a certain character when you write it in the standard style in the approved copybook-based manner.
Radicals are a bit more complicated, but not all that much. They can get confusing in the details, but the basic principles are pretty straightforward.
Back to the classification system. Sorting characters by number of strokes is helpful, but not sufficient, to organize the large number of Chinese characters. An additional method is needed.
This method absolutely must result in a system that is consistent, comprehensive, unambiguous and functional. It would be nice if it was also self-explanatory, accurate, logical, coherent, and made sense, but ultimately these are optional criteria. Bear that in mind.
The radicals system is what, by and large, best seemed to fit these requirements. It is based fundamentally on a prevalent aspect of the the underlying structures of Chinese characters.
To understand it, let’s look at three characters:
女 ☚ This is the character for “woman”. It is (or was in its earlier forms, at least) a stylized drawing of a woman.
马 ☚ This is the character for “horse”. It is (was) a stylized drawing of a horse.
妈 ☚ This is the character for “mother”. It consists of the above two characters put together into one. (Somewhat like “a” and “e” are part of the “æ” ligature/character)
How does the 妈 character make sense?
It works based on the spoken language.
The words for “horse” and “mother” are very similar in Chinese. That does not mean they are related. It is just how “wine” and “whine” sound alike in English.
Since it is difficult to reduce the concept of “mother” to a simple, stylized drawing, the 妈 character is used instead to refer to the word in an indirect riddle-like manner, somewhat like you might perhaps do in playing charades or a similar game, or when clarifying an ambiguous statement.
“What kind of w(h)ine do you mean?”
“I mean the tasty kind of wine, not the whiny kind of whine”
“What kind of 马 do you mean?”
“I mean female-person-马 (=妈), not default-马.”
You cannot normally deduce the meaning of such a character from its components, even if you are fluent in spoken Chinese, but it is easier to learn than a completely arbitrary new symbol would be. At least, it was easier at the time the character was invented.
This is known as a pictophonetic (or phonosemantic) character. One component of the character is pictorial/semantic (the picture refers to what it represents), the other is phonetic (the picture refers to the spoken word for what the picture represents).
Okay. Now. When you analyze all the Chinese characters (take your time) you find that the number of characters that are used for the pictorial (= referring to meaning) part of pictophonetic characters is relatively limited. Therefore, they can be used for the categories of an organizational system.
So the character 妈 gets put in the “女” category since that is the part of it that refers to its meaning.
These categories, and the characters they are based on, are called radicals in English. In the Kangxi system there are 214 of them. (There are other systems, but it, or fairly close variations on it, are what people likely refer to when they mention ‘the radicals’)
That is the basic principle, but actually not all 214 radicals are quite like described above, and not all characters can be assigned radicals as described above either.
- Issue #1: Not all characters are pictophonetic characters.
- Issue #2: Not all characters can be usefully broken down into components.
How are these two issues resolved? I will talk about that in ⇒ Part 2.
Spoiler: Lots of fudging.
Disclaimer: I am not an expert. At all. Also, this is a strongly simplified explanation, possibly recklessly so. However, I hope it will serve to explain the basic concepts without causing unnecessary confusion.