Kangxi Radicals Explained (Part 2)

Kangxi Radicals Explained (Part 2)

This is Part 2. You should read Part 1 first.


Radicals are used to organize Chinese characters. The one component of a Chinese character that refers to its meaning is identified, and the character is considered to be in the corresponding category.

Here are some examples:

(, 她 and 姓 belong to the ““-category; 蚊 belongs to the ““-category; belongs to the “戈”-category; belongs to the ““-category; 节 belongs to the “艹”-category; belongs to the “” category; belongst to the ““category)

This principle works well enough for a great number of Chinese characters, but not for all. In particular, it works for pictophonetic characters, which contain…

  • a component that refers to a concept (a depiction of something related to the concept)
  • and
  • a component that refers to a sound (a depiction of something whose name sounds like that sound)

(For some few pictophonetic characters the phonetic component is considered to be the radical. I don’t know why.)

end of recap

Issue #1
Not all characters are pictophonetic characters

You cannot analyze all Chinese characters according to their pictophonetic structure. Not all of them are pictophonetic.

For example, The character is just pictorial without a phonetic component. Not a problem really, it makes sense to put it into the ““-category. Similarly, for a character that uses the same component repeatedly: goes in the ““-category.

But then there are characters like 明, meaning “bright”. It is made up of slightly squished versions of (“sun”) and (“moon”) because both are shiny. The sound of the spoken words doesn’t enter into it.


“So which one is the radical?”
“It’s .”
“Because I say so.”

And then there are still other and more complex ways in which Chinese characters are structured. In some cases the etymology may not be known or agreed upon, which is a problem when you want to sort them based on their etymological structure.

Solution: In those cases, where the main organizing principle doesn’t hold, one component of the character gets arbitrarily designated as the radical.

In truth, I don’t know if it’s truly arbitrary. Seems unlikely to me, actually. Presumably some thought went into it at least.

Think of an organizing system for a library. Some books might fit just as well into Category A as into Category B, but you don’t want to rip them apart or buy two of each of those, so you have to make a choice. Might be completely random, might be based on a secondary rule (“when in doubt use Category A”), might be based on the individual case (“all other books by that author are in Category B”), might be based on practical considerations (“there’s only room for it in the shelf for Category C”).

So you might not be able to figure out where to look up the character 明 on your own, except by trial and error, but you will find it in the same place in different reference books. In principle.

(There actually are guidelines, though not perfectly reliable, for telling which part of a character is the radical. Most basic rule of thumb: The radical is most likely the component on the left or the one on top of the character.)

In practice, modern digital reference tools (=an app on your phone) probably will enable you to look up an unknown character without having to identify the radical.

Issue #2
Not all characters can be usefully broken down into components.

Another problem are characters that don’t break down into components (in the sense we’ve used the term so far) at all, or at least not in a way that makes for a usable system.

Consider a bunch of simple (one component only) characters, which never appear as components in other characters. Does each of them get its own category as a radical with just one character, itself, in it? That doesn’t seem elegant or practical.

The solution isn’t really elegant either, but it’s fairly practical.

In some cases, you can deconstruct the character into components after all, if you try a bit harder. Take the character , for instance. It’s a little picture of an umbrella which means “umbrella”. It’s clearly its own thing.

However, if you take it apart based on visual appearance only, then you can subdivide it into components. So belongs to the ““-category, like it or not. The good news is: That’s just what you might likely guess to be the case if you didn’t know about the etymology at all and/or were aware that there is no ““-radical in the system.

If approach that doesn’t work either it’s necessary to make up new radicals.

Therefore there exist a small number of radicals that are not really the result of identifying components based on the etymological structure of characters. Instead, they are just distinguishing features, identifiable elements that occur in several characters.

For example, the “hook”-radical:

The ““-radical does not mean “hook”. Arguably, it does not have any meaning as an independent character at all. The characters ‘containing it’ were not constructed (or were ever believed to have been constructed) by combining a ““-character with another character or by elaborating on a ““-character, but instead are characters who contain a vertical line with a small hook to the left at the end and, for want of other applicable criteria, are sorted by that feature.

Other Issues

There are a number of other possible sources of complications. I won’t (for a number of reasons) describe them in detail, but I will just quickly mention a few:

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.


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