Chinese Calligraphy Technique and Learning: The Composition and Building of Chinese Characters

An Introduction to the Radicals in Chinese Characters

Once you’ve got a general idea of the Basic Strokes and their Order, you can easily begin to expand your knowledge of the final level of structure within each Chinese Character: Radicals. A Radical is somewhat similar in function to a Western letter. One of the primary differences is that whereas Western words are written horizontally and may be of very different lengths, all Chinese characters are meant to be of a standard size, no matter how many ‘letters’ they contain. Secondly, Radicals may relate either to the sound of a character or to its meaning. Each Character represents a single syllable. In fact, Chinese has so few available syllables that representing meaning in other ways than simple consonants and vowels is necessary to differentiate essentially identical spoken words. In speech, this differentiation is achieved by tone. In writing, differentiation is achieved using Radicals.

What are Radicals in Chinese Characters?

There are 214 basic radicals. Many of them, especially with the emergence of Simplified Chinese, have variants that are used in Characters with so many Radicals that there is not enough space to gracefully execute all of them in the space provided. Radicals contain anywhere from 1 to 17 strokes, and many of them may be Characters in their own right. Some ‘character-radicals’ are rarely used alone, as they are considered quite archaic. It will be helpful to have a basic familiarity with Radicals before you begin tackling the most complex characters. Wiktionary has a very good index of radicals that is available here.

How to use Radicals when Building Chinese Characters?

There are basically three different strategies employed when using Radicals to build Characters. Radicals are most often written in series from left to right or from top to bottom. That being said, the thousands of years in which characters have had to be created resulted in this simple rule becoming increasingly muddled. As you can see from the supplied diagram, essentially vertical or horizontal characters may gain new radicals on any side: left, right, top or bottom. Another basic structure is the enclosure. One or more radicals can be enclosed, either totally or partially, by another radical. It is important to pay close attention to characters where the enclosure runs along the left and bottom sides of a character, as this is one of the major exceptions to Basic Stroke Order: execute the bottom enclosure at the very end of writing such characters.

The Role of a Radical for the Meaning of a Chinese Character?

Radicals may be used either for their phonetic sound or for their original pictographic meaning. Once the very basic original pictographs had become standardized, the Chinese language had to come up with inventive strategies to create new words.

For concepts that had no readily rendered physical appearance, it was often necessary to pair characters together in such a way as to suggest some essential attribute rather than the thing itself. Hence, as pictured, the graphs for the sun and moon, when paired, suggest brightness. Likewise, simply pairing two trees together suggests a forest. A man and a tree, however, relates to the rest one takes beneath a tree.

The second major strategy for creating characters was to retain the sound of one radical, often on the right side, and then add a classifying Radical on the left. This required the reader to be familiar with spoken Chinese, as it would only be clear what the written word was if you were familiar with the different uses of specific phonetic elements. As you can see from the diagram, some of these pronunciations have shifted over time: phonetic radicals can give you clues about the pronunciation but are not always precise.