Jump to content
Learn Chinese in China

What differentiates radicals and other character components?

Recommended Posts

Unless I'm mistaken and all character components can be considered radicals, what makes certain components radicals and others not radicals? I'm not talking about the obvious ones that can't stand alone as characters, like 亻 and 氵, I'm talking about components like the 女 in 妾, which Wikipedia claims is a radical.

Link to post
Share on other sites
Site Sponsors:
Pleco for iPhone / Android iPhone & Android Chinese dictionary: camera & hand- writing input, flashcards, audio.
Study Chinese in Kunming 1-1 classes, qualified teachers and unique teaching methods in the Spring City.
Learn Chinese Characters Learn 2289 Chinese Characters in 90 Days with a Unique Flash Card System.
Hacking Chinese Tips and strategies for how to learn Chinese more efficiently
Popup Chinese Translator Understand Chinese inside any Windows application, website or PDF.
Chinese Grammar Wiki All Chinese grammar, organised by level, all in one place.


To Skyelar:

Character decomposition and related issues in etymology are partly ancient history, partly the imaginings of scholars through the ages that have earned a place in tradition, partly the original imaginings of current scholars in that subject, and partly your own (seeing things that are helpful to you whether or not anybody else sees it). 


What I wanted as a beginner in the language was a single, consistent, conservative, legitimate-enough source for this kind of info (which I could simply allow to settle all such questions in my mind). My choice was the ABC Dictionary, whose electronic form was only available in Wenlin at that time, as far as I knew, but which now comes with Pleco too. (But I don't remember whether or not all of the etymological stuff is also accessible in Pleco.)) I never regretted this decision and I still use Wenlin every day. But by now maybe someone here can point you to a website etc.


Here is why you need not get too involved in your original question:

The number of radicals, and which character-features would be called radicals, were questions decided by the authors or compilers of very famous dictionaries over the centuries, and probably by committees commissioned by universities and governments. But different authors or groups made different decisions because they had different ideas about how the dictionary should be subdivided and organized. So, there is no single authoritative answer. But you'd like to settle it and other such questions with one reliable and useable answer and move on, right? That's what I meant in the second paragraph above.

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

Radicals (部首) are simply a means of arranging characters and looking them up in traditionally-arranged dictionaries.


Traditional dictionaries are arranged into sections (called 部 in Chinese). Each character in a given section shares a common graphic component. That graphic component appears at the beginning (or "head" 首) of the section, hence the term 部首, which would be better translated as "section head." Some people use "radical" to mean "any component of any character, regardless of function or lack thereof," but strictly speaking, this is not accurate.


Some people think radicals are the same as meaning components (semantic components), but that's also not the case. Sometimes the radical is a sound component. Sometimes it's a corrupted component. Sometimes it's a part of a sound or meaning component.


So it's important to keep in mind what radicals are, and leave them out of everything else. They're used to look up characters in dictionaries, and that's it. When talking about etymology, the word "radical" should not enter the picture. Unless, of course, you're telling someone which section of the dictionary to find the character in. :)

  • Like 4
Link to post
Share on other sites

So what do you call anything else in a character that is not a radical? A component? And if so what kind of components are there?

Link to post
Share on other sites

Here's an example from Wenlin's entry for 好. The triangles are links to the given info:



Here is Wenlin's explanation of how it does things. Of course, when I copied and pasted the trangle-links did not follow, and you probably don't have the fonts to show everything.


Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and select your username and password later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Click here to reply. Select text to quote.

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...