Thursday, July 5, 2012

Radicals - the Real Building Blocks of Chinese Characters

Learning to read Chinese isn't as difficult as you have been told.  Yes it will take a lot of time to learn to recognize characters, but there is a method to break through the madness.  Should your child start learning Characters right off the bat.  I my opinion no.  I'm a proponent of audio learning first.  But, there is a definite place for starting early with Chinese radicals.

What is a radical?  Radicals are the building blocks that make up Chinese characters.  There are 214 traditional Chinese radicals and around 189 listed in simplified Chinese dictionaries.  Each character is made up of one or more radicals.  Learning to break up characters into their component parts will make memorizing and reading characters much much easier.

Here are my favorite radical books I own and use frequently:

Wei Chu-hsien's How to Recognise Chinese Characters, an Introduction to the 214 Radicals of Chinese Thought and Script.  This very old volume is still available (Google it) but note that it is out of print.  Note - this book is not intended for nor of interest to young children.  It includes fabulous origin diagrams (illustrations of early Chinese characters starting from Oracle Bone through modern script), stroke order diagrams, zhuyinfuhao and yale romanization.  There are two different numbering systems at work in this book - the standard KangXi numbering system and the author's own frequency order.  I found this book available from AbeBooks.

Best Radical Book:  The Composition of Common Chinese Characters an Illustrated Account.  Note that this is not a book on radicals, but includes many many of them.  This book has online reviews stating that it's selection of Oracle and Seal script is the "most definitive."  I like the bilingual definitions, the origin diagrams and the cute illustrations.  This volume could be used with kids as it tends to avoid unpleasant or inappropriate illustrations.  Parent's, always look at the illustrations before showing your kids - some of these may contain topics you find inappropriate.  I found and purchased it from Amazon. You can look up characters by subject category, pronunciation (pinyin), or stroke number.

My Favorite:  The Origins of Chinese Characters By Wang Hongyuan.  Although this volume was not written by a scholar of ancient Chinese, it is a very interesting fun book.  I love the fact that the author includes multiple versions of Oracle Bone and Seal Script for each entry.  The illustrations alone make this book worthwhile.  It is a trip through history.  The author categorizes characters by subject category, by pinyin and includes an English glossary.  It is a great way to build character knowledge by seeing where characters came from.  Although not a book on radicals per se, just as with the volume recommended above, it will have many radicals listed.  This book is also available on Amazon

Chinese Calligraphy from Pictograph to Ideogram, the history of 214 Essential Chinese/Japanese Characters is a book on radicals.  It seems to have questionable oracle bone and origin information but is highly useful.  I always cross check the information provided in this volume with those listed above.  Also available on Amazon

There are other books out there and a few that I own.  For those not listed - I either don't like them (due to inappropriate illustrations for children, lack of origin diagrams - you can tell I really really like oracle bone script/bronze script/seal script diagrams) or I haven't had a chance to see them.

For a free resource, check out my Twitter Feed @CHForFamilies #RadicalADay.  I feature 3-5 radicals a week Monday-Friday.  In one year, you can learn all 214 Traditional and Simplified radical variants.

I have written a workbook introducing the first 50 common radicals.  If you are interested in a fun, child-centered workbook in English and Chinese filled with puzzles and interactive activities, contact me at to purchase a copy.


  1. Learn Chinese are to be able to effectively communicate with friends and or relatives, to more easily travel within Chinese and Chinese speaking areas, to prepare yourself for study abroad in China, for your job and career aspirations, and because China is the fastest growing economy in the world. Thanks.