Are the Chinese characters built up using the 214 radicals, only?

I mean, are there any more strange shapes in the characters, as (smallest) components, that are not listed among the 214 Kangxi radicals?

Yes, a lot. Radicals are not the building blocks of characters, really, they are a set of components used to sort characters in traditional dictionaries (those that aren’t sorted by pronunciation, which is normal today). If you want to refer to parts of characters that recur in other characters, just call them character components!

So, the 214 radicals you refer to is a rather arbitrary subset of components. There are many hundreds of common components, but it’s not possible to have a definitive list as it depends on how you define your terms.

Of course, you could reduce all characters to smaller and smaller components and then into strokes, and that way you could say that everything is covered by the radicals, but this truly meaningless and misses the point entirely. It requires you to break down units that should not be broken down.

For example, take a character like 他. The radical here is 亻(人), which leaves 也. Both 亻 and 也 are functional components (亻 provides meaning, 也 is a sound component, even if that’s not obvious in Mandarin). 也 is not on the list of 214 radicals, so that’s an example of a common component that is not in itself a radical. If you look it up, you’ll see that the radical of 也 is 乙, but now you’re breaking down something that really shouldn’t be broken down, as that’s certainly not a functional component. Also, what do you get from 也 after removing 乙? What function does it have?

There’s a very large number of such examples where you could break it down, but really shouldn’t. Remember, with traditional dictionaries, they needed a way to sort characters, so all characters needed to have a radical to sort them by, but this does not mean that the radical has anything to do with the actual composition, structure or function of the character.

If you’re using Skritter, check out our character course! It goes through all the basics of characters in sixteen video episodes with associated characters (about 160 in total).


Thank you for the careful explanation! I am very close to understanding this. But please finish your “rhetorical” question with respect to the example! :slight_smile: (even if I should not do it). What do I get after removing 乙? You mean, there is no such component at all? Which means that 乙 is an empty component and the remaining part is something that is not even an empty component? :slight_smile: Or if I had a good imagination, I would say it consists of, e.g. 十 and 丿, which now can be considered as “proper” empty components?
Thank you, I have already gone through all the 16 videos several times, and each time I understand something new that escaped my attention before. And still, I have doubts about certain things!
Finally, all the things above mean to me that: although there is some logic in the construction of Chinese characters, the logic is limited, and many of the characters (or components of it) just have to be learned in the way they are without looking for some didactic decomposition of them. Am I close?

One more thing: You have mentioned at some place, that the radicals in the characters do not even stick to the semantic component, although it is typical. Sometimes, (in rare cases), it is the phonetic component, and in your example above with 也, it is neither of them? (The “Maker” just found some part of that doodling that resembles to one of the radicals already in an existing list and just defined that as the radical of that character (irrespective of its role in the character)…)

I think the easiest way to think about it is to consider how characters developed. When new characters were created, people had something in mind. Sometimes, they wrote something that resembled their idea of a real-world object (pictographs), but beyond basic characters like that, they combined characters already in existence. They did so with some thought, so each component was included for a reason.

What I’m saying is that it makes sense to break characters down into those functional components (everybody agrees on that, I think), but it doesn’t make sense to break down components if they aren’t themselves also compounds. 也 is not a compound, and neither is 人, so breaking these characters down into smaller parts (strokes) doesn’t tell us anything about their origin or function. I would argue that it’s not helpful for remembering them either. It’s a bit like trying to make sense of the word “hello” by breaking it down into “ı n c - l l c ↄ”. Can you do it? Yes! Is it meaningful? No.

Then there are characters like 鱼 and 能, which actually aren’t compounds even though they look like compounds if you don’t know anything about their origins (you’ll be familiar with these two examples from the course). In these cases, I think it’s helpful to think of them as compounds because they are so complex and the components do recur in other characters and are rather common in themselves.

Sometimes, (in rare cases), it is the phonetic component, and in your example above with 也, it is neither of them?

也 is not a compound, so talking about functional components is not meaningful. The radical is an arbitrarily chosen stroke that’s used to index the character, that’s all.

So, generally speaking, never break things down to individual strokes, unless that stroke really means something or indicates something (the top line in 天, the bottom line in 本). Do break compounds down (rather obvious). What you want to do with characters that look like compounds but actually aren’t is up to you, but I tend to use the empty components of characters like 能 to make them easier to remember, while keeping in mind that the character has nothing to do with “moon”, “dagger/spoon” and “private”.

1 Like

As Olle has said, radicals are not the building blocks of characters, really, they are a set of components used to sort characters in dictionaries. What I want to add is that they are designed to help one to find out a character in the dictionary when one knows neither the reading nor the meaning of the character. Just as you have deduced, one searches a character by matching some part of that doodling that resembles to one of the radicals already in an existing list. The radicals do not always relate to the semantic nor phonetic components, if they have to, it would hinder the search because neither of these information is known beforehand.

Throughout history many radicals systems have been designed. The earliest one from 說文解字 has 540 radicals. The current one used in Mainland China for the simplified characters has 201 radicals. So one character can belong to different radicals under different systems.

It is crystal clear now! Thank you Olle and pts! I will try to use some traditional dictionary just for practice (I do not know the reading or meaning of most of the characters :slight_smile: )

1 Like

And to add to this, which further adds to the confusion, the list of radicals (any list actually) is a list of components that can be the radical in other characters, it doesn’t mean that they always are. I think this is where much of the confusion comes from. Beginners look at a list of radicals, see 氵(水) and 木, and think that 淋 is composed of three radicals. I’ve yet to come up with a neat and intuitive way of describing how all this works that is suitable for beginners and isn’t too long. :slight_smile:

Yes, you have also mentioned that in one of your article on the character course forum page. I think you have explained it there quite clearly! Thanks! It helped me a lot!

1 Like