Culinary Chinese 101: Chinese Radicals…

Okay, I admit it… Today’s opening picture is a really, really bad pun. The protesters in question apparently have some issue with a trade pact, or something… I don’t know what point they are trying to make exactly, nor do I understand the significance of the flowers, but I am fairly sure that somebody, somewhere quite likely dismissed these people as ‘radicals’ …

The topic of radicals, you may recall, is something I have mentioned several times now and, on each occasion, I have promised that I would be shedding some light on the whole issue. What is going to follow is a little bit technical but it is very important… Indeed, I can pretty much guarantee that today’s topic will be one of the most important things you need to know. Bear with me and I will try to make it as painless as possible…

Take a look at the above chart… Basically, this is a list of (almost) all the components that are used to construct Chinese characters. By now, you will be able recognize, and possibly even identify some of them.

A little later on, we will see how these special components (known as ‘radicals’) can help us to classify and sort characters but, for now, I just want you to appreciate that a familiarity with these 214 basic components will help you to mentally ‘break down’ characters into meaningful units. This will ultimately make identifying and remembering them a whole lot easier.

By the way, you will probably be relieved to know that memorizing all 214 of these components (and some additional variants) is not strictly necessary. Some of these so-called radicals are rarely used (‘艮’ for instance, is used in only 5 characters) while others, such as the ‘three dots water’ (氵) component that we encountered last week are used in many, many characters. In our lessons, we will be concentrating on the more common ones; particularly those used to construct culinary-related characters.

The above picture shows an excerpt from an on-line list of Chinese radicals. The actual list is available here, and you should really bookmark it for future reference. There are plenty of other lists available but this site is especially useful.

As you can see, the table lists the various radicals and, where necessary, their variant forms. Each of the main forms has a standardized identification number assigned to it and these numbers appear in the left-most column.

The right-most column also contains numbers but, in this case, it identifies the number of strokes making up the main form (ie: not the variant forms) of each radical. We have discussed the issue of stroke counts already in earlier posts and being able to count the strokes in each radical is as important as being able to count the strokes making up stand-alone characters.

Finally, you will also see that there is a name associated with each radical. Now, I should point out that these names are not standardized and different radical lists use slightly different labels. That being said, though, most of the radicals we will be looking at have much the same name across different lists. What is important is that identifying radicals by name helps you identify and remember the components of characters.

Remember ‘Grass-Claw-Tree’?

I have been repeating ‘Grass-Claw-Tree’ as a mnemonic device every time we have dealt with the famous 菜 character introduced to you in the very first lesson. Once you understand a little about radicals, the purpose of that should start to make a little more sense to you.

Let’s look at a few important concepts:

• Although a character may be composed of more than one component found in the radical list, each Chinese character has one, and only one, radical associated with it;
• The radical for each character can often give you a clue to the nature of its general meaning;
• Radicals provide a means of classifying, indexing and sorting characters into meaningful lists.

The above diagram, which we first saw a few weeks ago, identifies the radical for the 炒 character. This component (forming the left half of the character), is a variant of the main ‘fire’ radical, and I have already introduced this particular variant to you as the ‘dancing fire guy’ . As the 炒 character itself means to sauté or stir-fry (both cooking methods), we can see how the radical classifies the character into a group of things having something to with heat or fire.

If you look at your radical list, however, you will also see that both of the components appearing on the right side of the character also appear there. This then begs a question which may be occurring to you at this point:

How do you tell which component in a character is the radical?

Unfortunately, there really isn’t a simple answer to that question and it is sometimes very difficult to identify the radical when you encounter a character for the first time. Generally, the radical tends to appear on the left of left-to-right structured components, and tends to appear at the top of characters with a vertical structure. Unfortunately, this is only true part of the time and the best I can tell you is that, as you become familiar with more and more characters, you get more practiced at identifying what is likely to be the radical. For now, though, I will be identifying the radical each time we encounter a new character in future lessons.

Finally, look at the 5 characters pictured above. We know the first one but we can also see that the left hand component for each of them is the same. The left component, ‘dancing fire guy’, is the radical for all the characters and thus we can tell that they all have something to do with fire or heat. In point of fact, each character represents a different cooking method and we will look at each of them in coming weeks.

The numbers below the characters are (as you may have guessed) the stroke counts for each of them. If you take a closer look, you will note that the 5 characters are arranged from the lowest stroke count to the highest. Can you see, now, how large numbers of characters might be organized into a useful order? Clearly, if many different sorts of characters are sorted first by radical, and then each of these groups is sorted by stroke count, you would then have a method for finding a given character in the collection.

Well, we still have a few more concepts to get under our belts but we are now getting pretty close to the point where we will be able to use a Chinese dictionary and, just as importantly, make our own vocabulary lists. Stay tuned…

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  1. Pardon me for saying so but this really is radical. Great series John. I just wish I had the energy to dive in.

  2. How come you made things more difficult? I can;t understand it at all, although I am more Chinese than you!

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