The Importance of Knowing Chinese Radicals

Chinese radicals (Bu-Shou) are graphical components of Chinese characters. One of the main functions of radicals is to look up characters in a Chinese dictionary, as all characters are listed under specific radicals.

Nowadays, while characters are still being listed according to radicals, many dictionaries also offer pinyin look-up. Most smartphone apps accept handwriting characters as an input method, allowing children to simply hand write the character into an app, which will tell them the pronunciation, radical, and other components.

Many parents may thus wonder, is there any need to teach radicals to help our children look up words in Chinese dictionaries? To some parents, Chinese radicals seem to be too numerous and too archaic to teach and too difficult to learn.

These certainly are very valid questions upon which even Chinese educators ponder.

However, if your goal is for your child to become literate in Chinese, or at least, read a decent number of characters, it behooves you to teach your child radicals.

Let us look at how the knowledge of the logic behind the taxonomy of Chinese characters will help your child become literate.

1. It gives a general sense of what category a character belongs to

There are over 20,000 characters in the written Chinese language. A highly educated person can be expected to know ~8,000 characters. In order to read the newspaper, one needs about 2-3,000 characters.

That is a LOT of unique characters! It is not uncommon for a native Chinese to come across unknown or unfamiliar characters.

This is when radicals can come to the aid.

Like the taxonomy of organisms in science, radicals group characters together under a broad category. For instance, in science, if you say an organism belongs in the Kingdom Animalia, you know it’s not a plant, or a bacteria, or even a fungus. It’s still a wide wide field of possibilities, but you know it’s an animal and have a general sense of what it is.

In terms of Chinese characters, if you see the radical 宀, you know it generally has to do with houses or buildings of some sort. If you see the radical 艹, you know the character generally has to do with plants (but not trees).

List any radical - even the hard and obscure ones, and if you have a general knowledge of radicals, you can have an idea of what the word means or represents - even if you do not actually know the character.

As your child becomes a more advanced reader, the radical will give your child enough of a hint as to what “family” this character belongs to, and given the context of the surrounding characters, as well as the other sound and meaning components of the character, your child has a good chance of “guessing” that character. In fact, this is how more advanced readers eventually pick up characters.

2. Guess and remember the meanings and pronunciations of characters

As we mentioned already, radicals can help with the meaning of the character or the sound of the character. Combine this with your child’s general understanding of how components can work together to form a Chinese character, this will again, assist your child in guessing an unknown character.

For instance, in the character 媽, your child can see the radical, 女, and know it is related to women. Then your child sees the component 馬 and guesses that it is probably a character that sounds like /ma/ (or perhaps also is related to horses). Given their knowledge of the Chinese language, your child comes up with two possible guesses. This character is either the word for “mother” or a word for “mare” (female horse). This is where comprehension and contextual guessing would come in handy. Most would likely guess that the word is “mother.”

In addition, it will help your child remember characters.

In the above example, your child can teach themselves to remember the character by saying, to themselves, it has the 女 radical so it’s related to women, and the sound component 馬 because 媽 sounds like 馬 but with a different tone.

As there are many unique characters in Chinese to remember, the more visual aids you equip your child with, the better.

3. Helps your child look up characters in Chinese dictionary

While this may be a dying art, it’s still useful to know. Your kid might not always be in a situation where there is internet access, or even access to an app. For school or tests, they may require your child to use a dictionary, and the more skilled your child is at identifying possible radicals, the easier they can use a Chinese dictionary.


If you do decide to teach your child radicals, we do NOT recommend you force your child to memorize all 214 of them and flash cards at them repeatedly until they can spit it back out. It may be tempting because it’s an easier method (in terms of figuring out which radicals your child knows), but it’s a surefire way of killing any desire to learn or remember radicals.

In a future post, we will have some suggested activities with which you can teach your children radicals in more exciting ways, but in the meantime, just remember that radicals are like clues. Your children can become detectives as they try to figure out what clues the character is giving you about its meaning or sound.

In addition, you can just start pointing out the radicals of words they already know - as well as pointing out when characters share a radical. Using our previous posts about Compare and Contrast, you can help build up their observational skills, too!

For more details on 部首, its brief history and the distribution of the 70 部首 taught in the Basic Chinese 500 course, please read our post 認識漢字部首 (post in Chinese).