An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

The Radical (bushou 部首) Systems

Apr 5, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

The classifiers, determinants or radicals (bushou 部首) of a Chinese character serve to categorize words according to their meaning and to place them into a dictionary. The advantage of a radical is that one does not have to know the pronunciation of the character. For most characters, there is no problem to be categorized. But especially characters that are not compounded of a phonetical (shengfu 聲符) and a classifying part (xingfu 形符), are not easy to be classified in such a system. For example, shall the character for "heaven" 天 be classified under "great" 大 or under "one" 一? Having a closer look at some characters, wrong attributions can easily be found, for instance the character for dao 到 "arriving" seems to be compounded from a standing "knife" 刀 to the right and the character 至 as a second part. Indeed, all characters deriving from the radical "knife" have the same shape. But looking at the meaning of the character, we see that in fact, the "knife" is not the radical, but the phonetical part of the character (pronounced dao), and the left part is in fact the radical zhi "arriving". Some writing styles also create the problem to recognize the real radical, for example 荊 jing: is the radical the "top grass" 艸 or the "standing knife" 刀?
The dictionary most accurately describing the characters and their radicals is the Late Han dictionary Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 by Xu Shen 許慎 (d. 147 AD). Xu attributed all characters to 540 radicals. Many of these radicals have only few characters depending on them (like xi "binding together, connecting": 孫 sun grandson, 綿 mian brocade, 繇 yao following up), some Shuowen radicals even stand alone for themselves, like the first of terrestrial branches, 甲 jia. And one can really argue if the character 炎 yan "gleaming", consisting of two "fire" 火, is a radical for its own or rather belongs to the radical 火 huo (one fire). The system of 214 radicals came up during the late Ming dynasty, when characters like 孫 sun "grandson" were rather attributed to the radical zi 子 "son". The first dictionary using the 214 radical system was Mei Yingzu's 梅膺祚 Zihui 字彙 "Character treasure" from 1615, containing more than 30.000 characters. The most famous dictionary using them is the Kangxi dictionary Kangxi zidian 康熙字典 from 1716.

Even the reduction of radicals from 540 to 214 left behind a lot of work for people wanting to be expert in knowing the radicals of all characters. Modern dictionaries therefore have created their own system of radicals, mostly according to the shape of the Chinese character. Characters like 哉 zai (an exclamation particle), 栽 zai "planting", 戴 zai "loading", 裁 cai "tailoring" can now easily be found under the radical - what is actually the phonetical part of these characters - instead of the traditional radicals kou "mouth", mu "tree", che "cart", or yi "clothing". 奉 feng "receiving with respect", 奏 zou "reporting to the throne", 春 chun "spring", 泰 tai "great", 秦 qin (a kind of millet), are now all headed under the radical , while their traditional radicals are gong "raised hands", tao "going forward" (the 214 radical system attributes feng and zou to the radical da "great"), ri "sun" (the Shuowen jiezi only knows the character 萅 for "spring"), shui "water", and he "grain". See also the theme simplification of characters.
Some radicals have a different shape if they stand alone as a word, and as a radical:

  • 刀 "knife" is written as a "standing knife" (lidao 立刀) to the left 到 and standard if on the bottom 券
  • 心 "heart" is written as a "standing heart" (shuxin 豎心) to the left 情 or with four dots if on the bottom 恭, but sometimes written standard 愛寧
  • 人 "man" is written as a "standing man" (danliren 單立人) to the left 仁 or relatively wide if on the bottom 兒
  • 手 "hand" is written with three strokes (tishoupang 提手旁) to the left 抱 or standard if on the bottom 擎
  • 攴 "whip" is normally written like (fanwen 反文) 故, and only seldom written standard 敲
  • 水 "water" is normally written with three dots (sandianshui 三點水) 江 and standard if on the bottom 汞
  • 火 "fire" is written standard if to the left or on the bottom 烤炃 and with four dots (sidian 四點) if on the bottom, but sometimes written standard 焚
  • 犬 "dog" is written with a special shape 狄 called quanyou 犬猶
  • 玉 "jade" is written like a king 王 if to the left, but standard if on the bottom 璧
  • 爪 "claw" is written in small dots 爭 if on the top
  • 网 "net" is written like a horizonal eye 置 (sizitou 四字頭)
  • 艸 "grass" is written with three (or four) strokes on the top (caozitou 草字頭) 華
  • 肉 "meat, flesh, organ" is written like 月 a moon 肺
  • 示 sacral matters are written with four (or five) strokes to the left 福 and standard on the bottom 祟
  • 衣 "clothing" is written with five strokes to the left 衫, and sometimes separated in bottom and top 袞
  • 辵 "walking" is written with four (or three) strokes (zouzhi 走之) 近
  • 阜 "dam" and 邑 "town" are written with three (two) strokes in the shape of an ear (erdao 耳刀) 邯阻
  • 食 "eating" is written with one stroke less 飯
The list below gives an overview over the 214 radicals with their meaning and examples how characters with these radicals look like. The characters in round brackets () are examples for simplified forms whose traditional forms have other radicals.


One Stroke

1 yi one; a horizontal stroke 丁七丈三上下不且世丘丙丞(并=並,专=專,丝=絲,业=業)
2 gun a vertical stroke (also read xin or tui) 丫中串丰(临=臨)
3 zhu a dot 丸主凡(丽=麗,举=舉)
4 丿 pie a stroke curved to the left (also written 撇) 乃久之乏乖乘(乐=樂,乌=烏,乔=喬)
5 yi a bend stroke; the second of celestial stems 九乞也乳乾亂(习=習,书=書,卫=衛,买=買)
6 jue a hook 了予事(争=爭)

Two Strokes

7 er two; two horizontal strokes 于云互五井些亞亟(亚=亞)
8 tou head, above (also written 頭) 亡亢交亥亦亨享京亭亮(产=產)
9 ren man, a person 仁仄今令以件企休來
10 ren man, a person (at the bottom of a character) 允元兄充先光克兒兔(党=黨)
11 ru entering, starting 內全兩兪
12 ba eight; to part, to divide 公六兮共兵其具典兼冀(兴=興)
13 jiong wilderness 内冊册冉再冓冒
14 mi cover 冠冤冥冢冪(写=寫,农=農)
15 bing two dots; ice, cold (also written 冰) 冬冰冶准凌凍凝(况=況)
16 ji small table 凡凰凱凴
17 qu wide opened mouth 凶凸凹出函(击=擊)
18 dao knife, sword, cutting, separating 刁刃分切刑列初利到制前劇
19 li strength, force 功加勇動勞勰勸勉(办=辦)
20 bao embracing (also written 包) 勺勾勿包匈
21 bi spoon, ladle 化北匙
22 fang square box 匝匜匠匡匣匪匯奩
23 xi round box 匹區
24 shi ten; two crossed strokes 千升半午卑卒卓協南博(丧=喪,卖=賣)
25 bu divining 卞占卡卣卦卧(卢=盧)
26 jie seal, stamp 卮卯印危卵卷卸卻却即卿
27 han cliff 厄厚原厥厲(厅=廳,历=歷,压圧=壓,质=質)
28 si self, private (also written 私) 去參(县=縣)
29 you grasping, further, again 叉及友反叔取叛叢収受叚叡(双=雙,变=變,艰=艱,难=難)

Three Strokes

30 kou mouth, opening, sounding 古句另只叫召可台史右司各吉合同名后向
31 wei enclosure (also written 圍) 囚四回因困國團圅
32 tu earth, soil 在圭地坊坐垂型執基堂報堯壞(圧=壓)
33 shi official, scholar 壬壯壹壺壽(声=聲,売=賣)
34 夊 (bottom) sui walking slowly 夏夔(処处=處)
35 夊 (top) zhi overtaking 夆夅 (务=務,备=備); this radical is often omitted and replaced by 34
36 xi evening 外多夙夜夠夢
37 da big, large 天夫夭失夾央夷夸夾奇奈奉奔奏套奧(类=類,头=頭)
38 woman 奶好妻妾始妀如妝妥姜妹委威娘
39 zi child, son; the first of terrestrial branches 孑孔孕字存孚孝孟季孤學孰孺
40 mian roof, cover 宇宙安宋完寫寒
41 cun inch 寺封射專將尉尋對導(寿=壽)
42 xiao small 少尔尖尚尞(尘=塵,単=單,営=營)
43 wang broken or curved leg 尤尨就尬尷
44 shi corpse, body 尺尿尹尾局屬
45 che sprout 屯屰
46 shan mountain, cliff 岡崗岳岸峰(岁=歲)
47 巛川 chuan river, stream 州巡巢
48 gong work 左巧巨巩巫差
49 ji self, own; the sixth of celestial stems 已巳巴巷巽巵
50 jin towel, napkin 市布帆帘席帶常幂帽币幣帅師
51 gan shield 平年幸幹并幷
52 yao small, young 幻幼幽幾(乡=鄉)
53 广 yan house built at a slope 序底度庭廈廠廢廣(庆=慶,应=應)
54 yin walking a long distance 延廷建
55 gong two hands (at bottom of character) 廿弁弄弊(开=開,弃=棄)
56 yi shooting 式弒弌
57 gong crossbow 引弗弘弟弦弱張彎弼彊
58 彐彑 ji pig head 彖彗彘彙彝(当=當,彔录=錄,帰=歸)
59 shan hair, feather 彥彩彬彪彭影彰形彧(须=須)
60 chi walking slowly 彼役往征待很律後得從

Four Strokes

61 xin heart, feeling 忄必忍志忘念忙怕性情恭恥愛
62 ge axe, halberd 戊戌戎成戒我或戚戰戲戔
63 hu house, door 户戸房所扇
64 shou hand, actions 扌才打批折承拜拳掌摯
65 zhi branch 攰攱攳
66 pu whip 攵改攻放故政教救整敲
67 wen word, literature 斌斑斐(斉=齊,斎=齋,斏=艱,対=對)
68 dou a kind of volume measure 料斛斜斝
69 jin a kind of weight measure; axe 斥斧斫斬斯新斷
70 fang square, direction, locality 於施旁旅旋族旗
71 wu do not, no 既旣
72 ri sun, clear 旦旨早旬旱昌明昏易是時暮(旧=舊)
73 yue speaking 曲更書曹曼曾替最會
74 yue moon, month 有朋服朔朗望朝期朦
75 mu tree, wood 未末本朱李材村束東果枣榮柔(术=術,杀=殺)
76 qian missing, gap 次欣欲欺款歎歡
77 zhi stopping 正此步武歨歪歮歯歰歲歴歷歸
78 dai evil 歺死殆殃
79 shu halberd 段殺殿毆
80 mu mother (or 毋 wu do not) 每毐毒毓
81 bi side by side, comparing 毘毚(毕=畢)
82 mao hair, feather 毫毯毦毳
83 shi clan 氐民
84 qi air, breath 氣氛氧
85 shui water 氵永求汗汞沙沒泰泉江洋淼
86 huo fire 灬灰災灾炎炊炒炭烏烈焉焚無熨照焦然焱燕營(灭=滅)
87 zhao claw, hand 爫爬爭爰爲爵(觅=覓)
88 fu father 爸爹爺
89 yao crossing two times 爽爾
90 qiang bed 丬牆(将=將
91 pian slice, piece 版牌牘
92 ya teeth
93 niu cow, ox 牜特牝牢牟物牽犧牲犀
94 quan dog, dog-like animals 犭犮狗猿狀狐狸獵獲獻狊

Five Strokes

95 xuan black, dark 率玈
96 yu jade, stone 王玫瑰班琵琶
97 gua pumpkin, melon 瓢瓣
98 wa tile, earthenware 瓷瓶
99 gan sweet 甚甜
100 sheng giving birth, living 產甥
101 yong using 甫甬甯甩
102 tian field 由甲申男甸畏畢畔畒略畜當番画畫畵疆
103 pi roll, bolt 疏疑
104 chuang sick 病疾癌
105 bo two hands above 癸登發
106 bai white (also read bo) 百的皆皎皓皇皋
107 pi leather, skin 皺皹
108 min plate 盆盈盒盜盡盧
109 mu eye 盲省直眇眠相眉看真眾瞿睿睘督
110 mao spear 矜矞
111 shi arrow 矣知短矩
112 shi stone, rock 砂砍破碧磨
113 shi spiritual, ancestor 礻社神禮祁祟票祭禁
114 rou animal stamping the earth 禹禺禽(离=離)
115 he grain ear 秀私秉秋科秦移
116 xue hollow, hole, hidden 究空穿突窗窟窮竊
117 li stand, erect 站竟章童竭端競竸(竜=龍,竝=並)

Six Strokes

118 zhu bamboo 竿笑第等節
119 mi rice 粉粗粟粵粥粲
120 mi thread, fabric 纟系紀紅素索絲綢緊縣繭
121 fou crock, vessel 罐缺
122 wang net 罒罔罩罰罷
123 yang sheep, goat 羌美羔羞群羨義羚
124 yu wings 翅習翠翻
125 lao old 考耆者
126 er moustache; but, and 耐耍
127 lei handle of a plough 耕耙
128 er ear 耶聃耿聊聯聖聘聚聰聲聽
129 yu brush 肀肆肅肇
130 rou meat, organs of the body 月肖肚育背肺胡能腐
131 chen servant, subject 臥臧臨
132 zi nose, self
133 zhi arrive 致臺臻
134 jiu mortar 舂舅與興舉舊
135 she tongue 舍舒舖
136 chuan lying side by side 舜舝舞
137 zhou boat, ship 航船
138 gen simple, honest, straight 良艱
139 se color, outlook
140 cao grass, herb, plant 艹芙蓉芔芻草花芻茶葉華萬(劳=勞,营=營,etc.节=節
141 hu tiger 虎虐處虛號虢虥
142 hui insect, creeping animal; sometimes read chong 蚉蚊虱螞蟻蛋蚤蜀蟲蠶(虽=雖)
143 xue blood (seldom read xie) 衅衇眾衊蔑
144 xing walk, row, line (also read hang) 衍術衛衡
145 yi clothing 衤袖袋褲襪表衰袁裁裂表
146 襾覀 ya cover 西要覃覇覆

Seven Strokes

147 jian seeing 见規親覺觀
148 jue horn; a kind of volume measure 觚解觕觥觸
149 yan speaking 讠計訓訇記詳認識誓譬變
150 gu valley 谿豀豁
151 dou bean; a kind of vessel 豈豐豎豐豔
152 shi pig 豖豚象豪豫豬豳
153 zhi small hairy animals 豹貌貓
154 bei cowry snail 贝負貞財賊賜贛貧貨貫貿買賣貭貴
155 chi red 赫赭赧
156 zou walking 赴起超越
157 zu foot, leg, walking 跑跨跟跪路
158 shen body 躬躲軀
159 che cart 车軌軟較軍載輩轡
160 xin bitter; the eighth of celectial stems 辜辟辣辦辨辯辭
161 chen morning; the fifth of terrestrial branches 辱農
162 chuo stamping on the earth, going 辶迎進迷逆通遷
163 yi village 阝那邦郎郡部郭都鄉
164 you wine, jar; the tenth of terrestrial branches 配酥醉酸酒醫
165 bian distiguishing, separating (sometimes mistaken as 采 cai) 采釉釋
166 li mile, hamlet 重野量釐

Eight Strokes

167 jin metal, gold 钅釜銀銅釘銳鋒鑒
168 chang long, hair 长镸镽
169 men door 门開間閑關(闘=鬪)
170 fu hill, dam 阝阪防阻附陰陽
171 dai reaching, catching
172 zhui small bird 雀雅雇雁雖雍雙雜難離
173 yu rain 雪雲霧電雷靈
174 qing bluegreen 青靖靚靜
175 fei wings; not 靠靡

Nine Strokes

176 mian face 靦靨
177 ge skin, leather, changing 鞅鞍鞭鞏
178 wei tanned leather 韋韓韜
179 jiu chives, scallion 韮韱韲
180 yin sound 韶韻響
181 ye page, face 页頃項順須領頭顏顯
182 feng wind 风颱飄
183 fei flying 飜飝
184 shi eating 饣飯飲餓餘餐養饕
185 shou head 馗馘
186 xiang odor, perfume 馨馚

Ten Strokes

187 ma horse 马馮馴馳駐驚
188 gu bone 骼髒體
189 gao high, aloft
190 biao hair 髯鬍鬢
191 dou battle 鬦鬧鬪鬬
192 chang offering spirits
193 li a kind of vessel 鬻鬴
194 gui ghost, spirit 魏魂魔魄

Eleven Strokes

195 yu fish 鱼鯉鮑魦鯨魯鯈鯊
196 niao bird 鸟鳧雞鳴鴻鴛鴦鶯鴈鴃鳳
197 lu salt 鹹鹼鹽
198 鹿 lu deer 塵麃麋麉麓麟
199 mai grain 麦麵
200 ma hemp 麼摩魔

Twelve Strokes

201 huang yellow 黄黊黌
202 shu millet 黏黎
203 hei black 黒點黛黱黨
204 zhi needlework 黼黻

Thirteen Strokes

205 min frog, amphibium (seldom read mian) 黾鼈黿鼆
206 ding tripod 鼏鼒
207 gu drum 鼗鼘
208 shu mouse, rat

Fourteen Strokes

209 bi nose, self
210 qi equal, all 齐齋齑

Fifteen Strokes

211 chi teeth 齿齢

Sixeen Strokes

212 long dragon 龙龕龔
213 gui turtle, tortoise 鼋龞

Seventeen Strokes

214 yue flute
Table 7. Comparison of different shapes of radicals
full shape full stroke number examples short shape short stroke number examples
2 剪劒 2 到刻劍
2 仄來倉 2 仁仙侶
4 永沯滎 3 河江浮
4 忍忽愁 3 悌患懷
4 拜拳拿 3 拈括擾
4 災熨炊 4 炁烈煎
4 猋猌 4 狗狐狸
5 瑩璧璽 4-5 環球珮
5 禁齋禮 4 祈神福
6 裁衾裂 5 袒褲襪
8 鎏鎣鑒 5-6 銀銅鈺
9 餐饕養 3 饒餛飩