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The essential Chinese character components that you should learn first (Part II)

In the first part of this series, I introduced some of the basic components of Chinese characters that often indicate meaning.

In this part, I’m going to continue with some more of the essential radicals that every learner should know.

Let’s get stuck in.


犭this component is a variation of the character for dog. You’ll always see it on the left hand side of a character, and it is used in a number of characters for animals, such as 猪 (pig) 狗 (dog) 猫 (cat) 狼 (wolf) and also in 猛 (fierce) 狱 (prison) and 狂 (crazy)

马 means horse. The traditional Chinese version of the radical (馬) came from a picture of a horse. It appears in characters like 驶 (drive) 腾 (jump/gallop) 驻 (to be stationed) and 骑 (to ride)

虫 means insect and comes from a picture of a worm. You can find it in 虾 (shrimp/prawn) 蜡 (wax) 蜂 (bee) and on the bottom of the character in 蜜 (honey)

鸟 is bird, and comes from a picture of a bird. In traditional Chinese it is 鳥. This radical appears in the characters for 鸡 (chicken) 鸭 (duck) 鸦 (crow) 鹅 (goose) and so on.

鱼(魚) is fish, and comes from a picture of a fish on its side (the top would be the head and the bottom the tail fins). This radical makes it very easy to spot fish dishes on menus! Examples include 渔 (to fish) 鲜 (fresh – fish+sheep)  鲤 (carp) 鲸 (whale) and 鱿 (squid)

牜is a version of the full character 牛 which means ox. You’ll see it in 物 (thing/object) 牺 (sacrifice) etcChinese characters food designs

Plants and food

艹 this radical always appears on the top of characters. It means grass, and you’ll see it in a lot of the characters for plants, such as 草 (grass) 花 (flower) 茶 (tea) 药 (medicine) 菜 (vegetable) 荷 (lotus) etc.

禾 this component is also a character in its own right. It means grain, and it appears in 种 (seed/type/to plant) 利 (benefit/profit – grain+knife) 秋 (autumn)  税 (tax) and on the top of the character in 香 (fragrant).

⺮ this is also a pictographic component. It means bamboo, and comes from two twigs of bamboo. It is used in a number of characters for things that are made from bamboo (or used to be made of bamboo in ancient China), such as 管 (pipe/manage) 节 (joint/section) 笔 (writing brush/pen) 签 (thin bamboo stick, toothpick, to sign) 箱 (box) etc.

米 means rice and comes from a picture of grains of rice. It comes up in 料 (material) 粮 (grain) 粉 (powder) and 糊 (paste) etc.

饣(飠) is the radical that means food, and it appears in 饭 (rice) 饱 (to be full) 饮 (drink) 饿 (hungry) 饥 (starving) 馋 (greedy), and many more.

Ok, that’s it for this part. Hope you learnt something new, and I’ll back tomorrow with the final part of these series to help you crack Chinese characters.

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  • Hans Dunkelberg

    Great! Such an explanation can give one some hope that one will finally succeed in understanding Chinese when one has, like I, occupied oneself with the language for about half a year and still does not grasp more than single expressions, in watching TV or listening to the radio. With European tongues, a European everywhere discovers resemblances toward things he already knows. A European listening to Chinese, as opposed to this, can perhaps overhear some very few modern internationalisms like “DNA”. As the understanding of a language builds itself up exponentially, with an increase of the percentage of what you fathom, such a reduction of the fraction of old acquaintances massively hampers the learning process. The set-scenes connecting European languages typically are of a similar semantic nature like the radicals of Chinese. Even though the latter do not seem to tell too much about pronunciation it, in view of this, at least encourages me to perceive how I might one day be furthered by a knowledge of them, when I, one day, might begin to try to read Chinese texts.