September 23


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

By fluentin

September 23, 2015

In Part I and Part II, I introduced some of the top Chinese radicals and some key examples of how they are used.

In this part, I’m going to finish off our quick tour of the components of Chinese characters that often indicate an area of meaning.

Sure, there are other radicals, but many of them are more difficult to explain in terms of how they affect the meaning of a character. Others, like 十, which is a cross and卩 (seal?) are much more abstract, and it doesn’t really make that much sense to learn their meanings as components.

If you are familiar with all the ones we have covered so far, then you are doing great already!

Ok, let’s get back into it.

Objects and materials

纟means silk, and the traditional Chinese version of it (糹) originally came from a picture of pieces of silk. Many of the characters that contain it are related to silk or were originally made out of silk, such as 结 (tie) 组 (to organise) 维 (a fibre) 织 (weave) and so on.

钅(釒) means metal, and usually appears on the left hand side of a character.  You will see it in characters like 钱 (money) 银 (silver) 钟 (bell) 铁 (iron) 铜 (steel) and 锋 (sharp point). It also appears in many of the other chemical elements, like 铅 (lead)

刂 This component appears on the right hand side of characters, and it means knife. You’ll find it in 划 (scratch) 刻 (carve) 刑 (punishment) 刺 (stab) and 剑 (sword) , as well as some characters that are less obviously related to knives.

弓 This one means bow. It originally came from a picture of a bow, and you’ll see it in 强 (strong) 引 (draw/pull)  and 弦 (string).

石 on its own means rock or stone, but you’ll also often see it on the left hand side of characters like 破 (smash) 础 (foundation/base) 硬 (hard) 矿 (a mine) 碎 (smash into pieces) and 磁 (magnetic).

玉 means jade. As part of a character it is normally written as 王, and you will see it words for materials and precious objects like 珠 (pearl) 玻璃 (glass) 玛 (agate) 琢 (polish) and so on.

巾 was originally a picture of a piece of cloth hanging up. It means ‘piece of cloth’ and it can appear in different places within characters. You’ll find it in 带 (belt) 布 (cloth) 席 (mat/seat) 币 (money/currency) 饰 (decoration) etc.

衤means clothing. It has five strokes, and there is a similar radical which has just four strokes (one less) and has a different meaning. You’ll see the clothing radical in 补 (patch up) 袖 (sleeve) 裤 (trousers/pants) 衫 (shirt) 裙 (skirt) and many others.

贝 comes from a picture of a cowrie shell. It appears in some words that relate to money or wealth, like 资 (capital, resources) 费 (cost) 财 (wealth) 货 (goods) 贵 (expensive) and others.


宀 is a picture of a roof. It appears in 家 (family) 安 (safe) 容 (contain) and many other unrelated characters.

穴 is a character in its own right, which means cave or sometimes acupuncture point. It also comes up in characters like 空 (empty) 窗 (window) 窝 (nest) and so on.

厂 means slope or cliff. You write the line on the top first from left to right, then the second stroke, from the top sloping down. It comes up in characters like 岸 (shore, mountain+cliff+the bit at the bottom) 涯 (boundary, limit) and 崖 (precipice)

门(門) means a doorway or gate. It appears in a lot of characters, like 间 (room) 闭 (shut) 阔 (wide) 闸 (sluice). However, you’ll also see it in a lot of contexts that have nothing to do with this original meaning. But that’s Chinese characters for you….


车(車) comes from a picture of a carriage and effectively means ‘vehicle’. You’ll see it in 军 (military – a war chariot with a lid on top) 转 (turn/transfer) 输 (to transport) 库 (warehouse) 轨 (track/rail) and on the bottom in 载 (to be loaded with).

疒 has three dots on the outside and means sick/diseases. It often comes up in all kinds of medical characters, like 病 (sick) 疗 (to treat) 疾 (illness) 疯 (crazy) 疼 (sore) 痒 (itch) and so on.

礻looks like one of the radicals I mentioned above but has one stroke fewer. Zoom in to have a better look, and don’t get these confused. This component means something like ‘altar’ and you’ll see it in characters that relate to local customs/religions or ceremonies, such as 福 (blessing/happiness) 礼 (ceremony) 神 (god/spirit) 社 (society) 祖 (ancestor) 祝 (express good wishes) 祥 (auspicious) and 祸 (misfortune). It is characters like this that really give you a window into traditional Chinese society!

酉 is a picture of an ancient wine vessel. You’ll see it in 酒 (alcohol) 醒 (wake up/sober up) 酸 (sour/acid) 醉 (drunk) 酿 (brew) and 酬 (reward).

Ok. That’s a lot of knowledge!

These three posts introducing Chinese characters are something you can keep coming back to. Don’t expect to take in everything at once.

I hope these articles have helped you to get a head start in learning to read Chinese, hopefully you learnt a lot, and if you like them, feel free to print them out or share them around using the buttons below!

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