Character Lesson 12 – Elements and Radicals of Chinese Characters

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Formation, Elements and Radicals of Chinese Characters

In this Chinese character lesson we will learn four ways how characters were created thousands of years ago, and understand what is a Semantic Element, what is a Phonetic Element, what is a Component and what is a Radical.



  • Formation of Chinese Characters
    • Pictographic Characters 象形
    • Self-explanatory Characters 指事
    • Associative Compounds 会意
    • Pictophonetic Characters 形声
  • Semantic Elements 形旁
  • Phonetic Elements 声旁
  • Radicals 部首


  1. How many types of characters are they and how were they created?
  2. What is a Semantic Element?
  3. What is a Phonetic Element?
  4. What is a Radical?


Formation of Chinese Characters

There are four ways how Chinese Characters were created, over thousands of years ago. The Formation of Chinese Characters are called 造字法 (Zàozìfǎ) .

Pictographic Characters 象形

Pictographic Characters or 象形字 (Xiàngxíng Zì) , literally means “likeness” “shape”; or “to mimic the look”. When the ancients first created pictographs, each character was basically a picture of what it represented.

Example Characters: 日, 月, 雨, 木, 田

Self-explanatory Characters 指事

Self-explanatory Characters or 指事字 (Zhǐshì Zì), meaning “to indicate things”. These characters are basically Pictographic Characters with an indicator.

Example Characters: 上, 下, 刃, 甘

Associative Compounds 会意

Associative Compounds, 会意字 (Huìyì Zì), “understand the meaning”. They are Compound Characters instead of Simple Characters.  Each component of an Associative Compound carries a meaning, and together they make a new “compound” character that has an “associative” meaning.

Example Characters: 明, 林, 雷, 众

Pictophonetic Characters 形声

Pictophonetic Characters, 形声字 (Xíngshēng Zì), literally meaning “shape” and “the sound”.

In these kind of characters, there are two parts, one part indicates the meaning and the other indicates the sound.

Semantic Elements and Phonetic Elements

The part that indicates the meaning is called a Semantic Element, 形旁 (Xíngpáng). The part that indicates the sound is called a Phonetic Element, 声旁 (Shēngpáng).

The pronunciation of the Character is not always 100% the same with the Sound Indicator, or the  Phonetic Element. This is because pronunciation has changed over hundred and thousands of years.

Because combining the meaning indicator and the sound indicator is such an efficient way of creating new characters, “Pictophonetic Characters” makes up the largest percentage of all characters.

Example Characters: 帽, 冷


Components and Elements

Semantic Elements and Phonetic Elements

The meaning indicators in Pictophonetic Characters are called Semantic Elements 形旁 (Xíngpáng), literally means “shape side”; and the sound indicators are called Phonetic Elements 声旁 (Shēngpáng), literally “sound side”. Elements in general are called “偏旁”, literally means “side”.


Character Components are called 部件 (Bùjiàn), literally "parts".Unlike Elements, which either indicate a meaning or a sound. Component is simply just a building block of a character.

There are also different levels of Components, some can be further divided into smaller components while others cannot. But an Element cannot be divided or changed.



A radical can be a single stroke, a Non-Character Component, or a Character Component.

Some Strokes and Components are shared by a large group of characters, so they were selected to be used as Radicals.

We take the Radicals and list them according to number of strokes. Characters  are organized under each Radical. And this is one of the standard systems that’s used to place Chinese characters into a dictionary.

The Radical System was created in the year 100AD and has been used ever since.

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