Character Lesson 12 – Elements and Radicals of Chinese Characters

Oops...Members Only!

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.

Collapse Comments
ʕ•́ᴥ•̀ʔ evil bearPremium Student May 18, 2024 at 8:54 pm

Great course 🙂 Everything was well-paced and explained super well. I find myself figuring out the stroke order just by looking any time I see a character. Chuck and Lili !

bilgehandaoPremium Student February 26, 2023 at 7:45 am

how do we suppose to know if the meaning or sound part is standing left or right side of the word?

ChineseFor.UsAcademic Team February 26, 2023 at 2:11 pm

Chinese characters have meaning and sound components that can appear in different positions, such as left, right, top, bottom, outside, or inside.

We will have to know the meaning and pronunciation of the character, to decide which part represents the meaning and which part represents the sound.

Mathieu BoudreauPremium Student April 6, 2021 at 9:21 pm

Thank you very much for this course!

Roxanne CuPremium Student January 20, 2021 at 5:18 am

Thank you very much. The videos in this course really help.

塞尔居Premium Student October 9, 2020 at 12:06 pm

Good stuff!! Really got me interested in the etymology of Chinese characters.

JanoPremium Student April 9, 2018 at 8:37 pm

Thanks for the writing Course, Chuck and Lili!

nichrPremium Student March 15, 2018 at 5:37 am

This course was very helpful. Thank you so much for making it!

AustinPremium Student January 6, 2018 at 3:14 pm

Fantastic. I’ve never seen components/elements/radicals explained so well. Now I see I had a fundamental misunderstanding of how characters are built.

Raneem AlzannanPremium Student November 16, 2016 at 11:00 pm

谢谢Lili老师 谢谢Chuck老师 for this very useful and interesting course! I can’t believe that! now I can write any HanZi no problem!

Thank you so much Rañeem! We are very glad that you enjoyed the course. If there’s any question or suggestion, please let us know!
-Lili & Chuck

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top