OF COURSE Radicals

Please excuse a short rant.

Guys, you have to learn radicals if you want to learn to read Chinese characters. You have to.

I bring this up because over and over again, I run into claims of a “secret” to or a “new method” for learning Chinese: radicals. Yes, it’s a bit of information you might not know when you first take an interest in Chinese, so it’s definitely worth stating explicitly to any new learner. But it’s not a “revolutionary way” to learn Chinese. It’s one of the fundamental building blocks of the Chinese written language. In fact, the Chinese themselves coud not possibly commit to memory the huge quantity of characters that literate adults know if the system did not somehow build on itself (through semantic elements and phonetic elements).

So it’s not “this great way to learn Chinese”; it’s the only way to really learn Chinese characters, unless you’re going to stop at a few dozen. Just as one does not typically learn to read English by skipping the alphabet, or begin studies in classical music by skipping musical notation, one does not tackle reading Chinese without learning about radicals.

(The latest place I ran into this “secret” was a TED talk called ShaoLan: Learn to read Chinese … with ease!)

Could we use new ways of learning Chinese characters? Absolutely. But radicals, or variations of Heisig’s method are not new. Learning thousands of characters is not effortless however you slice it. But it’s totally worth it!

So yes, learn radicals. Not because they’re some new idea, but because if you’re planning to learn Chinese in all its orthographic splendor, they’re one form of ancient Chinese wisdom that you simply can’t afford to ignore.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I endorse this method 100%. Without the hand radical(s), how can you 掌握 Chinese?

  2. When I first found TED in 2006, I absolutely loved it. It’s been a long downward slide since then.

  3. Just watched the TED talk. Thank God I only need 1000 characters for basic literacy, and only 200 to read restaurant menus and newspapers.

  4. What is the best way of showing the radicals then?

    I’m making an app to teach the 100 most common characters. I’m struggling with a way to show radicals. You can’t post images in the comment section, so I made an Evernote document below and link to it.


  5. Any shortcut you take that is at the cost of some other related knowledge or effort is ultimately a waste if you stick to the language long enough. It’s the same with the “should I learn simplified or traditional?” question. If you’re really serious about getting into the language, you’ll eventually learn both.

    Too much time is wasted worrying about and debating about how to learn a language quickly. But then again, that’s the whole professional polyglot youtube business model, right?

  6. You’re killing it John. I literally listened to this TED talk (audio) last night before bed, and I kind of winced at the notion that all Chinese characters are little pictographs which can be deciphered with a story… AND THAT WAS A NEW IDEA.

    The real punchline? This talk was held in Long Beach California. California. How many Asians.. wait, no.. Chinese do you think were in the audience? How many people ABC’s or otherwise, were in this audience, chuckling to themselves at the notion that this girl had rocked the linguistic world with this trick. 😉 Okay, I’m teasing. It was a fun presentation, but there’s really no ‘trick’ here. Learning Chinese characters is a pain in the ass and a totally inefficient writing system. Best of luck to all.

  7. I recall the former president of the Chinese Language Teachers Association advocating that all CSL teachers should teach radicals first — even before pinyin, in her opinion. It makes everything so much easier.

  8. azerdocmom Says: May 11, 2013 at 1:41 am

    Love this post, John!

  9. Listened to the talk last night via Stitcher. Kept rolling my eyes the whole time.

  10. Seconding Mark, is this what TED has come to? “You only need 1000 to understand the basic literacy; the top 200 will allow you to comprehend 40% of basic literature — enough to read road sign, restaurant menu, to understand the basic idea of the web pages or the newspapers”


  11. Seconding Mark, is this what TED has come to? “You only need 1000 to understand the basic literacy; the top 200 will allow you to comprehend 40% of basic literature — enough to read road sign, restaurant menu, to understand the basic idea of the web pages or the newspapers”


  12. For most characters, the radical is just a vague hint at the meaning, at best. Studying characters, I sometimes imagine that Chinese was designed as some ancient kids homework assignment, and after the first thousand he got tired and finished by combining 扌, ⺡, and 禾 with every phonetic component he could think of. And the radical is nearly useless for some very common characters — 我 (a halberd), 是 (sun), 的 (ummm, white?), etc. Plus, it doesn’t help much at all for pronunciation. That is generally indicated by another component of the character, which may or may not be a radical. How you’re going to learn to pronounce all these characters was missing from the TED talk. So you can “learn to read Chinese” for only certain values of “read”.

    Ok, the examples were cute for a 5 minute talk. But 囚 and 焚 among others are uncommon (both of these are around rank 2500 per Jun Da’s list, and 奻 is so rare it’s not defined in Wenlin, CC-CEDICT or Unihan. So it’s misleading to say that you need X number of characters to read Y% of a text, when you are including these rare ones that won’t contribute to your comprehension.

  13. […] character-savvy among you (who understand the necessity of radicals) will also notice that 侬 and 浓 share the phonetic element 农, and that in this case the person […]

  14. Teach us the radicals O great master for there isn’t a decent fun resource!

  15. I highly recommend this site by University of Iowa in teaching/learning radicals.

  16. Sorry, but I completely disagree.

    In order to learn to read, you do need to learn about character components, but phonetic components are much more important than semantic components. And the list of 214 Kangxi radicals is essentially useless, as many of the radicals listed there can’t even be called “semantic components” by any stretch of imagination.

    A simple example: if you learn the phonetic component 干, it will be very useful, as it will help you decompose many characters and guess pronunciation of some of them. What do you gain by learning the Kangxi radical 51 (干)? In my opinion, nothing. Unless you’re doing a PhD in character etymology, of course.

  17. I absolutely agree that learning Chinese radicals is the first step to learning characters and the language. Take a look at Visual.ly (http://visual.ly/radical-view-chinese-characters) to see why learning radicals is important and not as hard as you think.

    For me, it was all about finding connections to make characters “stick” so I developed a “A Radical View” (http://www.gotcharacters.com/radical-view), a “social network” of radicals grouped by common themes that, together, tell a rich backstory of life in ancient China. Hope you find it helpful.

  18. […] approach taken to Chinese character structure is new and necessary. I’ve complained about certain products claiming that radicals are a revolutionary way to learn characters. They’re […]

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