According to the Wikipedia article Radical (Chinese characters), the Chinese name for radical is 部首 (bùshǒu; literally "section header"). The term appears to originate from the 2nd-century dictionary 說文解字 / Shuōwén Jiězì. Another term I've seen is 偏旁 (piānpáng), e.g. on Wikibooks.

However, what I'm mainly interested in are Chinese names for different categories of radicals (if such names are in use), i.e.

  • semantic components such as 氵for water and 亻for human being,
  • phonetic components,
  • components such as 丿, which are used as radicals in dictionaries (for lookup purposes) without having a meaning of their own.

I'm mainly interested in the Chinese term for the fist category, since that category is probably most helpful when learning Chinese characters.

(Please note that I'm not asking for names of individual radicals, since that has been covered in, e.g. Understandable names of the radicals or types of character composition.)

up vote 6 down vote accepted
  • 部首: Radical, used for indexing dictionaries (Shuowen radicals, Kangxi radicals, radicals in modern dictionaries, etc.).
  • 聲符1: Phonetic component. Also called 音符, but 音符 may also mean ‘musical note’.
  • 意符: Semantic component. The famous paleographer Qiu Xigui 裘锡圭2 divides 意符 into two subcategories3:
    • 義符: meaning component (it is the meaning of the component that is relevant),
    • 形符: pictographic component, form component (it is what the component depicts that is relevant).
  • 偏旁: This term is quite vague, but probably the most frequent of them all, especially in informal speech. It may mean 部首 (especially a standing one, on the left- or right-hand side of a character), but it also may refer to any component or a part of a character, semantic or phonetic.
  • 筆畫: Calligraphic stroke.

1. Instead of 聲符、義符、形符 you can also write/say 聲旁、義旁、形旁.
2. 裘锡圭《文字学概要》, English version: Qiu Xigui, Chinese Writing, translated by Gilbert L. Mattos and Jerry Norman
3. The distinction (or lack thereof) between 意符, 義符 and 形符 is quite subtle and depends on the theory you subscribe to. This video contains a nice English explanation of the difference between meaning components and form components.

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