In english words consist of letters. Of course we look up words in dictionary based on the first letter.

What about the chinese? We look it by radicals. Are radicals just the first letter or can we say that chinese characters composed of characters and those characters are composed of radicals all the way?

If radicals are like the first letter, how do we find out the radicals in a word if there are several radicals in the word.

For example, let's look at the word ni that means you 你. It consist of character ren ru and xiao.

How do I know that I should look that up by ren and not by ru or xiao? Here, the radical ren is on the left. Is it always the case?

  • YouTube video from Outlier Linguistics
    – Michaelyus
    Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 14:31
  • 4
    This is not a reply to your question, but based on this question and your other recent questions, it seems to be that you would benefit greatly from reading an introduction to Chinese characters. You will get much more coherent information and you will save yourself a lot of trouble and frustration. It's good when students ask questions, but you can't base your studying only on asking about specific things, based on assumptions that may or may not be correct.
    – Olle Linge
    Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 15:25
  • 1
    For this particular question, I suggest you watch the video recommended by @Michaelyus. Radicals can be largely or entirely ignored and it's not at all important as a student to know which component is the radical. It is important to understand how characters work, what the components mean and what functions they play in particular characters, but which is the radical is more or less useless in this day and age of electronic dictionaries.
    – Olle Linge
    Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 15:28

1 Answer 1


Radicals like index/directory, but not first letter (in most cases).

I suggest you go to a library or book shop to borrow / buy a Chinese dictionary (paper format). Or, visit here to experience the online dictionary. The experience will be more direct than the text explanation.

In the other answer, I mentioned that the dictionaries in China are arranged by Pinyin.

A a 阿 an 安 ang 昂 ao 奥 …
B ba 八 爸 bi …

Z za 匝 …

So if you know the pinyin of 你 is nǐ, you can directly turn to N, just like what you do in English dictionaries. So the “first letter” of 你 is N (“你”字的音序是 N). Sometimes, if you need to arrange list of people's names, arranging in Pinyin of surname (以姓氏音序排序) is common. B 白冰; C 陈丽华; L 李琦; O 欧阳爽; W 王勇; Z 张志远. (The other common methods is arranging in the stroke number of surname 以姓氏笔画数排序: 2 丁利; 4 王勇; 5 白冰; 7 陈丽华)

If you don't know the pinyin of the characters, you then have to guess the radical, just like you need to guess the quotient of 52 ÷ 7; maybe it is 8, 8 × 7 = 56, it is larger than 52; let's try 7, 7 × 7 = 49, 52 - 49 = 3; therefore 52 ÷ 7 = 7 R 3.

Native speakers know some commonly used radicals in elementary school. For character 你, native speakers apparently knew that 亻 is a radical, but 尔 is not a radical. How do they learn to guess radicals faster? Their elementary school teacher will give them some skills / tips. But, if there are two radicals, the dictionary is usually included at the same time, but the one that is not recommended is marked with ° sign (even some dictionaries do not mark it).

Traditional Chinese dictionaries in Taiwan usually arrange the characters by Bopomofo (注音|zhùyīn) such as ㄅ (b in Pinyin), ㄆ (p in Pinyin), ㄇ (m in Pinyin), ㄈ (f in Pinyin). Cantonese dictionaries usually arrange the characters by Jyutping (粵拼|yuèpīn), which is a phonetic alphabet in Latin script (A-Z) designed for Cantonese. But all these dictionary offer radicals index/directory.

Note: I cannot guarantee that there is no dictionary arranged pages by radicals. But Pinyin, Bopomofo and Jyutping are common.

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