By Lucy Wang
Some students find learning to read and write characters the most difficult part of learning Chinese, and they wonder if there are any rules to help them along. Fortunately for them (and you, perhaps), the answer is yes. Students sometimes remark that Chinese characters seem to be random pictures. Although some Chinese characters did in fact originate from pictures, they're not just a random arrangement of strokes.
The part of the character known as the radical (or 部首/bùshǒu in Chinese) can aid language learners in deciphering a character's meaning or pronunciation. In paper dictionaries, they are also used to arrange the order of the characters, so being able to recognize radicals is an important part of knowing the language. Over the next few issues, I'd like to explain some of the more commonly seen radicals.
This month, I'm going to introduce the "bèi" radical (贝). This character means shell and does in fact resemble a shell in appearance. As a radical, it's often seen in characters related to money, valuables, or trades. There are historical reasons for this: Several thousands of years ago, cowry shells were used as currency. Shells are believed to be the earliest known form of currency in use in China.
You can see 贝 (traditional 貝) in all of the following characters, sometimes on the left side and sometimes at the bottom, depending on the structure of the character.
财 (cái) treasure, money
赌 (dǔ) bet, gamble
赎 (shú) redeem
赐 (cì) grant, gift
账 (zhàng) account
贩 (fàn) sell
购 (gòu) buy
货 (huò) goods
贪 (tān) be greedy for
贫 (pín) poor
贵 (guì) expensive
贱 (jiàn) cheap, despicable
赔 (péi) compensate, stand a loss
赚 (zhuàn) gain, profit
Stay tuned until next month, when we'll introduce a "feminine" radical.
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 54 ("big love").