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 focusing on 女 (nǚ), which is both a radical and a character. In oracle bone script, 女 is a pictograph of a woman crouched down with her hands crossed in front of her chest. From this, you can probably guess that 女 means female and thus many words related to female contain the radical 女. While the relationship to female is very clear in some characters, such as 妈 (mā/mother), others are less direct, such as 好 (hǎo/good). 好 consists of 女 and 子 (zǐ/child). A woman giving birth to a child is usually regarded as a good thing. Hence, the meaning good.
女 (nǚ) – female, girl, woman
她 (tā) – she, her
妻 (qī) – wife
妹 (mèi) – younger sister
妞 (niū) – girl, "chick"
妓 (jì) – prostitute
One of the many ways Chinese words are formed is by putting a meaning radical with a pronunciation component. In the following words, 女 represents the meaning and the component on the right-hand side of the character reveals the pronunciation. It's worth noting as well that many of these characters are usually combined with other characters, rather than used on their own, to create words.
奶 (nǎi) – grandmother, milk, breast. Here, 乃 (nǎi) represents the pronunciation.
妈 (mā) – mother. The component on the right-hand side of this character is pronounced mǎ.
媚 (mèi) – beautiful, charming. 眉is pronounced méi.
妩 (wǔ) – beautiful, charming. 无 is pronounced wú.
姑 (gū) – aunt. 古 (gǔ) stands for the pronunciation.
姐 (jiě) – older sister. 且 stands for the sound and is pronounced qiě, which is not exactly the same, but similar to the pronunciation of the whole character.
婚 (hūn) – to marry (used without an object). 昏 is pronounced hūn.
嫁 (jià) – to marry (used when a male is the object of the verb). 家 is pronounced jiā.
娶 (qǔ) – to marry (used when a female is the object of the verb). Here, 女 appears at the bottom half of the character. 取 is pronounced qǔ.
Stay tuned for part 3, when I'll introduce a "handy" radical.
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 57 ("line2"),