#1 Hanzi: Character building blocks

May 31, 2009, 10:11 PM posted in General Discussion

My first post For the Love of Hanzi is not so much about 部首 (Radicals) but what make up 汉字 (hànzì / Characters / Words).

Each 部首 is made up of different strokes called 笔画 (bǐhuà). Some examples of 笔画 are:

一 横 héng
丨 竖 shù  
フ 横折 héngzhé
丿 撇 piě
丶 点 diǎn

For more information and animations for  笔画 see HERE

The specifics of which 笔画 make up certain 部首 seem to vary depending who I talked to. However, 笔画 put together in certain orders make up 部首, and different 部首 put together in certain orders make up 汉字.

For example:
一丨are used in making 田 (the 部首)
フ丿are used to make 力
田 and 力 are used to make 男 (the 汉字)

Watch this VIDEO of one of my friend’s daughters writing 笔画 and then demonstrating how the 笔画 make up a 汉字.

Notice in this VIDEO the slighty different 笔画 the student uses.

汉字 are made up of two basic elements: 偏旁 (piānpáng) and 部首, (笔画 also make up 偏旁 in the same way that 笔画 make 部首). I have asked many native Chinese over the past two weeks to define 偏旁 and 部首 and their relationship with each other and have received different answers. In fact this subject was hotly debated between my Chinese friends on more than one occasion, which was great fun to watch, but not very educational, at least not in language terms. So PLEASE, those of you who have a better and clearer knowledge of 偏旁 and 部首 (and 部件), PLEASE comment!

What I was able to gather were these two different ideas:

(1) 偏旁 is the meaning part and  部首 is the sound part of 汉字. An example of this is clearly seen in 妈 (mother). 马 (horse) is the sound (ma3), 女 (women) has the meaning.

(2) 偏旁 and 部首 are both names for Radicals, (偏旁部首). 偏旁 (偏 meaning one-sided, to lean) is the name of a Radical placed on the side of a 汉字, as in 汉. 部首 (首 meaning head) is a Radical when it is placed on the top, as in 安. This explanation sounds more reasonable because although the above explanation fits with 妈, it doesn’t fit for all 汉字, like 男.
A single 汉字 is called 字 (zì). Compound words, words made up of more than one 字 are called 词 (cí), and words made up of four or more 字 are called 成语 (chéngyǔ). 成语 are proverbs or idioms eg. 一心一意 (yīxīnyīyì, one heart one mind) and 安不忘危 (ānbùwàngwēi, in peacetime, do not forget the possibility of danger)

Despite my best research, many interviews and drafts, I am sure I’ve managed to make all this as clear as mud, so please, comment, clarify, add your own explanations and if I have got any of it wrong, please do correct me.

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May 27, 2009, 08:31 PM

wow, super informative article!

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May 31, 2009, 02:49 PM

jiu shi, I can't wait to see more!

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June 01, 2009, 03:02 AM

Hi antony73

Thanks for the great postings. The term 部首 is used to refer to the section headers of a Chinese dictionary under which Chinese characters are indexed in dictionaries. Modern Chinese dictionaries usually have about 200 部首.

On the other hand, 偏旁 simply indicates parts of Chinese characters. There is great overlap between 部首 and 偏旁, but sometimes not. For example, the upper part (广) of 麻 is one of 偏旁, but at the same time, 麻 itself is a 部首 in a dictionary.

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June 01, 2009, 03:27 AM

Hi antony73

Excellent post. Thank you for sharing your detective work with us.

Please note that not every word over four syllables long is a 成语. Many longer words are just words (词). A 成语 is a certain type of idiom. I sometimes see people disagree about whether a particular phrase is a 成语 or a 俗语(a folk saying.) The latter tend to be a little more colloquial, or 顾名思义, folksy ;-) But frankly, the difference is a little academic.

Please do keep up the excellent work. Learning characters by their components is an excellent way to keep them organized in your mind.