Radical (Chinese character)

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The left part of 媽 , a Chinese character meaning "mother", is a radical (in both senses) , which means "woman" (or "female")

A radical (from Latin radix, meaning "root") is the portion bearing the meaning of an inflected European word in Chinese. Early Western sinologists borrowed this term to refer to the semantic component of a Chinese character (Hanzi). Later, the term was also borrowed for a second meaning, the 部首 (Pinyin: bùshǒu, Japanese bushu, Korean busu). This literally means "section header". It refers to the place where a character is listed in the dictionary.

For example, in the character 媽 or “mother” (shown right), the left part 女 (pronounced nǚ in Mandarin Chinese) happens to be the semantic component and also the section header under which dictionaries list the graph. However, not all section headers function in a particular character as the semantic component; some are based on phonetics, while others are merely chosen for convenience, and play neither a semantic nor a phonetic role. These two meanings of “radical” are not synonymous, though they may coincide in a particular example, causing a great deal of confusion. (For clarity, both semantic component and section header terms are used here.)

The equivalents in cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics are called determinatives.

Chinese character components, whether semantic or phonetic in role, are the building blocks for all Chinese Hanzi as well as in the derived forms of Japanese Kanji, Korean Hanja, and Vietnamese Chữ nôm and Chữ nho. Since the Kangxi dictionary of 1716 was indexed using the 214 Zìhuì section headers, the standard list thereof has remained unchanged. Section headers are foundationally important for the organisation and use of Hanzi, Kanji, and Hanja dictionaries.