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Inspired by the Wikipedia page on Kangxi radicals I decided to study the meaning and writing of radicals before I tackle the much more numerous kanji. But in working my way through the list, I started doubting the translations of the radicals. Looking closer at the cited sources, I found them to contradict each other at several occasions. 癶 is translated as "foot steps" as well as "dotted tent", 冂 is translated as "down box", "upside down box" and "display case". These are only two examples out of many more contradictions.

Is there any reliable source to the meaning of kangxi radicals? I really want to learn the meaning of the radicals, but at this pace I don't even know where to start. Can we find a reliable source, as well as an indication to why it is reliable? Any help would be appreciated!

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As far as studying more "complex" kanji, I personally wouldn't worry about learning the meanings of the radicals except for the ones that are themselves a "full" kanji (土, 木, 日, 米, etc.) Knowing that 癶 is translated as "foot steps" doesn't help me decipher the meaning of 発. Whereas knowing the meanings of 氵 and 土 do help me decipher what 池 and 地 mean. My $0.02. –  istrasci Oct 23 '12 at 16:12
"translations of the radicals" This is because radicals do not always have consistent inherent meaning. They don't have translations - at best they have vague historical (maybe now extinct) connotations. Something that might be potentially interesting and useful is this kanji etymology dictionary: kanjinetworks.com/eng/kanji-dictionary/… . Try entering both 癶 and istrasci's example 発, and you'll see that modern meanings of kanji and original meanings of radicals are only very tenuously and vaguely related. –  Billy Oct 23 '12 at 18:26
I like kanjinetworks, but keep in mind they use a nonmainstream method of sound symbolism which often results in controversial kanji analyses; see languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3699 . Sites with more traditional analyses include chineseetymology.org and zhongwen.com , but you'll might have to convert some characters to Chinese forms to use them. If you excuse me touting my own horn, I once made a simple tool to help with that: namakajiri.net/kanjigen . Have a nice hunting :) –  leoboiko Oct 25 '12 at 0:27
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3 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

What is meant by a "reliable translation"? Let's look at 彳:

  1. In Japanese, it is given the nickname ぎょうにんべん. This is customarily translated to "going man". If you want a translation of these customary nicknames, you can find them in the New Nelson dictionary.
  2. But whoops--that's just a nickname! How about a definition? Well, that depends on what you mean:

    • Possibility A: What does the character mean on its own? My dictionary says it means 進み出る, "to step forward". That seems to fit with the "radical step" meaning on Wikipedia! But that's not terribly useful, because you're unlikely to ever come across 彳 as an independent character. For characters that are used on their own, any good character dictionary should suffice.
    • Possibility B: What does the element mean as part of another character? Unfortunately, this is not reliably answerable for all characters; see Is there an objective source of the origins of kanji? for details on why not. However, there are many good books on character etymology you might enjoy, such as Henshall's A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters.

Where does that leave us? Personally, I'd say to learn the customary names for common radicals, and investigate character etymology when you find it helpful or interesting, on a character-by-character basis.

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Nice way of deconstructing "reliable translation". It helped fleshing out the problem. The answer by Boaz Yaniv in the other thread you linked really helped out. By pointing out the contradiction between learning kanji and the sometimes conflicting and confusing etymological meaning of kanji, he touches a subject that is applicable to radicals as well. I'll gladly take your advice on referring to radicals only on a need basis –  Jimmy Laskowski Dec 3 '12 at 21:12
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I think studying radicals is a good thing. However there are lists that are more specifically geared towards Japanese then Chinese. If you use a number of sources, you can see commonalities between scholarly interpretations, and these will help you get a firmer grasp of the concepts at hand. For instance, I think that unfortunately the names of radicals often differ in Japanese, Chinese and English--they might have similar concepts but they will not be direct, correlating translations.

Here are some useful websites:






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My $0.02:

I would not worry too much about trying to find a definitive list so much as text/list that works for you. It might even be worth taking several lists and cherry picking the definition that you can remember most easily.

I once tried to learn kanji via the radicals. After a while, for time it was taking and the return obtained I decided I was better off just learning the kanji. The early kanji are often parts of larger kanji so you'll still be learning by radicals but also real characters and words that you read and write for yourself.

Not that there is anything wrong with learning the radicals if you feel it is paying off. But, once the returns diminish I would suggest you start looking for your next approach. I'd be surprised if anyone really has learnt 1500 once from start to finish with one textbook/approach. It is a knowledge accumulated through many trying out all sorts of different ways.

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You are absolutely right about the diminishing returns. While interesting at first, eventually it starts consuming a lot of time that is better spent on learning the kanji themselves –  Jimmy Laskowski Dec 3 '12 at 20:57
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