Section headers of a Chinese dictionary
Section headers also known as index keys or classifiers, are graphic portions of Chinese characters which are used for organizing entries in Chinese dictionaries into sections which all share the same graphic part. In practice the most common term for these is radical; however, this term has been used in many different ways, leading to great confusion, as explained at Radical (Chinese character)
Radical (Chinese character)
A Chinese radical is a component of a Chinese character. The term may variously refer to the original semantic element of a character, or to any semantic element, or, loosely, to any element whatever its origin or purpose...

. For disambiguation purposes, the term radical is thus avoided here.

Since Chinese is not alphabetical, another means of organizing the characters for dictionary purposes is needed. In organizing his Hàn dynasty
Han Dynasty
The Han Dynasty was the second imperial dynasty of China, preceded by the Qin Dynasty and succeeded by the Three Kingdoms . It was founded by the rebel leader Liu Bang, known posthumously as Emperor Gaozu of Han. It was briefly interrupted by the Xin Dynasty of the former regent Wang Mang...

 etymological dictionary Shuōwén Jiézì
Shuowen Jiezi
The Shuōwén Jiězì was an early 2nd century CE Chinese dictionary from the Han Dynasty. Although not the first comprehensive Chinese character dictionary , it was still the first to analyze the structure of the characters and to give the rationale behind them , as well as the first to use the...

, the scholar Xǔ Shèn
Xu Shen
Xǔ Shèn was a Chinese philologist of the Han Dynasty. He was the author of Shuowen Jiezi, the first Chinese dictionary with character analysis, as well as the first to organize the characters by shared components. It contains over 9,000 character entries under 540 radicals, explaining the origins...

 categorized all the characters using a system of 540 graphic elements that he called bùshǒu (部首), the literal translation of which is section header. These were component parts found in different characters and often reflecting some common semantic
Semantics is the study of meaning. It focuses on the relation between signifiers, such as words, phrases, signs and symbols, and what they stand for, their denotata....

 or phonetic
Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that comprises the study of the sounds of human speech, or—in the case of sign languages—the equivalent aspects of sign. It is concerned with the physical properties of speech sounds or signs : their physiological production, acoustic properties, auditory...

 characteristic, but also often just a shared graphic element such as a horizontal stroke. Some were even artificially extracted groups of strokes, termed glyphs by Serruys (1984, p. 657), which never had an independent existence other than being listed in Shuōwén. Each character was listed under only one element, which is then referred to as "the" section header for that character. For example, characters containing 女 "female" or 木 "tree, wood" are often grouped in that section.

Over time, Chinese lexicographers continued to refine this system for indexing Chinese characters, in order to collect and document them. For convenience, the list of section headers was later trimmed to 214 in the 1615 dictionary Zìhuì
The Zìhuì is a Chinese dictionary, edited by Mei Yingzuo during the late Ming Dynasty and published in 1615, the forty-third year of the Ming Wanli Emperor. The work is divided into 14 fascicles and contains a total of 33,179 Chinese characters. It was the first dictionary to introduce the...

. The Kāngxī dictionary
Kangxi dictionary
The Kangxi Dictionary was the standard Chinese dictionary during the 18th and 19th centuries. The Kangxi Emperor of the Manchu Qing Dynasty ordered its compilation in 1710. The creator innovated greatly by reusing and confirming the new Zihui system of 596 radicals, since then known as 596 Kangxi...

 of 1716 was indexed using the Zìhuì section headers, and they form the standard list of 214 section headers still used by many dictionaries today. Although there is some variation in such lists – depending primarily on what secondary section headers are also indexed – the canonical 214 headers of the Kāngxī dictionary still serve as the basis for most modern Chinese dictionaries. Some of the graphically similar section headers are combined in many dictionaries, such as 月 yuè "moon" and the 月 form (⺼) of 肉 ròu, "meat, flesh". Mei Yingzuo's Zìhuì was also the first dictionary to order the characters under each section header using stroke count – the "section-header-and-stroke-count" method still used in the vast majority of present-day Chinese dictionaries.

Shape and position of section headers in characters

In the examples above, five of the six characters have the section header on the left side (姐, 媽, 她, 好 and 姓) but it appears at the bottom in 妾. There is no fixed rule about where a section header can go in a character – it may appear in any position in a character. However, there is one pair of section headers that have the same shape, but are indexed as different section headers depending on where they appear in the character:
阝 is a character used in Kangxi writing which serves as the combining form of two distinct radicals, distinguished by whether it is on the left or right of a character. It is the combining form of Radical 170, 阜, when used on the left of a character, as in 阪, and of Radical 163, 邑, when used on the...

 (the abbreviated section header form of 邑 "city" as in 都 "metropolis" (also read dōu "all"), is always on the right side of characters, while 阝 (the abbreviated section header form of 阜 "mound, hill" as in 陸 "land", is always on the left.

In writing, many components (including ones used as section headers) are distorted or change in form in order to fit into a block with other components. They may be narrowed, shortened, or may have different shapes entirely. Changes in shape, rather than simple distortion, may result in a reduction in the number of strokes used to write it. In some cases, these written forms may have several variants. The actual shape of the component when it is used in a character can depend on its placement with respect to the other elements in the character. In the image to the right, the color blue is used for "irregular" forms.

Some of the most important variant written forms (except for ⻏ → 邑 and ⻖ → 阜 which have already been discussed):
  • 刀 "knife" → 刂 when placed to the right of other elements:
    • examples: 分, 召 ~ 刖
    • counter-example: 切
  • 人 "man" → 亻 on the left:
    • 囚, 仄, 坐 ~ 他
  • 心 "heart" → 忄 on the left:
    • 杺, 您, 恭* ~ 快
(*) 心 occasionally becomes ⺗ when written at the bottom of a character.
  • 手 "hand" → 扌 on the left:
    • 杽, 拏, 掱 ~ 扡
    • counter-examples: 掰, 拜
  • 水 "water" → 氵 on the left:
    • 汆, 呇, 沊 ~ 池
    • counter-example: 沝
  • 火 "fire" → 灬 at the bottom:
    • 伙, 秋, 灱 ~ 黑
    • counter-example: 災
  • 犬 "dog" → 犭 on the left:
    • 伏, 突 ~ 狙
  • 目 "eye" → rotated 90˚:
    • 見, 盲 ~ 曼 (= 冒+又).

The character simplification
Simplified Chinese character
Simplified Chinese characters are standardized Chinese characters prescribed in the Xiandai Hanyu Tongyong Zibiao for use in Mainland China. Along with traditional Chinese characters, it is one of many standard character sets of the contemporary Chinese written language...

 adopted in the People's Republic of China
People's Republic of China
China , officially the People's Republic of China , is the most populous country in the world, with over 1.3 billion citizens. Located in East Asia, the country covers approximately 9.6 million square kilometres...

 and elsewhere has modified a number of components, including those used as section headers. This has created a number of new section header forms. For instance, 食 is written 飠 when it forms a part of other traditional characters
Traditional Chinese character
Traditional Chinese characters refers to Chinese characters in any character set which does not contain newly created characters or character substitutions performed after 1946. It most commonly refers to characters in the standardized character sets of Taiwan, of Hong Kong, or in the Kangxi...

, but is written 饣 in simplified characters.

Limitations of the section header system

Some of the section headers used in Chinese dictionaries, even in the era of Kāngxī, were not genuinely distinctive graphic elements. They served only to index certain unique characters that do not have more obvious possible section headers. The section header 鬯 (chàng "sacrificial wine") is used to index only one character: 鬱 (, "luxuriant", "dense", or "moody"). Modern dictionaries tend to eliminate these kinds of section headers when it is possible to find some more widely used alternative graphic element under which a character can be categorized. In addition, in some modern dictionaries, characters may even be indexed under more than one section header in order to make it easier to find them.

Dictionary lookup

Most dictionaries use section header classification to index and lookup characters, although many present-day dictionaries supplement it with other methods as well. Following the "section-header-and-stroke-count" method of Mei Yingzuo, characters are listed by their section header and then ordered by the number of strokes needed to write them.

The steps involved in looking up a character are:
  1. Identify the section header under which the character is most likely to have been indexed. If one does not know, then the component on the left side or top is often a good first guess.
  2. Find the section of the dictionary associated with that section header.
  3. Count the number of strokes in the remaining portion of the character.
  4. Find the pages listing characters under that section header that have that number of additional strokes.
  5. Find the appropriate entry or experiment with different choices for steps 1 and 3.

For example, consider the character 信 xìn, meaning "truth", "faith", "sincerity", and "trust". Its section header is 亻 rén "human" (a compressed form of 人) and there are seven additional strokes in the remaining portion (言 yán, "speech"). To look up this character in a dictionary, one finds the section header for "human" in the part of dictionary that indexes section headers. The various section headers will be organized by the number of strokes they themselves contain. 人 and its compressed version 亻 contain only two strokes, so it will be near the beginning of the list. Locating it, one can see the page for the index on that section header, and one then normally passes through the lists of characters with one additional stroke, two additional strokes, etc. until one reaches the entries with seven additional strokes. If the chosen section header matches the section header used by the dictionary compiler (which can be difficult to guarantee for more complicated characters), and if both the user and the dictionary compiler count strokes the same way (also often a problem with characters that the user is unfamiliar with), the entry will be in that list, and will appear next to an entry number or a page number where the full dictionary entry for that character can be found.

As a rule of thumb, components at the left or top of the character, or elements which surround the rest of the character, are the ones most likely to be used as section header. For example, 信 is typically indexed under the left-side component 人 instead of the right-side 言; and 套 is typically indexed under the top 大 instead of the bottom 長. There are, however, idiosyncratic differences between dictionaries, and except for simple cases, the same character cannot be assumed to be indexed the same way in two different dictionaries.

In order to further ease dictionary lookup, dictionaries sometimes list section headers both under the number of strokes used to write their canonical form and under the number of strokes used to write their variant forms. For example, 心 can be listed as a four-stroke section header but might also be listed as a three-stroke section header because it is usually written as 忄 when it forms a part of another character. This means that the dictionary user need not know that the two are etymologically identical.

It is sometimes possible to find a single character indexed under multiple section headers. For example, many dictionaries list 義 under either 羊 or 戈 (the section header of its lower part 我). Furthermore, with digital dictionaries, it is now possible to search for characters by cross-reference. Using this "multi-component method" (which can be tried out at Jim Breen's WWWJDIC Server), a relatively new development enabled by computing technology, the user can select all of a character's components from a table and the computer will present a list of matching characters. This eliminates the guesswork of choosing the correct section header and calculating the correct stroke count, and cuts down searching time significantly. One can query for characters containing both 羊 and 戈, and get back only five characters (羢, 義, 儀, 羬 and 羲) to search through. The Academia Sinica’s 漢字構形資料庫 Chinese character structure database ( also works this way, returning only seven characters in this instance. Harbaugh’s Chinese Characters dictionary similarly allows searches based on any component. Some modern computer dictionaries allow the user to draw characters with a mouse, stylus or finger, ideally tolerating a degree of imperfection, thus eliminating the problem of "section header" or radical identification altogether.

Variations in the number of section headers

Though section headers are widely accepted as a method to categorize Chinese characters and to locate a certain character in a dictionary, there is no universal agreement about either the exact number of section headers, or the set of section headers. This is because section headers are merely arbitrarily chosen categories for lexicographical purposes.

The 214 Kangxi radicals act as a de facto
De facto
De facto is a Latin expression that means "concerning fact." In law, it often means "in practice but not necessarily ordained by law" or "in practice or actuality, but not officially established." It is commonly used in contrast to de jure when referring to matters of law, governance, or...

 standard, which may not be duplicated exactly in every Chinese dictionary, but which few dictionary compilers can afford to completely ignore. They serve as the basis for many computer encoding systems. Specifically, the Unicode
Unicode is a computing industry standard for the consistent encoding, representation and handling of text expressed in most of the world's writing systems...

 standard's radical-stroke charts are based on the Kangxi radicals or section headers.

The count of commonly used section headers in modern abridged dictionaries is often less than 214. The Oxford Concise English–Chinese Dictionary (ISBN 0-19-596457-8), for example, has 188. A few dictionaries also introduce new section headers based on the principles first used by Xu Shen
Xu Shen
Xǔ Shèn was a Chinese philologist of the Han Dynasty. He was the author of Shuowen Jiezi, the first Chinese dictionary with character analysis, as well as the first to organize the characters by shared components. It contains over 9,000 character entries under 540 radicals, explaining the origins...

, treating groups of section headers that are used together in many different characters as a kind of section header.

In modern practice, section headers are primarily used as lexicographic
Lexicography is divided into two related disciplines:*Practical lexicography is the art or craft of compiling, writing and editing dictionaries....

 tools and as learning aids when writing characters. They have become increasingly disconnected from meaning
Semantics is the study of meaning. It focuses on the relation between signifiers, such as words, phrases, signs and symbols, and what they stand for, their denotata....

, etymology
Etymology is the study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time.For languages with a long written history, etymologists make use of texts in these languages and texts about the languages to gather knowledge about how words were used during...

 and phonetics
Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that comprises the study of the sounds of human speech, or—in the case of sign languages—the equivalent aspects of sign. It is concerned with the physical properties of speech sounds or signs : their physiological production, acoustic properties, auditory...


See also

  • Chinese language
    Chinese language
    The Chinese language is a language or language family consisting of varieties which are mutually intelligible to varying degrees. Originally the indigenous languages spoken by the Han Chinese in China, it forms one of the branches of Sino-Tibetan family of languages...

  • Japanese language
    Japanese language
    is a language spoken by over 130 million people in Japan and in Japanese emigrant communities. It is a member of the Japonic language family, which has a number of proposed relationships with other languages, none of which has gained wide acceptance among historical linguists .Japanese is an...

  • Korean language
    Korean language
    Korean is the official language of the country Korea, in both South and North. It is also one of the two official languages in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in People's Republic of China. There are about 78 million Korean speakers worldwide. In the 15th century, a national writing...

  • Hanzi/Kanji
    Kanji are the adopted logographic Chinese characters hanzi that are used in the modern Japanese writing system along with hiragana , katakana , Indo Arabic numerals, and the occasional use of the Latin alphabet...

    Hanja is the Korean name for the Chinese characters hanzi. More specifically, it refers to those Chinese characters borrowed from Chinese and incorporated into the Korean language with Korean pronunciation...

  • Chinese character
    Chinese character
    Chinese characters are logograms used in the writing of Chinese and Japanese , less frequently Korean , formerly Vietnamese , or other languages...

  • List of Kangxi radicals
  • List of Unicode radicals
  • List of Shuowen Jiezi radicals
  • Chinese radical index from Wiktionary
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