Skritter’s Chinese 101 List (Radicals and Words)

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author photoBefore the release of the Skritter Chinese iOS app, the team set out to create the ultimate Chinese 101 list. Now, with nearly 1000 users studying it, we’ll take a more in-depth look at the list, and provide tips, hints, and guidelines for those who are just getting started studying Chinese.

First up: Radicals and Words.


Before learning new words, it is important to understand how both characters and words are created. The building blocks that make up all Chinese characters are called radicals. Radicals, are the root component of Chinese characters, often carrying a general guideline to a particular characters meaning. Some radicals are characters (and even words) themselves, while others need to be combined with other components to exist in outside of reference books. There are 214 radicals used in modern Chinese (study the full list here), but in this first section we introduce you to 11 that are important and easy. With these 11 radicals we begin to explore the essence of  Chinese character and word formation; a necessary step on the path to mastery.

Note: This section, like the rest, presents radicals and components before the characters or words in which they appear. The goal is to draw user attention to the various components that make up Chinese words and aid in overall comprehension. This theory has been tested in the classroom, and now we’re trying it out on Skritter.

Character Creation


Before talking about basic character creation, I’d like to add a quick note regarding stroke order– it is super important! Stroke order not only makes writing Chinese faster, easier and more intuitive, but it also help commit characters (and character components like radicals) more firmly into memory. If you are totally unfamiliar with the idea of stroke order, please take a moment to check out the general rules on our stroke order page. While this first section doesn’t specifically address stroke order, all of the 20 items do cover most of the basic rules, so they are great practice. 
The first few characters, which are also radicals, take users through basic stroke order rules: left to right (一); horizontal strokes first (大); outside before inside (日); left vertical before enclosing (日) etc. drawing attention to how different radicals and components come together to form characters. Stoke order might seem hard and first, but with Skritter’s stroke level feedback users will have it down in no time.

In the character 早 (zǎo: early; morning) for example, we see two components stacked on top of each other. Imagine the sun bursting forth from the horizon to welcome in a new day.  Other characters like 好 (hǎo: good) are formed by the combination of a left and right component. Paying attention to the character structure will help one memorize how lots of different components fit together to create new characters; a crucial step to learning to read and write thousands of characters. In 好 for example, try and look beyond the six strokes and instead picture a woman (女: nǚ) and a child (子: zǐ) coming together to create good.

As we explore other sections of Skritter’s Chinese 101 list in future weeks various other Character structures will be discussed as they present themselves. If you simply cannot wait, check out Arch Chinese’s article for a basic list and examples.

Word Creation

After understanding basic character creation, it is time to move onto word creation. Although classical Chinese was a largely monosyllabic language (one character = one word), modern Mandarin is no longer monosyllabic, but rather polysyllabic (many characters = one word). That is why, for example, 朋 (péng: friend) and 友 (yǒu: friend) combined together to create the word 朋友 (péngyou: friend). While both characters represent the idea of “friend,” the polysyllabic word is used in modern Mandarin to convey meaning. Let’s take another example: 海洋 (hǎiyáng: sea) where both characters represent the English for sea, but must be put together to form the word for sea in modern Mandarin. While the rules for word creation are very complex, simply understand that most words consist of two (or more characters) will suffice for now.

Other words, such as 中文 (zhōngwén: the Chinese language) bring two completely separate concepts together to create meaning. In this example 中 (zhōng: middle), representative of the word 中国 (Zhōngguó: China), and 文 (wén: language, literature) are combined together to create the word for Chinese. Another such character combination is 电/電 (diàn: electricity) and  脑/腦 (nǎo: brain) which forms the word for computer  电脑/電腦. So simple and logical, right? Okay, Chinese word creation isn’t always this easy, but a lot of the words on the Chinese 101 list are to help drill this concept home. When different patterns present themselves in future sections I will be sure to discuss them.

The main goal of the first section is about the concept of radicals, characters, and words through the use of simple, high frequency vocabulary. Now that we’ve got the basics down, it will be time to move on to words and phrases and we can use to actually read, speak, and write Chinese! In the coming weeks we will look at the other sections found in the Chinese 101 list, and explore what kind of language beginners can actually produce with all these new characters and words.
See you next time!
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