“Fire” and “water” radicals in Chinese writing

Straightforward radicals. They are what they seem.

“Fire” and “water” radicals. Cool art, but the radicals don’t actually mix! (www.joyyoga.com.au)

Last updated: 02 May 2021

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We discuss 2 sets of radicals: “fire” and “water”.

We cover the “fire” radicals first since they are more straightforward than the “water” radicals.

Anatomy of “fire” ‘火’

The character ‘火’ (“fire”, huo3, character 164) has a straightforward pictorial construction. There is almost no change in form throughout the history of this character. We see the shape of a typical camp fire throughout.

Typical camp fire. Note the shape. (www.outsideonline.com)

This shape was in earlier forms.

Earlier form for “fire”. Same shape. (zdic.net)

Also in current form too.

Current form for “fire”. Same shape too! (zdic.net)

“Fire” radical ‘火’

The first “fire” radical is ‘火’ (radical 95), an indexing radical. This radical invariably stands for “fire” in character construction.

A simple example is seen in ‘灯’ (“light”, deng1, character 534). In ancient times, lights or lamps were implemented with fire.

Current form for “light”. (zdic.net)

Character ‘丁’ (“wad”, ding1, character 5) provides phonetic construction.

(TODO: Link to character construction for ‘丁’.)

“Fire” radical ‘灬’

The second and last “fire” radical is ‘灬’ (radical 96.a), an abbreviated radical.

The abbreviation from ‘火’ (radical 95) to ‘灬’ (radical 96.a) is straightforward, packing the 4 strokes “dot throw throw press” to the bottom into “throw dot dot dot”.

4 strokes “dot throw throw press” for “fire”. (zdic.net)
Abbreviated form for “fire”. (zdic.net)

The radical ‘灬’ (radical 96.a) also always stands for “fire” in character construction (with one exception we’ll look at later).

Examples abound, such as ‘煮’ (“to cook”, zhu3, character 2529).

Current form for “to cook”. (zdic.net)

The improvised radical ‘者’ (“this”, zhe3, character 969) provides some phonetic construction, but mainly semantic construction: pictorially, it was originally “a fire burning twigs on a rack”.

(TODO: Link to character construction for ‘者’. Semantics for ‘者’ also requires some in-depth explanation.)

Not “fire”, but “tail”

The single exception where ‘灬’ (radical 96.a) does not mean “fire” is where it is the result of simplification from another pictorial: a bird’s tail in ‘燕’ (“swallow”, yan4, character 3319).

The earliest forms of ‘燕’ (“swallow”, yan4) depict the characteristic forked tail (red highlight). The other body parts are the “head” (blue highlight) and wings.

Forked tail (red) and head (blue) of “swallow”. (zdic.net)
Forked tail of a swallow. (www.thetimes.co.uk)

Subsequent forms added substantive “structure” to the forked tail (red highlight), possibly also for a fuller (squarish) character form. The “head” begins to resemble that in the current form.

Intermediate form for “swallow”. Head (blue) and tail (red). (zdic.net)

Note how the forked tail looks like ‘火’ (radical 95). Simplification of this forked tail pictorial leads us to ‘灬’ (radical 96.a) in the current form.

Current form for “swallow”. (zdic.net)

Another example where this “fire” radical actually means “tail” is in the Traditional form for ‘鱼’ (“fish”, yu2, character 1194). The “tail” in this character’s earlier forms even looks exactly the same as that for earlier forms for ‘燕’ (“swallow”, yan4)!

Tail (red), like that in early forms for “swarrow”. (zdic.net)
Traditional form for “fish”, with “tail” (red). (zdic.net)

Unfortunately, China’s Chinese Character Simplification Scheme may not have been thoroughly consistent here. The “tail” for “fish” was simplified into a single “right” stroke, but the “tail” for “swallow” wasn’t.

Current form for “fish”. “Tail” is further simplified. (zdic.net)

Anatomy of “water” ‘水’

The character construction for ‘水’ (“water”, shui3, character 117) features pictorially 3 streams of water: the center solid stream (red highlight), and the 2 turbulent streams on each side.

An earlier form for “water”. (zdic.net)

The current form also has 3 streams of water, but the side streams are much more clearly distinguished from the center stream, thanks to standardization of writing strokes and pictorial simplification.

Current form for “water”. We still see the 3 streams. (zdic.net)

“Water” radical ‘水’

The first “water” radical we’ll look at is ‘水’ (radical 77). It invariably means “water” (or liquid).

Not many characters feature this radical, since it takes up considerable space and is less efficient in form than its abbreviated versions.

A commonly used character featuring this radical is ‘永’ (“forever”, yong3, character 324). Adding a calligraphic embellishment (red highlight) and a “source” for a “spring (of water)” (blue highlight), we get “an ever flowing spring”. The imagery then connects to the sense of “forever”.

Calligraphic embellishment (red); source of spring (blue). (zdic.net)

The calligraphic embellishment may also be thought of as a tributary.

Current form for “forever”. (zdic.net)

Another character, literally “spring” ‘泉’ (quan2, character 1572), follows almost the same character construction: there’s a “source” (spring), and there’s “water” flowing from the “source”. An early form clearly shows an emphasis (red highlight) on the “spring”, rather than the “water” and flow.

Emphasis is on “source” in early form for “spring”. (zdic.net)

The current form for “spring” also clearly has a greater emphasis on the “source”, pictorially represented by ‘白’ (“white”, bai2, character 275), than in ‘永’ (“forever”, yong3) which only features a “dot” for “source”. That will be an easy mnemonic to learn this character: to contrast with ‘永’ (“forever”, yong3).

Current form for “spring”. (zdic.net)

(TODO: Link to character construction for ‘白’.)

“Water” radical ‘氵’

The second “water” radical we’ll look at is ‘氵’ (radical 47.a). It also invariably means “water” (or liquid).

There is no clearly apparent method to abbreviate ‘水’ (radical 77) into ‘氵’ (radical 47.a). Suffice to say that the radical looks like “3 drops of water” (literally the Chinese term used to refer to this radical).

A simple example is seen in ‘汗’ (“sweat”, han4, character 536).

The improvised radical ‘干’ (“dry”, gan1, character 23) provides phonetic construction. It also semantically means “hard work”; it was pictorially a “hunting tool” (red highlight) — possibly a pitchfork doubling as a farming implement? — in earlier forms.

Earlier form for “sweat”. (zdic.net)

Sweat” presents with “hard work”. Alternatively, we can think of “sweating” as being “wet” without contact with “water” (“dry” form of being “wet”).

Current form for “sweat”. (zdic.net)

(TODO: Link to character construction for ‘干’.)

“Water” radical ‘冫’

The third “water” radical we’ll look at is ‘冫’ (radical 18). It typically indicates “ice” or low temperature, or a lower volume of water than that indicated by ‘氵’ (radical 47.a).

Abbreviating further from ‘氵’ (radical 47.a), we get ‘冫’ (radical 18). The Chinese term used to refer to this radical is literally “2 drops of water”.

The first character that comes to mind is ‘冰’ (“ice”, bing1, character 513). The character construction is obvious: “water” that has been “cooled” into “ice”.

Current form for “ice”. (zdic.net)

A character that features this radical in the sense of “low temperature” is ‘冷’ (“cold”, leng3, character 838).

Current form for “cold”. (zdic.net)

Improvised radical ‘令’ (“to command”, ling4, character 282) provides phonetic construction.

(TODO: Link to character construction for ‘令’, which involves “bells” and “legislature”.)

In the sense of “low volume of water”, we have ‘冲’ (“to rinse”, chong1, character 511).

Current form for “to rinse”. (zdic.net)

Improvised radical ‘中’ (“middle”, zhong1, character 113) provides phonetic construction.

The character construction for ‘中’ (“middle”, zhong1) itself is so simple, we’ll cover it here. Note how the box, originally a circle in earlier forms, marks the middle of the vertical “down” stroke.

Current form for “middle”. (zdic.net)

“Water” radical ‘氺’

The fourth and last “water” radical we’ll cover is ‘氺’ (radical 104.a).

The method of abbreviation from ‘水’ (radical 77) involves only the brevity of strokes on the left side (red highlight): from the longer “right-throw” into the shorter “dot rise”. Even the strokes on the right side are shortened versions of the original: “throw dot” instead of “throw press”.

Shorter strokes (red). (zdic.net)

This radical also always means “water” (or liquid).

The etymology for ‘录’ (“to record”, lu4, character 1304) is unclear. We can see its character construction as a “hand” ‘彐’ (radical 50) using “liquid” ink to “record” events.

An alternative interpretation of its construction, possibly somewhat official too, is a “hand” ‘彐’ (radical 50) carving writing into wood using a “tool” ‘亅’ (radical 2.a) and leaving “wood carvings” (4 strokes “dot rise throw dot”) around. In this case, ‘氺’ (radical 104.a) wouldn’t indicate “water”.

Current form for “to record”. (zdic.net)

A character where this “water” radical means “liquid” — specifically glue-like liquid — is ‘黎’ (“close to (in time)”, li2, character 3262).

In order to grasp its character construction, we first need to analyze that for another character: ‘黍’ (“glutinous millet”, shu3, character 5202). Radical ‘禾’ (radical 111) represents “millet”. Radical ‘人’ (radical 12) probably represents “cooking” (red highlight). Finally, ‘氺’ (radical 104.a) indicates that the “millet” remains sort of “liquid” — specifically in glue-like form — instead of being soft solids like for normal rice.

Possibly the cover of a cooking pot (red). (zdic.net)

In ‘黎’ (“close to (in time)”, li2), we see an additional radical: an abbreviated ‘勿’ (“don’t”, wu4, character 152). We can think of this character’s construction as “close to (in time), don’t detach or leave”. In other words, “sticky”, or “to adhere close in time”. We see such sense in the word “黎明” (“close to morning”, li2 ming2).

Current form for “close to (in time)”. (zdic.net)

(TODO: Link to character construction for ‘禾’ and ‘勿’.)

Mistaken identity: not our radical!

In ‘求’ (“to beg”, qiu2, character 690), the bottom part of the character may seem like the “water” radical we’re discussing, but it is not.

Instead, this character features a “hand” ‘寸’ (“inch”, cun4, radical 31).

Current form for “inch”. Also radical 31. (zdic.net)

The “dot” (wrist pointer) inside the “hand” radical is moved to the top-right (blue highlight) to make way for “animal hairs” (red highlight).

Shifted “wrist” pointer (blue); animal hairs (red). (zdic.net)

From earlier forms of the character, we can clearly see that someone is holding on to a “hairy animal” (red highlight) and reaching out a “hand” (blue highlight) to ask for help.

Earlier form for “to beg”. (zdic.net)

Jon writes technology tutorials, fantasy (a dream), linguistics (phonology, etymologies, Chinese), gaming (in-depth playthrough-based game reviews).

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