Chinese Etymology

Lesson One -- 220 Chinese word roots

Copyright © 2006 by Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong

One: lesson text

In this lesson, 220 Chinese root words are listed. In an analogy similar to the elements in Chemistry, they are the atoms of Chinese words. They are the rock bottom building blocks for dissecting Chinese words anatomically visually. That is, they do have internal structure, similar to atoms in physics, and this etymology physics will be discussed in lesson three. In this lesson, these 220 root words are the rock bottom units.

With these 220 root words, all (100%) Chinese written words can be dissected anatomically visually. As I have mentioned in Introduction, the Chinese written words are composed with root words in the following steps.

  1. To construct modules, especially the sound modules.

    Note: root words are always silent in the composed modules or words. The sound of the sound modules or any composite word does not arise from root words. The sound modules are the sound roots. Of course, there are some exceptions. When a word is composed of two roots (both being silent), the weaker root (having smaller number of descendant words) might give up its right to be silent, such as, with t (root 129) sound; with (root 153) sound; } with (root 19) sound; with (root 22) sound. These exceptions, however, do not change the general rule -- when a root or a module has a lot of descendant words, it will become silent in those words.

  2. To construct higher generation (G2, G3, ...) words with those modules. With sound modules, two types of words are constructed.
As the sound of root words are silent in their composed words, I do not provide any pronunciation of any root or word in this lesson. The major part of Chinese written words is about ideographs. Those ideographs should be learned and memorized as they are without the distraction from anything else, such as a phonetic system. The phonetic system will be discussed in lesson two, the 300 sound modules.

Thus, the central point of this lesson is to learn and to memorize all those 220 root words both in their form and in their meaning. By knowing their forms, all Chinese written words can be dissected anatomically visually. By knowing their meanings together with the meanings of 300 sound modules, the meaning of 99% Chinese words can be read out loud from their faces.

Under each root word, a few (at least 3) descendant words of that root are listed. Reader does not need to study them in terms of their meaning in this lesson. They are the examples of how a root to grow into trunk, branches and leaves. For the convenience of discussion, I call the first generation words (the grandfather of all other generation words) as node words. The word "node" refers to the node of a web, and those node words are, indeed, the nodes of Chinese word web. A node of one root is often a node of another root. Reader is encouraged to dissect those node words both anatomically and syntactically. The followings are the 220 root words.

  1. A hand.
    Note: this is a horizontal root.
    1. x
    2. ^
  2. a)
    The lower radical of (without B ) , the right hand.
        • ϫ
      • g
        • s
    1. A twisted hands.
    2. z
    3. means crafty hand.
        • w
      • d
        • ~
    b) The shared radical of ( t B J ) is a variant of the above root.
    1. t
      • S
  3. S A also a right hand. When it is a stand alone word, it means "also".
      • V
      • C
    1. e
      • D

  4. The right radical of F (without ) is beating something with hand.
    Note: this is a semi-horizontal root.
      • t
      • Y
    Note: the right radical of V is a variant of this root.

  5. The left radical of (without B ) is the left hand.
    Note: this is a horizontal root.
    1. u

  6. The top radical of (without ) is also a left hand.
    1. k
    2. b
      • ӳ

  7. The shared radical of ( B ) is top hand. is the stand alone word for this radical, and it means the claws of animals.
    1. R
      • ѽ
      • B
      • b

  8. The shared radical of ( B ) is two-hand (left and right holding something).
    1. d
    2. P
      • A
      • ]
      • j
    Note: B belong to this root group. Yet, in dictionary, they are listed under .

  9. The shared radical of ( B ) is two-hand raising up over the head, carrying something with two hands over the head.
    1. @ B
      Note: the lower radical of these words is a variant of this root. The same for the lower radical of P B C
    2. b
    3. λ
      • f
    Note: the lower radical of is not this root, see root 17a.

  10. The right radical of o (without the dot u B v ) is a right hand.
    1. o
      • x
      • I
          • G
      • d
      • M
      • M
        • w
      • g
        • p
    2. w
    3. p

  11. The right radical of (without ) is holding something with hand.

Note: other root words are available in the paperback.


  1. The left radical of means getting off ... horse or boat.
      • s
        • m

Two: exercise

In order to speak a word correctly, it depends a lot on the tongue memory. To hear a word correctly, it depends on the ear memory. Although the Chinese written words are ideographs, the visual memory allows us to recognize a word but not about how to write it. In order to know how to write a Chinese word correctly, it depends on the pen-tip memory.

Although Chinese words are ideographs, there is a major difference between to write a word and to draw a word. To draw a graph, we can start it at any point of that graph. To write a word, there is a defined stroke sequence for each word. I can always recognize a word when I see it. Yet, I, often, cannot remember how to write a word, especially for a complicated one. The visual memory is no use in this kind of situation. Yet, my pen-tip memory can, almost always, find it for me. The homework of lesson one is about the learning of Chinese word stroke sequence.

The Chinese words were written with wet ink. If the wet ink got on to the hand, the other part of paper will be smeared. Thus, there is one and only one principle to define the sequence of word stroke:

Do not smear the paper.
In order to achieve this, some rules were found.
  1. Never start a stroke from bottom going up. The end point of a stroke which goes from bottom to top is okay.
  2. Never start a stroke from right to left. The end point of a stroke which goes from right to left is okay.
  3. Except to make a "dot," the pen never goes back to the inked area.
With one principle and three simple rules, one can write a word any which way he prefers. Some examples are provided.

Homework one:
Learning the pen strokes with the provided examples.

Homework two:
Writing all 220 root words as many times as possible until you can write them with your eyes closed.

Homework three:
Trying to dissect half of those node words anatomically.
Example: is (root 62) + (root 60).

Three: remarks

For phonetic sense determinator words, their meanings are inferred with root words together with their sound modules. The meaning of all other words is inferred only from root words. The followings are some examples:

  1. (administrator) is (a hand) over (a flow). Those Who use hands to direct a flow are administrators.
  2. i is evening or night time.
In this lesson, reader is not asked to read out the meaning of any word from its face with the root word inferring system. However, reader is encouraged to do so.

Note: this lesson has 56 pages in the paperback.