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214 minus 14

May 6, 2014
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The table of radicals in JiShop contains as many as 632 components of kanji characters. This is almost three times more than the 214 classical radicals used in most kanji dictionaries, either paper or electronic. Some people express their perplexity about this. Indeed, why do we need so many? Aren't 214 enough?

It's time to explain. As a matter of fact, the JiShop table is not just a threefold extension of the classical list. In a way, it's a different set. What's most interesting is that it didn't include all those 214 radicals. Some were omitted!

Have you ever thought about these 214 radicals you see in most kanji dictionaries? Who selected them for kanji search, where and when? You will probably be surprised to know that this system originated in China during the late Ming Dynasty (the beginning of the 17th century). That's when the dictionary named Zihui was published on its 14 scrolls, containing 33179 Chinese characters (hanzi). A hundred years later, the Japanese adopted this system for kanji, without any changes. Since then, rolls were replaced by printed books, and printed books started to be replaced by computer programs — but this medieval system mysteriously survived everything!

Does it mean that it is a good system? No, it doesn’t. Perhaps it was good for the medieval Chinese, but it definitely doesn’t fit the modern Japanese.

Let's have a closer look at these 214 radicals (Bushu, as they are called in Japanese). Of course, they include all the popular key radicals like Earth, Tree, Thread, Metal, Heart, Woman and others. No doubt, these radicals should be enlisted in any list, either short or long.

Also, we find radicals there which are far less useful for indexing: Thousand, Tusk, Color, Face or Yellow. These radicals are included in the 214 mainly to index themselves (i.e. the kanji "Thousand", the kanji "Tusk", etc.) because these kanji can’t easily be decomposed into smaller parts. This is a sound reason for including these radicals, which we also do in JiShop.

Finally, there are several radicals which are neither useful for indexing, nor difficult to decompose. For example, there’s a radical (no. 189, High), which indexes only itself and a very rare character . Why should we have as a separate radical, instead of indexing both these kanji with Lid ?

Below you can see the full list of 14 radicals included in the classical list of 214 “bushu”, but omitted in the JiShop table:

136.    Dancing feet–›     夕
150.Valley–›     八 ,  人 ,  口
174.Blue–›     月
186.Aroma–›     禾 ,  日
189.High–›     亠 ,  口 ,  冂
192.Fragrant liquor      –›     匕
193.Tripod–›     一 , 口 ,  冂
199.Cereals–›     來 ,  夂
200.Hemp–›     广 ,  木
204.Embroidery 
207.Drum–›     支
208.Rat–›     臼
209.Nose–›     自 ,  田 ,  廾
214.Flute–›     人 ,  一 ,  口

Only one radical of these fourteen, , cannot be easily decomposed into smaller parts. It’s not included in JiShop table because it indexes just two extremely rare kanji: and (both designate special embroidery patterns on the back of a ceremonial dress in ancient China).

The remaining thirteen radicals can easily be replaced by one or more of their parts, as shown above. Only the decomposition of Rat is not immediately obvious. The omission of this radical is disputable.

But still: why is the JiShop table of 632 radicals so big compared to the classical 214 list? It omits 14 radicals but introduces 432! Why so many?

Let’s talk about it in our next blog post.

Vadim Smolensky