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土字旁 tǔ zì páng: The Earth Radical

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Chinese Radicals

This is another in a series of articles that takes a closer look at a specific Chinese radical. Radicals are the ‘building blocks’ of the Chinese language and help students of Chinese to learn to read Chinese characters. The root radical shows us the meaning behind the character. For example, if a character has the ‘mouth’ radical 口 then we can assume that the character has something to do with drinking, eating, speaking or even kissing!

This time we’re looking at 土字旁 (tǔ zì páng) or the ‘earth on one side’. No, we’re not discussing the shape or dimensions of our earth, but the characters that are associated with the ‘ground’ and the radical 土 (tǔ).

The 土 (tǔ) Radical

(tǔ) is a great pictographic radical of a plant growing out of the ground (although if you have your own thoughts please share them with us here.

The most common uses of 土 are in the following bigrams:

土地 (tǔ dì) – land or soil
领土 (lǐng tǔ) – territory
国土 (guó tǔ) – country’s territory

It’s also found in the bigram for potato – 土豆 (tǔ dòu) meaning ‘land bean’!

(zài) – (located) at / (to be) in / to exist

The character 在 (zài) is made of the 土 (tǔ) radical and a variation of 才 (cái), which means ‘just now’ or ‘a moment ago’. predominantly makes the pronunciation of the character (cái – zài) but also provides some meaning. I am AT (土) at a place JUST NOW (才).

Some good bigram examples of 在 (zài) are:

现在 (xiàn zài) – now, at present
正在 (zhèng zài) – in the process (of doing something)
存在 (cún zài) – to exist

Example sentence:

你推荐的那个餐馆在哪里?(nǐ tuī jiàn de nèi gè cān guǎn zài nǎ lǐ?) = Where is the restaurant you recommended?

(dì) – ground, field, land


Originally, the character (yě) which can be seen on the right hand side of the character 地 (dì) represented a drinking horn. This drinking horn was a representation of a man’s possessions. Whilst 土 on it’s own, simply means ‘earth’, adding the 也 (yě) character creates a sense of value over the ‘land’ or ‘field’ that is owned by somebody. Another reading of the 地 (dì) character is that originally, the second radical was a snake and the snake was on or in the ground (土).

地 character

Some examples of 地 are the following:

地方 (dì fang) – room, place
地铁 (dì tiě) – metro
地上 (dì shang) – ground floor

Example sentence:

地上有一个苹果。(dì shang yǒu yī gè píng guǒ.) = There is an apple on the ground.

(chǎng) – large place used for a specific purpose

chang - earthradical

The radical (yáng) means ‘to raise’. If the soil is raised above the rest this could imply a place such as a stage or arena in which to hold an event. 扬 (yáng) also provides the pronunciation to the character 场 (yáng – chǎng). Another meaning behind the 场 (chǎng) character is to look at the traditional character, 場. As you can see, above the character is the sun 日 (rì), suggesting that a ‘场’ (chǎng) was actually a place for farmers to dry their grain in the sun.

Some examples of the 场 (chǎng) character are:

市场 (shì chǎng) – marketplace
机场 (jī chǎng) – airport
广场 (guǎng chǎng) – plaza

Example sentence:

人们喜欢聚集在这个广场上唱歌跳舞。(rén men xǐ huan jù jí zài zhè ge guǎng chǎng shàng chàng gē tiào wǔ.) = People like to gather in the plaza to sing and dance.

(chéng) – city walls, city

shenzhen - earthradical

The 城 (chéng) character is made up of the 土 radical and the (chéng) radical meaning ‘success’. My reading of these radicals are that a city is a ‘successful piece of land’. The 成 radical also gives the character it’s pronunciation – chéng.

Common words using 城 (chéng) are:

城市 (chéng shì) – town or city
城里 (chéng lǐ) – in the city

Example sentence:

深圳是我最喜欢的城市之一。(shēn zhèn shì wǒ zuì xǐ huan de chéng shì zhī yī.) = Shenzhen is one of my favorite cities.

(huài) – bad / spoiled / broken

The character for broken is made up of the 土 (tǔ) radical and also (bù) which means ‘no’ or ‘not’. My understanding is that is something is ‘no’ longer of the ‘earth’ then it is ‘bad’ or spoiled.

Some good examples of 坏 (huài) are:

破坏 (pò huài) – destruction, damage
坏人 (huài rén ) – bad person/ villain
坏事 (huài shì) – bad things

Example sentence:

虽然他脾气不好,但是他不是一个坏人。(suī rán tā pí qì bù hǎo, dàn shì tā bú shì yī gè huài rén.) = He is in bad temper, but he is not a bad man.

(zēng) – to increase, to expand, to add

The radical on the right hand side of the character 增 (zēng) is (céng) meaning once / already / ever (in the past). This character depicts an ancient cooker releasing steam at the top (八). The 曾 (céng) radical adds the pronunciation to the character 增 (zēng) but I bet you can create your own interesting stories to remember this one!

Some examples of 增 (zēng) are:

增长 (zēng zhǎng) – to grow or increase
增加 (zēng jiā) – to raise or increase
增强 (zēng qiáng) – to increase / to strengthen

Example sentence:

这两年人口增长的很快。(zhè liǎng nián rén kǒu zēng zhǎng de hěn kuài.) = In the last few years the population has grown quickly.

(zuò) – sit

sit - earthradical

The pictographic character 坐 (zuò) meaning to sit, has always made me smile, because I see a smiling face. However, if you look closely (or maybe that’s just me), you can see 2 men ‘人 人‘ (rén) ‘sitting’ on the land (土).

Some useful examples of 坐 (zuò) are:

坐下 (zuò xia) – to sit down
乘坐 (chéng zuò) – to ride (in a vehicle)
坐车 (zuò chē) – take a bus, taxi etc

Example sentence:

谢尔顿喜欢坐火车到处旅行。(xiè ěr dùn xǐ huan zuò huǒ chē dào chù lǚ xíng.) = Sheldon likes to travel everywhere by train. (Someone’s a Big Bang Theory fan…)

(shèng) – holy, sacred

The 土 (tǔ) radical in this character makes a lot of sense to me but to really understand this character you need to look at the traditional character, 聖 (shèng). In the traditional character 壬 (rén) represents ‘man’ who is skilled and above average. A man (rén) with good listening skills (represented by an ear) (ěr) and good discourse ( – kǒu) is a holy one. It was said in ancient China, that people with big ears (shown on the left side of the character) were incredibly wise and intelligent.

Here are some bigrams that include the character 圣 (shèng):

圣诞 (shèng dàn) – Christmas
神圣 (shén shèng) – divine, holy, hallow
圣地 (shèng dì ) – holy land (see both characters have the 土 (tǔ) radical)

Example Sentence:

自由和爱一样神圣,所以不要以爱之名去束缚他人。(zì yóu hé ài yī yàng shén shèng, suǒ yǐ bù yào yǐ ài zhī míng qù shù fù tā rén.) = Freedom and love are both sacred, so we must not restrict others in the name of love.

You can find examples of more radicals in your Written Chinese Dictionary by tapping the radical button in your app or by scrolling to the bottom of the Online Dictionary.

Check out More Chinese Radials

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