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Mastering Chinese Characters Through Radicals – Understanding the Three Drops of Water Radical

A radical in Chinese is a collection of brush strokes that convey a certain meaning. Radicals combine to form characters, and recognizing a particular radical can often hint at the character’s meaning. Some radicals can even stand alone as characters themselves.

A great example of the radical system is the “water” radical. It is the second most common radical, and when combined with others, it forms almost a quarter of the Chinese dictionary! The Kangxi Dictionary lists 1,595 characters under the “water” radical.

The “water” character looks like 水. In the Chinese “Five Phases” system and the Bagua trigrams, this symbol represents the element Water. However, in most Chinese characters, it is simplified to “氵”, a radical known as “three drops of water” (三点水 – sān diǎn shuǐ), symbolizing flowing water. “氵” usually appears on the left side of a character.

Many of these characters have meanings related to water or liquid. Here are some examples:

  • 河 (hé) – river
  • 海 (hǎi) – sea
  • 泡 (pào) – bubble, foam
  • 液 (yè) – liquid
  • 浪 (làng) – wave
  • 浬 (lǐ, hǎilǐ) – nautical mile
  • 清 (qīng) – clear, transparent (like water)
Three Drops Of Water

Fun Fact: The character 渴 (kě), which means “thirsty,” has the “water” radical, while 喝 (hē), which means “to drink,” has the “mouth” radical. If you’re thirsty (渴), you better use your mouth to drink (喝)!


The original character 水 is also used as a radical, typically placed at the bottom of a character, as in 泉 (quán) – “spring.” However, its position is not fixed.

Quick Tip: Don’t confuse the “three drops of water” radical with 冫 (两点水 – liǎng diǎn shuǐ – “two drops of water”), a radical that means “ice.” The most common character using the “ice” radical is 冰 (bīng), which means “ice,” “icy,” or “to freeze.”

For more information on Chinese characters and radicals, explore these helpful resources:

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Oksana Ermolaeva

Oxana Ermolaeva is a freelance writer, editor and translator from Russia. She loves studying new languages and cultures. Her special interest is Chinese language.

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