The other day, an error message appeared on my piece-of-shit Samsung “smart” TV containing some mysterious Chinese text:

My curiosity was immediately piqued. Why was Chinese text being displayed? What does the text mean? More important than those questions, however, was the broader question facing me: How do you look up Chinese characters that you don’t already know, and to which you have no digital access? Is that even possible?

It turns out that it is indeed possible, but it is not easy or straightforward. This post records my attempts to look up the character in that picture. It is sure to contain inaccuracies; nevertheless, it might be useful to someone who doesn’t know how Chinese orthography works at all. To someone who does know Chinese orthography (whether a foreign expert or a regular Chinese person), it might be interesting to see how an outsider deals with the complexities therein.

Here is the basic method for looking up Chinese characters.

First, find the character’s primary radical. A character is composed of one or more radicals. A radical is something like a primitive orthographic element, and there are 214 of them (at least according to the most common lexicographic system). One of these radicals is the primary radical, which is like first letter in a word. If you are like me and you don’t know how to identify a character’s primary radical, you will have to guess.

Next, determine the stroke count of that radical. This is similar to, but not the same as, the number of lines in the radical. Unlike most of the “rules” for Chinese, the rules for determining stroke count are fairly intuitive, and it isn’t hard to learn the basics quickly. I won’t go into details, but assume you have access to a total function `countStrokes : Radical -> Nat`.

Now go to your dictionary. The primary radicals are grouped together according to stroke count. Go to the group of the stroke count you calculated previously and find your character (I guess you just have to brute-force search the list). Beware of alternate forms.

This will take you to another stroke-count table. This time, count the strokes in the rest of the character (which I’ll call the remainder), and go to the table entry of that number. Scan the list for your character. If you find it, you’re done, and if you don’t, I don’t know what recourse you have. Try again maybe?

# The Way of the Radical

Now, I would describe the Chinese text in question like this, from left to right: a little stick-figure person, followed by an L-shape with a stroke on top, followed by a stack of horizontal lines. (Refer back to the picture at the beginning.)

At this point in my search, I look at that L-shape and think “Hey, I recognize that, it’s part of the Way, the Dao, 道.” I take it that the primary radical is 辶, walk, which has three strokes. I go to the lookup page for that radical. Then I count the strokes in the remainder. It has ten strokes, so I look through the ten-stroke slot, and…I can’t find it. No, wait, actually it has nine strokes, so I look in that slot, and…sure enough, there it is, 達. It has a range of meanings, but basically it means to arrive at something.

Given this, a reasonable working hypothesis is that the text means something like an error has arrived. Thus the little stick-figure thing, which I’ve assumed is another character, must mean error.

# How many characters are there?

But wait, I thought, why is that stick-figure character so small? Are there two characters here, or just one? If it’s really just one, did I guess the wrong primary radical, and hence also the wrong remainder?

So I do some more digging and discover that, yes, it is just one character altogether, and yes, I did guess the wrong primary radical. The real primary radical is 火, fire, and the remainder is 達, which I previously thought to be one of two characters. The character in full is 燵.

The meaning of 燵 is unclear to me. According to English Wiktionary, it means foot warmer in Japanese, where it is pronounced tatsu (たつ). Japanese Wiktionary (according to google translate) gives table with heater, while Chinese Wiktionary doesn’t give any meaning at all. Image-searching turns up a bunch of pictures of Japanese food and restaurants (see this post, for instance). This leads me to believe that this is not Chinese at all, but rather a so-called kokuji (国字), a Chinese-style character developed in Japan.

# The Error in the Error

The all-around strangeness of 燵 leads me to conclude that the there was an error in the error message. The “Chinese” text was not meaningful, and it wasn’t even supposed to be there. Probably something got screwed up, and a random Unicode character got displayed, and 燵 was it. As I mentioned before, my Samsung “smart” TV is a piece of shit, so that kind of thing would be very much on-brand.

• 燵, foot warmer
• 火, fire
• 達, arrive, attain
• 辶 / 辵, walk
• 𦍒 (doesn’t display on my computer, meaning ???)
• 土, soil
• 羊, sheep

# Questions for Experts

1. Is every character component a radical? In other words, are there character compoments that are not radicals?
2. Is there a method, or even a set of rules of thumb, for identifying a character’s primary radical?
3. I made up the expression primary radical. What is the real name for it? What about the remainder?
4. Given two primary radicals with the same number of strokes, is one of them “before” or “after” the other? In other words, is there an ordering between primary radicals with the same number of strokes?
5. What is the relationship between 辶 and 辵? In general, what is the relationship between “alternate forms” of the same radical?
6. What is the relationship between 馗 and 道? Why is 首 the primary radical in the former but not the latter?
7. What is the relationship between the different “fonts” of radicals and characters? (For example, sometimes 辶 has two strokes instead of one.) How can dictionaries using different fonts be reconciled, since different fonts might imply different stroke-counts?
8. How many undecomposable orthographic elements are there?
9. How many of the 214 primary radicals are decomposable?
10. How deep can radicals be nested?
11. How do Chinese dictionaries deal with Chinese-style characters from other countries? Do they?
12. Are the leaf nodes in the proposed decomposition of 燵 primitive, or can they be decomposed further?