The Dark Side of 玄

By Confused Laowai | Date: November 5th, 2012 | Category: Chinese Characters

After running a script last month to see where the first occurrence of a radicals appear in HSK, there were some interesting observations. Such as the fact that some radicals only occur on level 6 or some never occur! I decided to look at some of those radicals to investigate why they are so rare, and maybe learn a bit more about them. First up is 玄(xuán). It sits at radical number 95.


玄 means black & mysterious, but other definitions also pop-up such as profound, dark & incredible. My first reaction, was huh? How can it have all those meanings? It’s not an easy one like other radicals (人 & 心 for instance).

I decided to find more clarity. After some searching I found this word: 玄奥. This means “profound mystery” or “the mysteries of the Universe”. Then it started making sense. Dark is related to the unknown & this can be mysterious, but also profound & incredible in the sense of its mystery.

The Death Star, before Luke destroyed it, could have been described 玄妙 (mysterious & profound).

As A Radical

This is all fine and dandy, but it seems 玄 as a radical is very rare. In HSK it appears in 蓄 (xù) which means “to store up”, which it makes sense to have the 田 (field) radical there. If you remove the 艹 radical at the top you get another character,畜 (xù), which means “to raise animals”.

Notice how both characters are pronounced the same: xù

玄 doesn’t act here as a semantic radical, but rather a phonetic clue to pronunciation. I decided to find some more characters that has 玄 in it. Here’s what I found:


Notice something? 玄 mostly occurs on the right. This an indication that it acts as a phonetic radical, providing pronunciation information in semantic-phonetic compounds. Only three characters seem to use 玄 as a semantic radical: 玅玆玈, of which one is just a variant of 妙 in 玄妙.

If you look at the pronunciation of the other characters you get this:

弦 (xián), 昡 (xuàn), 泫 (xuàn), 炫 (xuàn), 牽 (qiān), 玹 (xuán), 眩 (xuàn), 舷 (xián), 蚿 (xián),铉 (xuàn)

See the trend there? 玄 most definitely acts as a phonetic radical, rather than a semantic radical. It’s kinda disappointing that it isn’t used a semantic radical more often, ’cause it definitely has interesting meaning.


I find it strange that 玄 is actually included in the list of Kangxi radicals in the first place. The list of 214 radicals are semantic radicals. Phonetic radicals, by definition, are not included in this list. 玄 definitely lives up to its definition. 

Oddly enough, there’s another word that uses 玄: 玄乎, which means “unreliable”. 玄 is definitely that, totally unreliable as a semantic radical, but at least works as a neat phonetic radical.

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