Functional orthographic units in Chinese character reading: Are there abstract radical identities?

Shi Pui Donald Li, Sam Po Law, Kai Yan Dustin Lau, Brenda Rapp

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Previous research has shown that the components of Chinese characters (e.g., semantic components, phonetic components, and radicals) serve as processing units in reading. One outstanding question concerns the existence of amodal orthographic representations that unify multiple, form-specific character components, similar to the abstract letter identities (ALIs) that unify case-specific letter forms (A/a) in Roman script. Although Chinese does not have case, a subset of semantic radicals have multiple forms (e.g., 氵–水 are both “water” radicals), allowing for a test of the existence of Abstract Radical Identities (ARIs) that unify the multiple forms. In Experiment 1, a visual same–different judgement task was used to detect the presence of ARI representations. Evidence for ARIs was provided by the finding that radical pairs with different forms but the same radical identity were judged to be visually different more slowly than matched pairs of different forms with different radical identities. In Experiment 2, we evaluated ARI effects in real character reading. A lexical decision priming task compared prime–target character pairs containing radicals with the same identity but different forms (e.g., 泄–泉) with matched prime–target character pairs with unrelated radicals (e.g., 無–泉). Inhibitory priming was observed only in the same-identity radical condition compared with the unrelated condition. These combined results provide, for the first time, evidence of format-free representations of orthographic units in Chinese characters—abstract radical identities (ARIs).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)610-623
Number of pages14
JournalPsychonomic Bulletin and Review
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2021


  • Orthography
  • Psycholinguistics
  • Reading
  • Visual word recognition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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