How to Memorize Chinese Characters

If not for the characters, Chinese would be one of the easiest languages in the world. Yet, I would be the last to suggest for characters to be abolished – they are what drew me to the language. As a teenager, I read this popular science book on linguistics and it had these lines from a Tang poem by Han Yu, describing the characters:

年深岂免有缺画? Time has not yet vanquished the beauty of these letters
快剑砍断生蛟鼍。 Looking like sharp daggers that pierce live crocodiles,
鸾翔凤翥众仙下, Like phoenix-mates dancing, like angels hovering down,
珊瑚碧树交枝柯。 Like trees of jade and coral with interlocking branches,
金绳铁索锁钮壮, Like golden cord and iron chain tied together tight,
古鼎跃水龙腾梭。 Like incense-tripods flung in the sea, like dragons mounting heaven.

As beautiful as they are, that doesn’t make them easier to learn, it just gives you the motivation to keep going. I wasted a lot of time trying to learn characters the Asian way, by writing them over and over and over again. Writing them like that commits them to muscle memory – your hands can trace them, like your PIN at the ATM, even if your brain cannot remember their shape. However, muscle memory only works with very regular re-inforcement and I don’t intend to hand-write Chinese often enough for that to be viable, at least not beyond the most common 600 or so characters (it explains why this method works for Asians though, or used to work, getting weaker with the advent of computers and cellphones). What’s left is trying to commit the characters to your real memory, so that your brain can recall how to write them when your hands cannot. That’s where it helps to have a photographic memory, or even any kind of memory that’s good with pictures – I don’t have either, I think in abstract terms only, and yet I really wanted to learn Chinese characters!

The Solution

First, stop seeing the characters as a series of almost-random strokes. Familiarize yourself with the basic elements and their inate meaning. This will also help you distinguish 王 (king) 壬 (ancient burden) and 玉 (jade) or 土 (ground) and 士 (knight). You will notice that the vast majority of Chinese characters are not new, they consist of two or more of the basic elements. If you know the basic elements, you can then construct a mnemonic to link the elements to their meaning, a little story to help you remember or even a downright explanation. For example, the character 明 meaning “bright” consists of sun and moon – not difficult to remember, is it? The character 休 meaning “to rest” consists of a person and a tree – mentally fix the idea of an exhausted hiker resting against a tree and you’ll never forget this character again. This works for complex characters as well, and for each character you can choose into how many parts you split it, e. g. if you want to think of 偷 meaning “thief” as (person + making a canoo) or as (person + Chinese roof + moon + knife) – I went for the latter, with a story involving a thief on the roof of a house in moonlight, knife in hand, in order to climb into one of the windows and steal stuff. Stories can be colourful, absurd, racy, nonsensical even, as long as you personally find them memorable.

For the purpose of learning a large amount of characters this way (I memorized almost 2500 in one non-intensive year), it makes sense to go from basic characters to more complex ones, also so that you don’t have to memorize all possible basic elements at once. Unfortunately quite a lot of frequent words involve characters that are complex combinations of 4 or more elements. So character study has to be somewhat separate from regular textbook study at first, until you have a foundation. It is possible to go this path alone; gives you an analysis of each character’s components. But I don’t recommend it, because then you’ll encounter the issue of having one peg word corresponding to several characters, or inadvertently learning out-of-use characters, or learning complex characters before learning the parts that they’re made of.

I recommend getting a book to guide you. Depending on your background, there are three books I can recommend for learning characters:

1) Alison and Laurence Matthews’ Learning Chinese Characters proposes pictures and stories to go along with every character and the stories will even help you remember the pronunciation and the tone if you choose. On the down side, this book only covers about 1000 characters. They are sorted roughly in order of appearance in textbooks (!); it’s really great as a textbook companion for a beginner with little prior knowledge of characters and methods.

2) William McNaughton’s “Reading and Writing Chinese” (simplified characters or traditional) is a better choice if you have already learned more than 200 characters and taught yourself how to make mnemonics based on the character parts. This book is also guided by frequency and teaches you more than 2200 characters but doesn’t feed you the stories.

3) T.K. Ann’s “Cracking the Chinese Puzzles” is for the pros, sinologists and the like, covering almost 6000 characters, basically all that you’ll ever need, even when reading literature. The book doesn’t give stories so much as etymology – etymology with a bit of fantasy filling in the gaps – usually making characters very memorable. On the down side, you will find frequent characters mixed with infrequent ones, so getting this book only makes sense if you’re planning to learn all characters anyway, and if you have time to wait e. g. till the end of the first volume to learn some characters that will come up in the first few lessons of your Chinese textbook. T.K. Ann also provides lists of words using the characters, but again you have to be careful – some of these words are clearly literary or outdated, without being marked as such.

4) I guess I should mention James Heisig’s “Remembering the Hanzi” (with traditional or simplified characters) for completeness’ sake, but I would not recommend it except possibly if you already used Heisig to study Japanese Kanji. His book has several drawbacks. The biggest is that he doesn’t provide Pinyin (pronunciation) with the characters, even though in Chinese it makes sense to learn pronunciation at the same time (characters with the same elements usually have a very similar pronunciation and characters usually only have one possible pronunciation). Also, Heisig made the mistake of largely copying his Japanese Kanji book for this, giving little thought to how frequent/useful these characters are in Chinese, or whether a different order of introduction might make sense for Chinese.

Note that you probably won’t need to graduate e. g. from “Learning the Chinese Characters” to “Reading and Writing Chinese Characters” to “Cracking the Chinese Puzzles” when you’re ready to learn more – once you’ve learned 800+ characters this way, the method and the meaning of basic elements should be so ingrained that you can learn all future characters on your own as you encounter them. The main advantage there would be if you’re making a push to learn lots of characters BEFORE you encounter them.

Good luck with your studies!