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Learning to Read and Write Chinese Characters the Heisig-Richardson Way

In their books, Remembering Traditional Hanzi and Remembering Simplified Hanzi, James W. Heisig and Timothy W. Richardson introduce the Chinese characters using mnemonic stories and a unique approach of ordering them.

Their objective is to offer a very fast method to learning how to read and write Chinese characters. The work is based on Heisig’s earlier work, Remembering the Kanji. Following the method described in this book, he learned nearly 2000 characters (Kanji, i.e. the Chinese characters as they are used in Japan) in about one month of full-time study. For each character, he learned its key meaning, how to recognize it and how to write it from memory. That is impressive.

As I wrote in an earlier post, I committed to learning the 2000 most common traditional Chinese characters (at a leisurely pace).

So where am I now? So far, I have used Heisig’s book for about 30 minutes a day for a bit more than two months. During that time, I learned the first 350 characters in the book. I can report that I could significantly reduce the time I needed to memorize each character compared to the approach I used to learn 1500 simplified Chinese characters a few years ago. What’s more, it is a lot more fun, and the characters stick better. I also have (almost completely) avoided confusing different characters (interference), or wondering how many strokes I needed to write.

To help you decide whether this method is for you, let me briefly outline how the “Heisig-Richardson” way of learning Chinese characters works:

Let’s take a look at the top-20 Chinese characters by frequency of appearance: 的不一我是人有了大國來生在子們中上他時小

They all look quite different, don’t they? How can you possibly memorize 2000 of them in a reasonable amount of time? How did Heisig do it?

As you perhaps already know, Chinese characters are made of a limited number of simpler characters and components, so they are not just arbitrary collections of paintbrush strokes. Heisig calls these components and simpler characters “primitive elements” or “primitives”.

For example, the character 的 ( English, target) is composed of the primitive elements 白 (white), and 勺 (ladle). The character 時 (time) is made of the primitives 日 (sun) and 寺 (temple). 寺 (temple) itself is formed of the primitives 土 (soil) and 寸 (inch).

James W. Heisig learned the characters by first learning  a few primitive elements, and then combining them into more complex characters through the use of mnemonic stories (preferably stories which are easy to visualize). Each character’s story connects one key meaning (keyword) with the primitives it is composed of.  Given a character’s keyword, Heisig recalls the mnemonic story, respectively its visualization and thus the primitives and how it is written.

Let’s go back to 的 (target) to illustrate this: The character 的 (target) contains the primitives 白 (white), and 勺 (ladle). To learn the meaning “target” of the character 的, and at the same time memorize how to write it, you can make up a story: Picture a target (的) as a large metal ladle (勺) with a white dot (白) in the middle hanging from the ceiling. A group of kids is throwing pebbles at the ladle trying to hit their target – the white dot in the ladle’s center.

How does recall work? Given the keyword target, you recall the ladle 勺 hanging from the ceiling with a white dot 白 in it. These cues are usually enough to write the actual character 的.

Indeed, this helps a great deal to learn the meaning and writing of Chinese characters and avoid confusing them. Apart from Heisig, many people, including myself have to some degree employed this way to learn Chinese characters.

In addition to the mnemonic stories, there is a second ingredient to the “secret sauce” – the ordering of the primitive elements and characters.

In his book, he doesn’t introduce the characters in the order of frequency of appearance in common texts (the usual way), but rather by learning the meaning and writing of a few primitive elements and then consistently reusing these few primitives when forming more complex characters. This way, he automatically reviews previously learned characters. Only when he cannot come up with any additional useful characters using the already learned primitives, does he introduce a new primitive, allowing him to learn yet another set of characters.

Why does this make a difference? Well, a few years ago, (before knowing anything about Heisig’s books), I learned about 1500 simplified Chinese characters using the “conventional” way in a classroom setting using text books.

Common textbooks take character frequency into account when presenting them, and most commonly introduce them in two ways.

  1. Single characters are introduced with writing exercises. The more frequent characters tend to be presented earlier.
  2. New words, consisting of mostly one or two, but sometimes up to 4 characters are introduced in context. The student learns to recognize the words (and their meaning) and how to pronounce them.

Struggling to memorize the writing of all these characters, I also started quite early to dissect them with the aim of learning the meaning and writing of the components, and then somehow combining them into a mnemonic story that would help me to remember the meaning and writing of a character.

The problem I faced was that by learning characters in the order of frequency, I encountered a great variety of different components in every learning session. To learn just few characters, I had to research and learn all components contained in them. Just look at the first 20 characters above again. Do you see what I mean?

This is where the books by Heisig and Richardson significantly deviate from many conventional texts. Yes, the first book still contains the  1000 most frequent characters (plus 500 more). However, they are learned in an order dictated by previously learned primitives, rather than frequency of appearance. Only when all already introduced primitives have been exhausted, does Heisig introduces an additional primitive,  allowing the learner to form yet more characters and primitives.

What is my experience with learning to read and write Chinese characters using the Heisig-Richardson way?

  • I have so far learned around 350 traditional characters using the book. I achieved this spending about half an hour a day for review and new characters during the past two months. (I actually could have achieved a lot more, but couldn’t spare more time).
  • I find it much easier to learn the characters using this book, compared to the traditional, frequency based approach.
  • So far, I was able to avoid (almost completely) confusing the learned characters (interference), and besides, they stick a lot better.
  • Using the Heisig way to learn Chinese characters is fun

How am I adapting the book to my knowledge level and preferences?

  1. The books do not present the pronunciation along with the characters, as Heisig and Richardson’s advice is not to learn the pronunciation(s) of a character at this stage, but rather focus on the meaning and writing.
  2. I don’t follow this advice. I usually look up the main pronunciation of a character and learn it as well. For me, this is quite easy, as I have previously studied Chinese and have a decent vocabulary. I may not always know to write a word using the traditional characters, but I often know how to say that word. Adding the pronunciation and one or two words as examples when creating computer flash cards is not a big deal for me. If you are just beginning, you need to experiment a bit and decide whether you strictly want to adhere to the method outlined in the book.
  3. Sometimes the book focuses on a minor meaning of a character as its key meaning (keyword) to keep each character’s key meaning distinct. I look up each character using a computer dictionary, and whenever I feel the book does not focus on the essential meaning or connotation, I add that meaning to my flash cards in a note section as well. I still keep the keyword suggested by the book as recall cue though, and would advise you to do that as well.

What the books were not designed to accomplish:

The books don’t teach pronunciation and vocabulary. What’s more, the meaning of Chinese characters does vary quite a bit depending on the words they are used in. Therefore, even after learning all the characters in the book, you cannot expect to be able to read a newspaper article and you won’t be able to pronounce the characters. You will know one meaning for each character, and how to write it (which is great and a big hurdle for most learners), but you still need to learn enough vocabulary and expressions. In other words, your still need to learn Chinese. 🙂

The authors are sometimes criticized for not including the pronunciation of characters, and even advising people not to learn it at this stage. As I have previously outlined, if you don’t want to follow this regime, you can easily add the pronunciation to your review cards.

In conclusion, I have the feeling, “Remembering Traditional Hanzi”, and “Remembering Simplified Hanzi” offer a really efficient and fun way to learning Chinese characters.

Personally, I would experiment with adding the main pronunciation (as dictated by the keyword) to your flash cards. I suggest using a computer flash card program such as Anki or Mnemosyne for your review and keeping track of your success. In a future post, I will introduce how I create flash cards to review the characters.

Formal Chinese programs expect you to learn the characters in a different order. If you are following a school curriculum, you can still use the books to make use of the mnemonic stories, but you inevitably lose quite a bit of the efficiency provided by the different ordering and constant recycling of character components.

I will keep you updated on my progress.

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