Thursday, December 12, 2013

Stoned Horses

When students learn to read & write Chinese characters, there are broadly two ways of doing it. The first is 'brute force' where you practise the strokes over & over again until you have internalised them, and the second is to use some method of visualisation which allows you to decompose the characters into parts - and piece them together again using imagary (which is much easier to remember that just pure strokes).

Although I used the Heisig method to learn 3000 characters (and I've blogged extensively on this - you can find the full collection here), note that what I'm writing below is about visualisation in general, and is not specific to the Heisig approach.

Take for example the character for 'numeral' - which is 码 (mǎ, also written 嗎 in the traditional system). You can see it's made up of 石 (stone) and 马 (horse). When I learned this character, I naturally had to create an image of why stone+horse=numeral. In this case, a flood of images came to mind, and I realised there were so many options.

So many examples!

It got me thinking of times I've spoken to people about visualisation methods, and they say it's so hard to create images. So in addition to the very popular article Tips & Tricks for Heisig Visualisations, I decided to share here a range of images that I could use for this character.
  • I picture the Terracotta Army, but instead of rows and rows of soldiers, I picture rows and rows of stone horses. And of course, since this is a very valuable collection, I imagine each horse is numbered - as you often see in museums. I suppose you can use this & this to help you create the image yourself. Ultimately this is my preferred image for remembering that stone+horse=numeral. Your preferred image may be different, and that's OK.
  • Or I can see a horse doing maths. You know, with numerals. But horses can't write in books, so this horse has a few stones laid out on the ground before him, and he is moving them around, a little like someone might use an abacus, to do the calculations. 
  • I can also visualise a ten-pin bowling alley, but you won't find pins at this place - instead you will find 10 stone horses at the bottom of the bowling lane. Can you see as your ball hits them, they break from the impact - and your score (such a high number!) appears on the board above you.
  • Maybe there are horses running a race, but the track has lots of loose stones on the track, and each time a horse stumbles on the stone and falls, someone keeping score of 'lost' horses chalks up a higher numeral on the board.
  • How about a large piece of cardboard which is part of a colour-by-numbers approach. But with this one you don't paint according to the number, you place a stone of different colour on that number. And when it's done and you step back, you can see it's a horse!
  • Another possibility is to imagine cave paintings of horses scratched into the stone walls, but when you look more closely you notice that between the pictures of horses there are numbers - almost like the person was doing maths with horses as numerals
  • Alternatively, I can see a gateway with a stone horse head mounted on top (it looks a little like this) - there is someone sitting astride that head, and as people pass through the gateway, she updates the numerals in her notepad, since she's counting people who use this entrance. 

Choosing the best one

Let's be clear, the one that is best for me may not be the best for you - so don't simply choose the one that I have chosen, but recognise which one best matches the way your own thinking works.

(It is possible to come up with really bad images, which I've written about here, but none of the above ones fails the tests in that article.)

After having done 3000 characters this way, I know instinctively how my brain works. And if you repeatedly hypnotised me to forget this character, and kept asking me to (re)create an image, it would probably be the first one, again & again. This is important, because in future when you're facing the character in The Real World © you will indeed need to see 码 then think stone+horse, and if your mind comes up with a different image, then you're never going to be able to work out what character you're looking at!)


Did this help? Is it useful to be reminded that there really are so many (good) ways of creating images, that we shouldn't feel helpless, and we shouldn't forgive ourselves for feeling we can only come up with poor images?

So while you're in a visualisation mood, challenge yourself … Pick one or two of the characters below and create a few images that actually work. For fun.

  • 敌: tongue+taskmaster = enemy
  • 妄: perish+woman = absurd
  • 坏: earth+NO = bad
  • 如: woman+mouth = if

Leave a comment if you have any clever thoughts. Or if you have any dumb thoughts, that's OK too.


  1. I love the one about cave paintings the best! You've got me itching to learn more Chinese, Greg -- you and my sister's boyfriend combined. He's been studying it for a semester and he's learning all of the basics and it's reminding me of when I was learning. I finish my bachelor's next week and have some time off before school begins again, I'm thinking about picking up my old books and learning online :)

    Congratulations on finishing the 2nd Heisig book! How would you rate your fluency in Chinese currently? How have you been doing in China (I believe Hong Kong, if you still live there)? Take care and good luck with your studies!

  2. Well done - just a week away from finishing your bachelors! And to think how much your studies have progressed since you started commenting on this blog a while ago. Well done!

    I continue to progress here in HK - although my listening skills are not as good as I would like because it's constantly Cantonese I'm hearing, not Mandarin. But 2013 was for Heisig Book 2 - I look forward to my new goals for 2014.

    And don't just *think* about picking up your books again. Do it! You keep talking about it, you're clearly passionate about it … feels to me like it's time, now. Again :)

  3. Thank you! I was just thinking about that recently, I believe I was a sophomore or junior in high school when I found your blog!

    Are you able to move to Shanghai or Beijing anytime soon? Are you also learning Cantonese? Good luck!

    I'm definitely going to. I just got a Kindle, maybe I can purchase them on it and have my books always on the go with me :)

  4. No plans to leave HK - although I accept I'm surrounded by a lot less Mandarin than I would be further up North. I'm picking up some Cantonese along the way, but realistically I don't have time to learn two languages, so I'm just sticking with Mandarin :)