Thursday, August 13, 2009

Learning to read Chinese (day zero of a personal experiment)

I'm going to do an experiment, and I'm going to document it here.

Until now my focus on learning Chinese has been conversational Mandarin. Since my last trip to China in May, I realised that my next challenge was going to be learning to read Chinese. Properly. Sure, I had picked up, say, 100 characters by then without even trying, but I wanted to be able to read signs, newspapers, etc.

So I've spent a bit of time reading up on various methods of learning to read, and eventually I've chosen one to focus on. In future I will log my efforts and my results.


I don't live in China, so I don't need to be able to read Chinese. This is a personal goal - and I know that life is likely to get in the way, often. If it comes to limited time availability to learn, I'm going to choose conversational Mandarin over reading.

I work really long hours, so I have limited time to learn Chinese. If I progress slower than you think I ought to be progressing, don't let that stress you. If you spend more time than me, and that's your goal, then you'll progress faster than me.

Is this really day zero?

Yes. Well no, not really. These are the reasons why not:
  • I already knew about 100 hanzi before I began
  • in experimenting with different systems, I learned 94 new hanzi - just to check that I liked the approach
These are the reasons why it is day zero:
  • I will not judge myself by whether I simply know what the word means (for example, 中 is easy), but by whether I know the "story" associated with that character, so that the past doesn't matter
  • the approximately 100 characters I knew before I began this experiment are not the first 100 in my book, so it's not really a 'chunk' of advantage
"Remembering the Hanzi"

After trying a few methods (I'll write about this in a later post) I decided to learn to read using the approach taught in the book called "Remembering the Hanzi" ("Remembering the Simplified Hanzi 1", actually).

You can see the books' homepage here, and you can download for free the first 61 pages of the (simplified) book here. In summary, though, the key points are as follows:
  • it was originally a system for learning Japanese Kanji developed 30 years ago, but was only adapted for Chinese hanzi in 2007
  • book 1 covers 1500 hanzi, with another 1500 covered in book 2
  • the system does not teach the pinyin of the hanzi (and so you won't know how to pronounce it), it rather teaches a method of association for seeing characters and immediately identifying the meaning
  • it starts off creating a 'story' or 'visual image' for basic characters, and then builds these 'pieces' (what the book calls 'primitives') into more complex characters
  • when you see a character, your mind splits it into the 'primitives' which make it up, which in turn creates mental images, allowing you to remember the meaning of the character based on the image that pops up
  • it is easier than it sounds, and much more effective than it sounds.
I recommend that you read the PDF link above - where you'll learn the history of the method, explanations of how it works, and even a very detailed example.

Here are affiliated links to the two books on Amazon:

Remembering Simplified Hanzi: Book 1, How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters

Remembering Traditional Hanzi: Book 1, How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters

The next few posts ...

I'll let you digest the content of this post - while I pour myself a glass from a great bottle of South African red wine I opened earlier.

In the next few posts I will talk about the first 5 days where I learned 94 hanzi (with near-perfect recall a week later, with no revision during that follow-up week), I'll mention the other methods I considered before embarking on this, and I'll talk about the little epiphanies I've had since beginning this experiment.

And you?

You can take anything you want from this series of posts - just make sure you're subscribed to Mandarin Segments (go to the top-right corner of this page) to watch my struggle.

If you've tried this approach, drop me a comment and let me know how it's gone for you. If you previously decided not to use this method, let me know why.

And if you have some words of encouragement, don't be shy either.


  1. Things that bother me about any method like this include the fact that it will be quite possible even if you are successfull to see a sentance in Chinese, be able to recognise every character and still have no idea what it means.......

    Is there not a danger that you will just learn to recognise a lot of the characters distinct from a natural understanding of what they actually represent in Chinese language.

    Recently I posted a short message on Twitter that nmde sense in both Japaanese and Chinese (or so I assume), I picked up a Japanease follower and when I vistied their page I read the first line of their top post, it made sense in Chinese, it wasn't until the next line I realised that it was Japanease, becasue the first sentance had been written entirely in Kanji and the grammar wasn't too funky.

    I can't express this in a meaningful way (I will attempt a post at some point) but shouldn't you be learning to read Chinese (that you already speak) rather than learning the characters that make up the Chinese written language.

    As an example my reading really started by watching English dialogue films or programmes with Chinese subs. I could only learn to read simple things that I could easily work out from translating the Engllish dialogue (try it it sounds mad but there is a crazy logic). Now I am reading Chinese graphic novels (reasonably text heavy ones), What I can read I can read, what I can guess from context and knowledge of Chinese I slowly learn to read, everything else I happilly ignore.

    This means of course that if a single character has three meanings and pronouciations then I will only initially know one and will learn them in the order that matches my general Chinese aquisition (but is that so wrong?).

    I rarley convince anybody but do think about it.... as for the stories behind the characters I think they are harmless but pointless 安 is the character that represents the meaning of 安 reading it in the context I find it, know that it is a women under a roof doesn't help me to read fluently (although it does lead to the amusing observation that it takes a pig under the roof to make a home 家 so I can forgive that one.)

    Not trying to put you off, I wish you success either way.

  2. Hey Chris

    Thanks for your post - your input is appreciated. Since this is still early days for me using the RTH approach, it's difficult for me to predict where I'll get to.

    But already the frame of mind it has created for me in "disassembling" hanzi is making it easier to remember characters that I haven't reached in the book, but that I see in writing anyway.

    And in the same way that I mentally piece together "primitives" to make characters, so too I'm piecing together characters to make words. It just feels like it's 'clicking'.

    Again, stay tuned and let's see how much it sticks!

  3. Chris, you really got me thinking. So I wrote a post in response to the above, which I've just posted. Hope that helps fill in the gaps.

  4. I have been using the book you use ("Remembering Simplified Hanzi" by Heisig). Some of the mnemonics are great and easy to remember, others I have found to be too complicated. I recently came across another book with a similar approach which I'm considering to buy: "Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters Volume 1" by Alison Matthews. Here you learn the important characters right from the start (with Heisig you will learn many characters you rarerly see). And I believe the mnemonics are also better (you also have pictures). Also I agree with Chris, that it is best to learn the characters at the same time as new words and to read a lot.

  5. Greg suggested I post something from a personal message I sent him. Here's what I said:

    I too have tried many methods. I finally settled on using to learn and practice new characters, and chatting with people on QQ has helped a TON. I would recommend that for sure. Jump on QQ and you'll have access to literally millions of people to practice with. There is an english client for QQ, if you track it down.

  6. Interesting post !

    I'm also learning how to read/write traditionnal chinese and with the help of some tool (, Japanese comics (in Chinese) and signs in street, I start to be able to recognize and understand few thousands.

    Wish you the best in your chinese learning journey :)

  7. Phil, thanks for your comments. I had glanced at Alison's book, but found that although the images were good in the beginning, they seemed to become a little contrived later on. Heisig felt more 'consistent' - although I accept that's purely my personal perspective. And thanks for the push towards more reading - I grabbed a Chinese newspaper on my way out of a restaurant yesterday! (Everything is now a target! :-)

    JB, thanks for your note. What a small world that although I found your picture by searching Creative Commons on flickr to use to head this article, it turned out you were already a subscriber to Mandarin Segments! And one of these days I'll try be brave enough to face QQ.

    Tortue ... a few thousand? Excellent, that's where I'm aiming.

  8. great sign! I've seen the book "Remebering Hanzi" but haven't taken a look.

  9. Hey Magnus. Start off with the PDF that I link to, but really read through it - rather than just glancing at it. Then you can get a strong idea of how it works.

  10. Hi there! This might be of help to your readers.
    My First Chinese Reader
    is a learning tool for basic chinese. it is the finest curriculum available for Elementary School students to learn Chinese. Specially designed for children living in non-Chinese speaking communities, these books feature a spiral-up lesson structure that builds upon and applies previous material, so children can learn Chinese naturally–the way they would in a native environment.

  11. Ray, thanks for the link. Can you please explain what you mean by "designed for children living in non-Chinese speaking communities" and "the way they would in a native environment"? This looks contradictory, but I haven't read these books, so I can't be sure. I look forward to your thought.

  12. Greg,

    Thanks for documenting your way through Remembering the Hanzi so clearly and thoroughly.

    I began investigating different approaches to learning Chinese early this summer and purchased several books. I really like AJATT's ideas, and so I decided to begin with learning Chinese characters. I know that he's a strong proponent of Heisig, but I opted to try Learning Chinese Characters instead. I have been using the book to learn both the meanings and the pinyin for each character, and I have made it through about 250. I think I'm going to switch over to RTH (I just purchased it using your affiliate link) and learn from it instead.

    I feel as though Learning Chinese Characters is written with the objective of character recognition rather than recall for reading AND writing. Heisig & Richardson seem to put the English keyword at the beginning of the story/mnemonic and then introduce the primitives/building blocks; the Matthews put the primitives first and the mnemonic last. Their included formulas for each character are ordered "primative 1 + primative 2 = character", emphasizing recognition rather than recall. I recently began to consciously reorder their stories and formulas so to aid in my memorization.

    I think I've allowed the pinyin to distract me too much while trying to learn the characters. In your recent post with tips and tricks for using the Heisig method you write about keeping it simple; well, adding the additional story to remember the pinyin often results in a pretty complicated story. I really wanted to learn pinyin with the characters, but I'll give that up to learn a lot more characters instead. Pronunciation/pinyin can wait.

  13. Jacob, thanks for stopping by - and thanks for your comments.

    Ultimately, you will need all three of hanzi/english/pinyin. If it suits your needs not to learn pinyin, then Heisig will suit you well.

    I'm learning Chinese using several "strands":
    - podcasts
    - speaking with friends
    - flashcards
    - Heisig

    I'm finding, that because I know lots of pinyin from podcasts & flashcards, when I eventually *realised* that the word "shiny"(#329) is the second character in the word for "pretty" (piao liang), I immediately knew the pinyin - and will never forget!

    So I agree that you don't need Heisig to learn the pinyin - because if you're learning other aspects of Chinese, as described above, the pinyin becomes effortless when you suddenly realise that the character you know as XXX is the same as used in the word YYY.

    Good luck, and let us know how you progress under Heisig relative to the other book.

  14. By the way, the heading picture of this post was actually the inpiration of an MandMx cartoon! You can see it here.