Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Tips & Tricks for Heisig Visualisations

What do peeling bananas and reading Chinese have in common?   (and no, it's NOT a bad joke about slipping on banana skins)

How do you peel banana? Until a couple of months ago I did it like 99% of people - grab the top end, struggle for 20 seconds to snap & peel, struggle more, eventually bite it and get a horrible taste, and then finally peel it open. But now - after having a video emailed to me by a friend - I actually just pinch the other end: the banana tip splits easily,and I peel it open. Just 2 seconds, without any nasty taste.

(By now I would have lost some of you, as you rush off to the kitchen to find a banana to experiment on. For those of you who are still reading, you're going to enjoy this ...)

To make this more relevant to reading and writing Chinese, I need to ask you: how do you visualise Chinese characters while you're learning new ones?  Have you been using a method of visualisation that takes too long, and leaves you with a horrible taste in your mouth? Well, the focus of this post is to teach you to pinch on the other end. No mess no fuss.

(If I had a lawyer, she'd want me to write this stuff)

Just to be clear I am using the Heisig method to learn the Chinese character system, so this post is specifically filled with tips & tricks to enhance the visualisation you use when learning characters through the Heisig system. You can of course apply these elsewhere.

Also, what you're learning here is the learning to read and write Chinese. Once you're fluent, you won't need this anymore. Unless, for example, you see a character that you've forgotten, and you have to 'reconstruct' it in your mind.

These are my techniques, and you might have different preferences. That's OK - I'm just giving you ideas of what allowed me to get through 1000 characters in about 6 weeks. If you have different (or similar) ideas, please leave some comments to help all the people that I'm otherwise leading astray. Also, I use the Simplified character set, so if my numbering isn't the same as yours on the Traditional road, don't stress.

Depending your level of progress, I've made some comments at the end about next steps for you - but just get through the article in the meantime!

Finally, putting images into words might make things look messy. But it's not, so try not to get bogged down with the details. The more experience you have with Heisig, the easier this post will be to follow.

What is Heisig?

Many years ago, James Heisig wrote a series of books entitled "Remembering the Kanji", which developed an excellent method of learning to read and write Japanese. The method is very effective, and it developed a bit of a cult following. (As much as you can get cult followings if you teach people to read & write Japanese.) It took until 2009 before this same method was developed into a complete system for Chinese characters.

If you've been following this blog, you'll know that I'm a big fan of the system, and continue to work through it. Here are affiliated links to his books for the Simplified character set and the Traditional character set.
  • Basically, the writing system is developed by starting with the simplest of characters - each of which are allocated an 'image'. Usually the image matches the meaning of the word, but for abstract words, a 'better' image is used. For more advanced characters, these images are combined into stories.
  • When you see a character, you mentally assemble the component images, which gives you the story - and thus the meaning of the word. 
  • Similarly, when you want to write a character, you think of the English word, the story pops into your mind, and you thereby assemble the images to produce the correct written character.
  • (It's quicker & easier than it may appear :-)

This is my original post when I began applying the Heisig method.
This is my most recent post, when I crossed 1000 characters.
And here is a link to all related posts I've written.

Tips & Tricks   (this is the stuff you'll actually use, so start paying attention)

With all these clarification done, here are some of the things I've realised in learning over 1000 characters through the Heisig approach so far. Application of these should greatly speed up you learning time and improve your recall.

Now it's time to let your imagination run wild: 胡思乱想

* Keep it simple
Try not to get carried away with additional components in your visualisations.

Let's start with an example, #100 乱 (chaos) is "tongue ... hook". If you've been paying attention, it's in the Chinese Proverb above. To make this easy to remember you could imagine the following "someone grabbing & holding a person by the tongue, taking a fish-hook, embedding it, and seeing the person go wild as they break glasses and bump into people around the room, causing chaos". However, a simple alternative would be "someone causes chaos using their barbed tongue as it lashes out at people around them". (Heisig's recommendation is close to this.)

The problem with the first image is that in addition to the chaos, the tongue and the hook, you also have: hands, holding, people, glasses & breaking. So later, when you're trying to remember the character for 'chaos' - you might remember something about hands & glasses, and get confused about what the story is.

Another example is #114 尖 (tip) - where the image is something that goes from 小 small to 大 large. I have limited myself to the story 'a tip is something that starts small and gets big'. To be fair, though, after reading this character a few times, you don't need the story anymore - you automatically know it as 'tip'. The problem is if you try too hard to visualise the tip of a pen, or arrow, or pagoda - then you might find yourself thinking that 尖 means pen (or arrow or pagoda or ...). So keep it simple.

By having complex stories, you risk (a) forgetting parts of the story when trying to recall it, and (b) creating associations with items that aren't really part of the story. So use the minimum number of components you need to make it work.

As Einstein once said:  "Things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler."

* Pick just one meaning for primitives
More options means more confusion.

Heisig has a bad habit (in my opinion). For example, for #60 页 (page), he says "As a primitive, this character will often take the unrelated meaning of a head."

The problem I found is that it slowed me down when trying to read a character which contained the 页 primitive. For example, consider  #61 顽  and  #82 项. Because I was predominantly using the 'head' meaning (as in 顽 which is "beginning head") - but I couldn't work out, when reading 项, what the associated keyword was with "I-beam ... head". Until I realised they used the image of a 'page' in this case - at which point the story came flooding back. If I had always used 'head', then this confusion would not have arisen.

I accept that for the first couple of hundred words it's not a big deal. But as the words continue to mount up in their hundreds, it certainly can get confusing. Just the other day I couldn't recall the meaning of 历 - because I was trying to imagine a 'factory' which is the keyword of 厂, rather than a 'cliff' which is the primitive image. Sigh.

With #12 日, the possible meanings given in the book are: sun, day, tongue wagging in the mouth. Trust me - just pick one (I recommend 'sun') and stick with it.  (And yes, I know there is a difference between 曰 and 日, but for visualisation purposes, it really doesn't matter.)

The benefit is that when I am reading, I don't look at 音 and think "standing ... tongue wagging" - and end up spending two minutes trying to remember that story. Then it turns out that not only did I use the 'sun' meaning (and not the 'wagging tongue'), I also used 'vase' (and not 'standing'). Arghhhhh!

Sure, I accept that sometimes the meaning isn't quite right. For example, it makes more sense to have a "wagging tongue" in the hanzi for 'sound', but let's face it - many of the visualisations are somewhat contrived, so at least choose contrivances that speed things up for you.

So 日 is always 'sun'. And 立 is always 'vase' (not standing up). 王 is always 'ball', etc. Always.

Pick just one image. Choose it by thinking (a) which will be easier to visualise, or (b) which is closer to the primitive's actual meaning, or (c) which one is used most in the words which follow in the next few pages.

I find this eliminates the uncertainty - which makes it quicker to memorise words, and much quicker to read words.

* Careful of primitves & keywords which are similar
This continues to bite me.

#513 蛇 has the keyword 'serpent'. #515 己 has the primitive image of a snake.  Problem arises when I know that the keyword for 'begin' has a story of "walk ... snake" (I picture people about to begin a walk/race, and the start line is actually a snake) - but how on earth should I know whether it's snake that I'm visualising, or serpent? I don't care what the dictionary says, how does my mind work?

Make sure that you have a way of differentiating between snake & serpent that works for you. Perhaps a snake is white and a serpent is brown? Perhaps a snake is lying down, and a serpent has lifted its head to attack? BUT be careful that you don't add too much to the image, and thereby breach the "keep it simple" rule. If your 'snake' (nor 'serpent') is going to be white, for example, make sure you don't let it interfere with the character 白 for white.

In a previous post, I pointed out how confusing it gets to have various 'hands' in your images - here is my exact wording: "If you allow me to mix up word meanings ('W') and primitive images ('P') for a moment, then note the following: 手 (W:hand), 扌 (P:finger), 开 (P:two hands), 乃 (P:fist), 及 (P:outstretched hands) .... arghhhhh!!"

In this case, it's essential that you take the time to work out exactly what each of the above should look like, so you don't confuse them.

Similarly, I already mentioned above that the keyword for 'factory' has a primitive meaning of 'cliff' - and Heisig's stories use both. I find that confusing, and prefer to limit myself to just one meaning.

So make sure when your creating images, that you are clear on what you mean - it will make the process much simpler to take in, and will dramatically increase your recall.

* For similar characters, use similar stories
If your mind thinks that way, then you should think that way too.

Look at characters #506-8:  她 she (woman ... scorpion),  地 ground (soil ... scorpion),  池 pond (water ... scorpion).  Unfortunately, the stories that Heisig recommends aren't consistent, so when I tried to recall what the word was by looking at the character, I was failing. So I reworked the images to have the same framework. Let me explain ...

I picture XYZ (where XYZ is either a woman, soil, or water) totally covered by lots of little scorpions. And these then move and scuttle away to reveal something underneath ... perhaps 'she' is revealed, or the 'ground' becomes visible, or I see they are on the surface of a 'pond'. Because I use consistent images, I find my recall really quick, because I don't have to 'test' several images until one of them triggers the keyword.

For example, BadImage1 = 'scorpions are covered in soil, which then move off to reveal the ground underneath them', and BadImage2 = 'scorpions cover the water and you see they are on a pond'. In the first case the scorpions are doing the covering, in the second they are being covered. If you're not consistent, you're not going to come to the right image quickly enough  - which is a waste of time.

Perhaps another example will add to your understanding.

In #479-81 we have 资 'assets',  姿 'looks',  咨 'consult with'.  But the recommended stories are again not consistent, and are a bit of a jumble. I struggled to remember them. So I reworked the stories into the form "next ... XYZ".  I could then easily remember that "next ... shell" was a guy collecting shells as assets, going 'next next next'.  Similarly, "next ... woman" was a guy who was seeking the perfect-looking woman going 'next next next' on the basis of her looks.  Finally, "next mouth" is someone going from person to person (mouth to mouth), looking for opinions, going through people 'next next next'.

With this consistency, the images are clear and need almost no interpretation - the keyword is obvious in each case.

Similarly, 赔 has a "clam used as a muzzle", while the next character is a "muzzle on the earth". I'm not saying you can't manage to cope with these differences - thousands have already. I'm just saying you can be more efficient. So why not!

* Abstract words
Some words are just difficult to visualise.

Heisig is aware of this, so often a word's keyword is changed for the purpose of making visualisation easier. So 白 means 'white', but he suggests you picture a 'dove'. 己 means 'self', but he suggests you use a 'snake'.

But there are many other words which are difficult to remember - and it's worth trying to find a consistent way which works.

For example, 安 means 'peace', but that's hard for me to image without putting flowers into the image - which would then interfere with images that use a 艹 radical. So I thought of "Peaceful Sleep" which is a mosquito repellant I used plenty as a child, which plugs into the wall. I tried not to break the first rule of keeping things simple, but so that it was still useful.  So with 按 (finger ... peace) I picture a finger pressing on the Peaceful Sleep device. (I don't imagine it's hot to touch, or that it's being switched on - or anything else which might confuse the image).

Another one I had difficulty with was 忄 ('state of mind') - and I dealt with this by trying to construct images which suggested what the person's 'state of mind' might be in that case. With the word for 'slow' (慢) it was easy: "state of mind ... mandala". The latter reminds me (in the I-wasn't-born-yet kinda way) of the drugged-up bright-lights 1960s, and I can imagine someone in a chill room, with time really slooooowed down. Get what I mean?

* Touching primitives
If they're touching, then know they're touching (or avoid them touching).

I mentioned in previous post about how the primitives are pieced together to make the character for 音. If you take those primitives literally, there is a line that goes missing. This works find when you're reading - you'll work it out. But when you're writing, you might get confused.

One example is: #677 会 which is "meeting ... rising cloud".  This is made up of the triangle shape (including the horizonal base) plus 云. But you'll note that this results in a line-overlap, which is fine if you're reading, but if you following the instructions closely when writing you'll get an extra line. I've reconstructed 'meeting' as the 'umbrella' primitive and 'rising cloud'. Not only is the visualisation easier, but it works with no extra lines.

This doesn't happen often (so far), but it helped me to make sure my visualisations worked. And this might seem that it's overly complex, but I assure you ... it isn't. It's only because writing it out. If you were thinking this, it would only take a few seconds.

* Order your primitives
If you're smart with your story, it'll work much better.

What do you notice about the following pairs: 古/叶, 叮/可, 杏/呆, 未/末, 玉/主?  Yup, they're almost the same, but not quite. For the early characters, it's not really a big deal - you should be able to remember the positioning of the primitives, and little confusion should result. But as you progress, and the characters become increasingly complex, you might correctly be able to remember the components, but be unable to piece them together in the right order.

For example, #661 派 is "water ... drag ... bandana",   and #723 曼 is "sun ... net ... crotch", and   德 is "ten ... net ... one ... heart". My recommendation is that you create the story so that the order of how the pieces are put together is preserved. Over time this won't be necessary, but for fastest progress in the beginning, it really helps.

So in the example of 曼 (drawn out), I picture the sun shining - from above - through a small net onto the crotch, and the net is being 'drawn out' as wide as possible to cover as much area as possible. The story implies the correct order. Try to get in that habit.

Similarly, for 蛇 ('insect ... it'), try to use the words in that order, and not the other way around. Don't worry - this very quickly becomes a habit.

Here are some other quick examples:
  • 爱: somehow picture the 'birdhouse' on the 'friend' (not next to, not under) --> you'll be glad you did
  • 香: try ensure that the sun is under the wild rice in the image (perhaps a reflection)
  • 售: picture the turkey falling from above, and popping out the mouth at the bottom of the vending machine
  • 设: can you see the words written on the side of the missile? the side? good

* Static vs Dynamic
Know how your own mind works.

In 设, as mentioned above, I see 'words' on the side of the 'missile'. This is a static image - just a snapshot.

But sometimes it helps me to have movement in the image. Take #763 (journey) for example - "wild rice ... submit". I had difficult doing this as a still image, but instead my mind showed someone walking down the road (on his journey), offering wild rice to peasants along the way, who are so grateful that they fall to their knees and submit to him, head bowed. It's a video that last a fraction of a second in my mind, but it tells me what I need. The movement helps convey the sense of 'journey'.

So experiment with your own mind. Do images work best? Or video? Decide for yourself. And use it.

* Make it Sexual
You know you want to.

For school children, I would say "make the images clear, colourful, vibrant, rich ...". But I'm going to say it as I see it - sexual images are more memorable, whether you're a fan or an opponent of sex. You'll remember the image - and that's the goal.

Heisig gives a clue about this in his definition of #633 又 ('again'), which uses the primitive image of 'crotch'. He says, "... by assigning it the meaning of crotch, as in the crotch of an arm or a tree. Or whatever."

"Or whatever", indeed.

So when 戏 (frolic) is "crotch ... fiesta", make it easy on yourself and create something that is memorable.

And the story for #838 ("use" - a verb, 使) is "person ... 100 Chinese inches ... mouth".  If you have an image that words for you, fine. But I have an image I won't forget, and I'm sticking with it.

* Font curses
It's not you, it's the font. Honest.

There are a  number of characters which appear sufficiently different in some computer fonts - that it's difficult to recognise the character. If you stick to Heisig's book, you're fine. But when you use flashcard software, or internet-base dictionaries, or online text - you might get confused.

查 - the bottom line is sometimes separate, sometimes connected
拐 - sometimes it appears as 'dao' below the mouth, sometimes it like like 'li'
直 - sometimes the line at the bottom also runs up the side
条 - sometimes it's a tree at the bottom, sometimes it's poles
派 - the inner bits sometimes touch, and sometimes not
房 - sometimes it's a line across the top, sometimes a little 'drop'

Over time, it won't make a difference, you'll still recognise them. But you may as well know they're coming.

Bringing it all together

I thought I would give one closing example which brings together a number of these components, and I've chosen #497 激 (excite).
  • the primitives appear in this order: "water ... dove ... compass ... taskmaster"
  • yet Heisig's story begins with the taskmaster, which I think makes it more difficult to remember
  • I have very specific image for 'taskmaster' which I use in all related images
  • he talks about 'white' foam, but I always use the 'dove' image so I don't get slowed down
  • in the character, the 'dove' is on the 'compass', and in my imagination it is too
  • I picture the water washing the dove-on-a compass towards the taskmaster, so the order is right and thus easy to write
  • the closer it comes the more excited the taskmaster gets

Your image may work better for you, and if so then definitely stick to it. But I found this type of thinking (consistent images, useful ordering, etc.) has allowed me to remember images quicker & more easily, with better recall. This includes going from character to keyword, or keyword to character.

So now what?

You can do whatever you want, from ignoring this post, leaving rude comments below - or using it, integrating it into your studies, and improving it. But here are some suggestions ....

  • If you're just beginning, keep these things in mind as you set off on your studies. Maybe come back to it every now and then, and see if you're "on track", and leave some comments each time you spot an improvement. Heisig suggest stories for you in the beginning, and it's probably best not to deviate too far from that until you've got some momentum and some experience.
  • If you're a few hundred characters in, you should be able to immediately start putting these ideas into practice as you move forwards. There are still lots of characters to play with, and get right the first time!
  • I'm not suggesting that you go back and change your existing stories. If they're working for you, then stick with them. However, if there are certain characters, or groups of characters, which you keep forgetting, then see whether these techniques will help you 'tighten up your game", and get them right from now on.
And read some of my previous posts on the Heisig method. I've made observations of things that go well and things that go badly - you' definitely get some more clues from there. All such posts use the RTH-hesig keyword.

To make sure you get updates and new tips & tricks, don't forget to subscribe to Mandarin Segments, using RSS/XML, email, or other. You can also follow me on Twitter.

And of course, leave some comments to help me and other readers with your insight.  Are there characters that you always get wrong? Are there other tricks I've forgotten to mention? Do you think I'm talking a load of shit? All views are welcome.

And now we've come full circle. If you're still still peeling bananas the old way, there is a much better alternative. And if you're still learning to read & write Chinese (or Japanese) for that matter, this is definitely a better way.


  1. Wow Greg. What a comprehensive post!!! So many tips to take in. I am quite excited about getting the book now.

    I do have a couple of questions. They mainly lay in how you use Heisig. You talk here mainly about the visualisations. My questions are elsewhere really...

    Do you write the characters down whe you are visualising the story? and if so how many times etc?

    Secondly, I am interested, you mentioned flashcards on my blog and a couple of your posts but always skim over it. Are you using Anki? writing out flashcards yourself?

    Just a couple of things that sprang to mind as I was reading through, from someone who is about to try this.


    p.s. Really like the banana analogy, and that monkeys have opening bananas down, better than us.

  2. I think you can write a best seller called "how the hell I learned Chinese". I'll order the English version and volunteer to do the Chinese version for you.
    I have been using the right way to peel a banana. 你真丢人,现在才知道。哈哈!
    I cannot access this in China. :-(

  3. XY, is the "correct" way to peel a banana the way that people do it in China? If so, I'm definitely going to have to change my statistics.

    Here's the video that I originally saw:

    Before you return to China, try subscribing to Mandarin Segments using the "email" link above - I think can deliver into China.

  4. Charlie, thanks for your questions. Heisig actually goes into quite a lot of detail about the process, so I'll leave it up to him to explain it the "right" way. But it definitely does NOT require writing the characters hundreds of times. In fact, I might trace it in the air with my finger just once.

    The method does not require brute force. One thing I have found is that now, when I'm in a dull meeting, I now write Chinese characters instead of the usual type of doodling!

    And in terms of Flashcards, that's a really good question. My recommendation (remembering it's just my experience) until you've done a couple of hundred characters, don't both with flashcards. It's easy enough to page through those few lessons and see if you can go from keyword to character, or visa versa.

    And when you eventually get around to flashcards, just use Anki. I really don't recommend paper cards.

    Good luck!

  5. HAHA!!! Greg, your post was freaking hilarious! I was smiling and laughing the whole way through. I'm not sure if I can completely understand all of the pictures you made up, but eh, when I get the book I'll do something :D (and hope I don't associate them to sex)

    For the font curses, I have another word to add: 画 (Hua [4th tone over the A] = art, drawing, to draw, etc)。It shouldn't have that vertical line connecting to the floating line above the box!!! I realized that a few weeks ago on MSN and noticed that you saw it in other characters too :P

    Glad you're doing so well as usual! :)

  6. Hey Kara

    Thanks for stopping by - glad you enjoyed the post. Yeah, once you've got through 100 or 200 characters, and then re-read this post, it'll make a lot more sense. Let me know when you get there.

    And thanks for that extra font clue - I hadn't actually noticed that one before. But I'll be looking out for it ...

    Take it easy

  7. All this confusion with different fonts is a direct result of Unicode Han unification which put variants of the “same” characters with the same code.
    You shouldn't have much problem with using a font designed for the language you want. For example variant of 画 used in Japanese should have that vertical stroke.
    I checked few fonts on my computer and it seems that there isn't any problem with this character because Chinese fonts have the top disconnected as they should.
    But unfortunately I can't really say there is no problem at all. Consider characters 冷 and 令.
    Not only the bottom part looks quite different between Japanese and Chinese variants but I have also seen some obscure fonts where 冷 used different shape for its right part than 令!

  8. Hi mwgamera

    Thanks for your note - that is really interesting. I didn't realise there had been a Unicode Han simplication, but that certainly makes sense. I will go back to Anki and see what coding it's using - so that I can get to see the hanzi I want!

    (And if anyone can tell me how to do it, I'd love you to leave a comment. Please.)

  9. Hi Greg!

    Thanks so much for shraing your tips! I've "learnes" over 800 character but just realized I was too superfluous and too much in a hurry.

    I guess I should go back and thoroughly revise my characters because I liked your approach so much (pick just one primitive, use similar stories for similar characters, keep it sexy, beware of similar words).

    I also have to struggle now and then because English is not my first language, I live in Ukraine and speak Russian.

    I'm not sure how to visualize crotch (with sexual context as you suggest) to keep it close to the original crotch meaning. I am even not sure I translated "crotch" properly. Any help please?

    Also, "state of mind" gives me a lot of headache too... Any more suggestions on visualization? I was imagining a "spiritual", transparent heart.

    Thanks Greg!

    1. Hi Anna, thanks for stopping by - and especially for leaving comments.

      Well done on working through Heisig, particularly because English isn't your first language so it makes it slightly more difficult.

      The state-of-mind is an easy one ... and I must admit I got this idea from something I read on the internet, but I can't remember where or who. Basically, when I see 忄 I now visualise someone on a drip at hospital. The primitive even looks like a heart on a stick :-) It's easier to visualise something concrete like that, than something abstract.

      And yes, this is different to what I wrote above in the main article, but over time I found that I need something very concrete. If you transparent heard is concrete enough, then go with that.

    2. Ah, and about the crotch ...

      I don't know what meaning you looked up, but basically it means groin. You might picture a guy with VERY TIGHT jeans (cough cough), or a woman with tight yoga pants on. Whichever you choose, remember to stick that image from now on :-)

  10. Thanks!!!! Spasibo!!!

    Any tips on characters that are introduced later than same primitives? I cannot come up with a separate story for finger (finger...purpose), timber.

    1. Hi Anna
      - For finger, I see someone in workshop, pointing at the various tools (with their 'finger' :-) asking about what the 'purpose' of each particular tool is.
      - For timber, I can see two tables that someone has made - one is just some small trees assembled together making a really messy table, and the other is made of of 'timber' - neatly processed to make a nice-looking table. Yes, I look at the two tables and think the one from timber ... "That's right!"

      Remember, it isn't about trying to memorise my images which are based on the way my brain works, it's about finding your own images. Before you give up, at least make sure that you have come up with three possible images - even if they're bad - but until you've though of 3 bad ones, you can't give up :-)

      Good luck!