Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bad Heisig images & great Dali paintings

Discovering (un)treasure

It was about 2.5 years ago that I finished studying Book 1 of  "Remember the Simplified Hanzi" Heisig & Richardson. And as you might have seen from a relatively recent post, I've got Book 2 staring at me from the shelf ... but first I wanted to completely re-do Book 1, to make sure that I revised all primitive images, and was truly ready for the next installment.

In order to revise the book, I downloaded the Anki database of the book's 1500 characters, set it to 10 new characters a day, and just ran it from there. That happened nearly 150 days ago ... So I'm just a few dozen characters away from finishing the book. Again.

The database is pretty good, with the character number, hanzi, keyword, pinyin ... and it also contains stories (where Heisig & Richardson didn't provide their own stories). These stories appear to have been taken from a community effort to create stories for those characters that didn't get their own in the original book. I guess anyone would have been able to contribute their own story for a character, although I'm not sure how they chose which was the one to get into the Anki database.

Much of the time, I just stuck the the story that I had previously created myself, but every now and then I couldn't remember mine, so I looked at their stories. Some were actually quite good, but so often the stories left me scratching my head.

"The Persistence of Memory"

In this article, I have taken an extract of stories that I found in that Anki pack, and highlighted some of the ones that I don't like.

Of course, for the most common characters, you see them so often that after a while you forget the story and you just know the character. And that's OK. But there are some characters which I have barely seen since completing the book, and when I do see them sometimes, I do have to rely on the stories - and that's when the persistence of memory becomes important.

And this is going to be even more important for Book 2, I'm sure, given the even further reduced frequency of those characters.

This is not about personal preference of whether it's 'nice' - this is based on my being able to work through Book 1 in about 3 months, and seeing what did & didn't work. It's also based on now revising the book after 2.5 years, and noting which of my stories persisted, and which completely failed me after all this time.

No offense intended

It's possible that you were the author of one of the stories I have included below. No offense. But I think it might be useful to consider what makes a good story, and what is likely to give problems. And for anyone that thinks I've got it totally wrong, please leave some comments below ... I promise I won't be offended :)

The Hall of the (in)famous

760: 微: Tiny
The tiny sherpa (taskmaster) is leading this queue of brave ant mountaineers up the wall of the house and towards the ceiling where they can live in peace and security in the attic. Unfortunately, they didn't account for the strong winds that blow through the attic at that altitude, so they are all swept off the mountain (a wall) and back to the ground!

Two thinks go wrong, in my opinion:  Firstly, the story has too many 'equivalents' to be memorable: You have to remember that taskmaster is a sherpa (which may differ from your other taskmaster images), and a wall is a mountain - so when you see the image in your mind, will you remember to use a mountain? Or will the image of 'wall' arise and confuse you?  Secondly, there are too many extra words here, that are likely to confuse: house, ceiling, ground. These all have their own primitives, and this interferes with how the image persists in your memory.

950: 碌: Commonplace
Stones are commonplace - stone snowmen, less so!

Unlike the story for 'tiny', this one is simple with no additional confusing words. Good. But consider these two alternatives ...
 - Metal is commonplace - metal snowmen, less so!
 - Wood is commonplace - wooden snowmen, less so!

As you can see, although going from story to keyword might be possible, if you go from keyword to story, suddenly the requirement that the word is 'stone' fades, and you may not be able to remember what is the primitive on the left. Try to make the 'stone' more integral to the story.

951: 争: Contend
This drunkard has to contend with crossing a booby trapped lawn back to his house. First, he keeps stepping on rakes in the grass (which fly up and hit him in the face) and secondly he has to avoid getting bound up in the tough hedges all around.

Again, lots of extra words in the story to confuse which primitives should appear, like house & grass (which have their own primitives). Secondly, do you think you'll remember the word 'contend' when seeing the character? Or will you see the 'bound' and the 'rake', see the guy sneaking through the garden, and wonder if the keyword is 'careful' or 'dangerous' or 'injury' or ... 'contend'????

991: 乏: Weary
Zorro has become world-weary, having seen one too many drops of cruelty in his adventures.

This feels like a sentence and not an image. How do you visualise this? Will you still have memorised the phrasing of this sentence in two years time?   "drop of cruelty"?  I just believe that stories should be more clear, more explicit, less wordy, for them to persist in memory.

1036: 泻: Diarrhea
Diarrhea flows out like water, writing off the meal that you ate last night.

Yes the primitive on the right is 'writing', and in theory 'writing off' matches that. But as with the previous story, this would only work if you memorise the sentence. It's not an image, and it's unlikely to be remembered for long enough to be useful. I would really recommend your image either includes someone writing, or seeing writing on a page ... something that is visually memorable. And try be consistent: if it's someone writing, then always see someone writing to represent that primitive.

1157: 饭: Meal
At mealtimes you eat your food against the backdrop of a TV episode or some other entertainment. Mealtimes are the only things that will drag you out of contemplation of that idea that has been eating you up!

I don't even know where to begin with the confusion this image creates. Again, it is built on being able to memorise a sentence ("drag you out" - rather than seeing something being dragged;  "against the backdrop" - rather than seeing something against something;  "eating you up" - rather than someone actually eating). You are making it really hard for yourself if your images are based on memorising sentences, rather than picturing images that stick in your mind.

1178: 脑: Brain
The brain is the only part of Fagan's flesh this is worth anything - every other part of his flesh is cruel, despicable and nasty - from his top hat down to the pit of his stomach.

Double-counting! On the left is 'flesh' and on the right is 'Fagan' - thats is enough for a story.  Yet this one also includes the components of 'Fagan' (being 'hat' & 'cruel') - which is confusing.

1212: 请: Invite
You invited a few friends round for some drinks at your house, but the words got out and telescoped out of control! Now you have a full blown house party going on, and none of your words are helping to move the resulting mound of grown-up flesh from the house.

I'm sure by this time you're seeing that certain problems keep arising. Firstly (yet again) we have too many words ... drinks, friends, house, etc. Careful these don't confuse the image when you have to piece it together yourself. And secondly, it feels like trying to memorising a sentence again!  "telescoped out of control"?  "mound of grown-up flesh"?   Even if you see a wild party in your image, how will your mind remember "telescoped out of control"?  Can't you actually put a telescope into the image?

1252: 陈: Exhibit
The museum is showing off the pinnacle of Eastern transportation development. Forget Hyundai and Toyota - the humble rickshaw is the most amazing invention that they are exhibiting!

This takes the use of 'pinnacle' and again makes it wordy, rather than visual. In my mind I always use an image of the top of a certain famous building in London as 'pinnacle' - and any scene that takes place here will be obvious to me to use that primitive on the left, simple. And if you're thinking of this story/image, how will you remember to use the word 'pinnacle', and not 'top' or 'peak' or anything else?

1275: 决: Decide
"You Decide" - at least, since the last king had his head cut off by a guilllotine! Of course, given how effective democracy has been it would have been wise in restrospect to keep the head on ice to make decisions for us when the politicans are caught up in squabbling. Alternatively, this pictures someone who can't decide between two model of guillotine: extra tall or extra sharp? While he waits his feet are getting frozen to the ground in the cold air.

There are actually two version here. The first one has the added confusion of a head (careful not to use it as a primitive), whereas the second has the ground, which also isn't one of the primitives in the image. I'm not sure the link to 'decide' in the first one is obvious enough to be memorable.

1318: 蚊: Mosquito
Mosquitos are principally found in Scotland, where the insects bother the highlanders to their hearts content.

Heart's content? So there is the heart primitive in the image? No, so careful about using the word 'heart' :-)  And how does this story help you differentiate between mosquitos? Flies? Birds? All could work as it appears - but only one is right. Make sure your image involves them sucking blood - so it's clear this is a mosquito and not a fly.

1343: 遗: Bequeath
Bequeathing your possessions to your children can be an expensive road to go down, due to inheritance tax. Much better to spend it all before you die!

I feel I'm repeating myself here, so I'll stop after this one.  You can't visualise "road to go down" - not in the way it has been used in this story. Really try to be more explicit about a road, like having all your expensive possessions lined up along the side of the road, so you are in effect bequeathing it to anyone who wants to help themselves to something.

A Better Way

Ultimately this article is just to get you to think about what makes a bad story, to make sure you don't make these common mistakes. Trust me - you want these stories to last!

Here are some of the other posts I have written on making great images, so that you can succeed in learning to read Chinese ...
With a clear set-up, images that do the right things (as per the links here), and which don't do the wrong things (as with the examples in this post), you are ready for visuals that will last, that will take advantage of the Persistence of Memory.

Good luck!  And let me know below if you disagree with my assessments - it would be interesting to hear from you. (And yes, you can even comment if you agree with my post!)


  1. This is a good post. I'm nearly done book 2 myself right now, but I was really rushing (40 a day, and usually I was just trying to get through them) and I sometimes get lazy with the stories and end up with what you described as a sentence rather than an image. Sometimes the primitives are really hard to make a memorable story out of too (harder than book 1, I thought). I'm paying for it now while SRSing, my matures are at an abysmal 68% or something. Discouraging. But I'm trying to find those I have trouble with and make more vivid stories if possible. Good luck with book 2, looking forward to hearing your thoughts once you've dived in!

  2. Hey Matt, well done on finishing book 2. I got a fright when I first paged through it, because the characters were in general mode complex than Book1 - as you would expect. I realised that I would have to focus on building clear stories, otherwise my retention would be low. That's why I chose to re-do Book 1 before embarking on Book 2.

    I will definitely keep you all updated when I begin - and I look forward to getting your thoughts along the way as you re-build some of your stories.

    Good luck!

  3. Agreed that many of these stories are terrible and will not do much (anything) to help remember the hanzi.

    I like how you've given tips as well especially 1343: 遗: Bequeath - I remember this character but have never had a good story / visual.

    I have some stories where I remember not really a story but rather a visual for example just a mosquito as being the insect that bothers a highlander (as in the old SA Lunch Bar ad). And that's enough to remember the char. So simple there is no need for a story.

    Sometimes I also remember a line without making up a visual or a story for example you can simplify: 1157: 饭: Meal - Meal = food taken (against) a time slot. (Might not make grammatical sense but it totally works for me.) :)

    Either way - good post!

  4. Hi Peckish

    I really try to keep my stories simple - the more components there are, the more confused I am. I end up wondering if the hands touching the object represent a primitive (手, 乃, 开, etc.), or whether they're just there to show movement, etc.

    So for 'decide' (决) for example, I can see someone leaning over a guillotine - where they have been using it to chop ice - big blocks on one day, fine crushed ice on the other side. They need to decide which size ice they want.

    That's it. No extra words like king, feet, head, etc.

    As to your comment about '1343: 遗: Bequeath', I understand that now you think you remember it, and now you don't need a story ... but as my current review has shown me, not having a story makes it really difficult to remember in future, as time passes. Try get a story.

    And wrt '1157: 饭: Meal' if that story makes sense for you, then that's fine - at least it's a story. I have many characters that unless you know what I know, my story would mean nothing. (For example, someone who doesn't know the Rambo movie well would not understand my story for 'contend' :-)

    Make sure you have good stories, and guarantee that you benefit from the Persistence of Memory.

  5. FURIO from the great blog (learning Chinese, working & travelling in China) has been having difficulty leaving this comment, so I'm doing it manually for him.



    I agree that the most common mistake is to create a sentence instead of an image.

    I'm learning the characters with Skritter, I don't use Heisig because for me it's too much work and I can only "afford" to study Chinese for a limited time per day so it would take me ages : P

    Also, I don't create stories for each character. I know I will forget the ones I don't use if I don't keep up with my SRS in future but hey, sometimes we have to choose ; )

    Good job with the first book haha

    Have a great weekend!