Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Meet the man who brought the Heisig method to Chinese characters (an interview teaser)

Dark Times

There was a time when the so-called Heisig method was for Japanese only. Those were dark times.

And even though the original version (“Adventures in Kanji-Land”) had been published as far back as 1978, no one had successfully produced a full working version for the Chinese character system. People who were learning Chinese - including me - were still hoping that one day the method would be applied to Chinese characters. (After all, the Japanese kanji come from the Chinese character set in the first place!)

The Age of Enlightenment

And then about five years ago the buzz was that it had been done: a book on Remembering Hanzi would be published. The person who had made it happen, working very closely with James Heisig of course, was Dr Timothy Richardson. And so Book 1 arrived with the first 1500 characters (which I devoured in about 3 months), and then 3 years later Book 2 arrived with the next 1500 characters (which I savoured over a year).

These were good times.

The Interview

Over the last few months, I’ve been in touch with Tim - throwing a barrage of questions at him, including:  When did this all begin? How did he approach James Heisig in the first place? What was the worst part of transferring the Heisig system to Chinese? Why did Book 2 take so long?!

And Tim has been ever-patient, answering my questions in amazing detail, telling a backstory which I found fascinating - and I know you will too!

In the next article, the full interview will be published. But for today I just wanted to share some of the really fascinating things I learned about Tim Richardson along the way …

Did you know … ?

  • Tim is married, and has 9 children
  • His first child was actually born in the Chinese city of Xian, on the university campus!
  • He was born in Mesa, Arizona, and now lives in Hawaii
  • There was a time when Tim was a missionary in Chile, and later he worked in Brazil ...
  • … so in addition to lecturing on Chinese, he also teaches Spanish & Portuguese at his university
  • It was about 20 years ago that Tim originally approached Heisig with the idea of applying the method to Chinese characters
  • The amount of effort the two of them put into deciding which font to use for the characters in the book will surprise you!
  • His favourite Chinese food (because we are all curious :-) is 酸辣土豆丝 (sour spicy shredded potatoes)

I’ve enjoyed connecting with Tim, and look forward to being able to publish the full interview in the next article.  Stay tuned ...

(For the full collection of articles I have written about the Heisig method - including its history, and hints for its use, click here)


  1. Consider this the sound of the masses at your door, brandishing torches, screaming: RELEASE THE INTERVIEW! RELEASE THE INTERVIEW!

    ...okay, seriously: I found your blog looking for support 3-4 days into Heisig. Very helpful. So thanks. :)

    But remember: masses of people with torches want RESULTS.

  2. Thanks Stephen, full interview coming soon - there was a lot of material :)

  3. Greg, I had a question for you as a more experienced Heisigian. I'm plugging through the book — about 160 characters in. And I'm starting to worry, just a bit, about the aptness of some of the keywords, compared to what I see in dictionaries. Now, I don't yet know Chinese, so maybe my worries are off.

    But a few examples. Heisig defines "元" as "beginning"; MDBG seems to see it as primarily the dynasty & the money, with the additional meaning of "primary" and "first" — not entirely different, but not quite the same either. Heisig keywords "太" to "overly"; MDBG defines it as "highest / greatest / too (much) / very / extremely" — again, not wholly dissimilar, but not quite the same. Most recent example I came across was "测", Heisig keywording it as "fathom", MDBG calling it "side / to lean / to survey / to measure / conjecture".

    So my questions for are, first, did you notice this? Second, did it bother you (either at the time, or in the long-run in your studies)? Third, would you recommend trying to compensate for it in some way (e.g. looking up characters and trying to substitute more appropriate keywords in some instances)?


    1. Hi again Stephen

      Great question - one I pondered extensively while I was working through the book, and one that I stopped thinking about when I finished, because I experienced that it's not the big issue I thought (and you think) it is.

      The reality is that most characters have multiple meanings - and although for some the meanings are similar, for others they are so different. I even wrong an article about one crazy character here.

      The great think about the Heisig approach is that it's about learning to read & write - it's not teaching you Chinese. You actually need to study Chinese for that :) And the approach is so effective because it sticks with just one meaning per character. And even if you wanted time coming up with new 'better' characters, who is to say your choice would be better than Heisig & Richardson's? :)

      So keep it simple - stick with what they teach in the book. And when you later integrate your Chinese knowledge and the Heisig characters, things will fit nicely into place.

    2. Perhaps a quick example will help - take 测 for example. You don't like :) the choice of 'fathom' and perhaps prefer one of the other dictionary definitions.

      But remember that characters by themselves are not so useful, it's how they are used in words that is key - so search in the dictionary for *测*. You will see the most common context is "测试" - to 'test'. Which isn't far from 'fathom'.

      Again, refer to my article above on the super-flexible 节, and realise that no matter what keyword you choose, there are so many other meanings - it's not worth trying to extend Heisig.

      Stay simple - and finish the book as quickly as you can. And never look back :)

    3. Greg: Thanks very much for the reply. That assuages a chunk of my concern.

      And I definitely understand that this is teaching the script, not Chinese. I'm actually conceiving of it as learning an extremely complex, 3000+ symbol alphabet... after which I can *start* learning Chinese (just as you have to learn the 22-letter Hebrew alphabet before learning Hebrew).

      I guess my remaining concern is this: do you find that Heisig is ever linking the character to a keyword which is either *incorrect*, subtly but distinctly off; or linking the character to a keyword which is a minority usage of a character? (Actually, I know he does the latter; in the case of 的 he says as much, but since I knew that from elsewhere it didn't bother me in that case. The question is, how common is that?) Which is to say, I'm completely on board with the system teaching you one out of many possible meanings, but I'd like it to be a real meaning, and not a too-obscure one.

      I dunno. What do you think?

    4. To answer your question simply: No. In my experience the keywords are well chosen.

      Of course they are often 'off' because characters can have so many meanings, but the keyword usually is very cleverly aligned with the most common use of the character.

      The good news is that in due course, once you have finished Heisig you will be reading stuff, and after a while the character meanings & contexts will come automatically to you - without thinking about Heisig. You're reading this text without thinking, and in due course you will do the same with Chinese. Heisig is in my opinion the fastest way to get there :)

      Good luck!

    5. 谢谢, Greg. I appreciate your taking the time to engage with me on this. Take it as a no-good-deeds-go-unpunished compliment: I have gotten so much out of your posts on this, I had to ask you. So thanks for those posts as well.

      235 down, 2,765 to go...


    6. Keep going Stephen. Stay regular, stay focused. When you hit the 500 mark, read my article about my hitting 500 - see how much you will have achieved :)