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Learning Chinese characters – New characters

Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.

This article is the second part of three concerning the study of Chinese. I have composed these articles for various purposes, but mostly because I enjoy writing. I also feel that I have something important to share, and even though I am sure that others have written about the same concepts elsewhere, this is how I view it. Hopefully, these ideas will be helpful to other students. Another reason for writing these articles is that I want to show those of you that do not study the language a little bit how I feel and think about Chinese. These are the three parts:

Part 1 – Attitude
Part 2 – New characters
Part 3 – Revision

Learning Chinese characters – New characters
Studying Chinese characters require a lot of time, but is also interesting and sometimes even exciting. Since it requires much more time to learn new characters in Chinese than to learn new words in, say, French, it is more important to choose the right characters to study. If the right characters are chosen, knowing a thousand will probably grant some basic reading comprehension. However, if those thousand characters are not the most common ones, they will not be of much use. I think text books are excellent for this purpose, because they tend to use high-frequency vocabulary that makes up the core of the language. I suggest studying more than one text book. If the course focuses on one, buying another book from another series, but at the same level as the course literature, will allow picking up additional vocabulary without making it too troublesome. If possible, the complementary text book should be slightly easier than the current level of the course. Apart from providing extra vocabulary, an additional text book is a great source to study characters and words in context. This can be done by using children’s literature, but so far I have found text books to be more useful..So, what do I do when I first encounter a character I for some reason desire to know how to read and write? The answer tot hat question is fairly complex, but I am going to try to explain the method I have arrived at after some experimenting and more than one years study of Chinese. I have a steady pace of roughly a hundred new words a week (not a hundred new characters, mind you), and I feel that the method I will describe below works very well for me.

The very first thing I do is to write the character a few times, just to make sure I get the stroke-order correctly and get the feeling of the character. I think it is a mistake to write the character more than a few times. The mechanical motion itself is not enough to memorise the character and after a few times, at least I stop focusing on the actual meaning of the character and simply copy what I wrote the previous time.

After writing the character the first few times, I break it down its various components and study them separately. I use the online dictionary at zhongwen.com for this. Most Chinese characters have a rational and logical story behind them, although it is sometimes archaic or refer to meanings that are lost in modern Chinese. The first option is to use these built-in mnemonics to help to remember the character. Of course, this means that it is necessary to learn the individual characters in multi-character words, but I think that goes without saying. These mnemonic techniques is also applicable between words, but this ought to be obvious after reading the method I use for individual characters. Here is an example with fairly simple logic behind it:

沙漠 (desert)

The first character 沙 (sand) consists of two parts: that which becomes visible when 水 (water, altered to radical form) is 少 (few, scarce), i.e. sand. This character is very easy to remember if one knows what the various components mean. The second character is not as obvious, so I have added slightly to the historical explanation: 漠 consists of two parts: 莫 (not, without) 水 (water), i.e. desert. 莫 in its turn consist of three parts: 艸 (plants), 日 (sun) and 大 (big). The mnemonic of this composition is that 日 (sun) hiding behind 大 (big) 艸 (plants), in other words, it is not there.

The important thing here is not to use the true, historical explanation, but rather to find or devise a suitable one. However, it is essential that the explanation is based on the real components of the character. It is a serious mistake to create parts or meanings that have no broader meaning; try instead to learn the building blocks of the Chinese language. Sometimes, parts have been altered beyond recognition or to resemble other parts (for instance, 大 is not truly a part of the aforementioned character for desert, but it is written that way, which makes it useful). What I am trying to say here is that the actual etymology and meaning of the character is irrelevant as long as real building blocks are used for the mnemonics.

But, hey, that means that it will take many hours to study just a few dozen characters! Yes, that is correct. The first time. In the long run, however, I am convinced that such a process will save time. In fact, I am convinced that it is the only way of doing it if learn several thousand characters is the goal, so one might as well start using this method straight away. Now, I seldom need to look up the various parts, because I already know them (there actually are not that many), and can go straight to the explanation part. It is not difficult to learn or understand a new character if it consists of just a couple of meaningful building blocks compared to dozens of seemingly unrelated strokes.

Employing this method of learning, there will be many characters which do not lend themselves so easily to logical explanations like the one I showed above for 沙漠. Also, sometimes the real explanation is archaic or just not helpful. In these cases I use my imagination and make up my own. Sometimes, it might even be preferable to use a description of my own instead of the true, historical version. Before I go deeper into how to devise new explanations, I need to say a few words about mnemonics.

A mnemonic is simply something (such as sentence) which allows one to remember something else (the meaning of a Chinese character in this case). The human brain tends to notice salient features, so a good mnemonic should stick out in some way. It can do this in many different ways, such as being revealing, beautiful, bizarre or embarrassing. Humdrum mnemonics seldom work. So, what I try to do for every character is to find a suitable mnemonic. Let me take a couple of examples to show what I mean:

Revealing – 政府 (government)

政 (government, politics) is explained by 正 (correction) by攵 (striking, hitting). 府 (government office) consists of 广 (building) where one 付 (pay). The image of a government that bullies its citizens into obedience and requires them to pay into the bargain, presents itself and is easily remembered.

Beautiful – 愁 (sorrow)

This is one of my favourite characters in the Chinese language. It consists of two parts, 秋 (autumn) and 心 (heart), and of course, autumn of the heart is sorrow. I find the composition of this character indescribably beautiful and will never forget it. Autumn itself consists of 禾 (grain) on 火 (fire) and is a picture of the burning colours of the leaves of plants in the autumn.

Bizarre – 聯 (connect, join)

This character consists of 耳 (ear) and 絲 (threads, silk). I picture two persons whose ears are closely sewn together using a strong and flexible thread of silk. The thread runs all the way around the ears and it looks like it hurts a lot. Also, the two persons are having great trouble continuing their normal lives because of their sewn-together ears.

I will not take an embarrassing example, because it would be… embarrassing. Instead, I will continue discussing the general nature of these various explanations. The key word is exaggeration; make the mnemonics bombastic, use extremes of any kind and try not to repeat old patterns. Usually, it is not necessary to this for every single character, but it will soon be apparent which characters are tricky to remember how to write. If an old character is forgotten, perhaps it needs a better mnemonic (or needs one at all if it did not have one before).

I would like to round off by stressing the importance of knowing the various components of a Chinese character. Not only is it useful for studying at home, but this is also the only possible way to talk about Chinese characters in Chinese! If I ask somebody what a character looks like, he or she will invariably tell me the various components (it is 木 beside a 目 and underneath that a 心). Since I know the parts fairly well, I am normally able to figure out which character it is, without having someone write it down; this is more useful than it sounds. For studying at home, it will mean that it takes more time in the beginning, but in the long run one will be much better off.

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  1. Caroline’s avatar

    Inspirational. :) I should probably go revise my kanji now.


  2. Olle Linge’s avatar

    Yes, I suppose exactly the same thing is true for Kanji. Do you study any Japanese at all nowadays or what? My next article will be about revision and hopefully it will be up tomorrow or perhaps on Friday. Stay tuned!