Sensible character challenge, January 2015: Wrapping up

character-challengeLast month’s challenge on Hacking Chinese Challenges was about sensible character learning, an area I had neglected for months. It was meant as an opportunity for me and others to catch up a with flashcard pile of increasing size.

In this post, I’m going to give away some prizes as promised, talk a little bit about my own challenge and then give the word over to you.

And the winners are…

This is not a competition against other learners, so I didn’t select the winners based only on who spent the most time (you can check that on the leader board here). Instead, I randomly picked winners among people who participated seriously in the challenge and spent seven hours or more on learning characters (that’s an average of 20 minutes per day).

The winners are:


  • 5 months of free Skritter: James, Boris, Manuela, Yong Li, Aaron Joe
  • Character posters from Hanzi Wallchart:  Tadeusz W. Mollin, kizZa
  • Books from Tuttle Publishing: Steven Neubauer, Zach Danz


Congratulations! I have sent an e-mail to all prize winners. For the rest of you, stay tuned for the next challenge!

My character challenge

My main goal was to fight my huge queue in Skritter, which was at around 2000 reviews when the challenge started. I managed to get it down to around 1200, but what took most of my time was going through, editing and updating cards. I weeded out a lot of unnecessary, complicated and rare characters. I also added more data and studied some characters I had forgotten. Overall, I’m quite happy with the way the challenge turned out for me, even if I didn’t reach my goal and started a bit late. You can see my progress in the picture above. I spent 14.6 out of the 20 hours I aimed for.

Your challenge

How did it go for you? Did you learn anything new (except for a bunch of characters, that is)? Anything else you want to share from last month’s challenge? Leave a comment!

Pronunciation challenge: February 2015

This month’s challenge will be about pronunciation and it will be arranged in cooperation with WaiChinese. They provide an excellent platform for receiving quick feedback from native speakers and part of the challenge will be done using that platform. Of course, there are no restrictive rules involved, you can do whatever you like as long as you study pronunciation. I will write much more about this next week!

My best advice on learning Chinese characters

handwritingThis month’s challenge is about learning characters. In fact, my desire to launch Hacking Chinese Challenges came partly from wanting to arrange challenges more smoothly and with more participants without collapsing under the load of manually dealing with everything. Last week, I published an article with a brief summary of the challenge as well as some useful tips for how to improve character learning.

In this article, I’m going to go into more detail. I have already written about many of these topics before, though, so this is meant to be a summary and an overview rather than a comprehensive discussion, which would be way too long. Therefore, I will try to include the essence here and then link to other articles for those who want to read on.

Understanding Chinese characters

Learning something meaningful is easier than learning something that seems to be random, even if there is a pattern you don’t see. This is because we can associate meaningful things with each other, something that is much harder for meaningless things (but it can be done, of course). This means that understanding how Chinese characters are constructed and how they work can help enormously when learning them. I would go so far as to say that it’s almost impossible to learn thousands of characters without understanding how they work. You can either gain this understanding through learning a lot of character or you can take a shortcut by avoiding some problems second language learners typically have.

Here are some important articles you should check out:

  • Creating a powerful toolkit: Character components – This is the first article in my toolkit series. It explains some basics about character components and radicals, as well as some tools for learning these. In general, the point is that you have to learn the smaller building blocks of characters if you hope to learn a large number of characters. Combining old knowledge is easier than trying to learn something completely new! The advantage with learning Chinese is that (almost) everything means something and that something is much more accessible than in, say, English.
  • Four main types of Chinese characters – I wrote this article for, introducing the four main types of Chinese characters (pictographs, simple ideograms, combined ideograms and phonetic-semantic compounds). Most students think that pictographs and ideograms are the most common types, but even though they do make up a significant part of basic, nature-related vocabulary (tree, mountain, stone), a huge majority of characters are neither pictures nor ideograms. Knowing about the common ways in which Chinese characters were constructed will help you understand them.
  • Phonetic components, part 1: The key to 80% of all Chinese characters – This article explains why understanding phonetic components is important. If you don’t understand how they work, you don’t have access to an incredible useful memory aid for characters and their pronunciation. Chinese isn’t phonetic in the sense that English is, but most character still have clues about how they are pronounced (or if you know how they are pronounced, there are clues to how to write them). You just need to know where to look. This concept is further developed in part two.
  • Why you should think of characters in terms of functional components – This is a guest post by John Renfroe who knows much more about Chinese characters than I do. He stresses the importance of understanding the function of components in Chinese characters. As we have seen in earlier articles, components have different functions, some give the character its sound, others its name. By focusing on the function each component has, we can understand how the character actually works, which ultimately aids learning and memory

How to learn Chinese characters

Now that we have some basic understanding of how Chinese characters work, it’s time to look at how to learn them. When I say “how”, I mean it in a very practical way. You have a list of characters that you want to learn. What should you do?

  • How to learn Chinese characters as a beginner – If you’re new to learning Chinese, this article is for you. It goes through the very basics of what you should do and what you should not. It’s not meant to be in-depth, but try these suggestions out if you haven’t already. Most beginners start out with horribly inefficient methods of learning characters. Most people refine their method over time, but if I were to recommend one article about learning characters for beginners, it would be this one.
  • Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements – This is a guest article by Harvey Dam, who talks about how to write characters by hand. This kind of information is extremely hard to find online today, and by reading through and applying what you learn here, your handwriting and your understanding of it will improve. There are five parts in all and they contain lots of pictures of handwritten characters combined with advice and information.

How to review Chinese characters

Let’s say that you have already learnt a few (tens, hundreds, thousands) of characters. In order to be able to use Chinese properly, you need to remember the words you have learnt. But how? There are many ways of reviewing and many tools you can use. Again, I’m not going to go into details here, but I am going to give links to the best advice I can offer and a brief summary of said advice:

  • Spaced repetition software and why you should use it – Reviews spread out over time are much more efficient than when they are massed together. Algorithms and computer programs can help us calculate the optimal intervals between each review, meaning that we always study the words we’re about to forget, rather than those we don’t really need to review. There are many ways of using spaced repetition software, but you should definitely use it in some form. I suggest using either Skritter, Anki or Pleco (see last week’s post).
  • Boosting your character learning with Skritter – Since we’re talking about learning characters in particular here, I want to mention Skritter. It offers the best solution for people who want to combine spaced repetition and handwriting. Other programs and apps offer only passive training, but Skritter allows you to write actively on the screen and corrects your handwriting. This is not only more fun, but also more likely to help you improve than if you only do manual checks of the characters. Don’t forget that there is an extra week’s free trial and a 6-month discount if you sign up with the coupon code for the challenge (SENSIBLE2015, has to be used on sign-up on the website).
  • 7 ways of learning to write Chinese characters – Apart from writing on a screen, there are many other options. Have you tried writing with your fingertip on your palm? What about mental handwriting? In this article, I go through seven ways of writing characters, along with their pros and cons for language learners.
  • Learning to write Chinese characters through communication – After all this talk about reviewing and studying, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that that’s the only way you can learn characters. That’s not true! I believe that the most powerful way of learning anything is to learn it while using it for the purpose it was meant for. This means writing Chinese in order to communicate with native speakers! Since sending snail mail isn’t really in vogue these days, you can use handwriting input on your phone or computer to achieve similar results.

Remembering Chinese characters (and other things)

Last but not least, I have published a range of articles about memory and memory techniques, mostly in relation to learning Chinese. Here are some of them:


This is the information I wanted to include in last week’s article about the challenge, but which took up too much space. It also took longer than I thought to compile, but I hope it will prove helpful to anyone who has joined the challenge! If you haven’t already, it just started a few days ago, so it’s not too late to join! Read more about the challenge and how to join here.

7 ways of learning to write Chinese characters

waysofwritingI think that anyone who is serious about learning Chinese should learn to write characters. This isn’t necessarily because you will be required to write a lot by hand (that almost never happens to me), but because it will teach you a lot about how characters work. This will help you recognise characters as well, which is truly essential once you get beyond everyday conversations.

I can (and probably will) write several articles about writing characters, discussing questions like when you should start, how many and which characters you should focus on first. I think all these questions are up for debate and in general, I think Chinese second language education today is focusing way too much on writing characters, routinely requiring students to be able to write all characters by hand (this isn’t really necessary).

Different ways of writing characters

Let’s just assume that we have decided to learn to write characters. You could be a beginner working through the first words in a textbook or an advanced learner like myself expanding beyond what’s actually necessary to know.

How should you write the characters? I don’t mean what the strokes should look like or in what order they should be, I mean how do you practically go about writing them?

There are many ways of writing characters, all with their pros and cons. Below I’m going to discuss some of them. I will discuss all of them in terms of their major advantages, how close they are to actual handwriting, how easy it is to cheat and some other factors I find interesting.

Seven ways of practising Chinese characters

Here we go:

  1. Writing on paper – This is the most obvious way of writing and has been around for a while. The main advantage with this method is that if being able to write Chinese on paper is your goal, it makes sense to practise just that. Compare this with if you want to learn more about the structure and composition of characters when it doesn’t really matter what your strokes look like. Of course, you need paper and pencil to do this, so it’s a bit inconvenient. Unless you have a teacher to check, you also don’t know if your writing is good or not. Still, it’s hard to cheat with this method, if you don’t know how to write something, it will be quite obvious, at least for yourself.

  2. Writing with your finger – This is the natural extension of the above method to be used whenever you don’t have paper and pencil around. For some people this becomes the main method, especially when combined with spaced repetition software. You skip the paper and pencil entirely and just write with your index finger on your palm, a flat surface or even in the air. This is obviously more practical because you always have your index finger with you (hopefully). The drawback is that you don’t see the result, which comes with two problems. First, you don’t practise the actual strokes and your handwriting will probably be very ugly if you only practise this way. Second, it’s easier to cheat by being too quick and just saying to yourself that you actually knew that character. If you made a minor mistake, you’re less likely to find it out, too, even if it’s an honest mistake.

  3. Writing in your mind – This is the next step in the abstraction process and it works even if your nemesis captures you and cuts your hands off. Simply imagine writing the character on the canvas of your mind. If you’re not very familiar with character components, you might have to do this stroke by stroke, but as you learn more about characters, it works best with just imagining the different components being put into place. , makes , add and you get . Since all these components are common, imagining the writing of this character is pretty easy. The downside with this method is that you’re not actually writing anything, so this helps you remember the composition of the character, but it doesn’t help you actually write it. I’d say this is very good if your handwriting is already acceptable and your main goal is to expand your vocabulary. The method is very quick and it’s probably the one I’ve used the most over the years.

  4. Writing on screen without feedback – There are several programs for mobile phones and computers that allow you to write either directly on a touch screen or by using a stylus or writing tablet of some kind. Most of these programs don’t offer you any feedback, so in a sense, it’s just a very expensive kind of paper and pencil approach. However, this is not entirely true, because writing on the screen allows more direct comparisons to model characters and will thus improve the chances of spotting errors. A smart phone is also something most people carry around all the time, which isn’t the case with paper and pencil, so I think these programs are quite good. The most common example of this is Pleco, which offers on-screen writing when reviewing characters. The disadvantages are mostly the same as for paper and pencil.

  5. Writing on screen with feedback – This is an approach that has only been around for a few years and the only program I know that does this well is Skritter. I don’t say this because I’m a part of the Skritter team or because I like Skritter in general, I simply haven’t seen any other program that can recognise your strokes one by one and offer feedback on stroke order, stroke placement and even stroke direction (you wrote that backwards). The advantage here is obvious, it gives you feedback on your writing, which makes it both more fun and more effective as a learning method. The downsides are that it costs money. This is by far the best alternative to maintain writing ability, save for having a teacher looking over your shoulder all the time, correcting your writing, but that’s bound to be prohibitively expensive and not very practical.

  6. No writing, just looking – This isn’t a method as such, but it’s something many students, including myself, sometimes revert to when too tired. Instead of actively checking if we can write a character, we just look at the answer and try to answer the question: “Would I have been able to write this if asked to,?” The problem with this approach is that your answer is likely to be inaccurate. It’s extremely hard to determine if you knew something after seeing the answer, so you’re likely to overestimate your ability to write the character. Don’t do this! This method has no advantages and it’s only mentioned here so that I can point out that if you want to remember the character, simply looking at it isn’t enough, you need to actively process how the character is structured and written. Use method #3 above instead.

  7. Only reading and typing – Many native speakers mostly read and type Chinese rather than write it by hand. Still, we shouldn’t compare ourselves with native speakers. They’ve had a lifetime to practise Chinese characters and even if they don’t practise much writing actively, they can still write most characters. There will of course be exceptions, native speakers forget characters all the time, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t write Chinese by hand if asked to. Even though I haven’t seen any research on this, my own experience tells me that as second language learners, simply reading and typing is not enough, you have to combine this with at least some writing practise. I read 25 books in Chinese last year and probably typed a few hundred pages of text, but even that isn’t enough, I need about 20 minutes per day to maintain and expand my handwritten vocabulary.

The best way of writing Chinese characters by hand

I think the first five methods mention above all work pretty well, but they yield slightly different results and demand different things from you as a learner. It’s easy to cheat with some methods, but if you’re vigilant and strict when grading yourself, this isn’t a big problem. Some methods are less convenient than others, but that also depends on habits and routines.

I personally use mental writing and Skritter the most. I use mental writing because it’s really quick and I feel that I already know how to write the components, I just need to remember how they fit together to form a character. I use Skritter because it’s fun and because it stops me from cheating when I’m lazy. Thus, they complement each other quite well.

What method(s) do you use?

Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

Want to improve the way you learn characters? Want to feel the power of learning with others? It’s time for.

challenge14…the 2014 sensible Chinese character learning challenge!

In case you don’t know what I mean when I say “sensible” character learning, you probably missed the article I published earlier this week, which contains everything you want to know about it (and possible a bit more). Check the article here.

So, what’s the challenge about? In essence, there are just a few things you have to do in order to participate. The purpose of Hacking Chinese is to inspire and to inform, so if you don’t like something here, feel free to learn characters anyway you want on your own. However, to be a part of this challenge, you need to follow these rules:

  1. Set a reasonable character learning goal that can be reached in 101 days
  2. Set three milestones for reaching your goal
  3. Commit to your goal in public and by posting a comment here
  4. I will add you to the list of participants (with a link if you so wish)
  5. Follow the principles of sensible character learning (previous article)
  6. People who participate actively have a chance of winning character posters
  7. Active participants will also get free extensions on Skritter

Now, in case this isn’t crystal clear, I will extend each point above in more detail below.

1. Set a reasonable character learning goal that can be reached in 101 days

I’m a firm believer in concrete goals. I tend to perform much better if I have a clear idea of what I want to achieve and a deadline to focus on. This is true for learning characters, going to the gym or writing articles on Hacking Chinese. Setting a realistic goal isn’t easy, but if you have studied at least some Chinese, you should be able to extrapolate from that and set a reasonable goal.

Your goal could be anything from being able to handwrite all the characters in your current textbook, through knowing all the characters in the HSK word list up to a certain level to other, more advanced goals. Remember that learning Chinese is about more than just learning characters, so unless you have a lot of time, don’t overdo this! I would say that a character or two a day is fine for casual learners. People who study seriously can easily double or triple that. If you know what you’re doing and have around an hour a day to spare, 10/day isn’t unreasonable.

My own goal will be able to write the 5000 most common characters by hand. I have currently added around 4500 to Skritter but since I haven’t used the program for a while, I also have 1000+ cards due and about 200 banned cards I need to relearn. It’s hard to say how many of these I have forgotten, but perhaps 300 is a reasonable guess. This leaves me with roughly 500 new characters and 500 old characters to learn in 101 days. Hard, but not impossible. I do have a pretty good grasp of my own ability and I think this goal is hard enough to be challenging, but not so hard that I will feel it’s impossible.

2. Set three milestones for reaching your goal

A hundred and one days is a long time and even if it’s simple to see how many characters you need to learn every day (just divide by 101), it’s important to have checks that tell you early how you are doing. This challenge is also about forming good habits for learning Chinese.

Therefore, I want everyone who signs up to include three milestones apart from the final goal. The percentages here are just a guidelines that roughly correspond to the time between each milestone, but with more focus on the beginning since characters tend to pile up towards the end:

  • Milestone #1 (April 8th): 30% of the final goal
  • Milestone #2 (April 30th): 55% of the final goal
  • Milestone #3 (May 31st): 80% of the final goal
  • End of challenge (June 30th): 100% of the final goal

In my case, then:

  • Milestone #1 (April 8th): 300 (4300 total)
  • Milestone #2 (April 30th): 550 (4550 total)
  • Milestone #3 (May 31st): 800 (4800 total)
  • End of challenge (June 30th): 1000 (5000 total)

Note: You can sign up for the challenge whenever you want, but don’t change the dates of the milestones! Adjust your character count instead, otherwise the social/community aspect will disappear very quickly.

3. Commit to your goal in public and by posting a comment here

There are several competing theories about the usefulness of committing to things in public. Either you can view it as an act that increases pressure on you to get something done or you can view it as something that reduces pressure because by talking about it, you actually might feel that you have achieved something even though you haven’t started.

I’m firmly in the first camp, I feel that having people checking my progress helps enormously. This might also depend on how the people you talk to react, if they simply nod their heads and then don’t care much or if they keep reminding you of the challenge you have committed to. I will try to encourage people who sign up, but please be supportive of each other too! Last time, I tried a peer student system which didn’t work very well. Let’s use this and further posts both to keep each other updated and to encourage other participants!

Join the sensible character challenge now! (copy the milestones from above and edit, compare with my first comment)

4. I will add you to the list of official participants (with a link if you so wish)

Once you have joined the challenge, I will add you to the list of participants. I also suggest that you sign up to the weekly newsletter, because there will be more information coming out later. Last time, many participants committed on social media or on their blogs and websites. This is excellent! If you do, don’t forget to include a link so I can link to you from this article.

Of course, this entire article can be regarded as my own commitment, so I don’t have much choice than to participate and do well, right? In fact, part of the reason I’m starting this challenge is because my own character learning has been seriously derailed for some time and it’s time to get back on track! Click here to scroll to the list of participants.

5. Follow the principles of sensible character learning hzw

These were outlined in this post: Sensible Chinese character learning revisited. As I said above, the goal with this challenge isn’t primarily to learn a lot of characters (even though that is surely a bonus), it is to find good ways of doing that so you can learn even more characters (and other things) later. Check the article for more information!

6. People who participate actively have a chance of winning character posters

As mentioned above, people who participate actively will have a chance to win a set of posters from Hanzi WallChart, each set worth $50. Participating actively means updating your progress throughout the challenge.

I will not discuss in detail what it means to be active so you will just have to trust my judgement on this (I want people to be active because they feel engaged in the challenge, not because they want free posters). In general, though, posting progress for each milestone, being active on social media and so on counts as long as I get to know about it some how.

I have eight sets of posters to give away and will give a few randomly to active participants for each milestone. That means that everybody starts from scratch with each new milestone (in terms of the ability to win posters and the Skritter extensions below) so that people who join later have a chance and that slacking in the beginning doesn’t doom you for the rest of the challenge.

7. Active participants will also be eligible for free extensions to Skritter

skritterIf we’re talking about learning how to write characters by hand (which is what this challenged is about), I think Skritter is the best tool available (you can read my review here). The guys over at Skritter have offered anyone who joins the challenge an extended trial period if you use this link and use the code SENSIBLE2014 when you sign up (click “alternative payments” and then “use a coupon code”).

The trial period will be extended to three weeks, which is enough to last you up to the first milestone of the challenge. You will also get 33% off for 6 months if you actually like Skritter enough to want to continue using it. You will also help me out since a slice of what you pay goes to me. In addition, all active participants who use Skritter (including people who have already subscribed)  will get one week free extension for every milestone they clear! If you’re not sure what “active participant” means, check #6 above.

Anki? Pleco? Paper flashcards?

That being said, this challenge is larger than any particular program, app or tool. If you’re looking for cheaper or free alternatives, I recommend Anki or Pleco, but you could actually use any program or application you want, or even paper flashcards if that suits you better. The important thing is how you learn, not which particular tool you use to do it. There are other tools available for learning Chinese characters (let me know if there’s something I’ve missed):

List of participants in the challenge

If you want to join, post a comment with your goal and related milestones. If you want to include a link, let me know. Just to be clear: You can join the challenge at any point you like up until the end of the challenge in June! If you join later rather than sooner, just adjust the number of characters for each milestone accordingly, but don’t change the dates!

  1. Olle Linge
  2. Gerrityong
  3. Maggie
  4. Xiaokaka
  5. Elizabeth Braun
  6. 胡安马林
  7. Xiaomai
  8. Jacob Gill
  9. Brian Emord
  10. Teresa
  11. Rossi
  12. Magnus
  13. Ivan
  14. Jacob Job
  15. 勇氣
  16. Dan Poole
  17. Li
  18. Carmeljune
  19. Hugh Grigg
  20. Frederico Ferro Schuh
  21. Rob Flye
  22. Lucía 学习吧
  23. Oaht
  24. Fandez
  25. Leslie
  26. Kelby Barker
  27. Tai
  28. Nommoc
  29. LorenzoCC
  30. Georges
  31. Daniel
  32. Lagoyidice
  33. Ana H. Zentarski
  34. Joaquin Matek
  35. Kyle Balmer 凯尔
  36. Daniela Rodríguez
  37. Dean James
  38. 陳凱
  39. Luke
  40. Rachel
  41. Nicole
  42. Mariano
  43. Linitachinese
  44. Aaron
  45. Lechuan
  46. Hans
  47. Doug Stetar
  48. Aivlys
  49. 戴睿
  50. Julia
  51. Emily
  52. Matt
  53. Trey
  54. Carla
  55. Nathan Fields
  56. Leigh
  57. Lili
  58. Núria
  59. Kiwi
  60. 杨明晨
  61. 狄小可
  62. Georg
  63. Jeremy
  64. 9thcrane
  65. Jeb Topper
  66. 爱美
  67. Kevin
  68. 戴睿
  69. Jason
  70. Stefan
  71. Bailee
  72. Rebecca
  73. Evelyn
  74. Sammy
  75. Jack
  76. Clare
  77. Audrey
  78. Nancy
  79. Federico
  80. Jason
  81. Pnh
  82. Napo
  83. Nik
  84. Julia
  85. Renee Bovee
  86. Haris
  87. Jacob
  88. Javi
  89. Ann
  90. Kate
  91. Faiz
  92. William
  93. KarynL
  94. Jamison Watson
  95. Martin W 龍馬丁
  96. 爱美
  97. hitesh agrawal
  98. Jocy
  99. Ryan T
  100. Baroni Fabio
  101. Will
  102. Reixue90
  103. Jeremy89
  104. Nikki
  105. Steve L
  106. David Brett
  107. Julia
  108. You?

That’s all for now, I think. have around 1000 characters to get through, so I’d better get started. So should you! I’ll be back with more about the challenge when the next milestone is up! If you want to follow my progress or discuss you can always find me on Twitter and Facebook!

Articles about the sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

  1. Sensible Chinese character learning revisited
  2. Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014 (this article)
  3. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #1
  4. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #2
  5. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #3
  6. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: The big finish

Sensible Chinese character learning revisited

More than a year has passed since the first sensible character learning challenge started on the first day of 2013 where more than a hundred learners participated. Many participants (including myself) liked the challenge because it encouraged critical thinking about how to learn Chinese characters in a sensible way. Of course, we also learnt a ton of characters together!

bulbSince that challenge closed, I have received dozens of questions about when it will open again. Some of you missed the challenge last time, some of you have started learning Chinese after the challenge finished, others, including myself, have been in the game for quite some time, but have been slacking off recently and need to get back on track.

The Chinese character challenge 2014 is for all of us! In order to avoid information overflow and too long articles, I have decided to split information about the challenge into two parts. In this first article, I will talk about what sensible character learning is; the next article will contain information about the actual challenge, which will start on March 22nd. I will of course give you enough information to start preparing right now if you want to.

The goal: Sensible Chinese character learning

The goal with this challenge is two-fold:

    1. We’re going to learn to write a ton of characters together
    2. We’re going to establish a healthy method for learning characters

The first one is simple enough, but what does “healthy” and “sensible” mean when it comes to learning characters?

Sensible character learning

Most learners want to learn a lot of characters, but just diving in headlong isn’t necessarily the best approach, because even though some strategies might be effective short-term, long-term investments are needed to really learn Chinese. Thus, we need to look at the process of learning and see how we can learn more efficiently.

What follows is a crash course in learning how to write Chinese characters, sorted by most relevant for beginners first. The goal is to give you the basic idea, but if you want to read more, you will simply have to read the original articles:

Image source:
Image source:

1. How to learn characters as a beginner

The main lesson here is that learning a new Chinese character should be an active, exploratory process. I suggest the following sequence for learning new characters: Study the character closely (including stroke order), write it a few times so you get the feel for the character, don’t copy characters stroke by stroke, once you know the character don’t mass your repetitions, practice pronunciation and meaning at the same time as writing, if you see a character component reappearing in different characters then look it up, diversify your character learning (see below), create a powerful character-learning toolkit.

100 common radicals2. Kickstart your character learning with the 100 most common radicals

If Chinese characters were pictures, learning to write (“draw”) Chinese would be almost impossible. Fortunately, most characters consist of different smaller components that have an existence and meaning of their own. For beginners, it doesn’t make sense to learn all components simply because some of them aren’t very common. A certain type of components called radicals typically carries the meaning of a Chinese character, and learning the most commonly used radicals is very important in your attempt to make Chinese learning meaningful. This article gives you the 100 most common radicals, along with information about what they mean, what they look like, where they appear and what they are called in Chinese.

Sneeze3. You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote

Even if it feels like you can learn Chinese characters without understanding much of what you’re doing, this is an illusion. Learning to read and write at a reasonable level is very, very hard to do if you don’t deconstruct characters and make learning meaningful. It’s doable in theory, but not in practice. A central component in sensible character learning is to not rely on rote learning. There is no substitute for spending lots of time learning characters, but we should make sure that that time is well-spent and not wasted. Most native speakers learnt writing through rote learning as kids, but they also have a pretty good understanding of radicals and components.

Joshua Foer4. Memory aids and mnemonics to enhance learning

What’s the opposite of rote learning? It is to understand what you are learning and trying to make sense of it in different ways (see Holistic language learning: Integrating knowledge). The most powerful way of integrating knowledge is through the use of mnemonics. This is a learning strategy where you make use of the way the brain works when it comes to storing and recalling information to learn more and forget less. The most important thing to realise is that remembering something isn’t a static ability set at a certain level at birth, there are numerous ways you can actually improve, so in essence, remembering is a skill you can learn.


5. Spaced repetition software and why you should use it

This is a kind of program or app that helps you review new words as efficiently as possible. It’s based on the thoroughly researched spacing effect and you should really try it out if you haven’t already. Note that it’s spaced repetition, so this is meant to be used when you have already learnt a new character (see above). Spaced repetition software will feed you cards to review at just the right pace for optimal learning. Since most of these programs are mobile or have mobile versions, they are also very good ways of spreading out learning over the day and make better use of the time you have.

skritter6. Boosting your character learning with Skritter

Just like last time, I’m using Skritter for learning to write Chinese characters and you recommend that you do so too. If you use this link and use the code SENSIBLE2014 when you sign up (click “alternative payments” and then “use a coupon code”), you will get the trial period extended to three weeks, which is enough to last you up to the first milestone of the challenge. You will also get 33% off for 6 months if you actually like Skritter enough to want to continue using it. You will also help me out since a slice of what you pay goes to me. If you’re looking for other alternatives, I recommend Anki or Pleco.

handcharacter-225x3007. Diversified learning is smart learning

Regardless of what flashcard program you use (or indeed even if you decide to go with traditional paper flashcards), it’s essential that you spread your studying out throughout the day. Are you too busy to participate in this challenge? That’s probably because you’re not aware of how you spend your time. An excellent illustration of this is available in this article: The time barrel: Or why you have more time than you think. Learning characters doesn’t have to take up a lot of your time!

The sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

This article is a kind of prologue to the actual challenge, which will start on Saturday, March 22nd. I will post more details about the challenge itself later this week (before Saturday, obviously). In case you want to know more about the challenge right now, here is a summary:

  1. Set a reasonable character learning goal that can be reached in 101 days
  2. Set three milestones for reaching your goal
  3. Commit to your goal in public and post a comment to the upcoming article
  4. I will add you to the list of official participants (with a link if you so wish)
  5. Follow the principles of sensible character learning (this article)
  6. People who participate actively have a chance of winning character posters
  7. Active participants will also be eligible for free extensions to Skritter

More details will be published in a few days, stay tuned!

The challenge article has now been posted: Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

Articles about the sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014

  1. Sensible Chinese character learning revisited (this article)
  2. Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014
  3. Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #1

How to learn Chinese characters as a beginner

Image source:

I’ve been responsible for teaching the introduction part of the Chinese course at Linköping university for several years now and one of the most frequent questions asked by absolute beginners is how to study characters. Not what characters to study, what they mean or how they are used, but how to actually learn them. If you need to learn X number of characters by tomorrow, how do you do it?

Since this questions pops up so often, I will try to summarise my answer in this article. Hopefully it will be useful for beginners out there (and perhaps some intermediate learners as well). If intermediate or advanced learners have other useful tips, please leave a comment!

From drawing to writing

Before I go through the advice I have to offer one by one, I want to say a few words of encouragement. Learning Chinese characters is really hard in the beginning, simply because you have nothing to link the new information to.

After a while, your web of Chinese knowledge will expand and adding further to it will become easier and easier. Thus, if you feel that it’s difficult and frustrating at the moment, don’t worry, it will become easier soon. It might feel like you’re drawing pictures, but as your understanding of Chinese characters increases, you will be writing soon enough.

Learning Chinese characters as a beginner

Here are eight crucial lessons about learning to write Chinese characters, gained both through learning to write Chinese myself and through teaching beginners:

  • Study the character closely, including stroke order – Before you start to write, study the character you’re going to write carefully. How is it written? What does it look like? If your textbook or teacher didn’t provide you with information about stroke order,  you can check this website. If you haven’t installed Chinese input on your computer yet, you can write the character here, but it will be hard if you have no idea about how to write it.
  • Write it until you get the feel for the character – Once you know(in theory) how to write the character, write it until you can write the entire character without thinking too much. This is just to familiarise yourself with the hand motions involved and will help  improve your handwriting in general. This is very good for beginners, but not strictly speaking necessary for intermediate students. The number of times you need to write a character varies greatly depending on the complexity of the character.
  • Don’t copy characters stroke by stroke – Whenever you write characters, don’t copy them stroke by stroke. If you can remember the whole character at once, that’s very good, but if you can’t, break it down into its component parts and peek at the stroke order only between writing each component. Copying stroke by stroke is almost useless, because you’re not even trying to remember anything. Also, write the characters on a paper with squares of suitable size (a few centimetres). You can generate your own practice sheets with Hanzi Grids.
  • Once you know the character, don’t mass your repetitions – Even if you have learnt a character, you will obviously need to review it if you want to remember it later. Some people (including most native speakers) write the same character again and again, hoping that they can etch them into their minds. This works, but it’s very inefficient. Instead, you should space your repetitions and write other characters or do something else between repetitions. This is several times more efficient than writing the same character over and over. There are programs called spaced repetition software that help you space the reviews optimally and you can read more about them here. You don’t need to use a computer program, though, simply avoiding massing your repetitions is a good first step.
  • Practice pronunciation and meaning at the same time – If you’re writing characters, you might as well throw pronunciation and meaning in there as well. Write the pronunciation and meaning of the character next to it. If you’re sure how it’s supposed to be read, say it aloud. Otherwise, mimic the pronunciation here. Do not guess the pronunciation based on the letters used to spell it. Pinyin has several traps and pitfalls you need to be aware of as a beginner!
  • If you see a character component reappearing in different characters, look it up – It’s much more interesting to learn characters if you learn a little bit about them. You can use HanziCraft to break down characters for you. If you don’t know which components are important to learn, you can check this article: Kickstart your character learning with the 100 most common radicals. A general rule of thumb is that if you see a component three times in different contexts, you should probably learn what it means.
  • Diversify your character learning – You can do this in many different ways, but downloading a flashcard program for your phone, creating paper flashcards, pasting the characters all over your apartment and writing them on your hands are all good places to start. Studying isn’t only done in front of your desk. Diversifying your learning will vastly increase the time you can spend learning characters. Read more here: Diversified learning is smart learning.
  • Creating a powerful toolkit – I have written quite a lot about character learning here on Hacking Chinese. Some of the advice will be over the heads of absolute beginners, but if you want to read more, I suggest you start with my toolkit-series, where I introduce the concepts necessary to hack Chinese characters properly. The first article can be found here.

Further advice

The above advice should get you pretty far. If you want more resources for looking up characters (or anything else related to Chinese), I suggest that you read my article about suggested dictionaries (most of them online and free). However, don’t obsess about details and don’t try to look everything up. You will enter into a maze with no exit except the one you came in through. Realise that perfectionism can be an obstacle to progress.

Learning to write and read in Chinese takes quite a lot of time and effort, but it’s not as hard as it might seem at first. Sticking to the advice in this article will prevent you from making some of the more egregious mistakes. Learning thousands of characters will still take a long time, but hopefully this article will make the journey a bit easier. Good luck!

Boosting your character learning with Skritter

As the number of people interested in learning a certain increases, so do does the demand for tools and resources related to that language. A quick search on online offers a plethora of different websites, computer programs, apps and other services that all promise to radically improve your Chinese. However, over the years, I’ve found very few products that I actually find worthwhile enough to recommend to others.

skritterMy review policy here on Hacking Chinese is that I only write about products I like (which is why I call it recommendations instead of reviews). I usually accept offers to review products, but I always require the right to simply not write anything at all about the product if I don’t think it’s good enough. If I think it provides genuine help with learning Chinese, preferably in an area where there is little help to find elsewhere, I’m more than happy to write a recommendation

Enter: Skritter

Skritter is just such an example. I started using Skritter roughly eight months ago and I have been using it regularly ever since, with only occasional periods of laziness when exams and major reports are due.

To put it very briefly, Skritter is a software (for your phone or computer) that allows you to practise writing Chinese characters by hand and offers you feedback on your writing. Skritter is a spaced repetition software, which means that it will give you the words you need with carefully calculated intervals to maximise your learning efficiency. Unlike any other software I know, Skritter is (mostly) able to tell you if you’re correct or not and will guide you through the standard stroke order and character composition if you forget how to write a character.

The main reason I recommend Skritter

I will go into slightly more detail below, but before I do that, I’d like to state briefly the main reason I’m recommending Skritter. I’m a fairly advanced student myself, but even if I’m enrolled in a master’s program taught entirely in Chinese for native speakers, I still use a computer to write Chinese 99% of the time. This is very bad if you have in-class exams that require you to write long answers by hand. I’m also a teacher of Chinese and as such, I need to remember how to write characters by hand. I also think that knowing how to write characters is an integral part of knowing Chinese, but that’s my personal opinion and not something I’m going to force either on you or my students.

The reason I want to recommend Skritter is that it’s part of the most efficient solution to build and maintain the ability to write Chinese by hand. Most foreign adult learners can’t walk the long road to written proficiency and mimic the learning process of native speakers. That requires more than twelve years of language heavy education (grades 1-12) and most of us simply can’t do that. I believe that Skritter, mnemonics and sensible character learning is the way to go.

Another important point is that Skritter is fun and not a little addictive. It’s probably bad to be addicted to StarCraft 2 (even if you play only in Chinese) if you have tons of other things you ought to do instead, but if the addictive activity helps you overcome a major problem when learning Chinese, slight addiction is a huge benefit. Learning should be fun and Skritter is definitely more fun than writing lots of characters on a blank sheet of paper. Part of the fun is that Skritter offers direct feedback and measurable progress. It’s not a game, but it feels like one at times. How many characters can you learn this week? Can you you get the number of correct answers higher than last week?

Who is Skritter for?

If you look at the official material, Skritter seems to be for everyone because that’s the way it’s marketed. That is mostly true, but I would like to add that you should have access to one of the following to make Skritter worthwhile:

  • A writing tablet for your computer
  • An iOs device with a touch screen

Of course, you can write character with your mouse or a trackpad or whatever, but I feel that that defeats the purpose of handwriting a bit. If you plan to use your computer, buy a writing tablet (it’s not that expensive); if you have an iPhone or iPad, use that. I’ve heard people say that you can use your phone to control the mouse on your computer, which might work for Skritter, but I haven’t tried that myself (if you have, please leave a comment to let us know what you did).

I would say that Skritter is equally useful for beginner, intermediate and advanced students, or at least I find it very useful now (I know around 5000 characters) and I would be very happy if I could send Skritter back in time to when I started learning Chinese.

However, if you are at the beginner or intermediate level and study traditional characters, I don’t recommend using Skritter. The program is mostly geared towards the mainland and simplified Chinese. Of course, it has a traditional version, but there are several problems. For instance, the pronunciation is always Mainland Chinese and you can’t change that, not even manually. This will be very confusing for beginners in Taiwan, but as soon as you reach a more advanced level, you probably want to learn both anyway.

Furthermore, some stroke orders (and sometimes components of characters) don’t match the standards in Taiwan or Hong Kong. I study traditional characters myself, but I have a fairly good grasp of what I’m doing and I don’t feel that this is problem for me. If you don’t have a good understanding of characters in general, I would advice against using Skritter for learning traditional characters. The rest of you will be fine!

Minor problems and inconveniences

Naturally, no product is perfect and Skritter is no exception. Apart from the problem with traditional characters mentioned above, I have two complaints about Skritter:

  • Coming from Anki (another spaced repetition software), I must say that the vocabulary browser and editing functions are very weak indeed. In Anki, you can do almost anything you want, but in Skritter you’re limited to using a fairly awkward interface.
  • There is no Android version. This has been requested a number of times, but the developers seem to think that it’s not worthwhile. I can’t really comment on the reasons for it, but not having an Android version when the smart phone market is dominated by Android isn’t good.

How does Skritter work?

Note: For the duration of the current (2014) character challenge, you will get a 21-day trial period and a 33% discount if you sign up before June 30th. The new code is SENSIBLE2014. Click here to sign up and here to read more about the challenge!

The goal with this article isn’t to reproduce either the programs feature list or the manual, so rather than talking about how the program works, here are a few videos that show you how it works much more effectively. Also, if you want to know how it works, it’s much better to try it out on your own. If you use the coupon code (SENSIBLE) from the sensible character challenge, you get an extended 15-day free tutorial if you register before June 30th, which should tell you much more than any video. Still, here are some videos.

First, an official video just to show you what it looks like:

And another official one for the app:

And finally a demo of the web interface I use most of the time (I have no iPhone):

Are there any extra features worth mentioning?

Apart from the core functionality of Skritter, there are a number of useful features, including user-created vocabulary lists, mnemonics you can share with others, detailed statistics of your own studying (key for the game-like feel), example sentences and an excellent blog about learning Chinese.

How do I use Skritter?

I only use Skritter for handwriting. I think Anki is a far superior program when it comes to SRS in general and the only reason I would recommend people to use Skritter for anything but handwriting is if you want to keep everything in one place. At the moment, I only do single character writings in Skritter; any cloze tests, recognition or other types of reviewing are still done in Anki. These don’t overlap often, so it’s not a big problem. So, in essence, I do single characters in Skritter and everything else in Anki.

How should you use Skritter?

The obvious way of using Skritter is to supplement your normal studying. You can probably find the vocabulary to your textbook online (it’s probably already available in Skritter) and that’s a logical place to start. What you want to do next is up to you. If you want to do only single character writing like I do, fine, if you want to include listening, character recognition and so on, do that. Whatever you do, though, remember the limits of SRS and my call for more sensible character learning!

How do I get it?

You can download Skritter from the official website and use it for free for a week. If you use the coupon code from the sensible character challenge (the new one is valid until June 30th, 2014), you will get an extra week to be able to make up your mind. If you decide to go keep using the program after than, you will also get a substantial discount, but you need to use the code upon registration for it to work (this also gives me a small bonus if you want to support Hacking Chinese). A two-week trial should be more than enough to give you an idea of what the program is like.


Skritter is a genuinely useful program. It’s part of the most efficient way of learning characters that I know of and I wish that I’d started using it earlier. It’s a valuable resource for anyone who wants to boost their character knowledge, including the full range from complete beginners up to Mandarin teachers.  Skritter is a program I use daily and I think it’s likely to remain so for a very long time.

More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese:

[add_posts tag=spaced-repetition-software show=100]

Horizontal vocabulary learning

When learning characters or words, or when failing to remember a character or word we have already learnt, most sensible teachers will urge you to deepen the knowledge of that character. Rather than simply copying it (which won’t work in the long run), you should aim at understanding the character and its components. This is what my sensible character learning challenge is all about.

Image credit:

When it comes to words, it helps immensely to understand the characters. However, focusing on depth isn’t enough to solve all problems, sometimes you need to expand your knowledge horizontally to neighbouring characters to solve a problem once and for all. This is what horizontal vocabulary learning is about.

Horizontal vocabulary learning

Rather than going deeper, you need to switch focus from the character or word in question and look at similar pieces of vocabulary. This is especially true for characters, but it’s sometimes also necessary for words. In other words, it’s not enough to simply learn about a character or a word, you need to learn how it is different or similar to other words, otherwise the risk for confusion is high.

Think of your knowledge as a web. You want a web that is interconnected at all levels, not only at some very basic level. If you only focus on the components, you will end up with a root-like system. That’s still better than having no connections at all, but it’s not as good as having a proper web.

Looking at similar characters or words is also a way of strengthening your overall knowledge and cleaning up bad mnemonics (more about this below). Let’s look at different kinds of confusing cases where horizontal character learning is a must.

Characters similar in form

There are many examples of when it really pays off to study characters horizontally. The most obvious case is phonetic components, which sometimes will reveal patterns you weren’t aware of, but which make remembering characters very, very easy. Since most (<80%) of all characters are semantic-phonetic compounds, this is important. For instance, I thought it was tricky to remember if there should be a dot (良) or no dot 艮) in characters like:

With dot (check all here): 娘, 浪, 狼, 莨, 阆, 琅, 稂, 锒, 粮, 蜋, 酿, 踉
Without dot (all here): 艰, 限, 垦, 很, 恨, 狠, 退, 垠, 哏, 恳, 根, 痕, 眼, 银, 裉, 跟

If you study these characters one by one, you might never see the pattern, but if you compare them, you’re likely to notice this: The right part of all these characters is phonetic, either 艮 (gen) or 良 (liang) and this can be seen in the pronunciation of almost all of these characters. Every character with 良 ends with either -ang or -iang, and starts with either l- or n-. Most character with 艮 end with either -en or -in, and start with h- or g-. This is incredibly useful to know, because it means that several details of these character are suddenly related. For instance:

  • If you know the pronunciation, you automatically know if it should be a dot or not
  • If you know how its written, you can guess the pronunciation (albeit not 100%)
  • You should exploit the difference between 艮 and 良 when creating mnemonics

Characters similar in meaning

The same applies to characters with similar meaning; only when put together side by side can you actually see how they are different. This is true for words as well, but I think the wider topic of dealing with synonyms in Chinese requires a separate article, so I won’t dwell on this for long in this one. For character learning, there are many components which mean essentially the same thing (this was discussed in this article as well).

  • 戈 (halberd, lance)
  • 矛 (lance, spear)
  • 殳 (halberd)

These characters look very different, but have almost identical meanings for people who aren’t experts in ancient Chinese weaponry. This problem arises because it’s hard to describe some Chinese words in English. There are no exact matching words for these weapons, so the ones provided above will have to do. The other option would be to actually describe the weapon itself, which is perhaps more useful but not very common in Chinese-English dictionaries.

Again, if you just study these separately, you will end up utterly confused. If you put them side by side and deal with them together as a group, it’s much easier. After some googling, it seems that 戈 is closest to the English word “halberd”, because it has a perpendicular cutting blade. 矛 seems closer to a spear (or perhaps pike) which doesn’t have a perpendicular blade at all. 殳 lacks a cutting blade altogether and for clarity, I think of this as a long cudgel.

This might not be 100% accurate, but by looking at these three characters and sorting out their different meanings, it’s now much easier to use them in mnemonics.

You might not even know that these characters are confusing you

Most of the time, students are not aware that this is happening and that the reason they fail is because they swap a character or a character part for another. When I study characters, I’ve learnt to keep an eye out for these problems. Basically, whenever I really think I’m right (for whatever reason), but it turns out that I’ve written the wrong character, this is a good sign that the solution might lie in studying horizontally rather than delving deeper.

In other words, if you fail to recall a character or component, you need deeper knowledge of the character, but if you confuse one part for another, you don’t need to go deeper, you need to expand horizontally and put the characters or character components into context!

Don’t use mnemonics for everything

I have written a fair number of articles praising the usefulness of mnemonics, but now it’s time to look at some misuses and limitations. Before we look at that, however, I’d like to mention that this article is part of a series of articles related to the sensible character learning challenged (it’s still open, join if you haven’t already!):

  1. Chinese character challenge: Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese
  2. You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote
  3. Remembering is a skill you can learn
  4. Sensible character learning: Progress, reminders and reflections
  5. How to create mnemonics for general or abstract character components
  6. Don’t use mnemonics for everything (this article)

Even if we only include things actually present in the modern day form, to really learn a Chinese character, we need to store large amounts of information:

  • What the character means
  • Any additional meanings
  • What the components mean
  • How the components are written
  • How they are positioned in relation to each other
  • How it’s pronounced: Initial
  • How it’s pronounced: Final
  • How it’s pronounced: Tone
  • Other pronunciations (initial, final, tone)

Yes, you could design a system to handle all the sounds and tones of Chinese and encode them in a smart way and use mnemonics to learn pronunciation of every character. Yes, you can include every brush stroke into your mnemonics (I don’t actually know how this would be done, but I’m sure it could). Yes, you can include common meanings and usage in the mnemonic, too.

Using mnemonics for everything is overkill. Image credit:
Using mnemonics for everything is overkill. Image credit:

But you’d be wasting your time. This mnemonic would need a memory palace of its own (it’s not going to be just a single picture/concept). Considering what a monster it would be, it would probably occupy the entire dungeon of that palace. In short, it’s not worth it. It’s too hard and takes too much time. It’s also completely unnecessary.

So, what’s the alternative?

The obvious solution is to use mnemonics on a need-to basis:

  • If you forget the tone, use mnemonics to remember the tone
  • If you forget the components, use mnemonics to make them stick
  • If you forget the meaning, use mnemonics to figure that out

I’ve written about how to do this earlier, so I won’t repeat that again. The important thing here is to realise this:

  • If you don’t forget the tone, don’t create a mnemonic for it
  • If you don’t forget the components, don’t use mnemonics to make them stick
  • If you don’t forget the meaning, don’t create a mnemonic to take care of that

When a mnemonic for pronunciation is overkill

For instance, when it comes to pronunciation, three are lots of clues hidden in the character and if you know where to look, you don’t really need mnemonics in many cases. This requires you to be familiar with some common phonetic components but since they are… well… common, this isn’t a problem. I’m planning a separate article about this, but for now, consider these characters: 碟,諜,喋,牒,堞,蝶,蹀,鰈. They all mean completely different things, but they are all pronounced “dié”. All of them. This is because they share the same phonetic component.

Of course, this is a convenient example, but the truth is that more than 80% of all Chinese characters are created this way. Sure, it’s not necessarily exactly the same, it might have a different tone (氧/洋, yǎng/yáng), initial (湯/傷, tāng/shāng) or final (踉/浪, liàng/làng) or any combination of these, but these are still incredibly valuable clues.

When a mnemonic for character components is overkill

Regarding character components, there are many cases where we don’t actually need to be very specific, because our knowledge of the structure of Chinese characters rules out most possible combinations. If you’re creating a mnemonic for 洋, you don’t need a mnemonic to know that water goes on the left and the sheep on the right. Three drops of water almost always goes on the left and most phonetic components go on the right. In these cases, mnemonics are just there to help you get started, the rest you can easily figure out.

For instance, my mnemonic for 昏 is based on the real etymology (sun 日 setting into the ground 氐 becomes “dusk”), but note that the modern form lacks the bottom stroke in 氐 , which turns it into 氏. I don’t need a mnemonic for this, because there’s no way I would add that extra stroke by accident. I need the mnemonic to remember the components, not every single stroke and where it should go.

To each his own

All these things are highly individual and depend on individual strengths and weaknesses, our knowledge of the structure of Chinese characters and many other factors. What I don’t need a mnemonic for, you might; what you don’t need a mnemonic for, I do. And so on. The point is that you don’t do more than is necessary. If you want to kill a chicken, don’t nuke it. It’s unnecessary and you might run out of nukes for when you really need them.

How to create mnemonics for general or abstract character components

As anyone who has tried using mnemonics to learn something knows, some concepts are easier to link together than others. In general, the more abstract a concept is, the harder it is to associate to something else, most likely because it’s hard to form vivid pictures of abstract concepts. Thus, concrete nouns and action verbs are fairly easy, while abstract nouns, adjectives and adverbs might be really hard. Since we have no control over what Chinese character actually mean, we need to be able to handle this kind of characters or character components if we want to use mnemonics successfully.

Here are the other articles published in connection with the sensible character learning challenge:

  1. Chinese character challenge: Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese
  2. You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote
  3. Remembering is a skill you can learn
  4. Sensible character learning: Progress, reminders and reflections
  5. How to create mnemonics for general or abstract character components (this article)
  6. Don’t use mnemonics for everything

Turn general concepts into specific ones

The first thing we need to pay attention to is the danger of being too general. This is especially true if you rely on other people’s mnemonics (including those I mention on Hacking Chinese). For instance, when you encounter characters with very common components such as 石, 木 or 山, don’t simply say “stone”, “tree” or “mountain”, because these are all general concepts. Instead, think of a specific (imaginary or real) stone, tree or mountain. If you can’t come up with anything, search for a picture on Google. In short, make concepts as concrete as you can.

This is in fact related to a famous experiment in memory research (mentioned in Remembering is a skill you can learn). If you tell a group of people to remember than someone is a “baker” (the profession), and another group that they should remember that the person’s name is “Baker”, it turns out that the first group is more likely to remember the word, even though the word is the same! This is because “baker” is something concrete you can visualise, whereas “Baker” is an abstract concept. Thus, we should try to be as specific and concrete as possible.

Image credit:
Image credit:

Turn the general into something concrete

This is extremely important when you deal with characters that are similar to each other. If you use concrete representations for these, it might suddenly become very easy to remember which character is which. For instance, there are at least three common components which depict some kind of ancient Chinese weapon (the definitions are from

  • 戈 (halberd, lance)
  • 矛 (lance, spear)
  • 殳 (halberd)

This is a clear case where you obviously need a specific picture. You can’t just say “ancient weapon” and be done with it. In fact, you can’t even say “halberd” or “lance”, because then you will have a hard time remembering which of those three characters it is you’re looking for. Instead, just decide on one single, specific picture and use that.

After some googling, it seems that 戈 is closest to the English word “halberd”, because it has a perpendicular extra blade blade. I know very well what such a weapon looks like and I now associate 戈 with that kind of weapon. For 矛, I’m using a spear, which doesn’t have a perpendicular blade at all. They are used differently and look different, so I’m not likely to confuse them. 殳 lacks a cutting blade altogether and even though I’m not sure what to call this in English, I do have a clear picture of this weapon. Perhaps “cudgel” is okay, at least for mnemonic purposes.

Now this might not be historically accurate, it might even be partly wrong, but it’s good enough for our purposes, we are language learners, not historians (if you are, you probably don’t need mnemonics for these characters). As long as you have three different concepts for these character components, you’ll be fine.

Striding farther from real etymology

There is no shame in deviating from the real meaning of the character if that helps you to remember it. Of course, it’s always better to stick to real meaning if you can, but in some cases that’s very hard. Let’s say you aren’t really into medieval weaponry and find my distinction above too vague. You might picture 戈 as a lance with two pink sticks taped across it, 矛 as an infant penetrated by a spear, 殳 as someone standing on a table. This will probably work, but try to stick to real meaning and real characters as much as possible. Therefore, the first and second mnemonic above is much better than the third.

The reason is that if you’re making things up, you’re actually learning things that aren’t Chinese. The person standing on the table might allow you to remember the character, but you don’t learn any Chinese in the process and further combinations including that component might not be so obvious. There are three degrees of deviation:

  1. The real etymology of the character (no deviation)
  2. Using correct components, but combining them in a creative way
  3. Making everything up (in various degrees)

I try to do 1) whenever I can, but sometimes the real etymology isn’t fully known or it’s not helpful. I’m not very interested in linguistic history so I abandon this solution the moment I feel that the real etymology isn’t helping me.

I do 2) for the remaining cases. This means that I might combine existing parts and their original meaning into new pictures and use those pictures, even though the pictures are the product of my own creativity. I almost never do 3), simply because I think learning about real character components is important.

Tricky cases: One meaning, multiple characters

Some characters are extremely hard to deal with because their meanings overlap. The worst case is probably characters that mean “I” or “myself” in some way. There are at least four: 我, 余, 予, 吾. Here’s how I deal with them using the second method mentioned above:

  • 我 – This is the normal “I” used in modern Chinese. I simply think of a picture of myself, but I try to be as specific as possible, not merely thinking of myself, but actually a picture of myself.
  • 余 – “I” in classical Chinese. The character also means “in excess of”, so I think of a very old version of myself in an old people’s home. I lack teeth, which is a bit scary, but I have everything else in excess (including years of age). I write this as “old me”if I write mnemonics down.
  • 予 –  “I” in classical Chinese. Since this character is similar to 子, I think of myself as I appear in photos from when I was two or three years old. This is “young me” in writing.
  • 吾 – “I” in classical Chinese. I think of myself as a mutated monster with five mouths, devouring everything in sight. This is “monster me”.

I haven’t really studied classical Chinese grammar, so I can’t tell you what the difference is between these four characters (as far as I know, they are all used). That’s not the point. What I’m getting at here is that you can’t look these up in a dictionary and simply think “I”, because you will end up with four characters having the same meaning. If you want to preserve that meaning, you need to modify the picture to make it memorable somehow. In other words, be concrete, but stick to things that are actually related to the character (like five 五 mouths 口).

Are you tired of confusing 即 and 既?

You’re not the only one. They appear in similar characters, are pronounced the same (but with different tones), share one common component and are just generally really bad-ass leeches for many students (including myself). Therefore, I took some time to come up with a pair of good mnemonics to get rid of the problem once and for all, all in the spirit of the sensible character learning challenge.

  • 即: The two components mean “meal” (abbreviated form of 食, so if you really want to, think of this as a normal meal cut in half) and “kneeling person” (or “seal”, but I’m going to stick to the kneeling person because I like its better). The character can mean many things, but “even though” and “immediately, soon” are the most important ones.
    Mnemonic for 即: I just crammed all the components (c) and meanings (m) into one sentence and created a picture in my head: Even though (m) you’re kneeling (c) by the table, you’re not allowed to eat the meal (c) any time soon (m). If you need this character in other mnemonics, picture this kneeling person who, even though he’s pleading, isn’t allowed to eat the food immediately.
  • 既: The component to the left still means “meal” (abbreviated), the right part means “swallow” (I think of someone choking on an iron swastika to remember this, but you can of course use whatever you want). The character has three commonly used meanings: “since”, “already” and “both”.
    Mnemonic for 既: Again, I put all the pieces together in one picture, which is related to the picture for 即 but yet different: Since (m) you’ve already (m) swallowed (c) both (m) meals (c), I’ll lock you up in your room for a week. I create a picture of a fat person who has just swallowed two meals at once, some of the food not quite making it into his mouth.

Now, to solidify the difference between 即 and 既, let’s look at some examples. I’m not going to go through the process of creating mnemonics for all these, but going through the list is really helpful (I will write an article about this later). If you encounter characters you don’t know, skip them. If you already have other mnemonics, keep them if they work, but switch if you don’t already have a clear picture in your mind.

These are all just examples. I’m not saying this is the best or only way of doing it, I’m simply showing you what I’m doing and what seems to work fairly well.


Creating good mnemonics isn’t easy, especially since most problems become apparent only with hindsight. This means that using mnemonics is an ongoing process. The basic rule still holds: whatever floats your boat. However, if you want your boat to float farther down the stream, it might be a good idea to follow some of the advice offered in this article.