Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

How to create mnemonics for general or abstract character components

Baker_OsloAs 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.

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 Zhongwen.com):

  • 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.

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  1. Rachel M. says:

    “吾 – “I” in classical Chinese. I think of myself as a mutated monster with five mouths, devouring everything in sight. This is “monster me”.”

    This is a good one. This one is actually in my anki deck. I didn’t have a problem remembering it, as it’s quite a simple combination. My mnemonic was, “five senses” make a person and a person has a mouth. Your mnemonic crushes my mnemonic to pieces, haha.

  2. Matt Sikora says:

    Great suggestions here Olle! I’m definitely going to go back and make some of my mnemonics more vivid.

  3. Hwang He says:

    I love your web site because it reminds me to keep trying.

    Visual association and phonological association quite different. The mnemonics are very helpful with the visual aspect.

    Some characters actually offer two clues — one for meaning and the other for phonology. Generally the radical is a meaning clue and some other component associates the phonological syllable… but you are on you own to know the right tone.

  4. Tim Löfstedt says:

    The “making everything up” deviation degree reminds me of a guy I met who remembered 烤 as a person (火) standing next to a barbecue grill (考). Hearing this made me frustrated because remembering 火 erroneously as “person” is bound to become confusing and counter-productive in the long run if you are a serious learner.

  5. I tend to use mnemonics on words that I have trouble remembering, or ones that I confuse with other characters.

    For example, to learn 游泳 (to swim) – I broke down the characters into their individual parts, and then made a story. The first character, 游, I broke down into:氵(water) 方 (used a lot in characters to do with places) and 子 (child). The second character, 泳, has the water part again,氵, and the other part looks like the full character for water 水. So, my story was ‘To go swimming, you need a place with water, and there are usually a lot of characters.’ The second character I used to emphasis the water part (lots of water!). I hope that makes sense.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Hm… I think the principle of what you’re doing is right, but in my opinion, you’re not doing it entirely right. You should use the real character components, not split the characters in any way you think looks reasonable. For instance, 泳 consists of “water” 氵 and eternity 永 and you really, really should use this in your story instead. You will encounter these components again and it will pay off to know what they actually mean. Use real etymology as often as you can!

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