For any novice learner of Chinese Characters the first time he or she will see a page of Chinese Characters this will be overwhelming. It looks nice but for the brain it is pure chaos. At this stage we do not know what patterns to look for in these characters. It is the same for a child who sees a page of text before they know any type of letter. What do children usually do in these cases ? They will look at the pictures instead if there are any.
Our brains are made to recognize pictures and our brains are geniuses when it comes to store images. Our visiual memory is the fastest and the biggest storage system we have. With the help of the mnemonic system below you will be able to tap into this powerful learning system.
This way you will accelerate your learning and also retain the memorized characters much longer.
The best way to start is with the most important patterns called radicals. These radicals will also help you to identify the characters in the chinese dictionary.
There are 214 radicals. Yet it would be best to first learn the 100 most frequently radicals first and not learn the more exotic radicals that will hardly come across you when you start to read your first chinese texts. See Kickstart your character learning with the 100 most common radicals by Olle Line.
I have categorized these 100 radicals into subgroups. With the help of the subgroups you will be able to build the memory palace that will hold all these images that will remind you of the characters in the future.
There are the following sub categories that you can choose a sub locations for: (The full list of these characters and sub categories is here)
1. Related to human
2. Related to human activity
3. Related to human appearance and situations
4. Related to house or household
5. Related to space/area/nature etc
7. Related to animals
8. Related to numbers
9. Related to colours
I have chosen a three step approach:
First step is to find a vivid image for each of the characters connected to the meaning in English.
In the second step you will associate for each of the syllables a memorable person (celebrity or people that you remember well)
In the third step you remember the tone of the syllable by association of the connected memorable person performing a task which is related to the meaning of the word and the tone.
I give you an example for remembering the syllable and the tone:
The word sickness has the chinese syllable ni4. Ni I have associated with Nikita Chruschtschow.
To remember the fourth tone of ni I see Nickita Chruschtschow falling down on the floor because he suddenly became utterly sick.
First Step – Create Images and a Place in Your Memory Palace:
Let’s build our memory palace and images for all the 100 most used Chinese Radicals together.
We start with the subcategory 1. related to humans.
It includes the following characters:
In total these are 18 Characters. Just to put those in memory without mnemonics would take quite a number of repeats. Usually we can hold maximum 7 plus or minus two items in our short time memory at once. With mnemonics you will overcome this barrier.
I have created the following images and path to store these characters one by one.
My memory palace is a house in China, yet it is build in an European Style. I live under the roof in the second floor.
One day I was sleeping on my huge silk white bed with my legs open 人. (I see myself as a human.)
I wake up and stand straight up in my bed. Unfortunately it is just under the roof so I hit my head against the roof and this hurts a lot.
I see myself as a human with the roof above 亻.
I need to sit down in my bed straigth with my legs stretched in front of me, when I realize that I have eaten a baby cradle and I now look
like a woman 女.
When I stand up from the bed I suddenly feel enourmous pressure in my stomach because the child feels squashed by the cradle I have swolled and it stretches out his arms while having to pull in his head because of the cradle. 子.
I am shocked and just before I fall I get hold of my bookshelf opposite of my bed. The pain is so big that I open my mouth to scream. My mouth has been replaced by a artifical square roboter like mouth piece. 口.
Terrified I jump a way into the middle of the room. This is when I realize that my heart starts to pump heaviliy out of all three venes and spill blood all over me.心 . Some of the blood springles into my mouth so I have that sweet tast of blood on my tongue.
I feel panic and I want to go downstairs to get dressed. When I reach out with my hand to hold on to the wall I see that it was turned in an artifical antenna with three lines. 手.
No I think, I cannot go downstairs with this type of hand, so I screw off my right hand and put it in a nice chest 又 that stands on this two nicely shaped feet just before the stairs.
I walk down to the toilet. When I enter the toilet I see my eye in the mirror was also turned into an articficial triangle with rectangular lids around it. 目. When I want to take a leak into the toilet I suddenly realise that I can hardly sit down because I am totally wobbly on my feet. They are mounted on a large woman stilleto with a spring. 足.
It is a nice idea to be able to take very large steps like with the seven miles boots and thus be much faster than walking in normal shoes, but it is not a good idea for going to the toilet and trying to sit down. Only after many fruitless tries and holding to the bathroom tub I finally manage to sit down. But to my dismay my corpse falls over because it is more heavier above and very thin below. 尸.
I had enough. I wash my left hand. While washing it I realize that my thumb was also turned into antenna which is one inch wide and when I do a finger print of it it will only leave a dot on the paper. 寸.
Damm I think I need to have a bath to relax from all this stress. Once I come out of the bath tub my legs become strangely flexible. I had forgetten that they also very now artificial. So they look like this 儿.
I walk over to the mirror and put my tongue out which I regret badly. The tongue that comes out of my square mouth also has an antenna on it with two lines 舌 and it has a bitter taste.
I am very annoyed and hungry and go downstairs into the kitchen. Unfortunately when I entered the kitchen I fall and a needle sticks through my skin in my stomach and scratches the baby cradle. 皮. This is so painful.
I leave the kitchen and go to the living room to make an emergency telephone call. When I put the phone to my ear I realize that it was also exchanged with a rectangular antenna objects with two inside stripes and two longer ones on the outside. 耳.
What a strange day to start with.
The mnemonic stories work the best when you create your own images and memory palace. Instead of using a house it could be any place that you are very familiar with. It could be your way to work, or if you walk through your favourite zoo, museeum, etc. The key is to have one image that is very memorable and preferrably animated and it has a unique place for storage.
Second Step Associate Memorable People to the Syllables:
I make the following associations. The number indicate the tones. In Brackets the intuitive English Pronounciation. For all Pinyin Syllables look here.
cun4 Carl Gustav Jung (tswnn)
er2 Erdogan President of Turkey (urr)
er3 Erdogan President of Turkey (urr)
kou3 Cowboy John Wayne (koh)
mu4 Muhammed Ali (moo)
nv3 Oliver Neuville (former German Soccer Player) (nyoo)
pi2 Pia Zadorra (pee)
ren2 Rene Descartes (rnn)
she2 Sheela Indian Film Actress (sher)
shi1 Shia LaBoeuf (shrr)
shou3 Schubert the composer (shoh)
xin1 Xindi are peole from the planet Xindus in Start Treck (sshin)
you4 Neil Young (yoh)
zi3 Zig Ziglar (dzrr)
zu2 Peter Zumtobel Swiss Architect (dzoo)
Again the same as above choose the association of people for each of the syllables that work best for you.
Tone 1 means to have a steady straight pronounciation when you speak the syllable. In Tone 2 you go up with your voice when you say the syllable. For tone 3 you are up and go down and up again when you pronounce the syllable. And tone 4 means you start high and go down when you speak the syllable.
For the next step I have associated the tones with actions such as for tone 1 the action performed by the memorable person will be a straight line. Example would be laying me on the back on the floor. For tone 2 it has an action that puts me somehow up. Tone 3 is represented by any action that is somehow connected to up and down and up movments and for tone 4 it is something that will put me down. It will become clearer when you read the following story.
Third Step – bring it all together into one final story:
One day I was sleeping on my huge white silk bed when Rene Descardes came and lifted up my two legs and spread them across my bed because he wanted to examine how people sleep when their legs are laid out in a perfect triangle 人 ren2. I see myself as a human.
I wake up and I am pritty annoyed with Rene Descartes. Instead of leaving me alone Rene Descartes put me straight up in my bed . Unfortunately my bed is just under the roof so I hit my head against the roof and this hurts a lot. I am now very angry with Rene Descartes.
I see myself as a human with the roof above 亻ren2.
Oliver Neuville comes to my rescue and takes me in his arms and shakes me like a baby to calm me then helps me to sit down in my bed straigth with my legs stretched in front of me, when I realize that I have eaten a baby cradle and I now look
like a woman 女 nv3.
I start to cry. Zig Ziglar hears it and tries to lift me up and down to get me overthrow in the hope that the cradle comes. I feel an enourmouse pressure in my stomach because the child feels squashed by the cradle I have swolled and it stretches out his arms while
having to pull in his head because of the cradle. 子. zi3.
I am shocked and just before I fall I get hold of my bookshelf opposite of my bed. Suddenly I hear Cowboy John Wayne approaching with his horse. He jumps right behind me and starts pushing my stomach in and out. The pain is so big that I open my mouth to scream. My mouth has been replaced by a artifical square roboter like mouth piece. 口 kou3.
I let you finish the story by yourself.
Mnemonics works best if you find the associations that work best for you.
There is a great guideline on creating memorable images for mnemonics on the Hacking Chinese Blog: Memory aids and mnemonic to enhance learning by Olle Linge.
Once you are able to walk through the 16 Characters forward and backwards I would recommend you the first exercise. Read a Chinese Text printed out on paper and mark each of the learned radicals in the characters.
Here an example text based on the the first 100 most frequently used Chinese Characters and Words in Film Subtitles:
And this is the result of the above text analysis based on the 16 Radicals you have mastered by now:
Quite a number of characters that will include one of the radicals you have just learned.
You will notice there are already a few characters that are only made up of the radicals you know by now.
Example: 好, 如,从
And if you have mastered all the 100 Radicals this would be the result:
I will add further exercises and examples
More on learning the most used words and characters in Chinese