Have you ever heard someone say: “You have to be born Chinese to understand the language!”
Or something like: “Memorizing all those crazy characters is impossible!”
We Chinese language learners defy people’s expectations on a daily basis. No doubt about it.
We keep our noses to the grindstone and slave away over textbooks, all in the hopes of reading Chinese like a native.
But wouldn’t it be nice to have a sweet and simple method for learning Chinese characters?
Let’s face it; Chinese characters are one of the most difficult aspects of learning Chinese. Sure, mastering listening and speaking fluently present their own challenges. However, it is a singularly difficult feat to improve Chinese reading skills. The largest Chinese character dictionary available in print, the Zhonghua Zihai, has a total of 85,568 entries, each one representing a unique character.
Every Chinese learner at some point in their journey will curse the complex logographs that make up the foundation of the Chinese language. Do not give up hope. There are tons of methods out there that you can try adding to your language learning routine. Here, we’re going to explore some of the best!
Note to the reader: It is recommended that you modify the following techniques to suit your style; don’t take all this information in a rigid way. The examples given in this article are purely personal examples that the author has used so, depending on your thought process, you might find other learning styles or memorization strategies to be more effective.
9 Clever Steps to Effectively Learn Chinese Characters
Although there is a vast variety of characters, most characters are made up of existing characters arranged in a novel combination. You intermediate learners probably already know what’s what.
In each character, there are often components which have individual meanings. These will furthermore be referred to as “radicals” and “component characters.” For the purposes of memorization, it can be helpful to think of each radical as representing a basic idea. It is one basic character which cannot be simplified any further. Radicals were used to organize dictionaries long before Romanized systems based on pinyin were invented, and they’re still super useful in guiding Chinese language learners nowadays.
Once these radicals are combined, they will create a new idea in the form of a new Chinese character. A character which is found within a more complex character is known as a component character.
As radicals and component characters are usually relatively simple characters, they often resemble a drawing of the concept they represent. Now, let’s look at some examples of how we can understand more complex characters by looking at radicals and component characters while incorporating mnemonic techniques.
1. Break the characters down into components.
This example will use three radicals:
This character means “wood” and looks just like a little tree. It is pronounced mù.
This character is an old word for “ax head.” Can you see the resemblance? It is pronounced jīn.
This final character means “sun,” and, by extension, “day.” It is pronounced rì.
Now, if we combine the first two characters (“wood” and “ax”), we have this new character:
This character means “to separate,” and, by extension, “analyze.” The signs for “wood” and “ax” are quite clearly mashed together here. How can we use our knowledge of components to efficiently memorize this character?
And, furthermore, how can we memorize more complex characters that include the “separate” characters? For example, it appears as the second character in the modern Chinese word for “analyze”: fēnxī 分析. To answer both these questions, move along to the next step.
2. Visualize the characters in your mind.
Using a component-focused mnemonic technique, we can create a strong association between the character for “separate” and its component characters. In our memories, we can combine this character with an idea of someone hitting wood with an ax, separating pieces of wood. The characters for “analyze” could be remembered by visualizing a cut tree and the rings inside the tree, which are used to analyze the tree’s characteristics.
Creating imaginative visualizations can lead to more effective learning. This is a great way to get yourself off the ground in terms of reading. Next time you see this character, you’ll be able to break it down and recall its meaning. The more vivid your visualization, the more effective the technique will be.
3. Build from your previous knowledge.
We can go steps further as well. After a while of looking at the “separate” character and conjuring up your mental imagery, you’ll get the meaning down pat. With enough practice, you’ll simply glance at the character and know the meaning without going to your mnemonic technique.
Well, Chinese likes to keep challenging us. Meet this new character: 晰
The character 日, meaning “day,” has been added to the character for “separate.” In very old literary Chinese, this new character means “clear” and, by extension, “easy to understand.” In modern Chinese, it is used in the word for “lucid”: míngxī 明晰.
We can apply our same techniques here. We can either split apart the character into three distinct radicals (木, 斤 and 日) or we can split this character into the radical 日 and the character 析. Since we have already memorized the latter character, let’s create an image from just two components. Picture the tree cut, with its rings showing for analysis. Now add some sunshine. The sun in the highest point of the sky, shining light onto the cut tree to help with the analysis process and bring about a more enlightening understanding of the tree. Again, stronger images lead to more effective memorization.
4. Don’t forget the pinyin.
This ain’t all about pictures and characters. When you learn a character you need to know more than its general meaning – you need to learn how it is read. Definitions are only half of the puzzle, and only with the pinyin will you have the full picture. Luckily, similar mnemonic techniques relating to association and visualization can be applied here. This goes hand-in-hand with remembering pronunciations, so look to the following step to see how pinyin can be logged away in your noggin. Before moving on, have a look at this more in-depth discussion on how to learn Chinese pinyin.
5. Get the pronunciation down.
With some imagination, we can also associate the pronunciation of the character with the visualizations we have created.
For example, the pronunciation attached to the first character we discussed, 木, is mù. To put these two concepts together, we can imagine a tree that says the word mù, scaring hikers that pass by. For the character 斤 (jīn) we can imagine an ax being sharpened and making a jīn sound when it is placed against the whetstone. For the character for “split” or “analyze,” 析, we can imagine an ax cutting the tree in bright sunlight, with each cut making a xī sound as it strikes the tree.
Sounds kind of silly, right? You would be surprised, but the sillier the story is the better you will hold onto the pronunciations.
As you continue to study Chinese, you will likely find these mnemonics less and less necessary. You will start to recognize the characters and sounds thanks to hearing and reading them in association over and over again. When you are just starting out though, it can be helpful to incorporate funny techniques like this into your flashcards and space repetition software. You won’t have to invent wild stories forever – usually after you’ve remembered the character a few (or few dozen) times through this method, you will start to recall meanings and readings less and less hesitation.
Another great way to master the pronunciation and create context for learning is by using FluentU.
FluentU is an online immersion platform that takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. It isn’t just about watching videos passively—it’s about actively learning and practicing the language.
The active learning tools are probably the best part. Click any subtitled word for an on-screen definition and an audio clip demonstrating native pronunciation. Then study and reinforce new language lessons with the multimedia flashcards and vocabulary lists that are custom-made from the vocabulary and grammar you encounter while watching your chosen videos.
6. Bring on the tones.
Now that we have the pronunciation down, all that remains is the tone. If you are still struggling in this area, take a look at this great advice on how to become a natural with Chinese tones. There are two methods to remember the tone of the character. That’s because remembering tones is pretty darn important! Again, these methods are related to visualization.
The first method uses tones as a way to set the mood of the visualization. We start by classifying tones into four major types. Remember that these are arbitrary classifications and are only suggestions. You are welcome to create your own personal associations with each tone.
Tone Type #1: Smooth, conveying a feeling of wholeness and inner peace. If the Chinese character is read in this tone, the whole visualization takes a tranquil mood.
Tone Type #2: Goes up, rising, representing heavenly paradise. With the second tone, the visualization can take on a mood of happiness or reverence.
Tone Type #3: Down and then up. In these visualizations, the mood can be one of emotional agitation or turbulence.
Tone Type #4: Goes down. The mood in these final visualizations can take on a melancholy or sinister mood.
How can we use this practically? Let’s take this method for a test spin with the character 斤 (ax). The full pinyin for this character is jīn, which falls under tone type #1. The previous visualization of an ax being cut can be modified simply: a man named Jin can take on the first tone mood. Instead of Jin swinging the ax laboriously, he will be handling the ax with a look of inner peace on his face. Cutting down the tree is a peaceful action in our minds. This helps us remember the pronunciation and tone in one fell swoop.
This method is a jumping off point for the second method, which employs colors. Different colors correspond to different tones. These connections are all subjective as well. Go ahead and form your own associations – whatever works best as a memory aid.
Since tone type #1 represents tranquility and wholeness, the whole visualization can take on a pure white hue. The second tone represents goodness and paradise, so Chinese characters with this tone can take on a bright yellow shade. The third tone is turbulent, and the visualizations could thus have many vibrant colors clashing. Finally, the fourth tone goes down, so the visualizations can take on darker shades.
Let’s expand on the visualization of木 (tree) as an example. The pinyin for this character is mù, in the fourth tone. Our previous visualization had a talking tree scaring hikers, but now let the visualization take place on a dark cloudy night without the moon in sight.
7. Rely on familiar characters.
As you learn more and more Chinese characters, you will start to recognize some patterns. Often, characters with similar components will have similar pinyin structures. Instead of adding the pinyin to the visualization, you can just borrow the pinyin from other related characters.
For example, we can take the character we discussed previously, 析 (to analyze), which has the pinyin “xī.” For this visualization, we can have Chinese President Xi Jinping holding an ax in his formal attire, hacking at a tree in order to analyze the ring structure inside. Incorporating what we have discussed previously, since it is tone type #1 used here, we can see him very much at peace and cutting down trees in one smooth swing, with a white hue surrounding the whole visualization. For the character 晰 (understanding), because it has the component character 析, it also has the same pinyin, xī. In this case, we do not have to add to the previous visualization from before. All there is to do is to look at the component 析 and remember that the pinyin is the same. And as you learn more characters, more patterns will start to emerge.
8. Practice, practice and practice some more.
If you are new to using mnemonic techniques for character memorization, here are three additional practice examples to help you become familiar with these techniques.
Definition: Pine tree
Component Characters: 木 (tree), 公 (public)
To get the definition of this character, picture a public event with people standing around a large tree. The tree is a pine tree, and they are singing a song (so you can remember the pinyin). In the spirit of the first tone, the mood is peaceful and tranquil. The whole scene is bathed in white, perhaps it is snowing everywhere, very softly and quietly.
Characters: 门 (gate), 人 (man/person)
For this character, picture this visualization. There is a man standing in front of a gate. You close your eyes and he is gone in a flash. Later, you find that he has shanked someone (shanked helping you to reinforce shǎn) and is on the run. As it is the third tone, emotions run high as people try to find this man, and the colors in the scene are plentiful and vibrant.
Characters: 廴 (go), 由 (from)
This character roughly means enlighten, so let’s imagine this visualization. You are going on an endless path, one you have always been walking on from the beginning. Then, all of the sudden, you start wonder where the path came from. Picture yourself looking toward the start of the path. When you ask these questions about the origin of the path, it is at this moment you are enlightened. For the pinyin, visualize the road going back and back, and the start being Disney World (for the dí sound). As it is the second tone, picture yellow light around Disney World, which is situated high in the clouds and is giving warmth and happiness to all.
9. Push yourself to keep learning by any possible means.
We wish you good luck as you continue to learn Chinese characters, and hope that you guys have learned a thing or two from this article. Remember, you must make your visualizations strong in order to make them effective, as weak and lazy visualizations will be quickly forgotten. Furthermore, don’t forget to actually practice and review your Chinese characters to continue reinforcing your visualizations and keep them stored well in your mind. Finally, don’t ever feel limited by these techniques, as they are just suggestions and quite subjective. Your personal experiences and thoughts, as well as your creativity, will help you shape your own personal style in creating mnemonic techniques. Memory aids do not work unless they manage to stick in your brain, so do whatever works for you!
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