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How to memorise Chinese characters?

When students learn Chinese reading and writing, they must memorise a bunch of Chinese characters. 

For Chinese people, such as me, we start this process early. After years and years of copying and writing, we gradually memorise thousands of Chinese characters. Starting young is an advantage. A difficult and repetitious process is dispersed into twelve years of schooling.

But for non-Chinese speakers, who start learning Chinese in their teens or adulthood, the difficulty of memorising Chinese characters is very real. 

Many teachers try to gamify this process, try to make it easy. They often associate Chinese characters with pictures or stories, or break down characters into their strokes, components and radicals, or make characters into bingo games, or search for words in a grid of characters, and so on. These “games” are nice and necessary. But they can not replace the work students do by themselves, the act of writing using their hands.

Here, I put together some methods that help students memorise Chinese characters. They can use different methods at different times, or come up with their very own methods, to achieve the best learning results.

Definitions of memorising Chinese characters

Let’s first discuss what memorising characters means and why it is such a challenging task. Then methods will follow.

  • First of all, memorising characters means that students are able to recognise the form of a character, and know how to pronounce it. 

This is something that all written languages require. The differences are in degrees, not in kind. 

When I studied English, I had to memorise the alphabet, recognising their visuals and knowing how to pronounce them. I had to learn a capital “R” and a lower case “r” are different in appearance, but they have the same sound. 

Different from English, Chinese goes a lot further, there are thousands of characters which students must learn to pronounce. 

Most Chinese characters have a single-syllable sound. While there are thousands of characters in Chinese, there are only a limited number of sounds available. Even after the number of sound is multiplied by four (the four tones), the total number of sounds is still not enough to cover each and every one of the thousands of characters. The result is that many different characters have the exact same sounds. 

Also, there are some characters that have multiple sounds, with each sound associated with a different meaning. How to pronounce these characters and what meanings they carry can only be determined in context. For example, is read differently in “吃了” and “了解” and its meanings are different.

At the same time, some Chinese characters have more than one sound, but its meaning does not change, such as , which can be read as “shéi” or “shuí”, and , which can be read as “yà” or “yǎ”. How such a character is read depends on regional preferences. This is easier to understand for English speakers. Words, such as “tomato”, are pronounced differently in different regions.

From this analysis, we understand that any methods of memorising Chinese characters must involve both sound and form at the same time.

  • Secondly, students must know a Chinese character’s meaning. 

In this aspect, Chinese language is unique. In English, each letter, when standing alone, does not convey any meanings. But each Chinese character does. 

A really challenging task is that most characters carry multiple meanings. The exact meaning of a character depends on the contexts. For example, character has different meanings in “花样”, “红花” and “花钱”. So, how can we know the meaning of character when it is standing alone? The answer is “we can’t”. We are only sure of its meaning when it is combined with other characters.

Memorising Chinese characters

Therefore, memorising Chinese characters must go beyond memorising individual characters. The memorising units must be at least words, and on some occasions, sentences. 

However, there are just way too many words! Most students have to depend on teachers or textbooks to index these words to much smaller and manageable pools. 

  • Thirdly, memorising Chinese characters means to train muscle memories.

Many teachers propose that memorising characters means that students are able to reproduce this character from memory. I think this is misleading. It implies that students remember what a character looks like and reproduce this character according to that image. In reality, it is the hand, not the brain, which is doing the writing. 

We only need to know what we want to write, and our hands will write them. Any moment we have to pause and think what a character looks like, we are in trouble. And very likely, we won’t be able to write it. This phenomenon is common for people who are out of practice writing Chinese characters. Chinese people call it 提笔忘字. 

Our brains are not entirely reliable. Mistakes are not rare, for example, we often remembered something that did not happen.

Different from our brains, our hands are very reliable. It has been proven time and time again that our hands are capable of memorising complex forms and movements. Just watch musicians’ hands. It takes ages for our hands to forget.

Therefore, memorising Chinese characters must involve using your hand to write Chinese characters. It means to train your hand until it has accurate muscle memories.

Now, we can summarise that memorising characters must involve the following: 

  1. the sound and the form must appear at the same time;
  2. words are the basic memorising units and the number of words must be manageable; 
  3. students must practice writing with their hands.

Methods for memorising Chinese characters

After we understand what it takes to memorise characters, we can put some methods to help us achieve the desired results.

I propose the following methods. Some take a few minutes, while some hours. Some are good at home and some are good while riding on the train. Some for general review and some for test preparation. 

This list can be the beginning of a very long list. Students are encouraged to find new ways to practice.

Method #1: Copy a word, while reading it aloud.

Method #2: Copy a word, while reading it silently.

Method #3: Listen to a word, while reading it aloud.

Method #4: Listen to a word, while reading it silently.

Method #5: Copy a few words three or four times first, then try to write them without looking.

Method #6: Build up a collection of flash cards of words, and read them aloud.

Method #7: Read a deck of flash cards of words silently. 

Method #8: Read aloud Chinese texts.

Method #9: Copy Chinese texts, while reading it silently.

A few words here to explain the method #9. If there is a novel, an article, a story or a poem that students like, they can copy the entire Chinese text. 

It can be really interesting when copying some famous texts. It is similar to musicians playing something nice by Mozart.