What Steps Do I Take to Remember a Chinese Character? Step 2 – Outlier Linguistics

What Steps Do I Take to Remember a Chinese Character? Step 2

~7 minute read

In the previous lesson in this series, we started answering the question How do I go about the actual process of memorizing characters? I went over how to come up with and use memory objects in order to make the process of remembering character components both more interesting and more effective. Here, we'll apply the same kind of thinking to characters made of more than one component.

To recap the previous lesson, let's make a memory object for 工 gōng “work.” 工 originally depicted a shovel-like tool with a blade on one end, so let's use a shovel as our memory object:


Note that I choose a snow shovel since they are more square shaped and also choose a square handle, so that we can more easily use this image as a memory anchor for 工:

 Shovel with 工

Since our memory object is based upon what 工 originally depicted, it will also help us to recall what it means when giving a meaning in other characters.

How to apply this to characters with more than one component

There are a few ways this can be done. I'm going to cover two of them here. Basically, 1) use a memory object for each functional component in a character, and 2) combine memory objects with actual character components (i.e., as it appears in the character, not as a memory object).

The idea here is that you want to balance the number of memory objects you create (and therefore have to maintain) with the amount of work it would be to learn a component straight up the old-fashioned way.

1) Use a memory object for each functional component in a character. If a component has a function in a character, then create a memory object for it. In other words, you want to avoid breaking up characters into components that don't have a function. For instance, you want to think of:

  • huá “glory; splendor; China” as:
         化 huà + 十
    and NOT as:
         亻+ 匕 + 十.
    If you break it up into three parts, you'll likely miss the sound connection between:
         华 huá and 化 huà.

  • cháng “often; ordinary” as:
         尚 shàng + 巾 “cloth” (常 originally meant “skirt”)
    and NOT as:
         ⺌ + 冖 + 口 + 巾.
    Once again, you'd probably miss the sound connection between:
         常 cháng and 尚 shàng.

Sound and meaning connections are important for building up the ability to predict sound and meanings of characters you haven't learned yet. So, always be on the look out for them.

Now that we know how to break characters into their functional parts, let's try learning a character using memory objects:

dào “to arrive; to be at”

First, let's make memory objects for the functional components 至 and 刂:

I'm going to choose this image, an arrow stuck in the ground, to represent 至 zhì “to arrive,” which originally depicted guess what? Yup! An arrow stuck into the ground (from which the meaning “to arrive” is derived). I drew my arrow in such a way that it would be easy to write 至 over it:
Notice how the top two horizontal strokes (一) of 至 match up at certain points on the feathers of the fletching. You can tweak your images in order to make it easier to recall your components. Also note that I drew 至 taller and skinnier than usual. Once you have the correct strokes memorized, you'll want to make sure to draw each component in its standard form. If you need help with stroke order, then draw the component while looking at a stroke order diagram a few times.
Now, let's make a memory object for 刂 dāo “knife,” which is the component form of 刀:
Buthcer's knife
A big butcher knife ought to make it easy to remember that you're supposed to write a knife component. Now, let's write the 刀 on our memory object:

It should be obvious that trying to remember the shape of 刀 will be much easier when you're already thinking of a butcher knife. Now, I feel compelled to tell you that our butcher knife isn't quite representative of what the ancient form of 刀 actually represented, but that shouldn't matter here.

We have our two components now, so let's make a memory story for the character 到. Wait! We've run into a little problem. That is, 刂 is not the same as 刀. To say it more accurately, 刂 is a variant form of 刀. There are at least two ways of dealing with this:

    1. learn to map both 刀 and 刂 to the same memory object
    2. create another memory object for 刂.

The advantage to method 2 is that 刂 will have a more tailored memory object. In other words, upon seeing our memory object in our mind's eye, it'll be easier to remember 刂. The cost of method 2 is that we have to create another memory object. The advantage of method 1 is that we need fewer memory objects, while the cost is that we have to remember that our memory object could be one of two component forms.

For me personally, I prefer method 1, so here is what my memory story for 到 dào “to arrive; to be at” would look like:

Arrow and butcher's knife

You could just have this as a still image in your mind, but a movie is even better. Keep in mind, we're trying to remember the character for the spoken word dào “to arrive; to be at,” so in order to help minimize your memory burden, it would be best to learn that word a day or two before you learn the character form (being sure to review the word in the interim).

A memory story might go like this:

You see a green field with a blue sky. You hear a whistling sound as an arrow strikes the ground right in front of you. “It arrived!” you say out loud. Next, a cleaver comes flying through the air and hits the ground making the sound dào! Or maybe, the cleaver is alive, and says, “dào” out loud over and over again.

You practice your memory story each time the character 到 is up for review (perhaps in your Anki deck!). In my flash cards, I would prompt myself with dào “to arrive; to be at” and the correct answer would be my memory story (which would be written as the answer to my flash card). Then, practice writing the real character while thinking of the image above. When practicing, keep in mind that getting the memory story is more important than getting the actual character correct. Of course, on an exam, the actual character is more important!

Why does this work?

I'm glad you asked. There are many things going on here memory-wise.

  • visual objects are easier to remember than abstract symbols
  • meaningful objects are easier to remember than meaningless ones
  • stories are easier to remember than individual pieces of information
  • it's easier to remember a string of information if you can recall the first part

When designed properly, our memory objects act as hints for how to draw a component by giving a rough outline. It's like if you forget someone's name. If you cycle through the alphabet in your mind, it's easier to recall their name because hearing the letter that the name starts with often triggers your memory of that name.

A visual object is easier to remember than a pile of strokes, both because it is something we can easily visualize, but also because the object itself is meaningful. So, we trade the difficult thing to remember (the meaningless pile of strokes) for something easy to remember (an object that we can visualize and has meaning). We tie the whole thing up in a story, because stories are easier to remember than a set of facts.

Applying memory objects to learning characters with more than one component. Again.

Method 2) Combine memory objects with actual character components (i.e., as it appears in the character, not as a memory object)

The idea here is to directly memorize a component that may only appear in one or two characters in order to save on the number of memory objects you need to remember. Say for example that you want to learn 制 zhì “to control, govern.” The left side of 制 only appears in 制. While 制 appears as a component in other characters, the left of 制 does not, so it's a good candidate for this method. Combining the actual component and our memory object for 刂 looks like this:

Memory object

It's important to note, that it's better to save this method for after you've learned at least 50 components to give your brain time to get used to characters. Otherwise, it'll treat it as meaningless strokes and reject it like a transplanted kidney.

One thing you need to be careful of is that components aren't always what they look like. Sound confusing? No worries! I'll explain it in the next lesson along with how to keep track of all your memory objects! 

For more on how to learn Chinese characters more effectively, check out our free webinar. And if you're serious about learning Chinese characters, check out the Chinese Character Mentorship Package, featuring a whole course on memory techniques for Chinese characters!

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