Small Victories: my progress in learning simplified characters with Heisig…

peckishlaowai Posted in Heisig, Learning Mandarin,Tags: , , , , ,

I recently started working through James Heisig’s & Timothy W Richardson’s book – “Remembering Simplified Hanzi: Book 1, How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters”.

I’m only 225 characters in (out of 1500) and thought I’d share with you how I’ve been finding it thus far.

Well… I LOVE IT and I seriously hope my love for it remains until I reach the end of the book because I’ve still got a long way to go… I think it is a great method for learning characters and I SO wish I had known about this sooner!

My stats thus far show that I am actually retaining what I’ve learned pretty well – this is really promising I think (even though I’ve only studied the first 225 characters in the book.):
Mature cards: 100.0% retention
Young cards: 90.0% retention
First-seen cards: 90.0% retention

I have to acknowledge and point you in the direction of Greg’s blog – Mandarin Segments. If it wasn’t for his blog and his success with Heisig I may never even have started down this path.
Instead of me reinventing the wheel – I suggest you have a read through Greg’s posts for an overview on Heisig and some tips and tricks on using Heisig visualizations – there are many posts all useful but I recommend this one in particular: Tips & Tricks for Heisig Visualisations.

Reading the Mandarin Segments blog made me realise it was ok to let my own mind guide me a little bit where needed, so I will share some of my personal findings with you below.

Finding #1: If the Heisig story doesn’t quite “gel” with me – I aim to make it more personal and change the story so that it will work best for ME. I know my mind and I know there is NO point in me trying to remember a story if it doesn’t “gel” with me…


#133 Swim 泳
You see the primitive for drops of water to the left and to the right the character for eternity. Heisig suggests an eternity of bliss best represented by an expanse of water to swim in without a care in the world.
I needed to make the visual image stronger for ME so my story goes something like this instead: If I’m in water e.g. the ocean – a never ending mass of water – what would I do? Would I drown or would I swim? Well I’d turn into a mermaid and swim forever :) .

#147 Yangtze 江
Heisig’s story has a number of images just a little bit too ‘alien’ for me e.g. water and i-beam and bringing Huck Finn into the story just further complicates it for me so I changed it to:
Water primitive + the character for work = the biggest water ‘work’ in China which I’d answer with ‘the Yangtze’ – easy enough for me :) .

#178 lluminate 照
I use Heisig’s idea as a basis – making something obscure evident for example the process of glazing a pot where you put it in the oven to “fire” it and in the process illuminating it. Instead I think of how the Lord of the Rings ring starts glowing (being illuminated) and how it reveals its inscription when held to a fire. (This works better for me than the Heisig version because it’s just a little bit more visual and personal for me).

Finding #2: Drop the Heisig primitive meaning if you can replace it with another meaning that more closely matches the base character’s meaning. (NOTE OF WARNING: try at own risk and use sparingly – I am not necessarily advocating this).

I know this one’s a tad risky and I’ve done this in only one instance thus far – but so far so good…


#166 Chinese inch 寸
Heisig suggests glue / glued to as a primitive meaning. I changed its meaning to measure / measurement instead. This not only helps me with remembering additional characters but it also helps me remember the meaning for this character 寸.

This is how this change in the primitive’s meaning works out for me in some of the characters that follow:

#167 Seal 封
Earthly measures of importance in historical China could for example have been a red wax seal with the Emperor’s signature that was used on his messages and scrolls. These sealed scrolls may have been burried with him in the dirt to accompany him in the afterlife but in actual fact these “eartly measures of importance” may not have had much importance in the afterlife.

#168 Time 时
The sun is the reason we can measure time (all creatures need sun – we cannot exist without it).

#169 Buddhist temple 寺
The soil /ground where people go to in China to measure themselves (figuratively and morally speaking that is) would be a Buddhist temple. (It helps that Buddhist temples are everywhere to be found in China.)

Finding #3: That sometimes but rarely I can’t come up with an alternative story to the Heisig one, but in thinking about a story of my own I inadvertently memorize the primitives and characters anyway – it ends up being a simple “addition” to get to the result.


#129 削 candle primitive + saber primitive = peel
Makes no sense whatsoever I know but in my breaking my head trying to make up a different story I’ve memorized it anyway without really intending to do so.

#133 奇 big + can (ability) = strange
I was just totally lost after reading the Heisig story involving St Bernard Dogs with kegs and nails etc – it was too much for me – and now I remember it because there’s just no other way to do it anyway – it’s already ingrained in my memory.

Finding #4: Drop the story altogether if you can see a strong enough visual in a hanzi. It means less memory work :-) . This one gets interesting. Again I’ll use this one sparingly.

#187 Lovely 丽
Well this one looks like the lovely collar bone of a woman (top horizontal stroke) and well … her two lovely breasts (two shapes below the collar bone). I don’t ever imagine boobies but in this case I can’t really help it – the character almost lends itself to the idea – yes and I know they are the wrong way around but that shouldn’t matter because apparently all types are lovely.

And no we’re not going to start a debate on that last statement please ;)

It’s obviously not all I can share with you and naturally there are some characters that I do struggle with – I think listing those though would require another post :-)

On another note…

I was browsing through some old photographs taken during trips to China in 2007 and time spent there in 2008 and found a photo of a building which I (from memory) believe to be the Shenzhen train station – see below. (Don’t know if I entered the same building or one nearby to go through HK customs – sorry if I’m confused. )

Before Heisig, I was only able to read the 3rd character for ‘mouth’. Now after studying these few characters in Heisig’s book, I know the meaning of the first one too – which is ‘silk gauze’. (Small victory – small smile).

Even so, I have absolutely no idea what that would mean in the context of the Shenzhen train station :-)
If you do know – please let me know. That would be appreciated. :)

Shenzhen Train Station?

Shenzhen Train Station???

If you’re also studying characters using Heisig – share your findings in the comments please! I would be interested to know if you too change and twist the stories a “teensy bit” to make it work for you…

Anki = 100% nifty tool

peckishlaowai Posted in Learning Mandarin,Tags: , ,

I realise I’m probably 20 years behind the time giving my opinion about Anki – but better late than never, right?

I simply have to share with you that I think Anki is a brilliant tool. In case you need to know, Anki is a flash card tool that allows you to make your own lovely flash cards – flash cards that can be used to aid your memory in ANY area of study – it does not have to be Mandarin related at all! I should actually kick myself as I’ve spent quite a few $ on another tool and I didn’t shop around first… I was impatient and therefore impulsive and made the wrong decision with the first tool I trialled.

Unbelievable but Anki is free. I have not though checked / downloaded the mobile versions and that might be a different story so I’ll only comment on the desktop version that I’ve trialled thus far. After I’ve been using it for a few days, I can honestly say I’m willing to make a decent donation for the use of this tool. (Anyone who’s done some kind of coding themselves will appreciate this tool – it is actually a very clever piece of software.)

I started off by creating my own decks manually for the simplified characters I’m studying using James Heisig’s book – “Remembering Simplified Hanzi: Book 1, How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters”. This (blimming hell) was very time-consuming (even with the use of an IME to input characters). Instead of continuing down that path I was told to look for pre-made decks (thank you aplenty – helpful hint). I downloaded a couple of decks and found one that was to my liking. Now that I’ve downloaded this deck, I would like to share with you the details of this exercise – how / where to download the deck and also share with how to change the deck slightly so it is to your liking.

Download Anki (I downloaded the desktop application):
After the installation – open Anki then click File > Download > Shared Deck. Choose a deck for download – preferably match the one highlighted in my screenshot below.

Download deck for Heisig Simplified Characters

Download deck for Heisig Simplified Characters

After you’ve downloaded the deck you should see it added to the list of decks that you can open within Anki. (If this is the first deck you’ve downloaded then you’ll obviously see only a single deck in the list.)

Your Anki decks (including the one you download)

Your Anki decks (including the one you download)

Customise study options for BOTH new cards and revisions
It’s probably best to test yourself and study in random order – that way you won’t necessarily use the previous character(s) to help you remember (or guess) the next character in sequence – doing it this way will be a “truer” test and it will tax your memory more.

Clicking the ‘change’ button (bottom right-hand side of pic below) will allow you to add more chapters – each of the characters in the Heisig set has been assigned a chapter field. This means you specify which chapters’ characters you’d like to test and review.

Customise study and review options for the deck

Customise study and review options for the deck

Changing the card (layout) template:
Click the magnifying glass icon (prev screen). This will show you a list of all the chars that have been created in this deck (screenshot below). Click on the ‘card template’ button.

Change the deck template

Change the deck template

You’ll notice an answer and a questions field. The deck you’ve downloaded may not be set-up exactly like mine. If you simply want to flip the answer and question then click the ‘flip’ button (see below). If you need to move text from the question to the answer field – locate the bit of code in the question field and insert it where you need to in the answer field. Can be a bit tricky if you’re not sure what to move around – let me know if you need help. (Probably best to copy and paste the code into another file if you want to make changes so that you have a back-up in case you need to revert.)

Customise study and review options for the deck

Changing the card (layout) template

If you click the field tab, you’ll see all fields that has been assigned to this deck – e.g. Lesson Number, Heisig Number, Hanzi, Keyword, Pinyin etc. It means that all of that data is available for you to refer to on the ‘card templates’ tab – meaning you can write it out in either the question or answer field. Pretty nifty.

I think this is largely what you need to know in case you want to use this Heisig deck, but this post may be useful in general too…

Cheers and enjoy!

Learning Mandarin Chinese: Finding Inspiration

peckishlaowai Posted in Learning Mandarin,Tags: ,

I started studying Mandarin part-time in the latter half of 2006 and finished three semester modules by the end of 2007. 2008 was a gap year spent in China teaching English at a dàxué (大学). During that year I studied little to nothing. I was “applying” what I had learned before in everyday situations – a rewarding experience in all.

In 2009 I moved from China to NZ and well… immigration can leave you feeling a bit drained – at least it did for me. Mandarin was put on the back burner. Life (and the process and stress of immigrating to another country) got in the way.

So my studies done through an online distance education university, UNISA, had given me a good enough grip on tones, some basic vocabulary and basic Chinese survival skills to figure out what I needed to say to get the message across in China when I needed to get stuff done. For example, I was able to book a taxi, buy and order food, have ‘where I am from’ conversations, buy train tickets etc. without needing to carry with me any materials for quick reference.

However a few years down the line and I couldn’t get myself to look at my old study materials again – I didn’t want to do any revision to get back into it. I was actually dreading it. I’m not suggesting that the UNISA course wasn’t good – it was great but something was just missing for me. As my students in China would have said – I needed some “fresh” materials. (Some background: they used the word fresh for everything until I asked them “how fresh is the word ‘fresh’ after reading it 20 times in the same paper?”)

For the first time in two and a half years – I feel inspired to take up my studies again – and continue on with new vigour.

  • Creating this blog and spending the time to get the design look and feel right was my first step towards getting back into it – it was my first commitment.
  • Signing up to Twitter was another (@PeckishLaowai if you’d like to follow me).
  • I wanted to meet like-minded people for inspiration – which I think I have.

I guess as with any relationship, it (learning Mandarin) takes work, curiosity and open-mindedness to diversity to keep that flame of interest alive. If you don’t, it flickers away especially when dealing with the pressures of daily life and then you end up realising later that you’ve lost that spark / energy for this thing you’re supposed to ENJOY! Sounds like a real relationship, right?

Now, I have turned purely to the web instead where I’ve sourced new material and tools and “connected” with people that find themselves in the same boat as me – trying to “conquer” (ooh this is a big word – too big in fact) the language in whatever way possible, at some level or another. Best of all – is that I now stay in touch with other people’s experiences and also their teachings via their blogs and Twitter. Knowing that I am not alone in my struggle – is actually rather comforting.

I’m taking from others what they’ve found useful and giving it a go myself. E.g.:

  • Signing up on (I have tendencies to shun mainstream stuff, hence haven’t tried this before)
  • I give my listening skills some practice by following ‘Growing Up in Chinese’ (成长汉语), a series of short 15 minutes episodes presented by Charlotte MacInnis on CCTV
  • Studying Characters using stories and imagination (yes truly and the book is “Remembering Simplified Hanzi: Book 1, How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters”). (Thanks for recommendation inspirational new mentor).
  • Using Flashcards (I am using but there are many alternatives on the web – just Google…).

I can honestly say that simply introducing new material / combining different methods and sources has actually been really refreshing and has gotten me interested and excited again.

None of these things I’m trying at the moment are truly unconventional / radically new (except perhaps the Heisig method) – most of them are just different ways / tactics to supplement your studies – but that’s the point – keep your interest alive and stay curious by introducing FRESH stuff :)

So I leave you with this thought – do not get stuck in your ways when studying – be open-minded and try new things – you have nothing to lose. Lastly, look to others for their wisdom and listen to what they have to share – you might just benefit from it.

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