Obsessive Compulsive Hijacking of Heisig Primitives?


Hijacking primitives – what’s that?

As I’m working my way through Remembering Simplified Hanzi: Book 1, How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters – I find that I am STILL changing the meanings assigned to primitives in the Heisig book. This happens rather naturally and I can’t really help it. I am not doing this on purpose! I’m just doing it because I’m doing it and probably because I find it easier to do it rather than not.

If you’ve found your way over here because you’re interested in learning Hanzi then welcome :) and excuse me for getting straight into it. You can read more about my experiences with Heisig here. I can also point you in the direction of a free PDF that will let you try out the Heisig method on the first 100 characters listed in the above mentioned book.

This method allows you to memorize hanzi with visual or rather imaginative mnemonics. It’s a good method for learning hanzi – in fact it’s great – great fun at the best of times, but may have you scratching your head at the worst. It’s a method that requires creative stories, imagination and commitment, but the experience overall is one I regard as a very rewarding one and I am so glad that I came across this method first on MandarinSegments.com.

Now – when, how and why am I changing primitives?

Well – this normally happens right after I’ve learned a character and then learn the primitive meaning for that character or if I have a glance at the next two characters that follow in the book that would be using that very same primitive.

As mentioned before in some previous posts about Heisig – sometimes (maybe most of the times) I just feel that my visuals need to work for me – that I can relate to it – so if something else pops into my head that feels more natural - I just go with it.

Yes and I do realise that I have to adjust primitives for every character going forward. (And if you anticipate doing Heisig I don’t necessarily advocate doing this.) I’ve been doing it so frequently however that I thought I could share a bit more about this in one more post.

Simplifying what Heisig presents:

1210 青 qīng – Blue or Green
This is the character that describe “nature’s colours” and can refer to blue or green. (In fact as an aside, this character makes me think of an interesting post on Niel’s blog / Confusedlaowai.com about the usages of this character).

Heisig assigns this character, the primitive meaning of a telescope which is all grown up or rather ‘stretched out as far as it can go’ (top part of the character) and then incorporates some gazing at the moon bits with some references to cheese etc. It is a great creative idea but to me it was simply easier to give it a primitive meaning of blue cheese or rather blue (green) cheese. Whether you love or detest blue cheese, you have to admit that even though it’s called blue cheese, it’s really rather greenish. So that sorts me for a primitive.

To remember it as a character – I think of blue or green (cheese) as being someting enjoyed by grown up (mature) flesh (adults or a mature palate) or or you can go with the concept that blue / green cheese is a mature (grown up) edible food best enjoyed by moonlight. (With red wine off course.) (FYI, 月 yuè is sometimes given the primitive meaning of ‘flesh’ in Heisig and would be the bottom part of the character 青).

So how does it work out for the characters I’ve been using it in. Well let’s see:
1211 精 Refined
For this char you have rice and blue (green) cheese: Think of a society as becoming “refined” when it’s moved from basic staples such as rice to the more refined delicacies offered in the “modern” culinary world e.g. blue cheese.
1212 请 Invite
I think of the wordy request I receive to attend a fancy la-di-da blue (green) cheese evening. (Hopefully I get some wine too.) If it helps – imagine some blue cheese smudges on the invitation card you’ve received. Nice ;)

1213 情 Feelings
I love this one. A bit too abstract to get across really but ‘ll try and hope that you can see my thinking here (it makes total sense to me). Feelings overcomplicate things in life. Feelings = that state of mind (radical on left) where things become like blue (green) cheese – all complicated and messy and refined and sensitive and emotional. Sometimes feelings = the stuff you just don’t want to deal with. It helps if you imagine really bad, completely rotten blue (green) cheese – the stuff you don’t want to touch or deal with then draw the analogy to feelings that hurt! Have I lost you?

Personal images work well:

1153 良 High-quality
This character has the key-word ‘high-quality’ assigned to it and is assigned the primitive meaning of a saint’s halo by Heisig. I changed this primitive meaning to a silver teapot – one that is made of some high-quality material like silver or silver-like material e.g. pewter. (It helps that my mom actually has such a lovely peculiar teapot in her kitchen cupboards and that the shape of the character reminds me of my mom’s teapot).

1154 浪 Breakers (as in waves that crest or break into foam)
Sometimes my visuals require me to do dream up some Salvador Dali-like abstract concepts in my head. This image would be one of those. I imagine a larger version of my mom’s teapot hovering mid-air on a beach – it pours tea into the ocean – but with breakers as is suggested in the keyword. It’s not the first time I’ve had to use such very abstract visuals and inspiration for these ones – I often draw from Salvador Dali’s paintings. I can’t say that I’m a fan of his work but his paintings’ concepts certainly do come in handy for Heisig visualisations. Interestingly, I’m not the only person who draws images from art for Heisig studies. See Using Modern Art to Learn Chinese by Greg from Mandarin Segments.

1155 娘 Mom:
A woman that has a high-quality teapot – for me this doesn’t need any more explanation now does it? (Since this is very personal to me, I am less likely to forget the images that use my mom’s teapot.)

Do you always need the primitives? (Sometimes the keyword for the character is enough).

1162 平 Even
When this character appears as a primitive Heisig suggests a water lily. I did think of using this primitive – kind of imagining a painting Renoir or Van Gogh style with lillies but actually found the chars that follow so easy if you just use the keyword that I ended up dropping the water lilly primitive completely.
Examples would be 1163 评 Evaluate (words that give an even / balanced perspective on something) and 1164 坪 Level ground (dirt that is evenly distributed so that the surface is flat). For these I use the concept or logic presented by the characters rather than bothering with imagination and creative concepts.

Why create more brain work?

1177 脑 Brain
The primitive used on the right is someone called Fagan. It’s been years since I read any Charles Dickens’ novels. So my reaction was – Fagan who? Complete amnesia in this instance and I couldn’t be bothered to think too hard about Fagan – so Fagan became a pimp instead. Easy.

I don’t really want to explain too much about this one cause my images are likely to offend someone – most likely all the pimps out there that may be learning Mandarin. :) Let’s just say that watching CSI has been useful and that the part of the human anatomy (flesh) Fagan the pimp is least interested in is definitely the brain. So I’d rather just stop here. I promise though that my pimp (image) is working well for me. (My penguin is still working well too. )

Not paying attention, am I?

1062 荫 and 1060 Shady 阳 that uses the pinnacle primitive: I’d be interested to know what visual or concept you used for pinnacle?

Heisig makes a suggestion of using the Athenian acropolis – which is a nice good solid image. Unfortunately I discovered this image too late – actually I only did so today when I opened my Heisig book again and looked at this primitive again. Dammit!

To be honest I didn’t really *read* Heisig’s description or suggestion cause I got so focused on getting a visual for ‘pinnacle’ when I first encountered the word ‘pinnacle’ that I skipped the paragraph that Heisig provided. I thus ended up using Great Pyramids of Giza – so plenty of pharaoh and Egyptian images for all characters that use this primitive. (Most of my visuals involve a Pharaoh who looks like the main singer from Right Said Fred which is kind of amusing.) If I had read Heisig’s description I might have gone with the Athenian acropolis instead – on second thought this may have been easier than my image. Apologies Heisig – short attention span me. That opportunity is now lost to me and it’s my loss.

Now again – what image did you use for ‘pinnacle’?

Some head scratching

On another note entirely. I can identify the chapter that has been most difficult for me (thus far). Lesson 36 stands out for me – it’s the lesson with lots of seals and stamps images. I had to revisit / restudy this chapter as my images were not clearly defined the first time around.

I ended up changing the postage stamp primitive to a red ink ‘APPROVED’ stamp. Chop remained an Oriental stamp. Sealing wax remained as per Heisig and the same for staples. Even so this chapter has been a bit challenging for me. In the end it was just a matter of getting to grips with all of these related images that involved lots of ‘stamping’ and ‘sealing’ actions.

Some final thoughts

It’s not that Heisig’s primitives meanings aren’t good – most of them are great but my thinking is that this whole process of studying hanzi with Heisig is a very personal approach – it involves using your own mind, drawing from your own experiences and life, from the library of images you have inside YOUR head. So normally I just go with the flow – as in whatever flows into my head as I’m working my way through the book. That way I enjoy it more rather than trying to force myself to come up with images that I think won’t work for me.

What are your thoughts?

Have you changed much, any or all of the primitive meanings yourself? If you changed any or some of them which ones were they?

If you think about it changing primitive concepts is actually quite an eventful decision considering it impacts many hanzi you’ve yet to study down the line.

So if you have done similar things in your studies – please please share with me :D – I would actually LOVE to know !!!

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