Posts Tagged ‘RTH’

Celebrating 1500 hanzi with Heisig

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

Small Joys 现在我真的可以写香港
I have finished working through my Heisig book – my closest non-human companion for the last 6 – 7 months. I have studied 1500 hanzi using the Heisig and Richardson book Remembering Simplified Hanzi: Book 1, How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters. If you need a bit of history on my experiences in studying hanzi with the Heisig method, then please have a read.

This post should have happened a week ago when I finished my last hanzi but I needed some time to gather my thoughts – with this post I will try and speak from the heart. :)

Often during my posts I had been anxious at my slow progress in studying Mandarin and I had wanted it to go faster – I wanted to learn more in the time I had available. I often felt frustrated with myself. Now when I look back I still have the same desire for speed – wanting to progress at a much faster pace – but I have realized that faster doesn’t necessarily always mean better.

Sometimes it’s better to focus on a few basics first – mastering them if you can or as best you can in the hope of securing, building a strong foundation – and I think this is exactly what I have done with Heisig. I have used this method to study and understand hanzi – and by understand I am not just referring to the characters’ meanings… it’s hard for me to explain but I now *get* hanzi. Now that this foundation is solid, I know that the real learning can start and it has in several ways already started.

It’s just a method yes – but it’s a great one:

Heisig gets its fair share of criticism as a method for studying hanzi. One of the main arguments is that Heisig doesn’t teach pinyin and it also doesn’t teach tones. That’s true yes – Heisig doesn’t “teach” pinyin but Heisig doesn’t prevent you from learning it either. (In fact it has the whole list of pinyin with tones at the back of the book and you’re welcome to study it if you want to…). (You’re also welcome in my humble opinion, as a beginner to the language, to burden your mind and possibly neglect one of the crucial aspect of learning Chinese – being able to read and write Chinese characters – one of the only ways beside context to clarify meaning in a homophonic language.)

So you can learn everything at the same time or you can stagger it out – do incremental learning or break the process down a bit and see how it works out in the end. :)

The traditional way of studying Mandarin:

We all know that Mandarin *should* be learnt with 5 things in mind. The character, the pinyin, the tone and the meaning as well as the stroke order and on top of that a sixth thing to combine it with other characters to form new vocabulary. I refer to this method as the “traditional” way of learning Chinese. I’ve done it before – in 2006 when I started my first Mandarin course. Unfortunately this is a rather intensive method of study – with several things learned at once, and as such, it is hard to reach perfection or even near-perfection in a singular aspect of your studies. In my case I truly neglected truly learning hanzi the first-time around…

Re-born with Heisig:

Now that I have a good foundation – I look forward to building on that. For example, I’m now looking at ChinesePod print-outs of lessons and identifying characters that I’ve learnt in Heisig and I can make more discoveries about the words that I learn.

  • Hanzi used to consist of lines – I didn’t know where one stroke started and another one stopped. Now I see components or mini characters. I see patterns in hanzi and I recognize exceptions too.
  • I have a method of distinguishing similar looking characters from one another. For example I don’t have issues with most of these similar looking characters. Here’s a good post on similar looking confusing characters :)
  • As I spot new hanzi I know whether I’ve studied them in my Heisig book or whether they fall outside the scope of my Heisig book. (I guess this counts for something?)

Stats and joys:

I have two methods of testing myself on Heisig characters. I have two decks in Anki. One deck presents the English keyword and I have to draw the character. The other deck shows me the hanzi and I have to identify the English keyword.

  • 83.7 % overall retention rate – going from English keyword to hanzi
  • 83.5 overall retention rate – hanzi to English keyword.
  • Small pleasures count :) when I had studied the second character in 香港 and realized I was able to really write Hong Kong in Mandarin I was so happy. These are probably two of the most beautiful characters for me in the Chinese writing system.
  • Learning vocab like 香油 and having to scratch my head why sesame oil gets to be *the* fragrant oil in Mandarin. Is it truly the most fragrant oil in Mandarin?

Going forward:

  • Heisig doesn’t quite end here no – I have to iron out those characters that I still forget – I want to improve my retention to about 90% – at least.
  • I’m looking forward to heaps of reading through and listening to ChinesePod podcasts and reinforcing what I’ve learned.
  • I need to get the time to order Heisig book 2 as that’s something I’ll be doing in the future. :) (When I’m ready).
  • I need to practice consistency and form a good study habit. I have been random in my study routine.

Conclude and thanks:

Rome wasn’t built in a day. I guess this concept applies to most things in life and I’m not sure why language learning should be any different. Perhaps I am speaking for myself only when I say this. I’ve achieved one minor milestone and it feels good. I have realized that my road to “fluency” requires one step at a time in the right direction.

I thank Greg ( from the bottom of my heart for his blog that have helped me with tips and tricks and his support with finishing this book. I am not very sure I could have done it without your support Greg. You’re awesome. Thank you :D

Obsessive Compulsive Hijacking of Heisig Primitives?

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

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

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 / 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 !!!

Heisig: It’s going to get worse before it gets better…

peckishlaowai Posted in Heisig, Learning Mandarin,Tags: , , , , , , ,
I'm coining the term 'Heisig Dip' ok?

It’s been a while since I said anything about my progress working through Heisig’s & Richardson’s book trying to get a 1500 characters stored in my memory.

I’m not one for inspirational, motivational books but of course one can always make an exception right? So around September of last year when someone talked me into reading ‘The Dip’ a short book by Seth Godin – I agreed – probably because the book is about the size of a lady’s purse and guaranteed to be a quick read.

There are some key messages this book gives, and you can take from it what applies to your life or like me may not have taken that much from it at all. To be honest I felt quite confused after I had read it. :)

The last few days however, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Seth’s little book. What you can take from the book is this – that “Every new project (or job, or hobby, or company) starts out exciting and fun. Then it gets harder and less fun, until it hits a low point-really hard, and not much fun at all. “ And so meet “the Dip”.

How does this apply to Heisig? Well – once upon a time, Heisig was a new adventure too and quite unexpectedly, I did experience “the dip”, something I only thought of or realised a few days ago. The dip for me was a low point in January of this year and I basically had to put Heisig aside for a bit. I must have been over the 1000 mark then. As much as I didn’t want to “cool things with Heisig”, I focused on listening instead for that month. I did this even though I knewthere would be a great likelihood I would not be speaking much Mandarin in Singapore.

I quote some more bits from The Dip: “Winners quit fast, quit often, and quit without guilt-until they commit to beating the right Dip for the right reasons. In fact, winners seek out the Dip. They realize that the bigger the barrier, the bigger the reward for getting past it.” I did say the book could leave you confused.

Well. I didn’t quit (not that it was ever an option) and I can safely say, I am past the dip. I am currently at 1293 characters and have just 207 to go.

I’m basically writing this post to say to you – if you have started Heisig or another book that uses a similar technique you will likely start off and find yourself enthralled in a Heisig “love affair” after a 100 characters. 真的.

You’ll be ambitious and that’s great – you should be! The first 500 characters will or may be a breeze. However – you might find the experience a bit lacklustre after a while when you’re a good few hundred in – and if it’s Heisig you’re doing then maybe you’ll also feel challenged around the 750 mark or so. ( I suspect this may be quite normal. Either that or I need to face the fact that I’m just a bad Heisig student.)

To be precise – these are some of the things that left me frustrated with myself after I reached the 750 mark.

  • I became much more aware of my own shortcomings – e.g. my creative ability to come up with creative, fun stories to help remember characters. I of course felt very frustrated with myself as I’ve always prided myself on having a good vivid imagination. I have that yes but you need that and a whole lot creative little stories and then some more. My advice: just keep at it – try a story – if it doesn’t work then go back and tweak it again till it works for you. Don’t force it too much and don’t be to much of a perfectionist. Move on if you want to progress and go back later to those chars that are giving you headaches.
  • My lack of a routine in studying – (I’m still struggling with this one… oh well…).
  • Skipping (near) daily Anki revisions – not that much of a hassle anymore. (I have had to balance this with time for studying new characters. Don’t add too many new chapters if you can’t handle it. Sometimes, you’ll just have to though. Unless you’re a better student than me and can study a little bit every day rather than a lot here and there.)
  • My natural instinct is always to value accuracy over speed. I still wanted to progress faster in order to be able to focus more time on other activities e.g. listening skills. So I experienced yet more frustrated feelings at times… I decided to focus on my own advice in bullet point 1.

You may or may not share my experiences and I’d be interested to know if you too had a little dip, a huge dip or nothing at all in your experiences of attempting a similar “project”.

I think the characters 700 – 1100 was probably the most difficult stretch of the book for me. I anticipate the next 200 to be a breeze again. It’s probably the thought of looking back and seeing how far I’ve come that leaves me happy with this achievement. I realize that completing the Heisig book is such a small achievement in the bigger scheme of Mandarin things…

Even so, I so look forward to the next 207!

Heaven and hell with Heisig – 800 hanzi update

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

Just because I’ve been quiet doesn’t mean I have lost interest. And just because my title indicates such extreme opposites does not mean this post is going to discredit any previous opinions I had about Heisig – but I had to make you wonder, didn’t I? How else would I get you to read this post? ;)

I’m still going at it – slowly, chipping away at every hanzi in my Heisig & Richardson book until I *think* I’ve got it stored in my memory.

As I incrementally add more and more chapters to my deck and test myself on yet more hanzi, I find there’s increased opportunity to forget what I’ve learned as well as get terribly confused. It’s all very exciting. :D With 1500 characters in the book I’m just over half-way through…

I am still loving it or rather nearly as much as I did when I wrote my first post – Small Victories: my progress in learning simplified characters with Heisig…. Frankly speaking though – it is a bit more challenging now. I’ll admit that there’s perhaps been a tinge of boredom – but then again, I get bored with stuff easily. I need variety – it’s the spice of life.

I’ve mentioned too in a previous post that the characters I struggle with would justify a post of their own – so I present – for your pleasure – a list of the little buggers (at least just some of them) that make me depressed, angry or just slightly peeved depending on how rough my day’s been ;D

#502: Formerly /

Heisig’s story is simply no good for me and mine sucks even more – in fact I did not even dream up a story of my own. I kind of remember this one just because I remember it – there is absolutely no story aiding my memory. When I’m presented with the keyword ‘formerly’ this is what goes through my head “oh this character has that politician story that doesn’t work for me – it’s the character that looks like a little robot or insect” and then I just write it cause it’s in my visual memory anyway. Sorry Heisig no offense intended – I absolutely adore some of your other stories or visuals – in fact I love the pond one – brilliant… (508 / Water and scorpion primitives = a scorpion dripping venom drop by drop till there is a whole pond of the stuff. ) I love visuals like that – those are heavenly.

#511 Alone / and Lonely /

So easy to confuse these two, isn’t it? As I was writing this post I figured out what I needed to do to remember these two different characters.

Alone /
I kept Heisig’s story which is about a pack of wild dogs, starved, surrounding a poor insect – a sad image portraying what it feels like for the bug to be alone. I kind of think of one of those bug-eyed bugs in ‘A Bugs Life’ and the hyenas in ‘Lion King’ drooling over the bug (thanks Pixar and Disney), and then imagine how the little bug wishes that he wasn’t alone and that he had some help from another insect bug so that he could escape and see the light of another day.

Lonely /
So you’ve got your uncle and the house / roof primitive above him. Well I imagine an imaginary uncle (he’s sort odd looking and unattractive) and he’s sitting at his dinner table feeling really sorry for himself singing that annoying song ‘Lonely I’m so lonely’.
I imagine that by bringing this annoying song into the story I’ll now be able to distinguish between these two characters.

#379 Stop [zhǐ]

I have difficulty remembering the meaning of this character – but am sort of ok with remembering its primitive meaning of ‘footprint’ (even though I think this footprint looks like it should belong to E.T.) As I’m sitting here writing this post I’m actually thinking of a school patrol where one older (taller) kid is holding up the stop sign barrier while the smaller kid is waiting patiently behind the older kid before she is able to cross the street. So I guess I might go with this image because the character kind of suits this image. Not sure why I didn’t think of it before but it popped into my head again as I was writing about this. I think I should blog more about difficult hanzi… Am happy to hear your thoughts or ideas please though…

#384 Look forward to /

This one might not be much of a surprise really if you know I’ve had difficulties with #379 (stop). No real bright moments here from me on this one though – maybe I’ll get this one in future if I sort out 379 stop. Personally I can’t see myself looking forward to sitting under an umbrella and stopping everything I’m doing. I’d probably enjoy that kind of thing for 5 mins and then feel like I need to be doing something. Perhaps I’m too literal about it but seriously this character won’t stick in my mind.

#392 Transcend / and #393 Surpass /

What a confusing mess these two have been. I’ve kept Heisig’s stories in both instances – and my visuals are right and they are very different but these two characters have been confusing for these two reasons:

  • Both have the character for walk on the left.
  • The meaning of these two characters both have the idea or connotation of “crossing” a certain point. So I’ve struggled with these and I’ve had them confused plenty of times and I’ll probably do it again.
    Perhaps blogging about it will make the difference…#WishfulThinking

#598 Bring Up and #395 Topic

As in ‘bring up an idea or topic for discussion’ with the primitive for fingers and the character for ‘be’. Easy enough as I think of a conference where you raise your finger to get the speaker’s attention thereby bringing up a topic for discussion. The problem though is that I confuse this character with #395 Topic . Both these stories have the word ‘topic’ in them – hence the common ground for confusion.

#568 Aspiration

When I think of a soldier’s heart I think of bravery – a very brave heart. Obviously everyone would aspire to have a brave heart but not everyone would aspire to be a soldier and so the meaning is a little out of whack with my natural line of thinking and every time I see this character I get it wrong. It’s not even like I can tell myself that I had aspirations to be a GI Jane when I was a kid cause I didn’t. I’m probably not making sense. Oh what to do :)

I hope you enjoyed my list of difficult hanzi – if you have any tips or advice – do share – it’s always great to hear other people’s thoughts :) There is some comfort in knowing that other Mandarin learners have experienced similar issues and it’s only natural and expected that people would have similar experiences – but it’s great to be able to read about their experiences and see exactly which characters had been problematic too for them. If you’re interested, take a look at these two articles as they have been helpful to me too:

Lastly, are you studying hanzi too? Do you have any posts I should read or would find interesting and what are your experiences? What tools do you use and what methods are you using? I’d be keen to hear so please leave a comment. Don’t be shy. I’m not…

Heisig 500: Why penguins rule and Lucy Liu ain’t my taskmaster

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

If you stumbled upon this page and you had no prior context you’d probably be wondering just what the heck this post is about. And if you’ve visited this blog before you’d be excused if you were still baffled by the title – but be baffled no more – I’VE JUST REACHED MY 500th HANZI using the Heisig method!! (Remembering Simplified Hanzi: Book 1, How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters)! This calls for a dramatic crazy headline, doesn’t it?

So I realise that simply studying characters using Heisig isn’t enough to get one to read Mandarin Chinese – I know how the language works. However – after just 500 characters – I’m now able to recognise characters that would have made my eyes glaze over before.

Some progress with Heisig - being able to recognise characters that was just a blur before...

Some progress with Heisig - being able to recognise characters that was just a blur before... Do you want to enlighten me?

As an example: I walk past this building (above) every day and have only ever been able to recognise 2 characters in total before I started my Heisig adventure (天 and 家) – that is up until today…

This morning as I was passing the same building – I glanced up and realised that there were more characters familiar to me. In addition to 天 and 家, I recognised the 2nd, 5th and 7th characters and recognised primitives too in the remaining ones.

I stood still for a moment to appreciate what had happened. I probably looked slightly odd to people who passed me by and I’m sure to them it looked like I had never seen such a poster before in my life :)

To me – this is progress. True that I don’t have the vocab to decipher it all combined – and the definitions I’ve learned in Heisig may not even apply in this context. The English that could / or should guide me in this instance seems rather cryptic too, but I thought I’d share this with you anyway as I feel happy about it. :D

If you want to enlighten me – to make sense of the vocab / characters used – please do!

I’d also like to share with you some of my further observations in my study of the first 500 characters. The findings below relate to my “random” title. There is – believe it or not – some method to my madness :)

Finding #1: It may (or may not) take me roughly three characters before I decide on a visual image for a series of characters that use the same primitive(s).

The first visual that pops into my head (or the one I may prefer to use) isn’t necessarily the one that’s going to work for the characters that follow.

As an example I’ll use the ‘taskmaster’ primitive – the second character used in this character 攻.

Ever seen Charlie’s Angels with Lucy Liu clad in a leather-tight suit with a whip beating the hell out of tables etc? I’m afraid I might lose some readers completely if you check the video out now – but go on – and remember to come back and read the rest of the post ok?

  • Now if I have your attention again- you might ask – do I have the concepts of a dominatrix and taskmaster confused? Which I’ll answer with a question – which do you think is think is more visual – a traditional taskmaster or the image of Lucy Liu one I’ve just described?
  • The more visual you can get the image in your head the better the character sinks in – don’t ask me why this is so, as I’m not studying the workings of the mind and I never have – just trust me that it does…

HOWEVER in looking at the first couple of characters that used this primitive I realised this image wasn’t suitable at all and I instead reverted to an image of a strict unpleasant taskmaster – who you can’t forget for perhaps rather unpleasant reasons … and Heisig simply suggests you think of a taskmaster or taskmistress from your past whom “you will never forget”. The result: I’m at least 10 characters wiser – all of them using the taskmaster primitive even though it’s done with a more unpleasant image in mind – not the more exciting first choice with Lucy Liu.

Example: 攻 / attack
My story: the work (primitive on the left) of a taskmaster is to attack you – easily remembered if your visual is right.

Finding #2: Once again I AM NOT suggesting you follow my example – however you might consider changing the story for a primitive or character.

NOTE: Do this only if you must and do so at your own risk… Know the implications of that action as you move forward – you’ll have to change EVERY story that use that primitive and you’ll perhaps have to get a bit more or a lot more creative with your own stories – or not. This one explains why I’m having so much fun with penguins. :)

I was very weary about changing a primitive meaning in my post regarding my initial findings on Heisig and I still am but am now finding I am taking some bigger risks. Thus far – (strangely enough) it’s been working out well enough for me. I’ll explain my example re penguins below.

#444 立 is an adjective and means ‘standing up’
As a primitive when you you use this character inside other characters Heisig suggests you use ‘vase’ or its character meaning e.g. standing up or think of something standing in an unusual way.

To me this character looks like a little penguin – a little penguin standing tall – chest pushed out and all. Can you see a penguin too? No? With a little imagination perhaps?
So shortly here’s an example of how I’m remembering some of the characters that use this character as a primitive.

#451 Salesman 商
Instead of using vase / standing up my penguin is the salesman (he looks rather dodgy) and is selling some creepy stuffs inside a glass container – body parts e.g – animals legs and mouths etc…. Trust me that I have no trouble remembering this one…

#482 赔 Compensate
Compensate someone with shells (primitive on the left) because your naughty pet penguin bit someone else’s pet… The penguin has a muzzle on as a result. (Background – in Heisig the penguin primitive and the mouth primitive below it together forms the primitive ‘muzzle’.)

I can go on and on and rather surprisingly I manage to create a nice story /visual in my head with a penguin for each character with this primitive and it’s done rather easily. So I guess you can see I am certainly having fun with penguins :)

If you’re interested to see how I’m using my “penguin primitive” in more characters, get in touch and I’ll share more of my stories with you.

Finding #3: To speed up the process – always use images / concepts that are already available to you.

For example – stories with American elements don’t always work for me e.g. character #345 mentions a song ‘America the Beautiful’. As I’m not always familiar with the cultural context or background of things mentioned in the story I don’t always have much of a choice but to change it to something else that is more familiar to me.

Me crazy?

Am I playing with fire and am I going to get burned taking such big risks changing my stories for primitives? Most likely. I’d like to view this risk as part of my exploration and adventure in using this method ;)

Your thoughts?

You might ask – what’ the point of buying a book if you’re going to have to change so many things to make the stories work for you?

  • Firstly, probably 85% of Heisig’s images do work for me. I’m still experimenting and am only changing things as I need to or perhaps in places where I want to.
  • Secondly the book is a great technique for studying characters and really effective – did I mention my retention rate is still about 90% for new and mature characters?
  • Did I also mention that studying characters this way – breaking the characters down into the different primitives or vice versa constructing them using the primitives and other characters you’ve learned gives you a whole new appreciation and perspective on the Chinese written language? It’s like someone lifted a veil and I can see it all more clearly – it’s not just all lines anymore… I see little characters now – amazing…

I’ll say again what I’ve said before – I am certainly loving it. :)

Heisig: 399 hànzì strong…

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

Heisig: 399 hànzì strong...

Heisig: 399 hànzì strong...

Ok so this is where it’s at – I’ve studied 399 simplified Chinese characters using the Heisig & Richardson book – “Remembering Simplified Hanzi: Book 1, How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters”..

(I had reached 225 characters by the end of late September – see this post if you’re interested on my initial findings: Small Victories: my progress in learning simplified characters with Heisig…)

Negative points regarding my progress:

  • I’ve not progressed as far as I would have liked to do nor as I intended to do. I was supposed to hit the 500 mark by middle October. I derailed completely because of work priorities which frankly – will always take priority.
  • The last few chapters I’ve studied – chapters 13 – 17 have presented some of the most trying characters I’ve studied.
  • I’ve certainly gotten more characters wrong when I tested myself at first which means that I needed to go back and revise those characters that gave me trouble.
  • I got lazy during my studies and I paid less attention to a good story / picture. The ones I’d get wrong are without a doubt the ones that I didn’t put enough effort into in the first place. If I don’t want to waste time going forward, I should really focus on the visual story in the future. (This double-touching thing / re-learning is time consuming.)
  • Chapter 17 has been the worst – no doubt. I needed to check back on more than half it about three times. Once again – no clear stories / visuals defined the first time around.
  • I’m assuming that if I’ve found the last couple of chapters trying that the rest that follows will probably be the same. I’m not going to let it deter me however. I’m AM GOING to finish the book – come hell or high water.

My self-testing methods:
I’m using 3 ways of testing myself after I’ve studied a chapter.

  • On paper – I normally write down all the English keywords out of their usual Heisig sequence on a piece of paper and see whether I can identify the character correctly. (Scribble it on paper…) If there are issues – I sort it out by restudying those characters, checking the story again or see if I need to change the story. Once I’m satisfied with a chapter, I move onto Anki for revision.

    The photo I’ve attached will give you an idea of what I’m doing – you’ll probably shudder at my hànzì and I will completely understand it if you do – however really it’s just about the concept and identifying / distinguishing one character from another – not about perfection – not at this stage :)

  • In Anki I’ve got one flashcard set that shows me the character first, and I need to provide the meaning in English only as the answer.
  • The second flashcard set shows me the keyword / meaning and I have to draw the characters – not perfectly – just roughly on paper will do or with my finger on the table to see whether I can “assemble” /remember the character.

Thus… a lot of testing going on…

Some good points (thus far):

  • I’ve made some progress at least…
  • My rigorous testing makes my Anki scores look good :)

    First Anki set (Question: shows character only. Answer: requires me to give the English keyword / meaning.)
    Correct Answers
    Mature cards: 100.0%
    Young cards: 88.8%
    First-seen cards: 91.2%

    Second Anki set (Question: English word is stated. Answer: requires me to “assemble” the character.)
    (I started this deck much later thus none of my cards are mature cards yet.)
    Mature cards: 0.0%
    Young cards: 88.8%
    First-seen cards: 90.5%

So how does it look for me going forward?

I seriously would love to have the book completed by end of December – this is my plan. However I’m only human and will probably be derailed again… so we’ll see.

My 500 mark needs to be reached though before end of October…

And if you’re wondering why I’m at 399 and not 400 characters right now – well, it’s not that I love odd numbers (although I am a bit of an odd one) nor that I’m superstitious. Lesson 18 starts with character number 400 instead of 401. Thanks a lot Heisig… ;)

Well that’s it from me (for this week).

Onwards with chapter 18 / #400….


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…