I’ve been learning Mandarin Chinese this year, and I’ve just finished a truly excellent book on the subject: Remembering The Hanzi, by Heisig and Richardson. The basic premise of this book is to introduce a system of mnemonic “stories” around each of the characters of the Chinese writing system which help you remember how to draw the character.

To give a simple example of how this works: first you learn some “primitive” collections of strokes (which may not necessarily be characters themselves) but which are easy to commit to visual memory. So pretty near the start of the book you learn the character 口 (meaning mouth) and 卜 (meaning divination, but which is given the mental image of a magic wand). Then you start building up stories around those characters, so the story around 占, which Heisig has you remember as meaning “fortune telling”, could be something like: “To tell fortunes you need two things: a mouth, and a magic wand with which to make the predictions”.

Remembering The Simplified Hanzi

Remembering these “stories” is usually vastly easier than remembering abstract collections of strokes, so I’ve found it a great help in learning the language. If this sounds interesting to you, you can actually get a free preview of the first 100 characters from their website.

Thanks to this excellent system, and help from sites like Reviewing The Kanji (for use when I get stuck for stories for some character) I’ve been able to learn 1500 hanzi in my spare time over the last 5 months. I am of course using Anki, a spaced repitition system, to continually reinforce the stories and check my knowledge of the characters, and I’ve exported my progress from it, which looks like this:

Hanzi Progress

The flat area at the start is where my progress is stalled at 100 characters due to waiting for the book to arrive from Hawaii and only having access to the sample pages. Since then my progress has been… erratic, but more recently I’ve settled down into a regular rhythm where I try and learn 20 every day, and it looks like I’ve managed to average 17 a day during that period - not too bad!

For you Anki users, I’ve just uploaded the final version of my Remembering The Hanzi flashcard deck into the shared decks area, so you base your own decks on that if you wish to.

What’s next? Well, I want to get the second book in the series when it comes out (allegedly sometime this summer) to take the number of characters I know to 3000. However, more importantly I’m going to start working on my knowledge of pronuncation of some of these characters (the book links the characters to English keywords, not their Mandarin pronunciations), and how you use them in compound words, with an eye to taking the first level of the 汉语水平考试 test before the end of the year. I feel confident that this process can go quite quickly, with such a strong base of knowledge of the character system to build upon.