Chinese Character Mnemonics

John “I build an entirely new weblog every two months” Biesnecker has just put up an interesting article on his newest new weblog, My Chinese Life. The article deals with mnemonic devices for memorizing Chinese characters. (You probably want to read it before you continue if you want to understand fully what I discuss below.)

John talks about how he remembers the characters (“manure”) and (something like “business”). For the former, he uses the actual meanings of the character’s constituent parts: 米 and 共. For the latter, he assigns his own meaning to the character in order to remember it. Both work.

This mnemonic device thing is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time… I think most Chinese would be quick to suggest that students learn the actual etymologies of the characters in order to remember them, but in many cases, this task is ridiculously complex and just places more of a burden on the student. It reminds me of my Calc 2 teacher’s response when we asked if we could use a formula sheet for our tests: “why would you need a formula sheet? If you forget a formula, you can just derive it on the spot.”

An example of the complexities involved in using etymologies to memorize characters is the way that a human “hand” is written as part of many characters. Can you identify the seven components which each mean “hand” in the following four characters?

友 祭 授 手

If you can do it without some really lucky guessing, it means you know your Chinese character etymology. The problem is that the forces which created the modern Chinese character set were often not systematic, or at least not systematic enough to make memorization by etymology a simple matter.

The logical solution, then, is to use a mnemonic system not totally based on etymology. There are two approaches to this. One could take the “semi-etymological” approach to mnemonics by using the real Chinese meanings of the character components in mnemonic devices. For some characters (such as John’s example of 粪), this is not hard to do at all. Your mnemonic may very well be very similar to the logic of the character etymology. In this case, etymology is your ally. For other characters, however, this proves quite ineffective.

When studying the etymology and analyzing the meanings of the component parts doesn’t work for you, what can you do? Well, you could use some kind of rote memorization method, or you could try the other approach: the “to-hell-with-etymology” approach. In this approach, you make up your own meaning for the component parts (like John did for 商).

I first read about this method while I was studying in Japan. I discovered it in an excellent book by James W. Heisig called Remembering the Kanji. Heisig’s method for associating meaning with form readily abandons the original meaning of characters’ component parts if the original meaning does not aid in systematic memorization through simple mnemonics. It works, although the specific system Heisig developed for Japanese limps in a few areas.

I think that this concept of devising a self-consistent mnemonic system for remembering Chinese characters is the holy grail of Chinese character pedagogy, considered impossible (for very good reasons) by many. It’s a problem I hope to tackle down the road. There’s just got to be some systematic method of learning a large quantity of Chinese characters that’s better than rote memorization.

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