Ode to Heisig and RTK
Thinking about it now, I find it strange that I’ve never written about James W. Heisig and his landmark work, Remembering the Kanji.
It was in 1997 while I was studying in Japan that I came across the book. I was still in this “I must write every new character a million times every day” frame of mind until I came upon this system, and after discovering it I abandoned the traditional approach forever. The book ignited my imagination and unleashed its energy on Chinese characters. Heisig’s system ensnared me immediately, but surprisingly, the more I studied the method, the more I found myself dissatisfied with Heisig’s mnemonics and devising my own. I bought a copy and wrote all over it, “correcting” it for myself. Personalizing it, you might say. Heisig would have approved.
I didn’t stay with the system forever. I never learned a mnemonic for every last character. There just came a point when everything sort of “clicked,” and memorizing characters wasn’t difficult anymore. Sure, I would forget characters (and I still do), but every time I’d forget one and have to look it up, those old mnemonics returned to me and helped lock that character back in my memory. The important thing is that I never had to write characters over and over again. I’ve passed various written Chinese tests without ever having to do that. I have been able to make better use of my time and of my mind.
Occasionally I would come upon a character that resolutely defied my memory. If the character mattered to me, it would get “special attention.” That meant setting aside some time to deconstruct the character, research the etymology (sometimes, but not always, a helpful practice), and apply some imagination. It might take as long as 20-30 minutes for just that one character, but eventually I would come up with a memorable story mnemonic involving the character components, tailor-made for me. And then I would not forget the character again.
In short, Heisig’s book totally changed the way I approach characters. It’s a triumph of imagination over rote learning. I am very grateful to him for that. If you’re trying to learn Japanese or Chinese, I strongly recommend you get Remembering the Kanji.