Dear Prof. Heisig…

This is a post from my old blog, from May 2011. It’s part of a series of resurrected older posts that I still think are useful for language learners. This particular post has been heavily edited for clarity and brevity.

Chinese ≠ Japanese

Perhaps 90% of Chinese characters are composed of both a radical and a phonetic. For Japanese learners, ignoring this phonetic component when learning characters is fine – the radical-phonetic link is not apparent until a large volume of Chinese loan-words have been encountered. Furthermore, characters are commonly loaned for native Japanese words irrespective of pronunciation. Thus, for some characters, it may take a lot of time and frustration to identify the radical-phonetic link, so Prof. Heisig’s method of using sophisticated mnemonics to remember seemingly-randomly composed characters is appropriate.

By contrast, in Chinese languages, the radical-phonetic link is more commonly encountered, especially given the higher number of characters in common usage. (Japanese is commonly quoted as having 2000-3000 commonly-used characters, whereas Taiwanese students are supposed to have learnt upwards of 6000 characters.)

Take for example characters in which “我” (“ngo5”) is the phonetic.  哦, 鵝 and 蛾 are all prononced “ngo4” in Cantonese – the meaning are “oh” (an exclamation, hence the mouth radical), goose (with a bird radical) and moth (with an insect radical).  If you were following Prof. Heisig’s method, you might spend 5 minutes coming up with images for each character; however, it takes virtually no effort to remember each of these characters if you exploit the meaning-pronunciation information of each. (By the way: there are a couple of other semi-common characters too which fall within the Taiwan character list, like 娥 and 峨, both of which are also pronounced “ngo4”, so it’s basically “buy-one-get-five-free”.)

The Recalcitrants

As you might expect, there exist characters that do not conform to the above rules.  There are still 10% that were formed in another way (e.g. as pictograms or ideograms), and which thus need to be learnt some other way.  In addition, some of the radical-phonetics have changed pronunciation over the centuries to the point of the original phonetic link no longer being clear. 義 (ji6) and 蟻 (ngai5) are ready examples in Cantonese… although the Mandarin pronunciation is still ‘yi’ for both of them.

The Quick and Easy Road

So, the shortest path to full character literacy is probably not to come up with Heisig-style mnemonics for every character. For Chinese languages, one would probably save a lot of time if one could identify the building blocks and highly irregular characters.  Rather than mnemonicking how to write 6000-odd characters, we could perhaps reduce this number by up to perhaps 75%[1].

Our list of characters to learn mnemonically would come from a combination of Heisig’s primitive[2] system (around 300 primitives), characters that aren’t radical-phonetic compounds and characters where the phonetic component has become extremely irregular. The rest of the characters would be dealt with using trees of relatively-regular radical-phonetic characters.

Who knows how it might turn out?

[1] This is an arbitrary, made-up number. I don’t know how many radical-phonetic characters have highly-irregular pronunciations.

[2] Please read the introduction to “Learning to Write the Kanji” – available legally online in PDF format – if you’re not sure about what  ‘primitives’ are in this context.

8 thoughts on “Dear Prof. Heisig…

  1. Excellent idea. Per your suggestion, how might this be accomplished. Are there any websites giving detailed clues, codes for the phonetic part of Chinese characters? I am learning Traditional Chinese characters and was contemplating using Heisig, so I would very much like to know.


  2. You can try this one:

    7000 characters are arranged by components, which effectively means by sound.

    You can use Cantofish or peraperakun to parse the pinyin for each charater.

    Downsides: it doesn’t sort characters by usefulness and is in Chinese…

    I’m currently still working on something similar to the 1000 character-thing outlined above; if it ever gets to a publishable state, I’ll let you know =]


  3. This is a great explanation of why Heisig’s method doesn’t work for Chinese. Besides, knowing the keyword for each Chinese character wouldn’t help you read Chinese like it does in Japanese, because everything, including the grammatical words, are in hanzi. I know because I tried to learn Chinese that way, and I couldn’t read anything, so I memorized the readings for about 3,000 characters, which was easy because I knew them from Japanese. However, this doesn’t allow you to read Chinese, either. There is no shortcut. I would recommend somebody just learn to read the Chinese characters for the most important words as they come across them and not bother trying to memorize “all of them.” Eventually you will reach a saturation point where you know all the important ones even if you can’t read 刽子手 or 嵩栾 (NB: Neither can many Chinese people.) Also, learning to write characters by hand doesn’t help you get better at Chinese. It’s irrelevant.


    1. Yup, I generally agree that the readings are less useful for Chinese than I imagine they are for Japanese. There are too many characters borrowed for sounds. (I’m not fluent in Japanese so I’m not qualified to give an opinion.)

      Here’s what I hope is a better example of how characters should be introduced.

      I think a method should teach these characters initially, with readings, because they’re all common, useful, and demonstrate how meaning-sound compounds are created:

      口 鳥 虫
      哦 鵝 蛾

      It should deliberately not teach these characters, because they’re less common and follow the normal meaning-sound character composition rules:

      娥 峨 俄

      This would allow students to know the most useful characters, understand typical character composition and be able to pick up new characters easily, without wasting too much time on the method itself. (In other words, they could get to FUNBUN material faster that Heisiging ever character.)

      The method should also teach common exceptions. If, hypothetically there were a character 睋 which was both common and had an unusual reading (say, jat6 in Cantonese), then that should be taught in the method.

      Put simply, the method should both give the student lots of common characters, and also enable him/her to learn new characters easily following typical composition patterns.


  4. (I think a key point is that just learning the most common characters as the learner comes across them is not a good strategy, because character composition patterns are invisible to him/her for too long.)


  5. Finally, I don’t think handwriting characters is pointless (I hypothesise that since they take longer to write than type, you have to pay more attention to them, thereby creating stronger memories), but I’m no expert on the subject, so…


Write a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.