Jump to content
  • Sign Up

Effective methods beside mnemonic stories to learn advanced characters?


Recommended Posts

Hey there,


I'm currently going into my third year of Chinese as a minor at university. We are currently studying "Reading into a new China vol. 1" and the vocabulary is getting quite advanced. The pace in class is definitely always above my level, so I'm constantly being pushed which is only a good thing.


This might have been answered before, so excuse me if I posting something that has been answered, but a search didn't lead to any topics on this subject.


My question is: What is an effective method for learning characters where meaning, pronounciation and components don't relate to each other at all?


Take for example the word: 设施 - she4shi1 - facilities. Breaking down the word into the respective characters, I am not able to figure out connections between the components. 设 consist of "spoken words" and "old weapon, kill" and the character means to "establish". 施 consist of "a square" and "it, a tribe of savages in south China" and the character means "put into effect". Furthermore, almost none of the components hint towards the pronounciation of the word.


I could of course create a crazy mnemonic story that would help me remember the word, but I as I have understood, in the long run this is not good as you won't be learning the true meaning of the components.


Am I looking at cramming here as the only option? I feel like I have repeated many easier characters over 100 times and still keep on forgetting them. Hopefully someone has some suggestion on dealing with hard words like these!



Link to comment
Share on other sites

My advice for you is to remember that the majority of Chinese characters are made of one "meaning" component and one "phonetic" component (I remember reading something like 90%) . Very few characters are entirely about expressing meaning only through their components. As you note "speech" and "weapon" make no sense when combined to form "establish", "set up"," "display", etc. This is because only one of the components is related to meaning. In 设 the 言 is the "meaning" component - think very broadly here - to set up, or arrange or devise something requires communication. The 殳 component is the phonetic. Here 殳 implies the pronunciation is something like "shu1", and in this case, it's "she4". It's not perfect, but its an approximation. Very few Chinese characters give perfect information. Take the traditional character 廳 (厅) - ting1 . In this character 聽 (听) is the phonetic component and 广 is the meaning component (big building with a roof). This character has perfect phonetic information. But this is not the norm. Most phonetic components only approximate the actual sound of the character. So Chinese characters can be thought of as a very bad syllabary (an 'alphabet' that works on syllables rather than letters).


施 is also a character with a phonetic and a meaning component. In this character the phonetic component is 也. While you know 也 as ye3, it is often used in words to represent the sound like shi1. For example 池 (chi2) and 驰 (chi2).


There is a systematic logic to Chinese characters. Unfortunately because the language has never had any script reform a lot of this logic is now very murky (exactly like English orthography).


I think once you get to a certain level and you start to recognise that most characters have a phonetic and meaning component your "mnemonics" start to become less about piecing together each part of the character and mostly about remembering the way the character is actually constructed from the original Chinese perspective. For example, say you want to learn 缰 (jiang1 - reigns, bridle) - I would venture to say most Chinese and advanced Western learners wouldn't see this character as "silk" and "one field one field one" but as "silk" - the meaning - something to do with fabric (in this case, putting together some reigns with material) and 畺 - which is the phonetic jiang1 - the same as 新疆 and 僵死 etc.

  • Like 3
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I don't know whether this would be considered efficient or nor, but for this particular word I would relate 设 to 设计 and 设立, i.e. something that is designed or set up for a purpose, and relate 施 to 措施 which is a measure that is employed (by government or someone in authority) in order to meet a need or remedy a situation...

=> 设施, something that is set up/created by authorities to meet a need of the administered area or department.

I'm not sure whether this is considered advanced, seems hsk5 level?

I usually have more trouble with words which contain unique characters not found in other words...

But for words that have relatively common characters, learning groups of words that have some characters in common might help...

also, looking up compounds is helpful (基础设施 = infrastructure etc.)

edit: you might also consider reading a lot, especially articles on the same general topic as your textbook lesson, in order to encounter the words in sentences ...

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites



Thank you both for the tips! The texts are quite advanced and I'm only reaching a level now where characters look familiar and I recognize most components in characters.


From now on, could a good idea be to start creating a list of components and labeling them according to what they are related to? I don't need to practice the components as most of them are familiar by now. I could start relating them to different topics, making it easier to guess my way forward when new words come along.

Link to comment
Share on other sites



My question is: What is an effective method for learning characters where meaning, pronounciation and components don't relate to each other at all?


As others have noted, some characters lend themselves to easier memorization because their components convey sound and/or meaning fully. It seems like you are trying to find meaning in all the components of a given character, which is leading to confusion and/or frustration. Sometimes it's best not to "overthink" or over analyze a character's components. It might help to focus on just on the one key sound and/or one meaning component(s).


Frankly, sometimes you just have to learn a character through repeated study. Flashcards are an important part of this process, and writing the character can also be helpful in cementing it in your memory. I almost never study words in isolation - they are always derived from text. I will do some flashcard drills (with clozes) to learn new characters, read the text, drill again, etc., over a period of time to further anchor the word in my memory. I find the context within which I discovered a word to be critical in helping me remember it.


Next year Outlier Linguistic Solutions is expected to publish their dictionary which takes a "component focused" approach (my term, not theirs) to defining words and helping you learn them. You can check out a demo of their dictionary, and their approach might help you better understand and remember Chinese words.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I enjoy etymologies, and they are the core of my strategy for learning and remembering characters.  It is not only the character etymologies I use, but also the spoken word etymologies I can research or image.  To the extent possible, I try to stick to valid etymologies, since this allows me to make the most efficient associations among different characters and different words; nevertheless, I do not hesitate to let my associations run freely when I believe there will be little interference.


For 设 and most characters, I take the following approach.  I make the assumption that most early and simple characters were associated with various meanings and various oral words associated with them.   Some of these words may have had different prefixes and different suffixes that affected their forms over the millennia, or the forms may appear to be unchanged for various reasons.


I know that the  element in 设 has come down to us with the meaning of "an ancient weapon made of bamboo" and the pronunciation shu1. This element is most likely picture of a hand holding a rather long bamboo weapon.  Even though I have a personal interest in many such historical weapons, I have never encountered this character outside of etymological discussions and make no attempt to learn in on its own.


Given that 设 has meanings like "set up, establish, found," I assume that 殳 was also used to mean "deploy or mobilize"  and assume the 讠adds a meaning of give orders.  From there, I get "give orders to set up," "a set up," "facilities," etc.


The 殳 element probably lends a similar meaning in characters like 役 (go 彳 on long deployment 殳 as part of your military service) and  疫 ( a sickness 疒 that ravages like an army on long deployment 殳).  In other characters, the top part is not a long weapon, but just some sort of long tool or implement, like 般 (a variety of goods transferred by barge 舟 using a long pole 殳 to push it; category, kind, manner) and 搬 (扌is added to 般 to refocus he meaning away from what is being transferred toward the profess of transfer).  In still other characters, the main meaning it adds is length, like 股 (flesh that is like a long implement: a leg) and 投 (use your hand like an implement to make something go a long distance).    In 没, 殳 has a different origin.  The explanation of the original meaning of  (mo4 submerge) is water 氵 like a sucking whirlpool 几 that pulls 又 you down.


For , I take the first six stokes as a flag, according to the recognized character etymology.  The character 旗 is a flag that is ribbon billowing in the wind like the motion of a winnowing fan 其 (簸).  The element comes from a picture of a snake with a hood.  It often indicates a meandering movement or snake-like movement.  In this case, the combination of elements means that  施 symbolized "paying out" or "distributing."  The spoken word's meaning then expanded to "bring about," "bestow," "exert," etc., all words implying that the effects will pay out over time.


The elements 也, 它, and the right part of 迤 are all descended from similar graphs of a hooded snake and usually lend a meaning of "snake," "snake-like," "meandering," or "spreading."  I assume that they were associated with various spoken words with related meanings, and so have a variety of pronunciations associated with them, including she/shi/chi (蛇、施、驰、弛), yi/ye (也、迆、迤), and duo/tuo/ta (他、拖、舵、鸵、驼).  The use of  也 to mean "also" or as a classical particle is probably just a borrowing, but I also imagine that it comes from spreading a comment to also cover other things.  The character 他 can also mean "other."


I know something about phonological change and specifically about historical change in Chinese.  As a result, I don't need to have identical phonetic elements.  I also tend to learn characters as part of longer words, and so remembering pronunciation is the easiest part for me.


In edition to etymological sleuthing and imaginative associations, I originally took care to write new characters with one finger into the palm of my other hand.  This helped me greatly with remember small graphic variations.  I dislike writing characters out onto actual paper or using flash cards.  When I write the character into my palm, I can give meaning to every stroke or group of strokes and so help create more associations and turn every character into a story along the lines of what its creator may have had in mind.


The only downside of my method for me is that occasionally the metaphors get crossed up.  For instance, 拖 tuo1 means "drag/tow" (use the hand 扌to spread along in a snake-like 迤 line).  The character 舵 duo4 is probably a related spoken word (a thing dragged), but uses a different descendant of the original snake graph,它.  Even so, I find that all the associations helps break down the largely unfamiliar vocabulary.  Between 殳,它, and 也 , I probably know about 25 characters and many more words, while enjoying learning something about etymology.  Without this, I wound never remember characters like 鸵 tuo2 (ostrich, bird with spreading hump, like a camel 驼) or gallop 驰 chi2 (gallop, horse spreading its legs to cover an expanding distance) or  迤 yi2 (meandering, moving in a winding way like a snake).

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and select your username and password later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Click here to reply. Select text to quote.

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...