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Cool Chinese Character Memorization Methods

It seems like every day a new app comes out that promises to help you learn characters easily. With a growing pool of research in memory and memory competitions on the rise, this article will be a quick round-up of some of these learning methodologies and some of my thoughts on how you can use them to learn characters quickly.


A mnemonic (RpE: /nəˈmɒnɨk/, AmE: /nɛˈmɑːnɪk/ the first “m” is silent), mnemonic device, or memory device is any learning technique that aids information retention in the human memory. Mnemonics aim to translate information into a form that the brain can retain better than its original form.

Mnemonics that can be used for character memorization can come in the form of Acronyms, and mental imagery.

Here is an example of each:


To remember the names of the American “Great Lakes”, we can use HOMES as an acronym. I.E. Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior

This method is very beneficial because it allows our brain to narrow down possibilities in passive knowledge by giving us prompts in the form of letters. For example if I said, think of a cartoon character with the initials M.M. it would be pretty easy for you to guess Mickey mouse. Over time using this technique will help us transfer those possibilities to our active knowledge center, improving recall.

I like to employ Acronyms while trying to learn Chengyu or 2/4 character couplings. One of my favorite 成语(chéngyǔ),  破釜沉舟 – (pò fǔ chén zhōu) (Eliminate all options for retreat, No turning back. Loosely translated.) could be called PFCZ for example.

Visual Imagery / Word Pictures

The most popular mnemonic for learning Characters is creating a visual image out of the character. The character for Large/Big 大(dà) can be taken as an example. Imagine a man holding his arms out and telling you “It was this big!!!” while using his arms as a way to demonstrate size.

Or how about 日(rì),the character for Sun. Imagine it as a window, with a blue sky in the background and a Sun on the upper pane. 口(kǒu), the character for Mouth can be imagined as someone yawning. You can put teeth inside the square and a tongue and it will be easily remembered as mouth. These characters are quite simple.  But one way to do this is use a building block approach by assigning radicals mental imagery and then coding your characters into these mental images. For example, to return, 回(huí) Could be a mouth within a mouth.

The more vivid the mental imagery the better. Some memory researchers have also found that adding mental imagery that is dangerous or sexual in nature can evoke a heightened response and create a more lasting imprint. Other ways to do this would be to make something non-congruent. All that means is that it wouldn’t make sense in reality. So for example a man floating defies the laws of gravity so it would be memorable as a story because your brain would closely examine it logically on a subconscious level.

Memory Palace

From Wikipedia: The method of loci (loci being Latin for “places”), also called the memory palace or mind palace technique, is a mnemonic device adopted in ancient Roman and Greek rhetorical treatises. In basic terms, it is a method of memory enhancement which uses visualization to organize and recall information. A lot of memory contest champions claim to use this technique to recall faces, digits, and lists of words. These champions’ successes have little to do with brain structure or intelligence, but more to do with their technique of using regions of their brain that have to do with spatial learning.

Have you ever moved to a new apartment? How quickly were you able to remember how to find your way home from work? Human beings are excellent locational memorizers. Our brains are built in a way that remembers things effortlessly based on location. A memory palace is a way to exploit this. When used in combination with a visual image, it can be an extremely powerful technique that can cut down hours of learning time.

Creating a memory palace is easy… pick a place that you know very well, such as your childhood home, or your office. Then, create a visual story in each room of the well-known location, walking through the location in your mind. For example if I wanted to learn the character for “Large” from earlier, I would put a man on my front porch with his arms out holding two oversized pencils, and it would be very easy for me to remember the character meaning. Then after I entered the front door of the house, I would create a visual image for the second character I wanted to learn. After I had filled all of the rooms of the house with word stories, I would walk back through the house and look at all of the character stories that I created.

All of these methods are fun to try and can be applied in different areas. Do you have a tactic or technique that you particularly enjoy? Leave a comment and let me know how you memorize characters.

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Sam Bleakly

Sam learned Mandarin when he was living and working in Shanghai. He now lives in Tokyo with his wife Natalie where he works for Innovative Language, producers of ChineseClass101. Sam is a polyglot and is currently learning Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese. He is the co-author of LanguageLearningCouple.

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