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Remembering Chinese characters simply?

(TL;DR: any good ways of learning characters/pronunciations efficiently and quickly? Because I'm starting to struggle.)


I'm new to Chinese and have been coming along just fine until recent, where I quickly got overwhelmed with a bunch of new ideograms/characters.

Now I'm not good at writing them from memory and that's fine; I just want to be able to hold my own in a conversation one day.

But I am beginning to slowly but surely struggle with remembering all these characters, how they 'connect' to one another to make different words, etc.

I've tried repetition, which works after ages, but really,really demotivates me. And I've tried connecting them to 'story' things to try and remember some of them (like I remember the sound/character for 'tea' because it sounds like tea, and the character looks like it has the roof of a teahouse), but I can't do that with all of them... ;(

If anyone has any ideas for remembering characters, along with their pronunciations, it would be great if I could hear some of them. It's really demotivating me from learning.


May 14, 2018



Study the radicals. Every charachter is made up of basic components called radicals like blocks of LEGO. Don't learn them in isolation but as "built" charachters and it will help you a lot.
for example 羡慕 xiànmù "to envy" looks fairly complicated and would be hard to remember in isolation, but you can break it down into
羡 -- top to bottom 羊+次
慕 -- top to bottom 艹+日+大+小+,


I am a native Chinese speaker myself and here are some tips that may help you to clear your mind.

In general, Chinese characters are classified into six different categories. Here are some examples.

  1. 象形( Pictograms ) essentially those characters that look like the object itself e.g. 日 ri (Sun), 月 yue(moon)

  2. 指事(Simple ideograms) characters that indicate an idea
    e.g. 一 yi(1),二 er(2), 上 shang(up),下 xia(down)

  3. 會意(Compound ideographs )which is a compound of the two above e.g. 木 mu(wood,original form)---> 林 lin(grove)---> 森 sen(forest)

  4. 形聲(Phono-semantic compound characters)characters that are formed by a phonetic component and a semantic component e.g. 扌(an indication for hand, semantic)+斯 si (phonetic) = 撕 si (to tear)

You can guess the general meaning by looking at the indication. Most Chinese characters are in this category, especially those new words such as chemical elements. When reading unfamiliar characters, you just follow the rule 有邊讀邊(read the side,generally right in a lot of the cases) Although there are some noticeable exceptions.

e.g. 金 jing (indication for metal object) + 童tong = 鐘 zhong (bell)

In this case ,you need to memorize those special characters

  1. 假借( Phonetic loan ) characters that borrow a similar sounding word to represent a different meaning, aka those characters had a certain meaning but the meaning is extended. They originated in spoken language but at the time there were no characters that can represent the meaning.

e.g. 然 ran (the apprearence) + 火(indication for fire ) = 燃 ran (burn)

止 zhi (stop) + 足 (foot) = 趾 zhi (toe)

6.轉注(Derivative cognate) In basic some of them have the same meaning in classical written Chinese but the meaning may vary in modern Chinese. I am not going into detail, as it is very rare and require quite a bit of Chinese history and linguistics background to be able to understand the differences and the changes of the character in history.

This is my first time answering in a discussion so don't be harsh on me. learnt it during my leisure time so someone can and should quote on me if I am wrong

Now some personal thought

I think you should better start out with the traditional character ( Ok I am from Hong Kong but nothing should be political !!!) Simplified characters are fantastically easy to write but it loses too much structure. Some may even changes the character completely. If you want to futher consolidate your study, you should better off start with the traditional characters and use the simplified characters in writing (trust me it saves you a lot of time). It may be difficult to start but it is more fun and by far more effective to learn Chinese. I know learning a new language is hard, I almost gave up on German but I still stayed on. It can be frustrating but it is worth all the time and effort that you have put in. Try to write more Chinese characters as it will help you memorize the words better. Even better if you can purchase a dictionary yourself as it provides a lot of examples and insight. You can always contact me if you have any trouble and i am pleased to answer you .BTW the Chinese course on Duolingo is not the best. It is too hard and have some mistakes. You should take it with a grain of salt.

Good luck with your learning ! :)


I think writing the characters is a valuable tool for committing them to memory. In spite of our current reliance on pinyin for digital input, it helps to actually write them out on paper – though drawing them on your digital device is the next best thing.

Check out Reading and Writing Chinese, Third Edition, by William McNaughton (Author) and Jiageng Fan (Editor). It describes itself on the cover as having all 2,633 Chinese Characters and 5,000+ Compounds for HSK 1-6.

This edition foregrounds the simplified characters and also provides the traditional counterparts. I have an old edition that does it in the opposite way.

The book has a regular formatting throughout, with five characters per page. I made two overlays out of card stock, one with cutouts allowing just the characters to show through, so I could learn to recognize them and say their pronunciation and meaning, and the other with cutouts allowing just the pronunciation and meaning to show through, so I could learn to write them from memory.

Of course you can also just download a spreadsheet with a list of characters etc. from the internet, but if you think a tactile format could help, a book like Reading and Writing Chinese might be the way to go.

Good luck!


There's a book called "Remembering the Hanzi" by James Heisig. It covers the essential 2000 or so hanzi and describes methods to remember each one by learning about key elements and radicals so you can more easily identify parts of a character and apply that to learn and memorize more characters.

I've gone through some of it myself and it does seem like a good methodical approach to understanding the basic building blocks, however the pronunciations are not included (for reasons Heisig describes briefly). There are some people who don't agree with these methods though.

Writing the characters is always helpful, and there are apps that let you do that such as HelloChinese, ChineseSkill, and Skritter (I think you have to pay for this one).

I wish I had some tips for pronunciations, because I too find that difficult.

Good luck!


This is what I'm currently using to remember/recognize characters and so far it's working well for me - I can reproduce over 200 characters after a couple of months, going at a very leisurely pace of a few new characters a day (on average). Others have said that 20 new characters a day is doable if you have the time to dedicate.

The pronunciations actually are included, but they're in an index at the back of the books - Heisig recommends you ignore them until the meaning is already well-associated, but you could always ignore that advice.

Before this I was doing spaced repetition with flash cards and I was finding it extremely difficult to remember things because there was no real method to it. The Heisig method also uses flash cards (in my case I'm using Anki), but it introduces a very systematic approach. I strongly believe that you need something along these lines to learn how characters are composed of smaller pieces (which isn't always obvious), or you're gonna have a really hard time. This is explained better in the book's introduction, which you can find in a sample (along with the first 108 characters) here: https://nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/en/files/2013/11/RH-S1-sample.pdf

You can also find samples for the traditional and Spanish/German versions here: https://nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/en/publications/miscellaneous-publications/#Hanzi

So yeah, I actually stopped doing Duo Chinese for now, because it seems pretty inferior compared to just doing Heisig along with the audio course I'm doing for speaking/listening practice (+ podcasts and Chinese Grammar Wiki on occasion). I will come back to it later though.




The easiest way to remember the 汉字 is to use it.

Go join a couple of social learning networks on facebook.

Learn the basic subject verb object sentence structure. Then post a few simple sentences in facebook. People will either correct you or they will have to stare horribly written sentences. I've found it helpful to practice there.

你需要用facebook. Facebook帮助我学习汉字。你需要写很多汉字。

Make sure you install pinyin input on your PC and phone.

Also, are you using the pinyin input system on your PC or phone? Don't use the databank system to input.

[deactivated user]

    I'm new to Mandarin Chinese too, what is helping me to learn the characters are frequency, I practice over and over, sometimes it gets tiresome, but in general, is practice what's gonna teach you. I advise you to learn the meaning WITH pinyin, Duolingo teaches only the Character with pinyin, which is not very positive. So when you learn the character's meaning, always try to pronounce and recover what that character means, this way is helping me a lot, when you get further in practice, you'll look at the characters, knowing what they mean and how to write them, in other words, you've mastered them.

    [deactivated user]

      Make sure you can identify the radical. The radical is the primary part of the character that enables you to be able to find the character in a dictionary.

      Another tip is to associate the character to a meaning through its look or to a picture.

      Also remember the pinyin for pronunciation. I personally memorize Chinese characters by constantly rewriting them and using them in sentences.


      I watched a video where someone said that Chinese people remember characters by the words they appear in so now rather than trying to remember a meaning I attach a character to an example word and its sound. These two points of attachment make it easier to recognise. I actually like that duolingo makes you aquire these two things separately because it makes you work for it which makes remembering it easier than it would be if only memorization was called on. It is more like the natural learning process children go through and is how our brains are meant to aquire language. Lists of vocabulary and meanings are tedious to take in and are not a good use of the brains language structures. I never set out to memorize anything. I treat it all as a puzzle and it gradually slots into place. The same goes for the radicals. I haven't systematically set out to learn them but I have come across some and recognised patterns for other repeated shapes. At some point I will probably pay a bit more attention to them bht for now I am doing well enough as is.


      Skritter is a great spaced-repetition webapp/mobile app for learning Chinese characters and covers both Simplified and Traditional characters.

      What has worked for me....

      • learn the radicals (Skritter)

      • learning the meanings of components as they appear in characters you are learning because components are sometimes words on their own and they often appear in other characters (Skritter & Pleco)

      • use Pleco dictionary to look up radicals and components of characters and see how those components appear in other characters (which helps ingrain the component meaning)

      • say the words as you learn them to make the pronunciation embodied rather than just intellectual

      • create stories that tie the components to the meaning as mnemonic devices until the words are known well enough to not need the stories

      • accept that learning Chinese characters is not easy and requires work and will take time and that memory will be good on some days and bad on others

      • read real sentences to help recognition and memory - i use Du Shu for this but there are also many sites with reading samplers to help here


      Personally, it's a combination of repetition, radicals, and trying to make them into pictures in my head (which is more something my Mandarin teacher suggests than something I use).

      If nothing else, trying to remember the components of the character definitely has helped me, though. For instance, I was taught that the character for little sister was basically made up of 'unfinished' and 'woman'. (I don't know if that's actually true, and don't tell me if it isn't, or I'll never remember it again.)

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