Thursday, January 15, 2009

Component Learning and Analysis II

UPDATE 2009:

Time to 'divert' from interesting distractions and bring the blog back on course. This is all about Kanji/Hanzi with a focus on the latter. I repost the very first post here and add the promised continuation at the end. Happy New Year's reading!

Posted on December 17, 2008:

I've been doodling around with this idea for a while, but then I joined today and found this little "Component Video" and thought it might be time to stop doodling and to leave the draft board ....

Here is a nice little phrase I picked up at nciku

Does it seem difficult to learn this? To learn it enough so you can write it from memory without a trace of hesitation or need to scratch your head?

The good news are that it is not at all difficult if you use a component-based approach to Chinese Characters. It can be time-consuming, but that is not really the same as difficult. For certain types of memories/brains it does not seem to take more than a matter of weeks or a few months to learn 2000+ characters with a single keyword - "meaning" - associated with the Kanji/Hanzi.

There are different approaches to this but I happened to start with Japanese and James W. Heisig's "Remembering the Kanji" (download generous sample in pdf-format) many years ago. After many, many delays there is also a "Remembering the Hanzi" available, that is: the first part of two, together covering 3000 characters. There are samples available of both the simplified and traditional editions. Read the introductions to get a good understanding of what all this is about.

To make a long story short: "the Heisig method" is indeed very smart and works as advertised if you follow the rules, so to say. But ..... Not all of us have the kind of time, patience and creative imagination it takes to get through all the 2000+ for Japanese and the 3000 characters for Chinese before really starting to read and write.

So when I, some four months ago, put Japanese on the shelf for a while to study Mandarin instead, I also started to think about alternative ways to take the best of Heisig's work and to apply it to a more combined approach with learning the proper language, i.e. including pronunciations and vocabulary.

It's not really fair to compare myself with a beginner since I have been studying and writing Kanji for many years, but the totally effortless process of learning Hanzi, pronunciation, and building vocabulary is very, very encouraging and promising. I am very interested in testing how this will work for absolute beginners and intermediate students of Chinese wanting to learn the written language in a more profound way. Note that "written" also means being able to write from decent to great Hanzi as well.

Sounds interesting? Check back here now and then and see what's happening. The first step will be to wipe away the fog from cā yăn jìng as a first demonstration of the Power of Component Analysis.

Continued on January 15, 2009:

(Hmmm .. Didn't remember it was such a total cliff hanger :-) ) Most of the images were already prepared, though, so I will go through this as briefly as possible.

This is possibly a bit overwhelming the first time you get into the details of a single Chinese Character, but stay around for a while and you will notice that this is no different than any new subject: it takes a few minutes to get used to it :-) And it's very much on purpose that I used such a big font. I have found it much easier to memorize characters when I learn them BIG TIME, so I have all the 2042 Kanji in RtK 1 in this kind of size.

First you might want to check this character out a and also see the stroke order animation. This is not one of the most complex characters you will meet, but it does belong to the upper division; 17 strokes is not a minor and simple character. It's pronounced cā as you could see in the beginning above.

So the next task is to break this beauty apart and see how it was created, so to say. The very first item that sticks out is the simplified hand to the left:

Since the hand looks like this in its full form (left)
we will be helped by assigning the shorthand :-) for hand as something else, and finger(s), as suggested by Heisig, is perhaps the easiest keyword. BUT... to be able to remember the characters with all the components, the action going on there, you will need a full story. To memorize the full story it's better to transform Mr Fingers into a known individual or some person you just invent. Make this person as colorful as possible. Personally I used a very famous actor, known for his expressive hand movements. Now this poor soul, had to watch from heaven :-), as I made him perform a number of tasks he perhaps wouldn't have approved of himself. Since they are in my mind only, I am sure he doesn't care. Really.

So next in line is the right part of the character, which is a full character too, which you can inspect on I keep on showing new components in the context of the full character here:
This (black) character is pronounced chá and there we get a very valuable lesson. This character/component is the phonetic of (the full one) and as is often the case there is a slight distortion of the sound, but here and chá were once upon a time probably the same sound. Phonetics is one of the most useful things when you learn Chinese Characters and their pronunciation. - There you have the reason why I have departed from the Heisig advice "stick to the characters and learn the sound/pronunciation when you've finished 3000 (or less) characters". - Chá means observe, inspect or/and scrutinize and is part of the word for 警察 jǐngchá police, to take one example here.

To get down to the first memo-combination here, we the have "Mr Fingers" "scrutinizing/observing" something. But what is he watching? First let's establish where this is taking place: In a house, of course! Watch the chimney on top of the roof!
Then we move further down the line and look at what's happening inside the house, and we get down to the really gory details: A bloody ritual with sacrifices! Ghastly stuff. A piece of meat and a cut-off hand on top of an altar. No less. The (keyword) altar looks like this when it's used as a component, but meaning mostly "show, indicate" today when used as a character on it's own merits, but it was nevertheless an altar in the beginning, according to the etymologists:
We need to take a closer look at the "flesh/meat" component to the left, immediately below the roof ...... since time has blended two characters into one, sort of:

To the very left we see the Moon as we expect it. Then comes a slightly simplified moon on part cut off, perhaps covered by a cloud or perhaps it is the crescent moon? Anyhow: "Evening". Two evenings/moons is suddenly meaning "many", many a moon/month? Too many evenings? Suddenly FLESH + DOG is being roasted over a fire (the four dots)! Yes, somewhere along the path to now, the most known character for meat got this moon-like shape. But first the last character: brain where the "moon" to the left tells us that it's about "flesh", usually a body-part.
And above is the most common character for flesh/meat. This is also a rather brutal image: two persons hanging inside some sort of "container", perhaps to become dried meat? :-)

Now, my patient readers, we just have one tiny detail left in the house of sacrifice: the cut-off hand/arm.
How can we tell that it's cut-off? Because this is how it usually appears in various combinations:
There are quite a few components/characters having been used as hands/arms/etc. since a departure from the ancient shapes have taken place. Heisig uses sometimes rather special keywords for components (or primitives as he prefers to call them) and this a crotch. Pick and choose any crotch you like, but once again it's not a bad idea to select one person when you build your stories. I don't know why I once upon a time picked Sean Connery to play this role, but that's the way it goes.

The forth character above is interesting since is the very Han in Hanzi, Chinese Character. When the revolutionaries simplified - some would say ruined - some of the original characters, this was originally something entirely different. Just look and you can see only an arm or a crotch there:
This last part here is entirely for my own pleasure, since I do find the things VERY INTERESTING AND FUN and like going into the finer points of Kanji/Hanzi. The second character above is actually the Japanese one! And since I didn't find the same font for the traditional Chinese "original" it only looks very different because of the font. But as you can see there are two differences: the top two downward strokes have been joined by a small horizontal stroke and the left "leg" goes up to join this stroke. History and time. End of lesson 1!

So is it worth all the trouble to dissect characters like this? The time it takes at first? Yes, I think it is. It's more fun than starting to learn 15000-2042-3000 characters in one sitting, so to say. (It took me three attempts to get to 2042, that is several months distributed over many years.) The components learned in a rather complex characters like this can be re-used in dozens of new characters. Will you ever forget ALTAR? That is: if you follow the most important recommendation here: Write the character and then write it again, and again ..... Look and write!

To be continued and finished with one much, much easier and one not too difficult character:


  1. Hi, I also just found out about the Hanzi version of this book. Brilliance! I like it a lot but don't agree with the authors not including the Chinese words themselves along with the characters. I was taking a Chinese quiz for fun recently and knew the meaning of a character from the sample of the Remembering Hanzi book but didn't know the actual Mandarin pronunciation/pinyin that went go along with it. I will probably buy the book and then use Nciku (wow, you use this too! Love it.) to learn the pronunciation and write in the pinyin for each frame. I've been contributing to the blog Check it out if you like. :-) I found you via your comments on I liked the Radical show for a first episode...too bad they won't be doing another one. It was definitely very elementary but that could be easily fixed. Oh well.

  2. Oops...that's actually


  3. Thanks for the comment!

    It took me three attempts to get through Remembering the Kanji, but it is of immense value now when I learn Mandarin. I really don't have to LEARN new Hanzi; the simply slip into memory with no effort at all, even the new (simplified) ones not in the Japanese Kanji set.

    I see that some people (like over at seem to think that you also need the Remembering the Hanzi if you are to study Chinese after Heisig and Japanese. Me thinks ABSOLUTELY NOT!

    I am using a totally different approach now. I learn the Hanzi with pronunciation and as many words/sentences as I find reasonable and run it all in Anki. The huge advantage of Chinese is that it lends itself to phonetics much better than Japanese (with its multitude of different readings of each Kanji). It's a clever strategy to add Hanzi with the same phonetic "radical" even if the pronunciation might differ a bit: 青,清,精,晴,请 etc. When it happens you can even use this approach when the phonetic is different one like in 静 from 争 and the add 净. I guess it's all about creating connections in your memory.

    That said I find the idea of creating vivid stories based on character components - a la Heisig - is an excellent method to learn Kanji/Hanzi. My main objection re Hanzi is that I almost get a nervous breakdown contemplating the idea of going through THREE THOUSAND Hanzi before starting to learn a single word of Chinese! Ouch! Thus this project where I will attempt to offer an alternative to this rather overwhelming approach.

    Thanks for the link to the blog. Will look now.

  4. I am pretty close to being your 'test case' as I am still just beginning to get some confidence with recognizing a few characters on CPod dialogues (Newbie and very, very 'ellie' as Ken would call it). I have never taken a course in mandarin other than a night school conversation class to get me started with ni hao, da jia hao and xie xie. But I'm hooked. I also popped over to Ge Daozhen's blog and will be a visitor there too.

  5. Welcome, 'test case' graham :-)

    I was overly optimistic re: getting more material up before the holidays, but now it's all over .....

    Well, "test" was perhaps sounding like I really don't know if it's pretty easy - though time-consuming - to learn how to read and write Kanji/Hanzi without having to endure the rather long route Heisig insists on not learning readings (pronunciations) and words until you know a staggering 3000 characters. Yikes! 2000 Kanji was pretty steep .....

    Will soon come with more material.

    All the best!


To avoid spam etc. the comments are moderated and will show up after inspection. Thanks for your patience.