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Remembering Traditional Hanzi: How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters Bk. 1 [Paperback]

James W. Heisig , Timothy W. Richardson
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

15 Feb 2009 0824833244 978-0824833244 1
At long last the approach that has helped thousands of learners memorize Japanese kanji has been adapted to help students with Chinese characters. Book 1 of "Remembering Simplified Hanzi" and "Remembering Traditional Hanzi" covers the writing and meaning of the 1,000 most commonly used characters in the Chinese writing system, plus another 500 that are best learned at an early stage. (Book 2 adds another 1,500 characters for a total of 3,000.) Of critical importance to the approach found in these pages is the systematic arranging of characters in an order best suited to memorization. In the Chinese writing system, strokes and simple components are nested within relatively simple characters, which can, in turn, serve as parts of more complicated characters and so on. Taking advantage of this allows a logical ordering, making it possible for students to approach most new characters with prior knowledge that can greatly facilitate the learning process. Guidance and detailed instructions are provided along the way. Students are taught to employ 'imaginative memory' to associate each character's component parts, or 'primitive elements', with one another and with a key word that has been carefully selected to represent an important meaning of the character. This is accomplished through the creation of a 'story' that engagingly ties the primitive elements and key word together. In this way, the collections of dots, strokes, and components that make up the characters are associated in memorable fashion, dramatically shortening the time required for learning and helping to prevent characters from slipping out of memory.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 440 pages
  • Publisher: University of Hawai'i Press; 1 edition (15 Feb 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0824833244
  • ISBN-13: 978-0824833244
  • Product Dimensions: 22.4 x 15 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 489,159 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

James W. Heisig is professor and permanent research fellow at the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture in Nagoya, Japan. Timothy W. Richardson is coordinator of world language instruction and assistant professor at Brigham Young University Hawaii.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A bit steep price, but worth every penny. 5 Aug 2012
By Julie
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is a real gem. Even though Heisig stirred a heated debate whether one should really separate learning meanings of Chinese characters and learning their pronunciation, for me it's a question clearly answered.

The book is well done, recall of characters is amazing thanks to mnemonic stories. Learning the characters is a breeze. Comparing to university studies, this book teaches the characters much, much faster. Just for comparison - 4 semesters of Chinese characters lessons get you to 1500 characters. This book can take you halfway there in less time (with full time commitment, the writers promise 4-5 weeks, with just a couple hours of free time daily and more relaxed tempo it's 10-12 weeks).

The title of this book summarizes the whole thing pretty clearly - this course will teach you, how not to forget the meaning and writing of Chinese characters. Pronunciation, on the other hand, is untouched. You will have to find some other course of action for that.

I plan on buying the second part of this book as soon as I'm finished with this one, because knowing 3000 Chinese characters (even if it's just their meaning) is really something you can build on. The choice of selected vocabulary and characters is well explained in the preface of this book, citing good sources and providing the assurance you really learn the most relevant words.

The core of the book is pairing Chinese character with English meaning. The book, however, also provides 5 indexes:
1. hand-drawn characters in their order of appearance paired with Chinese pinyin pronunciation,
2. list of primitive elements used in the book
3. characters by their number of strokes
4. characters listed alphabetically by pronunciations in pinyin
5. characters listed alphabetically by English meaning keywords.

In conclusion, I'm glad I paid the price for this book. It's incredibly useful and practical.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A sound approach 15 Jun 2011
So far, after reading the thorough explanation in the authors' Introduction and learning characters from a few lessons, I'm convinced that this is the right (i.e. effective) way for English speakers to learn to read full-form characters. (Writing takes a bit more effort, and some practice with it may help before revising what is learned here.) This is a great aid to learning a vital part of Chinese languages - literacy skills.

The sheer burden of memorising characters is enough to put off many learners of Chinese languages from doing any more than dabbling at the fringes of literacy, but this book systematises learning so that an adult speaker of (a) European language(s) can apply already existing skills to the task. This can give the learner the potent understanding of the written language to the same extent as, say, a Japanese learner of Mandarin has - a sound basis for progress in combining literacy with oral and aural skills.

Is there an effective alternative? Not so far as I have seen: either the involved storytelling disappears up its own posterior, complete with the burden of pronunciation and meaning in Mandarin (as in the Tuttle attempt), or the learner has to face years of mindless drilling as if s/he were a Mandarin-speaking child with 15 or so years of full-time effort to spare to gain competence in literacy (as in most attempts to teach Chinese languages). Of course, you could opt for illiteracy, or the absurd approach of courses which show you Chinese menus in pinyin and assure you you're making progress. (As we say in Scotland, "Aye, right!")

Oh, and the alternatives generally offer simplified characters, which immediately remove many of the links with Chinese literature and culture. (^, love, without S, heart, anyone? Truly dystopian.)

This book is highly recommended. (By the way, there are useful Android apps to back up learning.)
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5.0 out of 5 stars Good value! 28 Mar 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The system really works. You will remember more and more quickly. But it is probably most useful if you already have basic knowledge of mandarin.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Get to grip with Hanzi. 26 April 2012
By Louis
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book introduces you to over 1000 Hanzi characters and teaches you interesting ways to remember the symbols. Hanzi is made easier if you already have knowledge of Japanese Kanji.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.3 out of 5 stars  12 reviews
52 of 57 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best way to learn to write Chinese 18 Dec 2008
By Harold Goodman - Published on
Speak Mandarin Chinese For BeginnersThe Michel Thomas Method (8-CD Beginner's Program)Michel Thomas Method Speak Mandarin Chinese Advanced

I am the author of the Michel Thomas CD courses to learn to speak Mandarin Chinese. I was taught by Mr. Thomas how to insure success for learners without memorization, homework, anxiety and testing. I am interested in innovative ways to teach; innovative ways that have proven track records.

Dr. Heisig is justly famous for his previous books on how to learn to write the Japanese kan ji ( Chinese-derived characters). Writing the kan ji and original Chinese han zi ( characters) has been a major stumbling block for most students. Without knowing the characters one cannot be literate in either of these languages.

The genius of Heisig's method is in devising an approach whereby he breaks the characters down into component parts and then systematically teaches the student to build them up again in a skillful way that results in the learner knowing the characters.

The first volume presents the most commonly used 1,500 Chinese characters. This will get you through 90% of any common Chinese text which is a nice place to start. The second volume, which is in the works, takes us through an additional 1,500 characters for a total of 3,000. With 3,000 characters the reader can tackle 99.5% of written Chinese.

One thing which is important to understand ahead of time is that this book does not encourage repetitive writing of the character being learned. Indeed, with Dr. Heisig's approach one need only write the character one time. What we are doing here is learning English-language keywords that are related to each character. These are attached to mnemonics or little stories which help fix the necessary keyword(s) and primitive elements ( smaller particles necessary to write the characters). Thus, the concentration here is on learning material in English which will automatically produce a perfectly written character. There is also an emphasis on stroke order which pays off richly later on in one's studies.

By concentrating on teaching and learning in English, the anxiety level is kept quite low.

In order to get the most out of this book I recommend reading the following pages first: Introduction, 105-107 (the best and clearest explanation of the method) as well as 260-261 ( the fruit of the method is finally revealed). Also, make the flash cards described ( p.47-48) and use them as suggested; from Keyword to mnemonic story to actual character and NOT the other way around. This approach will get you the desired result.

There are also two lists in the back of the book providing pin yin pronunciation for each character. However, Heisig does not recommend attempting to learn these the first go around.

This is the most extreme deviation from traditional teaching of Chinese characters ( han zi) that I know of. However, if faithfully followed you will learn 3,000 characters in record time and, more importantly, remember them.

At some point the mnemonic stories and keywords just drop away and you are left with the characters. You just have to understand this when you begin.

Don't go too fast. Find your own pace and be gentle with yourself. Some days you will do more, others less. The important thing is to keep at it.

Until something better comes along this is the only book I would recommend for anyone desiring to learn Han zi.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars My time learning the 3036 characters was totally worth it -- my reflections along the way 14 Mar 2013
By Kenneth Burchfiel - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
First, thanks a lot to Aphasiac, Vorpal, Swilkins, Haraksha and everyone else whose stories helped me make it to the end of these two books.

I thought it would be helpful to the RTH community if I gave my reflections on the Hanzi learning process after entering the '3036' club and learning each of the characters in these two books.

[Note: to find over 2,000 of my stories for the 3,035 Hanzi you'll find in Books 1 (1500 Hanzi) and 2 (1536 Hanzi), go to , where you can also enter your own stories, track your progress and review your keywords. This site has been a big study aid for myself and others.]

[Second note: this review covers Remembering Traditional Hanzi I and II at the same time, because they're essentially two volumes of the same work.]

To begin, I'm definitely happy that I spent so much time and effort in learning these characters. Yes, I said 'time and effort', because as people warned me before I started, while these books may be the best way to learn Hanzi, they don't take the effort out of learning the characters. My Remembering the Hanzi word document, in which I've placed all of the character stories I've used to remember the Hanzi, is now about 120,000 words. I needed to write at least 2,000 stories to get from #1 to #3036, which takes a lot of time out of your day. I don't say any of this to brag, only to make it clear that while these books are amazing in the way they teach, you still have to put in lots of work.

I am also happy to defend the Heisig/Richardson method against the criticism it sometimes encounters. It's true that you won't learn to write these characters fast except by rewriting them and rewriting them. It's also true that I've forgotten about half of the ones I've learnt. And yes, it's also true that writing out the stories takes a long time and can seem ridiculous to others. And yet, the Heisig method is so brilliant in how it shows that each character is made up of similar component parts. Learning those parts and making stories that explain how they come together to form characters is, in my opinion, far more intellectually rewarding (and ultimately more efficient) than writing the same character 30 times in hopes you'll remember each stroke.

Now just a little on my Hanzi learning process. I got Book 1 in June 2012, bought Book 2 in January 2013 after a month-long break or so, and finished going through the characters in March 2013. At first my progress was a little slow, but ironically, the further I got into the books (and the more complex the characters got, at least by their appearance), the faster the process went. That's probably because you learn the bulk of the 'primitive elements' in Book 1, and by the time you get deep into Book 2, you're learning very few completely new things, and those characters and elements that once were alien are now very familiar to you. (Except for 2976 . . . but you'll get there!)

Second, the way I used my time to learn the Hanzi became more efficient, and it eventually went something like this. First, I would go through the 20, or 30, or 50 new characters I was going to learn that day and write down all of the stories in a row in a Word document (which might become the largest document you have on your computer, in terms of word count). I often went through the characters over lunch, or on the bus, since I would generally remember my stories by memory if I couldn't write them down then. Then I would go back and review any primitive elements that I had forgotten (and inevitably there were a couple). After that I would turn to the index and look through the handwritten forms in order to make sure I knew what the character positioning was, and if there were any alterations in the writing style.

After a break, I would take a blank sheet of paper with nothing but the keywords on it and write down the characters to the best of my ability. Once I finished writing, I would then go back and check my work. Any wrongly written or forgotten characters would then be rewritten, again after a short break. Once I had gotten all of them done I would make a note of this on the word document and upload them to RTH. While a lot of this may be self-explanatory, I found that my work went much faster when I did each step for all the characters in a row, rather than all the steps for one character, then all the steps for another, and so on. By the time I got familiar with the process, doing 20 characters in 2 hours was doable, and if I was smart with how I spent my free time, I could get 50 done in a day if there wasn't anything else I had to do. (Life as a college student is great for studying the Hanzi!)

I also made an important change in my study habits that helped me get Book 2 done in about 2 months, whereas Book 1 took about 6: I figured out how many Hanzi I would study each day of the week, and stuck to that schedule, taking no days off. It's not a bad idea to take a break on Saturday or Sunday, but I knew that for me, one day off could turn into one week off, and I wanted to get these done as soon as possible. My general strategy was 20 Hanzi on M T W Th and 30 on F, S and Sunday, but some days I would do more. The main point here is that doing a little study each day, for long enough, will get you through these books sooner than you thought. Do the math: even 10 Hanzi a day will let you learn these 3,036 characters in about 10 months, just a little longer than it took me -- because I had taken some big breaks along the way.

So just to summarize: find the most efficient way to write your stories and review the characters, and take as few breaks as possible, ideally none, if you'd like to get these books done as fast as possible.

Now, I didn't do much serious review until finishing Book 1, and then Book 2. This was possibly a mistake. On one hand, the great thing about Book 2 is that in the process of learning the characters, you're forced to review the Book 1 characters and primitives, since they show up in so many of the Book 2 Hanzi. In other words, in learning new characters, you naturally learn old ones. On the other hand, I've definitely forgotten a lot of what I learned because I didn't go back and review it. So far, of the 164 characters I reviewed on, I've remembered 85 and forgotten 79, which comes out to about 51.8%. (Taking a Chinese class in which many of these characters are used probably has helped me remember ~500 characters that I would have otherwise forgotten, so if it weren't for Beginning Chinese class, I might have remembered only 30 or 40% of those.) For all I know, with more periodic review, that number might have been 90 or 95% for me. But I don't necessarily regret that I put all my concentration into learning new characters rather than reviewing old ones. Now that I'm finished with the characters, the review process can begin in earnest.

Finally, I'll give a word of realism about these books. Learning the characters is essential for learning Chinese words, but it's not sufficient for understanding Chinese by itself. That's because most Chinese words are two-character 'bigrams', and just like in chemistry, adding two characters together often gives an unexpected result. The word we use in beginning Chinese for 'like' is made up of 'joyful' and 'joyous' -- hence, without this book, you wouldn't know how to say 'to like.' You also wouldn't know that 'be like' + 'fruit' makes up the 'if' in one way of saying "if . . . then," or that 'tight' plus 'stretch' makes 'nervous,' or that 'high quick public path' is how you say 'highway'. (All of the words in single quotes are Heisig keywords.)

I believe that Heisig and Richardson were right to give one memorable keyword for each word, but to even begin to speak, write and read Chinese, you have to learn actual words, not just the characters, only some of which are full-fledged words in themselves. So while this book is an extremely important 'Step 1' in your Chinese learning process, you'll also need to undertake further steps to learn words and the sounds that put them together. (By the way, with some creativity, you can make stories to help remember character's sounds and tones).

I'm lucky enough to be taking a Chinese class this year, and as you could expect, my study of the RTH characters has been a massive help, since most of the characters are already familiar to me. At the same time, the Chines class is a massive help for my RTH vocab because (A) it lets me use those characters in real words, (B) teaches me the sounds for these characters, obviously necessary for using them in speech and typing with the pinyin method, and (C) makes me remember how to write the characters when quizzes and tests come up. So if you want to really put these characters to use, take a Chinese class somewhere. I'm the only senior in my beginning Chinese class but I'm having a blast. If it's impossible for you to take a class, you could at least pick up the Routledge Mandarin Chinese frequency dictionary, which gives you the top 5,000 words in their order.

OK, I think I've written for long enough. As you can see, I'm extremely happy I put in the effort to learn these characters. Even though my retention appears to be only about 50%, reviewing forgotten characters is so easy once you have a story in place to remember them. And it's definitely more fun than writing the same character over and over again, only to forget it later. I hope this helps you in your own study of Remembering the Hanzi. Good luck to you! --Kenneth
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best way to learn Chinese 23 Dec 2008
By Greg - Published on
The teaching method used in this book has already been covered so I will not include it here. What I would like to say is that as a native English speaker who began learning Chinese characters with Heisig's book, I have already learned hundreds of "elements" and more complex characters. Because of the logical way it explains the Chinese writing system, if I see a character I do not know, I can at least guess the gist of it. I feel sorry for the Chinese students who are forced to learn long lists of complex characters with no rhyme or reason, there are too many of them.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Even After 2 Years Studying Chinese, This Book Was a Worthy Purchase 5 July 2010
By J. Lugo - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I began taking Chinese courses at my university almost two years ago. I loved the language, but I had difficulty memorizing characters. I could remember them for the exam, but hardly a month beyond that it'd fade away (mainly the writing!). Eventually most of my effort in Chinese was committed to keeping old characters fresh, greatly dulling the experience.

Because of all the progress I'd already made, I was originally hesitant about purchasing this book. I worried it would require new ways to remember old characters, and wouldn't really put my existing knowledge of the verbal Chinese language to use (after all, it doesn't focus on pronunciation of characters--just meaning).

However, after a couple weeks with this book my only regret is not having purchased it earlier. Characters that I'd previously had problems with just stuck. The stories make the experience fun, and I find that my existing knowledge of character pronunciation is an asset to my learning from this book, but one that the book is not dependent on--something that will suit all learners from the most basic levels to the more advanced.

This book, in conjunction with spaced repetition software (computer flashcard software, such as Anki and Mnemosyne), makes studying Chinese characters a joy and allow me to really focus on the language once again.

My suggested course of study, an extension of the author's suggestion, is this: download either Mnemosyne or Anki. Create a flashcard with a "Question:" side consisting of the key word (in uppercase and on its own line, to make it obvious), with the story just underneath it (the "primitives" should be italicized just as they are in the stories he presents, and the key word itself bolded). The "Answer:" should only have the character. Look up the pronunciation in the back of the book or draw it on a site like [...]. That's all. Simply review your flash cards daily (this will only take between 5-15 minutes). The software will make sure you're presented the card just before you forget it. If you pace yourself well, you can finish the book within a couple months and never forget the characters again!

In short, I can't wait for the second volume! This is a must-buy for anyone learning Chinese!
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 一個禮物 -- A Gift 19 Feb 2013
By C.C. Ryan - Published on
Bottom Line: This book is an absolute Gift to the dedicated Student of Chinese. Both the time and the money spent on this book are nil when compared to the feelings of accomplishment you will have and the concrete, almost spellbinding proof of being able to write Characters purely from memory. . ..

. . .Although at first glance similar to many of the other mnemonic/etymological approaches, Heisig provides us with a pellucid guide, which, if understood, adhered to, and stuck to, will--will-- allow you passage into the elite group of those who have accessed the recondite world of writing Chinese.

To repeat, however, the above caveats: You must read and reread the introduction and make absolutely certain you understand the method. Furthermore, you must dedicate yourself to the journey. It's not going to happen over night. Where there's a will there's way.

Finally, for caveats at least, because this is a general audience, keep in mind that knowing how to write Characters in Chinese does NOT necessarily constitute knowing how to write words. From our Indo-European, English-speaking paradigm/perspective, Characters can fall anywhere into and amid our distinctly separate categories of words, letters, and ideas. If you've studied Chinese, you know what I'm talking about. If not, you will soon find out. It's different! That's part of the fun! It will change your brain, how you think, how you remember, how you approach language, ideas, words, life, and so on.

I have studied and used Chinese (as well as to a lesser extent Japanese) on and off for over five years now, and spent a great deal of those years in both the Republic of China and Japan. I have studied them formally and informally, alone, with friends or classmates, to varying degrees of immersion, both where I am a citizen and abroad.

In my view, there are two aspects of Mandarin Chinese that are taught and understood about as poorly as they are absolutely critical to getting 'good' at Chinese. In other words, these two things are really really important, and neither teachers nor students are very good at either teaching them or learning them, in class or independently. Remembering Traditional Hanzi addresses one of these aspects: Writing Chinese.

(If you're curious, the other elephant in the room, in my opinion, is the study of what are called Verb Complement Constructions, necessary for a firm grasp of spoken Mandarin Chinese.)

Anyone who's studied Chinese has felt the vexing almost amusing bewilderment of trying to remember (let alone write, or write well) Chinese Characters (Hanzi) or Japanese Kanji.

A final note on the technique. Slightly modifying the more scholarly and less useful system of 'Radicals', Heisig methodically introduces the student to a cast of characters called Primitives, which steadily increase in their complexity and various transformations, mutations and combinations with other Primitives. The vividness and, as I said, personality that you yourself (with your imaginative memory) infuse in these Primitives will directly determine your capacity to recall them and built on them. If you're doing it right--with zest--it gets easier as you go along; the Primitives will become old familiar friends or favorite action figures whose little squashbug, stick-like souls you effortlessly write out with barely a thought.

Three concepts that I suggest you force yourself to drive home, which Heisig himself regularly repeats are 1. Use your imaginative rather than visual memory (simply stated, imaginative memory is deeper, longer lasting and more powerful than the more short term perishable visual memory (in most people)) , 2. Start with the English key word (it's much more effectively for recall and circuitry development). and 3. Write, write, write the characters, in proper stroke order, but not like a zombie, over and over. Once or twice, carefully, deliberately, at graduated intervals.

There is a Chinese proverb that goes something like this: 不怕慢只怕站 -- Don't fear going slowly, just fear stopping. Keep this in mind while grinding through this absolute gift of a textbook. *Book two is superb, because it now fits into the framework of Book 1, enabling you to work on the full 3,000 simultaneously.
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