Remembering the Hanzi Book 1 – Review

Greetings travellers,

Today I thought I’d do a write-up of James Heisig and Timothy Richardson’s “Remembering the Hanzi”.

In the world of Japanese language learning, Heisig’s original “Remembering the Kanji” is a popular choice for those wishing to, you guessed, remember how to write the Kanji characters.

Remembering the Hanzi cover

The Chinese version comes in either traditional or simplified format and currently, only book 1, the first 1500 characters, is available for purchase. It has been out for a quite a while now so several reviews already exist on the internets and it’s well worth having a read of some on Amazon. The book is aimed at those who wish to learn how to write Chinese characters and employs the use of short stories or mnemonics for each individual character, in an effort to help the learner remember both the meaning and the written form.

Heisig - Remembering the Hanzi

So, what to say about Remembering the Hanzi.

The Bad Points

First of all, the book definitely has it’s faults. While there are lists of pinyin in the index, I do not agree with his reasons for not including the pronunciation along with each character. The cynical side of me suspects that they really didn’t think that decision through at all. For Japanese it perhaps make sense, not that I know anything about Japanese language, however for Chinese, if you know the pronunciation of a radical, or similar looking characters, it can often help you remember others. For example 巴 bā 把 bǎ 吧 ba 爸 bà and so on. Anyway, we all know this, but clearly Heisig has his own ideas.

Secondly, a lot of the stories are rubbish. Let’s take one of the first characters Heisig introduces as an example:

Remembering the Hanzi - ming

明 ming2 “bright”

Now I don’t know about you, but to me it just seems rather long-winded. Seriously, get to the point Heisig. “The moon is bright because of the sun”. Done.

The start of the book is full of these giant stories, one for each character, whilst once you get past the 500 mark you are essentially just given a list of “Hanzi” and keywords and told to make up the stories yourself. It’s almost as if the author just couldn’t be arsed at that point and thought “bah they can do the rest themselves”. Alright, he does explain why in the book, but I can’t help but feel it done purely to make the book smaller and/or cheaper.

My third and final gripe, is to do with fonts and stroke order. While studying the first chunk of characters, James is nice enough to use the official handwritten-style font, as well as the more general and ugly computer font. This is great because it allows the reader to note the differences and errors the computer often makes. The first third of the book also included stroke by stroke diagrams which are also a great resource, but again, the book seems to succumb to laziness and after a while literally turns into a list of keyword plus character. Often extra stroke information is provided for particularly difficult characters but in my opinion it’s just not enough. The decision not to include the handwritten font as well just completely baffles me.

The Good Points

Alas, all I seem to do is complain these days. Let us now look at the good points of the book.

For me the strength of Remembering the Hanzi is in the fundamental idea behind the book. The authors could have done a better job of creating a book, but the idea and stories are completely unique, and that is the book’s selling point. Learning to hand-write Chinese characters, especially traditional ones, is a major hurdle that a lot of mandarin learners never manage to overcome. You see common, essential characters like 讓 (hello 24 strokes ^^) and just want to give up. Yet somehow after studying the Heisig method these characters become less and less daunting, and eventually even enjoyable to write. Through using mnemonics and cleverly chosen key words, you really start to get into it.

Overall I think the book is worth the money and if I was forced to give it a rating then perhaps 4/5 would suffice. The book itself is a nice size and well laid out, and the author’s style of writing is warm and extremely encouraging. I picked up the book about a year into studying Chinese and took AGES to finish it, but for most people, the first 1500 characters can be learnt within 3-6months if you are willing to put in the hours.

Remembering the Hanzi is available in both Simplified Chinese* and Traditional Chinese* versions.

Next time I will do a shorter post explaining some of the other techniques I used, in addition to the Heisig technique, to remember how to write Chinese characters.

* These links are Amazon affiliate links which help support the author of this post and ChineseHacks

  • hanmeng

    The theory is great, but it’s often difficult to come up with stories. I’ve been in classes where the teacher comes up with some helpful and some not, then he asked the students to come up with their own. Result? ->crickets chirping<-

    Anyway, I need help getting from "pack of wild dogs…butterfly net" to "alone". Does that mean I feel very alone because all I’ve got is a butterfly net to fend off the dogs?

    And then the butterfly net will also point to a snowflake belonging to a flag-waver?

    Finally, for the first two examples, he gives the actual meaning of the word, but lán apparently means gargoyle?

    • 勹 = bound up (or I think of a giant spoon) 目 = eyes plus 虫 = insect. So I imagine a kid with a giant spoon chasing insects. Heisig suggests naming this element “butterfly net”. To me that makes sense. However, while a lot of the characters “make sense” like this one, I would estimate that just as many, if not more, seem to be an almost jumbled mess, especially so if you are ignoring the phonic element. In the case of 獨 or 屬 I just gave up trying to think of a story and instead just try to remember alone=dog+butterfly net(crazy kid with spoon).

      闌 doesn’t mean gargoyle, however it is such a rarely used character that Heisig chooses to give it a new keyword. In a sense, he creates new radicals for characters which are rarely used by themselves, but often used as parts of other characters. For example 闌 is pretty useless but 蘭 is much more common. Personally I think this is a great idea, but I reckon he could have done a better job of thinking up keywords.

      I will talk more about this in my next post sometime next week but feel free to fire away any more questions!

  • Chris, thanks for the review. I’ve been a huge fan of the Heisig method for nearly a couple of years now – and the more people who get the message out, the more people who will find that it’s easier than they thought! Just wanted to make a few comments if I may …

    – I now live in HK, and some of my friends are learning Cantonese, and also using Heisig. So having the pinyin in the book is useless (and distracting) to them. I therefore agree with Heisig’s decision to leave it in an appendix.
    – Additionally, when I started with the book, I tried learning the pinyin at the same time – and that just slowed my learning down. Heisig was about visualisations, and I think it’s best to focus on meanings with Heisig, not pronunciation.
    – In the area of the stories & visualisations, I have found that the clear images are the ones that can be accessed quickly, and they last a long time. Your example of ‘bright’ is true, but it also creates a bit of a bad habit of using logic in your stories and not strong visuals. This becomes really significant further down the line.
    – Having worked through the entire book in about 3 months, I found certain things really helped, and I hope you don’t mind me posting the links here:
    1. Tips & Tricks for Heisig Visualisations
    2. Using Modern Art to Learn Chinese

    Thanks for an ongoing great blog!

  • Cheers Greg, honestly it’s a tough call on the pinyin part, but personally I just think the sound plus an example of usage needs to be engrained in the mind early on, but it does take longer that way for sure. I think it depends on the learners goals like you say, and where they are in there studies. But Heisig does have a system that works and despite my rants I am very grateful to have discovered the book.

    Thanks for the links, I really liked the modern art comparison! I’m curious about your Cantonese learning friends as well. Are they just using the traditional book?

  • Chris

    Cheers Greg, I was just in HK, had a fantastic time!

    Thanks for the links, I really liked the modern art comparison! I’m curious about your Cantonese learning friends as well. Are they just using the traditional book?

  • Chris, in my experience there are different streams of learning … speaking, listening, reading, grammar, etc. I don’t think they *need* to be connected, and indeed I found it was better if they remained separate while I was learning. Of course, over time, the connections happened naturally – with zero effort on my side.

    So pinyin came from the dialogues I was learning, and the characters had a meaning – but no pronunciation. Now they’re connected. (Interestingly, I read more slowly now than a year or two ago, because back then the characters just had meaning and I could follow the text … but now I find myself mouthing the pronunciation of each character, which is definitely slower.

    As for my friends, they’re learning Cantonese through lessons or through podcasts, but they’re using the heisig book to learn to read. Two completely separate streams, which will connect up in due course – but they’re not trying to connect them right now.

    Regards – Hope you enjoyed HK!

  • Henrique

    I think be nice the stories!

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