Best Way to Learn HanZi?

How do you memorize your hanzi? I’m searching for the best, most time-effective method for putting the largest amount of characters in my brain, and having them STAY there, not to be forgotten the next day. As you may know, that’s not easy when you’re trying to learn 20+ characters per day. Currently my method is just your basic write-them-over-and-over-again type of thing: I write each word five times, then after I finish with all the words, I write the pinyin on another sheet of paper and try to write them all from memory. Those that I can’t recall I practice writing some more. Those that I have a hard time with I try to study the etymology through, and/or make up a story with the radicals.

I’d be interested to hear how others study.

I would put your mnemonics (stories or other means of remembering the form of the character) into the process earlier. That might allow you to eliminate some of the Chinese time-honored repetitive writing! The more stories – and the dumber or more exaggerated they are – you have about the characters, the easier it will be for you to recall them.

Try using more audio or kinesthetic input, depending on what tends to work better for you personally. That is, you might “tell” yourself out loud what shapes make up the character as you write it: “OK, first I put the sun on top, then the horizon line, then the weird legs” if you’re writing “zui4” [most] for example. (OK, bad example but I’m not thinking today, it’s Sunday!) For kinesthetics, try actually moving your body, arm or hand while writing or thinking about the character. Muscle memory is a very powerful aid to memorizing words.

I used to practice with those “magic slates” kids draw with – you know, th ones where you pull up on sheet to erase it? You could even draw boxes on the top plastic sheet with a permanent marker if you wanted to. Or you could be very modern and get a nice little white board. I always kind of liked writing on those pads with squares ruled on them, even if it didn’t really help me [personally] learn that much. It was just kinda neat.

I also have a nice game – don’t know what it’s called – but it has lots of characters sliced in two (top/bottom and left/right versions of the game separate). You play variations of dominos or similar games with the set. I got this about 10 years ago and have never seen it since, but if you come across more please let me know. Chinese people loved to play this game with us and there were endless good-natured arguments about “that character doesn’t exist” and stuff like that.

I’ve also used a combination of flash cards and writing – get a computer program or one for Palm and that will make the prompts more random and will have them focus on the ones you really need to repeat.

If you want to reinforce tones, you can even practice writing in 4 colors, using the appropriate colored marker to write the character you’re practicing. Again this keys in visual memory for tones, although you’re not working specifically on tones when you write. It all helps.

Not to be a devil’s advocate – but do you really need to be able to write characters by hand? Aside from, say, filling out forms, is there going to be a time when you need to do this without a dictionary and without a computer? [evil statement follows:] Just becuase your teacher says you have to doesn’t mean it is useful for you, and as an adult learner you have the responsibility to think carefully about these issues (particularly because teachers here usually do not.)

If it doesn’t look like there will be that need for you, I’d advise you to concentrate on recognition instead of production. You’ll be able to learn a lot more characters in that case, and will be more fluent reading – which might encourage you to read more, which will improve everything about your Chinese.


OK, here’s my method, it suits me becuase I find writing over and over again to be absolutely no help at all to memorise.

basically I use flashcards, becuase I need to change the order otherwise I cheat by memorising the order rather than the actual character.

On each flashcard (can buy 100 namecard size czards for 24NT or so at stationary shop), on one side I have the bopomo at the top and the English meaning at the bottom, I write the character on the back.

To study, I grab a pile read my bopomo and meaning and see if I can write it. Check and if it’s right it’s passed, if I’m wrong I put it aside. Finish a pile, shuffle the put aside ones and do them again. Repeat if necessary untili’ve got them all.

Now the complicated part. Say I haven’t looked at a pile for 1 week. I have a card on top of that pile saying that they’re a ‘1 week’ pile with the date I looked at them. Now when I study these, all the ones I get straight off, get promoted to 2 weeks (double) and the ones that fail get demoted to 4 days (half). Lots of splitting and merging the piles. Sounds complicated but it means you see more ofthe hard ones and thent he easy ones you don’t need to keep looking at.

If I’m just not memorising then I look it up in my book which is in paper form, andcheck out the radicals and/or make up a story to help memorise it.

Then I get too lazy to look at my hanzi for 6 months and have to start all over again, but that’s not a step that I recommend.

Basically what I keep meaning to do is start reading and writing as quickly as possible, so that I can stop ‘studying my charcters’.


Wow, thanks both of you for the excellent ideas.

Terry, you bring up a good point about the importance of learning to write characters. I can’t think of many situations in which I’ll need to write instead of type, but since my ultimate goal is to be fluent in Mandarin, I’d feel pretty silly not knowing how to write, at least simplified characters.

Bri, your flashcard idea sounds great. I did the flashcard thing in the past and ended up with WAY too many flashcards all over the place, so the Palm flashcard programs might be best. I do have Wenlin which has a flashcard function that I’m not too fond of, I think mainly because you can only have sets of 10 or so characters at a time, and they can only be single characters, not full words.

In the dictionary thread I read Terry’s post about the Palm version of the Oxford dictionary which has a write-in feature, I would LOVE that. Wenlin has one, but a portable one would be so so nice. So it looks like buying a Palm is in my future, any suggestions as to which one I should get?

Oh yeah, gotta get one of those “magic slate” thingies. That would save me a lot of paper.

Bri, I also have a copy of the dictionary, isn’t it great? I have a funny story to go along with it.
My highschool didn’t offer Chinese, so before I went to college I started trying to teach myself and came across, thought it was the greatest thing ever, used it constantly. I even emailed Rick Harbaugh (the author) a couple of times but I don’t think he replied. Anyway, freshman year of college I’m in my first year Chinese class (didn’t get very far teaching myself ) when the teacher announces that we have a guest speaker, none other than Rick Harbaugh. Well my mouth just about dropped open when he came in and gave a lecture about characters and their origins. It turns out he was a new economics professor at the school next to mine, Claremont Mckenna College. Then at the end of the lecture he pulled out a box of dictionaries. The publisher rejected them because they had slight damage, barely anything, but we got to buy them at a huge discount anyway. That made my day.

Gotta get back to work.


Hi Rachel,

I’ve owned both Palms and Handsprings, and I swear by the Handspring Visor line, especially because they have that neat slot where you can add on interesting hardware if you’re so inclined.

If you get yourself a Handspring, load it up with the “CJKOS” program (Chinese, Japanese and Korean operating system) and then top off with SuperMemo (excellent flashcard program from and the Oxford Dictionary (, you’ll be on the cutting edge, and the envy of everyone you meet. I know I am, judging from the looks I get everywhere.


Thanks Terry,

But what should I get if I just want the cheapest thing that can run the flashcard program and the Oxford dictionary program? I’m kinda broke at the moment, and don’t need anything fancy.



Hi Terry,

So will 8MB of memory be enough for the dictionary, the SuperMemo, and the Chinese OS needed for SuperMemo? FYI, I’m not in Taiwan at the moment, planning on getting a used PDA off of ebay. Do I really need the Chinese OS or is there another good flashcard program that would work for Chinese characters on an English OS?

With the SuperMemo flashcard program, do you have a choice of displays, i.e. pinyin, character, or English translation? That would be ideal!

THanks so much for your help,

Hi Rachel,

I think 8MB should be plenty for those programs. I used to run a Visor Platinum and never ran out of memory, with all that plus programs that I wrote myself (which were not exactly conservative on their memory requirements because I don’t code that well!) So you shouldn’t have any problem.

Handspring has a sale on now on Visor Platinums (8MB) for $149 including a case; I got one for my mom who has been having trouble reading the screen on her Palm 105. It might be worthwhile to pay the extra $10 or $20 to get the real thing new than to risk ebay, but then again I’ve had good luck with stuff on ebay so you never know.

You do need a Chinese OS for SuperMemo, because it’s just “generic” to memorize, well, anything. There is a program called “FlashZi” which I find somewhat clunky (not a criticism, I couldn’t write it! but the algorithm is not nearly as smooth as SuperMemo which for me is unparalleled) and there’s another I spotted on last night called King Hanzi or something like that (search “Chinese” and they’ll pop up). I believe that those do not require a Chinese OS. I prefer to have it, because then I can also make notes of words in MemoPad and use other programs in Chinese if I want to (some vocab goes through Excel for me for various applications or to make dbs for Palm apps).

I’d say, if you can afford the CJKOS, it’s worth it. It’s always there for you and with 8MB you’d have to work pretty hard to fill it up even with about 2MB for the OS. But that’s just my NT$0.66 as usual.


Hi Terry!

I am now the proud owner of a Handspring Visor Deluxe that I got off ebay. I purchased the dictionary from Pleco and am eagerly awaiting my serial number so I can get started. Just wanted to thank you for your help. This dictionary is going to be SO helpful for me in so many ways. I also checked out your website,, and there are a lot of cool Palm apps on there. Did you write most of them yourself? Where did you learn programming? I also saw that you double-majored in Chinese and Linguistics at Georgetown. How do you happen to be fluent in Spanish as well, native speaker? I’m an undergrad right now and debating whether to major in Chinese or Asian Studies. I took Spanish in high school but unfortunately haven’t had much time for it since then.

P.S. Do you recommend buying some of those plastic sheets that protect the screen? I read somewhere that the screens can crack easily.

Thanks again,

Hi Rachel,

Great! I know you’re gonna love it. I love mine to pieces. Get yourself the “SuperMemo” software if you want to learn words fast: it’s at I’m setting up a Palm for a friend just now so am going through the same procedure as you (again!)

I would definitely get the screen protectors. That’s the part of the PDA that most frequently goes bad, and it’s hard to replace (i.e., not really worth it). With a plastic sheet, even though the cost is hard to stomach at first, you can relax a little bit.

Let me know if you try the “glow-in-the-dark” ones (or I’ll split the cost of a pack with you if you want!) that they have advertised on the front page of these days (although, as usual, I advise people to only BROWSE there, but buy apps from the developers directly, as they don’t pay us.) BTW I do write all my own Palm apps; the problem is that I’m easily distracted with all kinds of fun projects, so they rarely get beyond version 1.0! :smiley:

Hmm, I didn’t see the glow-in-the-dark screen protectors at How much were they? I might be interested.
Why would I need more than one? Do they wear out quickly?

P.S. that was me, btw

I think you “need” more than one because they sell 'em in packages of 2. The regular screen protectors I bought one time came in packs of 12…I guess they’re trying to convince you to change 'em monthly or something. But I’ve had the same on on my Palm since like November with no ill effects. (Hope that information isn’t too nasty for ths forum!)