Funny little memory tricks for writing characters

December 20, 2010, 07:55 AM posted in General Discussion

Sometimes I have trouble remembering how to write certain characters.  One way I solve this is to look at the character and interpret in an amusing or interesting way why the character could be constructed.  For example:

The word for cigarette is 烟.  I imagine that this character is actually two scenes from a person's life.  The left scene is composed of a person (actually the radical for fire) running around with vitality.  The second scene on the right is the result of this happy person smoking--lying in a coffin.  Okay, not so funny... but I never forget it.

杯子, I had trouble with the 'bei' part.  Then a teacher told me that the radical on the right is wood.  We all pointed out that a cup is not made of wood.  The teacher said to look at the other radical, which is 不, i.e. 'not'.  He said a cup is 'not' made of 'wood'.  

The other character I have is 要.  The bottom radical is 女, i.e. female.  The top part I think is called 'xi', whatever that means, but I imagine it is a purse.  Therefore, it is a woman who has an insatiable 'want' for money, so she perpetually holds up a purse asking for cash.  A bit sexist, I know, and I apologize, but I never forget how to write it now.

Do any of you have any funny or interesting ways to remember how to write characters?  Or if you are willing, perhaps you can come up with new ones now by taking a look at this list.

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December 20, 2010, 08:37 AM

it is really funny and effective!

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December 30, 2010, 04:21 PM


It's a systemized way of making stories for learning characters. I tried the method for Japanese and after 6 months I could WRITE around 1000 characters. I emphasize the write, because recognition is so much easier to do.

That being said, it's systemized for a reason. If you don't complete the whole thing, or you stop half way, then it's kind of useless. The stories build on each other, so if you forget or don't do one story, then the foundation of the other character stories fall apart. is best for individual character etymologies. I honestly prefer this method, since I don't have a dire need to write hanzi at the moment, but if I did, I'd probably use the former method.

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December 20, 2010, 10:52 AM

要 to want

to want (要) = the west/a nest/two hands (西覀) + woman (女)

覀 Two hands reach for the body of a 女 woman: 要 to want.


及 to reach

to reach (及) = person (人亻) + right hand/again (又)

A 又 right hand grasps a 人 person: 及 to reach.


级 grade/level

grade/level (级) = silk (糸) + to reach (及)

糸 Silk that 及 reaches a certain 级 level (of quality).

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Those look pretty official. Am I right? If so, may I ask where you got these explanations?

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I agree. These remind me of the versions I've read in "Fun with Chinese Characters"

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Whats wrong with the "official" ones?

They are from T.K. Ann's Cracking the Chinese Puzzles and other sources.

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Not sure there was anything "wrong with them" implied horst.. I think he was just wondering where you got them from so he could go and buy the book himself :) hehe

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I agree with light. Sounds like a good the title. Thanks for posting that.

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Oh sorry, I didn't catch your comment last night. Yeah, I am just curious. I'm all about official if it is fun--which it is this time.

I like the explanation of 看. I actually knew the bottom radical was 目, but I never really got the connection of 手 being on top.

I really like the explanation for 找. I'll think of that the next time I look for a pencil. Come here you evil pencil!

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December 20, 2010, 11:18 PM

I've tried this sorta memory trick thing and it doesn't seem to work for me at all. The only way I seem to remember how to write is through repetitious learning.. and then constantly using that character over and over. If I leave it for a month or more without writing that character, I often forgot how to write it... even the most simple characters are forgotten if I don't keep writing.. yet at the same time, I have no trouble in reading the characters I am familiar with.. even if I haven't seen it for a while..

For example, in the "River Town Tourism" upper-intermediate lessons someone made the comment that "liang bai duo nian" meant "more than 200 years". I recognised the characters immediately and the meaning without needing to be reminded but I wouldn't have been able to write any of the 4 characters because I don't write them often enough.

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December 20, 2010, 11:55 PM


making up stories for the characters is fun and I think can be a good way to remember them. I prefer to try and get to the etymology to understand how the Chinese arrived at the characters. I think it helps then in applying those same elements to the learning of other characters. Hopefully it will mean less stories have to be remembered overall. But I guess in the end some characters etymologies are not so self apparent and in those cases a story may well help. So probably I'd go for a hybrid....try and learn what the radical and phonetic is and then decide on how to best remember that [perhaps coming up with a story..trying not to deviate too much from the meanings of the characters]. Take your 烟 example though. Both the 火 radical meaning fire and  因 [yin] phonetic are common and thus well known. I don't thus see a great need for a story for this one...easy to see why a cigarette has a fire radical and then just a matter of remembering that the phonetic yin is similar to yan. But if I were to make a story, mine would be as simple as possible...just that smoking in bed can lead to a fire. Or for the more 浪漫 inclined, just think of the old movies and how they smoked in bed when they were, to borrow from your story and adapt.. "happy". I do love your stories though btw..very imaginative and I could see them working well. Guess I'm lazy, hehe.

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December 21, 2010, 12:26 AM

Great post btw xiaophil. I hope you get a lot more replies.

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December 20, 2010, 10:38 AM

找 to find, to look for

to look for (找) = hand (手扌) + halberd (戈)

With the 戈 halberd in your 扌 hand, you 找 look for the enemy.


是 to be

to be (是) = sun (日) + correct(ly) (正)

是 To be means to live 正 correctly under the 日 sun.


看 to look at, to see

to see (看) = hand (手扌) + eye (目)

A 手 hand above the 目 eyes creates a shadow, and one can 看 see more clearly.

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December 21, 2010, 02:19 PM

I think I'm with baba on this one, generally I don't make up stories because I enjoy learning the radicals...and maybe because it's a lot of work to make up a good story and using the radicals works for baba I like to figure out the Chinese story so I don't have to make up my own.

So jīn 金 is "gold" and one place the gold radical shows up is the word for "money" - qián 钱 (with the gold radical on the left). I basically just memorized the right side.

(It sometimes helps me to look at the traditional character radical because they often look more like the character the radical comes from. This is the traditional qián 錢, the radical looks more like the character.)

I sort of automatically develop associations for new characters with ones I already know. So at some point I learned that sī 丝 means "thread/silk". When I learned the word for "thread/line", xiàn 线, I immediately noticed that it had the silk radical (oh - makes sense!) with the same right-side as "money", qián. So whenever I write the character 线, I really do think of 钱, because I learned it first.

I also do this with the I learned líng 铃 means bell...oh, it has the "gold" radical too - it must be something made of metal. And for some reason I will always associate the part on the right with "bell" in my head, even though it's the phonetic part. It kind of looks like a bell, right?

Zero (líng) 零 in my head is associated with "snow" (well...the top is really "rain" 雨, but I always think of "snow" 雪). I guess raindrops (and snowflakes) kind of look like the number zero - though this is not what I usually think of. The phonetic part in 零, which is on the bottom, is the same phonetic part as 铃 "bell", so I guess what I'm actually thinking is "snowbell" whenever I write 零. :D This one was actually really hard for me to remember until AFTER I'd learned "snow" and "bell", then my brain back-associated.

Oh, I thought of one story - look at rain, yǔ 雨, doesn't it look just like rain falling outside a window, with a curtain rod on top?

So this is kind of how my mind works...the radicals + stories + association with other characters. It kind of makes it's own story. It works for me, even when they don't make sense (like with bēi 杯), but this may not work for everyone.

I love hearing about the stories though! I think it's so creative - great idea for a post!

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December 21, 2010, 02:38 PM

Just from reading some of the comments here, I would like to say that actually I don't normally make stories either.  I think it is just something that occasionally pops into my head, or in the case of 杯, I'm told.  These stories really did help me to remember the three characters I mentioned above, but I must confess, I really haven't had a problem writing those characters for quite some time.  So the more I think about it, perhaps I mostly think of this as an amusing game.  I hope poddies will continue to post here.  I think it might be fun to share some of these with Chinese friends.

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December 21, 2010, 05:35 PM

'it might be fun to share some of these with Chinese friends.'

I was just thinking about this tonight and came back to see this thread.  The default approach for Chinese I talk to is to de-construct the word/characters into radicals and other components and talk about them in a very physical manner - start with the 'A' radical on the left, then the 'B' radical goes up top, and the 'C' radical below it. But I think that they also often have stories to prompt them.  

Their 'stories' tend to be traditional stories (sometimes chengyu/suyu.) That gives them the association with certain words and characters.  So tonight when I swapped names with a guy he said to me ..松柏长青。 This is what he thought of when hearing my name.  (I must be looking old.)  I did not recognise his family name, so he de-constructed the character for me.  I didn't know his given name either, but by listening to him de-construct them I was able to write his name. 

This might be my favourite hobby in my world of learning Chinese.  

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December 22, 2010, 05:59 PM


OK - I'll have a go. From today's lesson:

Intermediate: Dad behind the Video Camera

缩 as in 缩小 (zoom out)

Meaning: to contract/to shrink

Radical is 纟(糸) (silk, thread) giving the meaning: I think of someone coiling a rope up to contract it into a small pile.

宿 (sù) is a phonetic here, but the meaning is a lodge - as in 宿舍 (sùshè - dormitory). So I think of a dorm room with the beds all crammed together to contract as many people together as possible under one roof.

宿 = [100 (or numerous) 百] + [people 亻(人)] under one [roof 宀].

Some words containing 缩:

压缩 yāsuō = to compress, to condense; also to reduce

缩短 suōduǎn = to shorten (usually used with time)

缩写 suōxiě – abridge, abbreviate, abbreviation

缩小 suōxiǎo – to shrink, to reduce (and zoom out!)

浓缩 nóngsuō– concentrate? - a versatile little word. 浓缩咖啡 = espresso. And if that doesn't do the trick you could try some 浓缩铀 (enriched Uranium).


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December 30, 2010, 02:00 PM

The best tools for explaining the meaning of multi-part characters that I've found so far is  All of the meanings are authentic, and for the most part make sense.

Although doesn't always work, for example 杯 just says the modern form uses wood, implying the original form was different.

Sometimes it's very nice, for example the other day i looked up 休 and the explanation was "person (radical) against a tree".  You do see people here sleeping while leaning against things, so this made total sense.

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Thanks for the link. I'll check it out when I can get to a vpn. Right now it is blocked at my home. For some reason the web seems to be extra controlled where I live.

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December 21, 2010, 12:31 AM

you're 杯子 way of remembering is very good. Etymology gives us that the radical 木 [on the left mate..打错了】 for wood gives us the meaning and 不 bu gives us the sound. Well bu is not that similar to bei [except the "b" sound]. I guess originally maybe some cups were made of wood. But I like your not wood way of remembering it...the phonetic is a little disappointing in this case and things can have evolved so far from the original etymology so that it can be a little obscure. I'd go with you on this one.