Culture TEDTalks

5 mnemonic devices for reading Chinese characters

Posted by: Jessica Gross

ShaoLanHsueh-at-TED2013To an outsider, the Chinese language “seems to be as impenetrable as the Great Wall of China,” says ShaoLan Hsueh in today’s talk, given at TED2013. Hsueh’s mission over the past few years has been to break down that barrier, making reading and writing in Chinese accessible to people who didn’t grow up doing it.

ShaoLan: Learn to read Chinese ... with ease!ShaoLan: Learn to read Chinese ... with ease!Her solution? A method she calls “Chineasy.” To achieve basic literacy, Hsueh says, you need only know 1,000 characters, and the top 200 allow you to comprehend 40 percent of basic literature. Chineasy involves pairing characters with facial expressions, body movements and images that conjure up words in English.

In her talk, Hsueh moves through eight foundational characters, describing mnemonic devices and showing artful depictions. “Open your mouth as wide as possible until it’s square,” she says. Are you doing it? Voila, the character for mouth: 口. Hsueh shows a graphic her team has designed of a person going for a walk, based on the character for person: 人. Fire is the character for person with what look like two arms waving, as if the person is engulfed in flames and yelling, “Help!”: 火. Hsueh also takes us through tree (木), mountain (山), sun (日), moon (月), and door (門), which “looks like a pair of saloon doors in the Wild West.”

These eight characters “are the building blocks for you to create lots more characters,” Hsueh explains. Using Chineasy’s simple, beautiful illustrations, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to many other words and phrases. In this talk, Hsueh takes us through almost 30 characters; here, some more examples based on those foundational eight.

      1. In her talk, Hsueh shows the Chinese character for person, 人, which looks like a person strolling along. Multiply by two, and you’ve got the character for everyone:
        everyone .
      2. In her talk, Hsueh shows us how combining fire (火) and mountain (山) gives us a volcano (火山). What happens when we add a mouth (口) to a volcano? Think about it: the mouth of a volcano is … a crater!
      3. Hsueh shows us that the character for big (大) looks like a person (人) with her arms outstretched, as if to say, “Sooooo big!” Combine those two, and you get adult (大人):’
      4. Write two suns (日) side by side and you get the character for “bright”: 昍. On her Facebook page, Hsueh writes, “I promise you, this is a character that will impress your Chinese friends. This is such a rare character that 99 percent of Chinese native speakers/readers would struggle to tell you what it is, never mind how to pronounce it.”
      5. Here’s a really clever one that Hsueh brings up in her talk: the character for “to dodge” or “to avoid” is composed of a person (人) inside a door (門), as if the person is sneaking out! 閃 What she adds on her Facebook page is that this character has a second meaning, “flash.” As she explains, “this person is sneaking out at such speed that the shape of him dashing resembles a streak of light.”


Comments (16)

  • Frank Tsai commented on Apr 14 2014

    This is a awesome approach! However this is not new and the way to learn Chinese, in my opinion, would be losing its flare in the long run. Learning a language is a repeating and consistent process, it takes time and efforts! Fortunately there is a shortcut to learn the the language, which is to learn the radical of the characters first, which by itself usually has a hint from the writing (or drawing) and then forms the character.

    Many thought it is difficult to learn Mandarin Chinese. In my view, it is not true! It takes time and efforts to learn it well, but what doesn’t? On the contrary, Chinese is one of the most interesting languages in the world to learn! Because Chinese is a picture language, which means ancient Chinese people draw different pictures as Chinese characters out of everything they saw in the environment!

    By the way, I’m teaching Chinese online via Skype, add me to have a FREE Trial! My skype name is : chinese.tutor.frank or GO TO


  • Tina Bixler commented on Jan 22 2014

    Thanks Hsueh for gathering and sharing such an insightful information regarding Chinese learning. Good approach to learn Chinese.

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  • Rhett Winston commented on Sep 12 2013

    This “solution” for learning Chinese won’t actually teach you anything useful.

    “Hsueh says, you need only know 1,000 characters, and the top 200 allow you to comprehend 40 percent of basic literature.”

    That is misleading rubbish. The parallel between Chinese characters and English words is best described as syllables.

    e.g. take the English word “outstanding”, break it into 3 syllables: out-stand-ing (or out-stan-ding). If we were talking Chinese, the word would comprise of 3 different characters “out”, “stand”, “ing”.

    Now, supposing you had used Hsueh’s method and learnt the characters for “out”, “stand”, “ing”, then you saw the word “outstanding” in a book, would you have any idea what it meant? No, probably not. Something to do with standing up? Present tense? Outside? Then how about its meaning in the context of a sentence? Not a hope!

    The fact is, you cannot read Chinese just by recognising the different characters, because it’s the WORDS and the SENTENCES that matter!
    Two Chinese characters make a word, and a word can have a completely different meaning to the characters.

    了 means past tense (among other things)
    解 means separate
    了解 means ‘to understand’
    “Oh! but I know 200 characters, including 了 and 解, so when I see 了解, I will know what it means!” Sorry, no you won’t. There is no correlation at all.

    I quote, “Write two suns (日) side by side and you get the character for “bright”: 昍.”
    My reply: you get a character that’s useless, never used in normal language. Why would you waste your time with this?
    If you try to use this character to say “Isn’t the sun BRIGHT today”, nobody will understand.

    Bottom line:
    the way to learn a language is through listening, learning and reviewing COMMON DIALOGUES, sentences, conversations, common words and grammar.
    In the case of Chinese, you will pick the characters up as you go along, but never mistakenly assume that the number of characters you KNOW is in any way proportional to your fluency in the language.

  • Susan Chan commented on Aug 27 2013

    It’s great that Mandarin is more in the limelight. It’s an important and very useful language. If you do a few things right, Mandarin Chinese does not have to be much harder than, say, German. Chinese is grammatically simple and its vocabulary logically constructed. The main issue that remains then is that all words sound different to your native language, so it takes some getting used to, but Mandarin does not have to be inherently ‘hard’. Three tips:

    1) Do not spend time on learning to hand-write characters! It’s nice, but not essential, computers make typing them very easy; saves you 50% of the time you’d spend penciling thousands of characters.

    2) Use the logical structure of Chinese vocab! There are a finite number of elements, with practice and a good method, this makes building your vocab fast and efficient, especially after the beginner stage.

    3) Do not just grind through vocab, also practice use of the language i.e. reading, listening, speaking! A little bit every day will vastly improve your progress and performance.

    More details:

  • Tomas osgoode commented on Aug 16 2013

    Nice layout although not new/innovative. Another good book on this came out in ’07:

  • Jessica Lysenko commented on Jul 14 2013

    can’t say this is anything new as such… still good to try and open Chinese and Asian languages to the world; they are the future!

    • Tomas osgoode commented on Aug 16 2013

      Reminds me of when everyone bleated to learning Japanese in the 1990s. Depends if the BS economy of China is able to keep the scam for long…

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  • KIm Jolie commented on May 17 2013

    I learned these charter now, it was very hard for mo to chinese character learning but this pate helped me a lot. Thank you ShaoLan Hsueh

  • commented on May 12 2013

    Reblogged this on ONETWOAFEW and commented:
    Not directly Spanish related, but a great reminder of the power of word association and mnemonic devices!

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  • commented on May 8 2013

    Simply amazing, very innovative. Can’t wait to learn the language.

  • Pingback: Chineasy – Learn Chinese easy | Sanna K Design

  • commented on May 7 2013

    Reblogged this on Step by step.

  • commented on May 7 2013

    Very nice :)