How do you memorize Chinese characters?

Chinese character is a big challenge for Chinese language learners and there are many methods which can help to learn and memorize them. What method do you think is the best one? Would love to learn more from this community. Thanks so much.

I haven’t started with chinese characters (yet), however I would consider writing them (multiple or many times, depending on my personal patience). The idea is to create neuronal connections by writing, already at a relatively early stage in the language acquisition.

Furthermore I would try to decode them, by trying to understand and discover the elements (radicals) that form the characters, in some cases also why they are the way they are etc.

I would try to do the learning process in a rather incidental / casual way. Rather explore than just repeat bluntly. This appears more brain-friendly and natural to me. (Note: If someone likes to do many repetitions, there is nothing wrong with it.)

Further repetition / recognition should happen while reading (e.g. pinyin and the chinese characters + listening in LingQ at the same time.

Once I would be more advanced, I might try to make the chinese characters part of my life (e.g. change language settings in a software to chinese characters). I could explore how to write/create them on my computer, how to do this on my phone etc.

This would just be my preferences. Other people might have a different preferences and/or a different tolerance for repetitions. If visualization comes easy to you, you might try corresponding methods.

Every encounter of the characters makes it easier to recognize and acquire. A way is to look at it and see how it’s pronounced through the pinyin. Next time, it gets easier to recognize it. It would usually take few encounters to get it to be natural for each character. Ideally around 5-32 times it usually how long it takes on average from what I read somewhere. This is mostly for reading. If we’re talking about writing, that’s a different story…

Mnemonics and memory palaces are really great for the beginning. I enjoyed a doing a version of the wanikani / mandarin blue print / Heisig methods. You take a character, break it down into components and tell a little story with it. Pleco and other sites will sort the characters by radicals / components so no need to re invent the wheel. (Chinese Radicals - 汉字偏旁部首 - Arch Chinese)

After a couple of hundred, and reading a lot of beginning material, my brain clicked, and it got much easier. I was able to cram about 10 to 20 characters a day till I hit about 2500. 3500 is a sweet spot where you’ll recognize >99%, I’m now just learning about 2 to 3 a day until I hit about 5k.

Eventually though you will realize the horror of forgetting characters over and over again and struggling to pull meaning from it quick enough to parse subtitles or reading faster than a snails pace. Mnemonics will only get you so far, and it’s then a matter of seeing a characters dozens of times in different contexts to actually “learn” it and it’s multitude of meanings. Vocabulary size doesn’t necessary correlate with amount of hanzi crammed. So reading a lot is essential.

I did learn stroke order and practiced writing the first couple of hundred characters. However, I stopped writing entirely several months after starting. One day I was tired and could not remember the difference between 我 vs 找 even though I had written both of them down countless times. I figured it was a waste of time for me since I just want to learn to read.

SRS like Anki or Pleco is a must whatever method you use to learn them. Even if quickly forgotten it really helps having freshly reviewed characters in short term memory. I have a separate deck in Anki that’s just for reviewing hanzi, where I have the hanzi along with a sample word on the front, with the pronunciation and meaning on the back.

I have a spreadsheet that has all the hanzi (up to 9K) sorted by frequency. I mark what I put into Anki as I go along.

After doing the very impressive feat of learning thousands of characters and getting a grasp of how grammar & vocabulary work, you’ll hit the “omfg the chengyus” stage. Chinese is really hard haha

1 Like

I noticed your goals and their super reading heavy which is great. Do you feel in order to learn the words better one has to do different activities with them at all or is enough reading enough to cement everything?

Also regarding characters is their a large difference between you knowing a character from studying it with the methods you stated above vs you now knowing 10-15 words with a character in it? Do you feel you know the character on a deeper level once you have learned a bunch of words that contain that character? People talk about how say Wanikani one has a shallow understanding of how characters work after completing it. Would you agree with this sentiment?

I’m not doing any output since I’m mainly interested in learning to read. I’ve found you don’t have to speak / write to learn to read (see the refold method). But there is some research I’ve seen that reading out loud might help with memory, and people have learned the characters by rote writing for centuries, so experiment and see what works for you personally. Listening is very important and can’t be skipped, since it helps the brain pull the pronunciation of the character when looking at it.

1 Like

Hi TofuMeow, your method for learning characters seems very similar to mine. If I may ask, what procedure do you use for learning words? My approach so far has been to, first read a book, then use a program to export any unknown words (not LingQs) I encountered that are within the top 20.000 most frequent words to Anki.

It’s been working well and I’ve learned 8.5k words and 3k characters like this so far. However, I spend about 45 minutes a day on old Anki reviews and 30 minutes on learning and reviewing the new 50 or so words I learn. Sometimes I wonder if this time would be better spent just reading and listening. Would it make sense to stop importing words to Anki at any point? What’s your method for learning vocabulary?

Thanks in advance! As a fellow Chinese learner, seeing all your progress has really motivated me to keep improving!

1 Like

My advice is continue the Anki but read as much as you can the rest of the time. I also recommended getting into Cdramas if you aren’t already, since they help quickly recover from the occasional burnout / discouragement.

I’m no expert on the best way to learn efficiently. I became obsessed since the start and have put thousands of hours in and I consider my comprehension level as “???” but above Peppa Pig.

For vocab, I was inspired by one of Steve’s videos about forgetting, so I try to stop thinking of it as “memorizing” vocab as that stresses me out. Reading, watching lots of Cdramas with subtitles and looking up words is basically it. I can’t control what sticks in my mind and what doesn’t :slight_smile: Reading a lot and guessing what the yellow LingQs mean before I look at the definition is probably the best thing I’ve done to learn vocab at an intermediate level. I was heavily reliant on translations and text to speech in the beginning since it made reading fun (as I could understand what was going on).

I’m resigned to using Anki forever at this point, but I’ve cut back a lot. I went through a stage where I got burnt out and stopped doing sentence / vocab reviews and it really felt like it slowed my progress. Now I use it to collect chengyus, hanzi and I’m slowly going through the Subs2rs deck of the Untamed《陈情令》I add words to Pleco, and then never get around to reviewing them. I don’t use the flashcard function on LingQ either.

I agree with the general consensus on SRS, it’s very useful as an accessory to reading a lot, but has it’s limits. There are so many times when I encounter a word that I put into Anki, but can’t remember or even recognize it in a difference context. But it’s very helpful to help “highlight” the word and makes it quicker to learn.


Thank you for sharing! As well as SRS I will continue reading and listening while focusing on trying to actively recall the words I encounter, as you suggest.

1 Like


Previously I had taken 3 years of Chinese at a variety of places, and now I am taking it back up again after 6 years of not studying at all.

Here are the effective ways that I have found, but please keep in mind that this has been my personal experience!

  1. Chinese class:
    -One teacher would quiz us at least once a week on writing, so we learned whether we wanted to or not! Effective, but most classes were not like this.

  2. Learning the basics:
    -Familiarizing myself with the radicals and what they mean, since some of them look like what they mean and are easy to write.
    -Reviewing stroke order occasionally to make it more natural and easier to remember how to write characters.

  3. Avoiding Pinyin:
    -Avoiding Pinyin or finding ways to cover up the Pinyin.
    -In LingQ for example, I have the Asian Script Settings set to “Off”/“Traditional” instead of “Pinyin”, since I can always click on an unfamiliar word for the sidebar panel to play the audio and show the Pinyin underneath the characters anyway.
    -Small caveat: I probably wouldn’t do this my first month of learning Chinese, since the pronunciation would still be very new.

  4. Seeing Traditional Characters (NEVER thought i would say this…)
    -Oddly enough, seeing the traditional characters is helpful since they are more sometimes recognizable or include hints about the meaning that the simplified versions have omitted.
    -When possible, I read with the traditional and simplified characters together, but focus on the simplified ones. Sometimes I also switch between traditional and simplified depending on the media.

  5. Finding FUN material:
    -Using material that is too advanced is frustrating! However, it is crucial to find a variety of contexts for learning, so I try to use only media that I am genuinely interested in (especially if the English translation is not yet available):
    -ManHua/manga and anime in Chinese (or dubbed in Chinese), using as a search engine instead of Google, reading tweets in Chinese, etc.
    -Even finding something in Japanese and recognizing some characters can be fun!

  6. Keeping track of progress:
    -LingQ has been great for this! I’m not paying lots of attention to the # of words I “know”, but it’s motivating to see the numbers go up!

  7. Flash cards:
    -When there’s no emotional or contextual link to the flash cards, they are ineffective for me. Using LingQ’s context-driven reviews help, as well as certain Chinese apps that quiz using pictures/audio/video.

  8. Deciding when to move on to next set of words:
    -I no longer make sure I know exactly how to write a character before moving on, since these days it’s not so necessary to write. Most people seem to type/text which brings up the characters after typing the pronunciation or drawing the basic gist of the character.
    -Also I tend to run into the characters again before long anyway, giving me a chance to review.

  9. Practicing
    -Practicing writing characters over and over without context has not been effective for me. Many native Chinese people learned this way, but that doesn’t mean it was efficient.
    -It’s much easier to practice writing a character a few times, then writing it again in a compound word you know or would like to learn, then writing it again with another compound word or a sentence, etc.

I’m enjoying reading others’ responses to this post btw, good tips everyone and good OG post! :slight_smile: