Use imagery to learn Chinese

Many courses use images for teaching basic vocabulary in the early stages of learning Chinese, but after that most learners do not make much use of imagery in their studies. This is unfortunate, because imagery can be a powerful tool for learning Chinese.

Images, both real and mental, can be used to create stronger memories more rapidly, and to gain a more intuitive understanding of Chinese without resorting to English translations. Because use of imagery is such a useful learning technique, it’s Rule #6 in the 20 Rules for Learning.


One of the more common applications of imagery in learning Chinese is the creation of mnemonics, especially for remembering Chinese characters. This is a great approach to learning hanzi, and thousands of learners have discovered how much of a performance boost it can give you.

The idea is that an imagined illustration or tiny story is far more vivid in your mind than a direct image of the character itself. By breaking the character down into its components and using those to compose a creative image or story, you can memorise any character with a hundredth of the effort required for other methods such as rote repetition.

For example, the character 杯 is composed of 木 (“wood” or “tree”) and 不 (“not”). An image of someone angrily throwing away a cup and saying “this cup is not wooden!” is much easier to remember than the composition of the character itself.

This mnemonic image approach gets easier and easier as you build a wider knowledge of Chinese characters. At first it is more of a burden, but the benefits start to arrive quickly and you’ll soon be racing ahead compared to more traditional methods.

Note that it doesn’t really matter whether the component breakdown you use is “correct” or not according to language historians. The main thing is that you remember the character.

Some learners like to use their own bank of component mnemonics, and others like to incorporate the dictionary definitions of the components. Each approach has its benefits and drawbacks:

  • Your own “made up” character component mnemonics may be easier to remember, especially in the beginning when you lack knowledge of other characters.
  • Using the real component meanings gives you a consistent system, and lets you take advantage of a rabbit hole effect as you acquire more characters and components (especially as characters are often components of other characters).

As an example, the component 罒 (wǎng) is defined as “net” in the dictionary (it’s the radical form of 网). That would make a fine mnemonic image. When I first started learning Chinese characters, though, I didn’t know about that meaning and hadn’t looked it up, so for a while I imagined that component as “ninja” because to me it looked like a stereotypical ninja’s eyes in a mask. It was somewhat ridiculous and therefore memorable, and helped me to remember characters involving 罒. When I had a few more characters under my belt, I switched to thinking of 罒 as “net” in my mnemonic images.

The last point to add about mnemonic images is that you can take them a lot further than basic breakdowns like “木 is wood”. Try to create more specific, personalised and bizarre images to use in your mnemonics, and you’ll find that they stick even more strongly.

Building intuitive language sense

Images don’t have to be part of a mnemonic to help you learn Chinese. General use of images is a good way to build an intuitive sense for the language, and is one way to reduce the amount of translation you use in your studies.

Translation is something of a necessary evil in language learning because it’s efficient and easy to use your native language as a prompt and as a check during your active learning. Images are often better, though, as they don’t rely on another language: it’s just you, the image and the target language.

This can be used in both directions: images can act both as a prompt and as a guide whilst learning Chinese.

You can use an image as a prompt to get you speaking Chinese without needing to think in English first. This is something of a classic language practice exercise, and it’s a good one. It sometimes appears as a language exam question as well. In any case, it’s easy to implement and any image can make a good prompt. You can also use videos to give yourself some mental imagery to try and deal with directly in the target language.

Conversely, by finding images that native speakers would associate with certain terms, sentences or concepts, you can build some direct understanding without needing to involve your native language. One simple trick that works on this basis is to use Google or Baidu image search to find images related to vocabulary you’re learning.

Another nice approach is to pair up subtitles with appropriate stills from the film or TV show they came from. The image is then a great prompt with a lot of natural context for the sentences in the subtitles. This takes a lot of time compared to text-only learning, but is a nice approach to mix in.

Wherever you might use English translation in your studies, remember that images are a powerful alternative. The trade-off is that they are often more time- consuming to integrate into your learning, and can be harder to assess or keep track of.

Series: Twenty rules for learning

  1. Understand before you learn
  2. Learn before you memorise
  3. Build upon the basics
  4. The minimum information principle
  5. Cloze deletion for learning Chinese
  6. Use imagery to learn Chinese (this article)
  7. Use mnemonics
  8. Graphical deletion and audio deletion for learning Chinese
  9. Avoid sets
  10. Avoid enumerations
  11. Interference when learning Chinese
  12. 5 ways to optimise your Chinese flashcards
  13. Refer to other memories
  14. Personalise your Chinese learning
  15. Using emotional states to remember Chinese
  16. The importance of context in Chinese flashcards
  17. Why redundancy is good for language learning

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