Set Up Lifelong Chinese Character Learning in 10 Minutes

With just ten minutes of work, you can set yourself up with a Chinese character learning system that will keep your hanzi up to scratch for a lifetime. Here’s how.

Before we start, I want to make it clear here that the goal is to set up a system for remembering how to write Chinese characters. We’re not looking to deal with words, pronunciation, grammar, or even definitions here.

Also, the word ‘learning’ in the title might be a little misleading. The system I’m advocating here isn’t aimed at learning Chinese characters from scratch. It’s for people, like me, who want a fast and simple way to make sure they’re remembering how to write characters in the long term. Learning them in the first place is a separate issue.

This is the approach I now use to keep on top of my hanzi writing, and I’ll explain why I’ve ended up doing it this way. The approach clearly has some caveats, and I’ll explain those below, too.

Clarifying the goal

We want to be up and running with a consistent, reliable system that you can continue to use without modification for a long time. So what features will we need?

  • All the characters we could reasonably want to know already built in.
  • Some sort of rough sequencing so we’re not spending time reviewing obscure characters before sorting out the more useful ones.
  • Quick prompts that will indicate which character we’re going to write without showing us the character itself.
  • Spaced repetition.
  • Easy to access and use, anywhere.
  • Free to use.
  • And of course, it needs to contain the actual characters to be shown so we can check our attempts!

If you’ve been learning Chinese for a while (and people who’ve already been learning Chinese for a while are the target audience of this article), you’ll probably have thought of Anki by now. That is indeed the software we’re going to use.

Setting up Anki

If you’ve got Anki set up and used it before, you can skip this part. We’re going to set up a simple deck in Anki to handle our Chinese character writing practice.

Set up Anki so you’ve got a note type with these fields:

  • Simplified
  • Traditional
  • Pinyin (or whatever pronunciation system)
  • English / meaning

Add a card to that note type with:

  • Meaning and pronunciation on one side
  • A nice big version of the character on the other

That’s it – Anki is now set up for helping you remember how to write Chinese characters.

When you review cards in this deck, Anki will give you a basic prompt based on the character’s meaning and pronunciation. In my view, the prompt is totally unimportant so long as it’s enough to identify the character.

Getting the data

Now we’ve just got to fill up this deck with characters, pronunciations and meanings. Continuing the theme of not spending time making something ‘perfect’ but focusing on just remembering how to write characters, I’d suggest you just Google around for any list of characters, pronunciations and meanings you can find.

For simplified characters, the one I use is this: Modern Chinese Character Frequency List

Now, that list is somewhat well-known and one of the most misused resources for learning Chinese. It’s misused by beginners who think “Aha! All I have to do is work through this list memorising it all and I’ll be able to read Chinese!”

That’s a really horrible approach to learning to read and write Chinese, and I would strongly recommend that you don’t do it that way if you’re just starting out.

However, if the problem you’re facing is purely remembering how to write characters when you’re already handling the other aspects of Chinese with other approaches, that list actually becomes useful at last.

Use spreadsheet software or some regexes to sort out that list into the columns, and it’s ready to important into Anki. Or, you can use this version that I’ve already prepared:

6226-simplified-characters.tsv

I also took out any characters in that file that are so rare no definition was given for them. There’s not a lot of point in learning those ones.

That left 6226 characters in the list, which I’d say is more than enough for the majority of people learning Chinese.

Make sure Anki adds new cards in order of card creation, and you’ll work through the characters in order of frequency. Then just turn off adding new cards when you hit the rough level you want to stay at (or be a masochist and go for the whole list like I am).

The result

Now you’ve got a simple Anki deck that lets you test your memory of how to write characters. It’s as lean as possible and has no distractions. The system is ready to help you stay on top of remembering how to write characters forever.

I use this almost entirely on my phone with AnkiDroid, because it lets me hand write my character attempts on to the screen. If you’re using a non-touch device to use the deck, hand-write on paper or use a graphics tablet. Whatever you do, it’s important to physically write the character for each prompt.

Why would you want this?

I said above that trying to rote learn characters using a big list is a bad method. I did that exact thing when I started learning Chinese. Later I discovered how futile it is and stopped doing it that way. But now I found myself back using that exact same method. Why is that?

The reason is that there should be a large difference in learning styles between a beginner and someone who’s been studying for a while. Once you’ve already got familiar with Chinese characters and interact with them on a daily basis, the game is different to when you started out.

In the later stages, you know what the characters mean, how to pronounce them, how to recognise them and so on, or you have good approaches for those aspects. In terms of remembering how to write them, though, really all you need is a regular test to alert you to any that you’ve forgotten.

In the later stages of learning, any extra work you add in reviewing writing will multiply across the many thousands of characters you have in the system and bog you down.

The approach described here is a response to that problem:

It isolates individual characters

Combining characters into words and sentences and making associations between them is absolutely essential for effective learning when you’re a beginner.

Later on though, re-studying how to write the same characters in every word you know them in is hugely inefficient. There may be some small benefit in ensuring you’re getting the right character in certain words, but for me it’s not worth it compared to the several factors of slow-down you get by writing out words instead of characters.

It doesn’t give hints

Because this method actually makes you physically write out each character on each review and doesn’t offer any hints or help, there’s less scope for ‘cheating’. You can write absolutely anything and you won’t know if it’s right until the prompt shows you the full character.

It’s fast

This system is focused entirely on making sure you’re remembering characters, and wasting as little time as possible whilst doing so.

I feel like learning to write Chinese characters is worthwhile but incredibly time consuming to stay on top of, so I like to separate it out like this and do it in the most efficient way possible. That means leaving out any extra information and just getting on with the nuts and bolts of it: writing characters from memory.

This system is also fast to set up. In the past I’ve given in to the temptation to spend a long time designing nice systems and getting everything set up perfectly with all sorts of data. I’ve come to realise that that’s usually a waste of time and it’s better to just get on with learning / reviewing.

Alternatives for learning Chinese characters

As I’ve said throughout this article, the method described here really isn’t suitable for beginners. It would be unhelpful and slow you down compared to other methods.

So how should you learn Chinese characters in the early stages? I can answer that in one word: Skritter. Currently it’s the best thing available.

What do you think of this method? How do you remember to write Chinese characters in the long term?

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