Chinese Characters Made Easy

To write Chinese symbols you have to memorize them.

One of my earlier calligraphy teachers had me copying the works of lots of famous masters. The trouble was, while I may have been learning to better handle a brush, all I was doing was copying.

This practice method wasn't making Chinese Characters a part of me. And that was a problem, particularly since I wanted not just paint beautifully but write words of my own choosing.

To paint beautifully, (or even legibly) and to paint Chinese characters creatively, I had to memorize them first.

But Memorization Sucks!

Memorization can have painful or distasteful connotations. Memorizing Chinese characters can be even more arduous. There's so much to learn.

"Memorization sucks!" you might think or say.
"There is nothing good about rote memorization!"

I'm not suggesting rote memorization. Or I am, but with a very important difference. And, I am suggesting memorization as the first step in the process of learning to write Chinese characters beautifully. The goal might be to write as an expression of yourself or simply to write whatever you want without having to resort to a dictionary.

To do that you have to learn, you have to memorize. And there is a way to make the process of memorizing Chinese Characters easier, even enjoyable.

A quick note

The following method is completely scalable. If you want to paint a character of by heart, or a poem, the same basic steps outlined below all apply.

The purpose of memorizing Chinese characters is so that you can write them easily without having to think about how to write them. You can then focus on expressing yourself within the shape of each character.

Making (the process of) Memorizing Chinese Characters More Enjoyable

To make the process of memorizing Chinese Characters more enjoyable, break a single character down into smaller pieces.

And then practice painting or writing those smaller pieces.

One of the really nice things about Chinese characters is that they are made up of brush strokes. (Some styles of Chinese characters are harder to break down in this way. So there the point is to look for clearly definable or recognizable elements).

These brushs strokes give you a way of breaking each character down into smaller sets of brush strokes.

This is where the rote memorization (or rote practicing) comes in. You practice the smaller pieces of a character. However, because the pieces you are practicing are smaller, or shorter, they are actually easier to memorize. And because they are short, you don't have to think while practicing.

You simply practice the small set of strokes you have put into your short term memory.

Why Rote Memorization Sucks

Rote memorization sucks when you constantly get stuck trying to remember the next particular piece of whatever you are memorizing.

It is the "Thinking about what comes next" that makes the process of memorizing not so fun.

Memorization is an exercise in frustration until you've memorized what you are trying to learn But then you are free because you can recite or do from memory and then you have some freedom to play with what you have memorized. And that's where the real learning occurs.

To make rote memorization less sucky, the trick is to remove the need to think.

The Need to Think

Thinking is the process of trying to figure things out, in this case, "what comes next".

Thinking isn't a bad thing, but there's a time, a place and a use for it.

Memorization becomes a whole different experience if you learn to do it without the repeated struggle to think about what comes next. And the trick to doing that is to focus on practicing little bits at a time.

Rote Memorization On a Smaller Scale

Breaking things down into smaller chunks, and practicing those chunks, you practice something that is easy to hold in your short-term memory. Even though it's only in short-term memory, you don't have to think about what comes next, you simply repeat what is in your short-term memory.

What good is that?

While practicing from short-term memory, you move what is in your short-term memory to what could be called mid-term memory.

Once it is there you then move on to practicing the next little bit. You practice a few little bits like this so that they are all stored in mid-term memory, then you can assemble them together.

Because they are now in mid-term memory, you can practice these little bits one after the other without having to think about what comes next. And if you do have to think, then you simply go back to practicing the little bit that is giving you the problem.

Memorization Compared to Eating

This process is comparable to eating a large meal little bits at a time. You could try and stuff a whole steak (or whole tree of broccoli) in your mouth. You don't have room to chew it or enjoy it.

Chew small bits at a time, your body absorbs the food easier and it becomes used as fuel or as building blocks for your body.

If you just stuff your mouth and swallow after minimal chewing, your body might not be able to absorb the nutrients from the food you've eaten. Chew little bits at a time well enough and those bits become a part of you.

Knowing When You Are Done

The trick to learning little bits at a time is knowing when you have moved a little bit from short-term memory to mid-term memory.

This comes with experience. But basically, practice a set of strokes a few times over. Even if they aren't beautiful, look for a feeling of flowing while you are writing them. Also look for a feeling of familiarity. Then try the next set of strokes. Then try to do both sets of strokes together. If you have difficulties remembering any of the strokes, that's a sign you moved on to quickly. So you just practice the parts that you couldn't remember.

The goal here isn't pefection in execution. You probably won't be painting a character beautifully (or maybe you will, read the next section). But if you at least remember the strokes, you can then practice the character and that's when you learn to make it more beautiful.

An important part of this process is not being hard on yourself. If you do a stroke wrong, don't beat yourself up over it. Observe that it isn't correct, and repeat it. The whole point of breaking things down to learn them is to make the process of memorization feel good.

The Extra Advantage of Breaking Things Down

There is one other advantage of breaking things down into smaller bits.

In one of my first calligraphy classes (where I was studying, not teaching) the teacher gave me the symbol for peace, 平 to paint.

Now here I was copying, and the idea was to paint the symbol more or less the way the teacher had painted it. The character for peace only has 5 strokes, but in this case rather than breaking it down to memorize it, I was breaking it down to paint it as the teacher had.

Focusing on only the first three strokes (the top line and the two dots beneath it) at first, I was able to see how the top line and the two dots beneath it related to each other. As a result, each time I practiced those strokes I could work at duplicating the teacher's placement of those strokes relative to each other.

Likewise painting the last two strokes.

I may then have practiced the last four strokes, just to get the placement of the two dots relative to the cross shape. Then, when I finally came to paint the whole piece, and I still may have had to practice this a few times, because I knew how to place each element relative to each other element, my final piece had the same feel as the teacher's piece.

(I literally painted the Chinese character for Peace, piece-by-piece!)

How You Break Things Down Doesn't Matter!

There's one important thing to note when breaking things down, particularly if you are working with more traditional teachers.

When you are memorizing or learning a character, it doesn't matter how you break it down.

For example, memorizing the character for Peace, the top horizontal stroke and the two dots beneath it don't have any meaning by themselves. I practiced these strokes just to get them in my mid-term memory and so that I could see how these three strokes related to each other. Then I learned the last two strokes. Then I learned the last four strokes put together.

In the process of breaking a Chinese character down to learn it, the pieces you break it down into doesn't matter so long as you can put those pieces back together easily.

Short Term Memory is Your Memorization Friend

When selecting a set of brush strokes to repeat, (generally a maximum of four at a time, though there are exceptions), the idea is to pick a set that is easy to hold in your short-term memory.

That means you don't have to think what stroke is next, you just do it. You can thus repeat those strokes over and over again without thinking. After each repetition, you can observe the results. Do notice what you've painted, but don't get upset or beat yourself up if they aren't perfect. Simply repeat, while working on refining those strokes.

The most important thing at this point is engraving them in mid-term memory.

Mid term memory is the stage of memorization between short term and long term. It may last for a day or so, but afterwards it's gone.

You learn a whole character by first learning it in pieces and then gluing those pieces together. Once you've learned a whole character you can practice it from memory. And that's when you begin to burn it into long term memory.

Practicing Little Bits Versus One Big Bit

Why not just repeat all the strokes of a character in order to learn them?

Because you have to keep looking at a reference piece to know what stroke is next. You have to keep checking and thinking.

However, if you break a Chinese character down into smaller parts, you can focus on practicing each small part easily.

How Long Do You Practice Each Small Part?

How long do you practice each small part?

Till you learn it.

This generally takes only a short period of time. The goal here isn't always perfection, it's memorization. What should happen is that you then practice the next set of strokes. (You should still remember the strokes of the first part). Then you glue the two pieces together, practicing all the strokes one after the other.

If you've learned the two smaller pieces well enough, this should be easy. If it isn't, then you need to spend a little bit more time on the smaller parts. And that is a simple way to test if you've learned a small bit. If you can subsequently practice it with other small bits without having to struggle to remember what stroke is next, then you've learned it.

What If the Character is Really Big?

And if you have to break a character into three or four parts, the same idea applies. Learn each of the smaller parts to the point you can do them without having to think. Then work at gluing them together.

Once you've learned a whole character, then you can practice painting it from memory. And this is when you can work on refining it.

Upscaling the Process

Say you have all the characters or a particular poem, but you haven't learned them in the context of the poem. Then you repeat the process but on a larger scale. Now instead of breaking characters into sets of brush strokes, you break the poem down into sets of characters.