Today I thought I’d do a write-up of James Heisig and Timothy Richardson’s “Remembering the Hanzi”.
In the world of Japanese language learning, Heisig’s original “Remembering the Kanji” is a popular choice for those wishing to, you guessed, remember how to write the Kanji characters.
The Chinese version comes in either traditional or simplified format and currently, only book 1, the first 1500 characters, is available for purchase. It has been out for a quite a while now so several reviews already exist on the internets and it’s well worth having a read of some on Amazon. The book is aimed at those who wish to learn how to write Chinese characters and employs the use of short stories or mnemonics for each individual character, in an effort to help the learner remember both the meaning and the written form.
So, what to say about Remembering the Hanzi.
First of all, the book definitely has it’s faults. While there are lists of pinyin in the index, I do not agree with his reasons for not including the pronunciation along with each character. The cynical side of me suspects that they really didn’t think that decision through at all. For Japanese it perhaps make sense, not that I know anything about Japanese language, however for Chinese, if you know the pronunciation of a radical, or similar looking characters, it can often help you remember others. For example 巴 bā 把 bǎ 吧 ba 爸 bà and so on. Anyway, we all know this, but clearly Heisig has his own ideas.
Secondly, a lot of the stories are rubbish. Let’s take one of the first characters Heisig introduces as an example:
Now I don’t know about you, but to me it just seems rather long-winded. Seriously, get to the point Heisig. “The moon is bright because of the sun”. Done.
The start of the book is full of these giant stories, one for each character, whilst once you get past the 500 mark you are essentially just given a list of “Hanzi” and keywords and told to make up the stories yourself. It’s almost as if the author just couldn’t be arsed at that point and thought “bah they can do the rest themselves”. Alright, he does explain why in the book, but I can’t help but feel it done purely to make the book smaller and/or cheaper.
My third and final gripe, is to do with fonts and stroke order. While studying the first chunk of characters, James is nice enough to use the official handwritten-style font, as well as the more general and ugly computer font. This is great because it allows the reader to note the differences and errors the computer often makes. The first third of the book also included stroke by stroke diagrams which are also a great resource, but again, the book seems to succumb to laziness and after a while literally turns into a list of keyword plus character. Often extra stroke information is provided for particularly difficult characters but in my opinion it’s just not enough. The decision not to include the handwritten font as well just completely baffles me.
Alas, all I seem to do is complain these days. Let us now look at the good points of the book.
For me the strength of Remembering the Hanzi is in the fundamental idea behind the book. The authors could have done a better job of creating a book, but the idea and stories are completely unique, and that is the book’s selling point. Learning to hand-write Chinese characters, especially traditional ones, is a major hurdle that a lot of mandarin learners never manage to overcome. You see common, essential characters like 讓 (hello 24 strokes ^^) and just want to give up. Yet somehow after studying the Heisig method these characters become less and less daunting, and eventually even enjoyable to write. Through using mnemonics and cleverly chosen key words, you really start to get into it.
Overall I think the book is worth the money and if I was forced to give it a rating then perhaps 4/5 would suffice. The book itself is a nice size and well laid out, and the author’s style of writing is warm and extremely encouraging. I picked up the book about a year into studying Chinese and took AGES to finish it, but for most people, the first 1500 characters can be learnt within 3-6months if you are willing to put in the hours.
Next time I will do a shorter post explaining some of the other techniques I used, in addition to the Heisig technique, to remember how to write Chinese characters.