Friday, April 15, 2011

Mnemonic device, in learning Chinese written language

I have discussed the views of many great Western sinologists on the issue of Chinese characters. Yet, how are Western commoners learning Chinese written language? One of the popular ways is by using some kind of mnemonic devices, such as the book "Remembering the Hanzi", written by James Heisig and Timothy Richardson. A sample lesson of the book was available at (

I reviewed that sample material. The difference between us is greater than the difference between Heaven and Earth. In the sample lesson, Heisig showed 102 examples. There is not a single example of having the correct etymology. As I made this statement openly on a World Wide Web, I must be responsible for my saying. Thus, I must give a few more examples to support my statement.

Heisig's method is 100% a mnemonic device, having zero substance on etymology. I am showing some simple examples here.
  1. ,
    1. Heisig
      1. keyword -- recklessly
      2. Primitive elements -- ancient moon lit up at 100% wattage.
      3. story (imaginative memory) -- at a full moon, people tend to get a little "loony" and start acting recklessly.
    2. Tienzen's Chinese etymology
      1. meaning -- the skin under the chin ( it droops at old age)
        Note: the word (beard) is the radical "hair" over
      2. word in roots -- (ancient or old) + (meat, a variant of root 96)
      3. . reading from the word face -- old or aged meat (skin)
      4. its usage -- (barbarian, who has long beard in comparing to Chinese)
      5. derived meaning -- reckless
  2. ,
    1. For Heisig: example 57 in the sample material
      1. keyword (meaning) -- page (of book)
      2. Primitive elements -- turning a shellfish, one
      3. imaginative story -- Pearl of Wisdom, a radiant drop of wisdom with one and only page.
        Note: In Kangsi dictionary, is a human head. There is no secret about this. Yet, Heisig discredited it.
    2. Tienzen's Chinese Etymology
      1. Original meaning -- human head. Kangsi dictionary is correct on this one.
      2. Word in roots -- root 47 (human's head) + (child, root 36)
        The Chinese words are composed of roots (the PB set). The roots in a word give a static image. Then, this image is inferred to give meaning for its descendant words. I will show enough examples of this.

Heisig simply does not know that is a child's head. It depicts the head as an item itself. So, every word containing it is about the "head".
, top of the head
, back of the head
, following the head, obeying
, makeup on the head, such as beard, hair, etc.
, slow head, dumb or stubborn
, lowing the head
, another word for head
, many heads, award to many heads
, leaning head (not fair)
, back of the head (collar)
, the forehead
, lower the chin
, neck
, the unit (or number) of head
There are another hundreds of examples. Why does also mean "page" today? It is a long story.

In Heisig's lesson 4 (page 43, example 57, ) of his sample lesson, he wrote, "As a primitive, this character often takes the unrelated meaning of a head (preferably one detached from its body), derived from the character for the head (Frame 1067)". This is the precise quote, word by word.

Heisig mistakes as (one) over (seashell). Not only is this a major mistake but is a great laughing matter. Every 5th grader in China will laugh his tooth off on this. This kind of mistake cannot be excused by claiming as it is only an imaginative mnemonic device. After all, the etymology of the word itself is already the best mnemonic device for the word.
  1. ,
    1. Heisig
      1. Keyword -- deceased
      2. Primitive elements -- top hat on a hook
      3. story (imaginative memory) -- the deceased gentleman left a top hat on a hook in the front hall.
    2. Tienzen' Chinese etymology
      1. meaning -- dead or disappear
      2. word in roots -- root 186 (Heaven or heavenly) + root 216 (disappearing)
      3. reading from the word face -- disappearing into Heaven (could be death or eternal life or just a flying away jet or a bird). The key is disappearing.
Let's look at some descendant words.

(forget) is over (heart). The heart wonders away is "forget."
(busy) is "a variant of heart" + 亡. The heart disappears into ..., it has no time to consider others.
(desolate or lack of) is over (flowing water). Flowing water disappears into ....
    • (desolate field, not managed garden) is root 49 (grassy plant) over
      1. (nervous) is "a variant of heart" + 荒. The heart is facing a desolate situation, not knowing what to do.
      2. (lie or untrue words) is (speech) + . When the words are as not managed garden (big mess) or desolate, it cannot be true words.
In all these words, does not give any hint of an image that "a man is hanging up' a hat while kicking the bucket".

By knowing the correct etymology, the meaning of the words can be read out from their "faces" after learned some basic and some practices. No mnemonic device is needed at all. In fact, not much memory is needed for them neither.
  1. (example 58, lesson 4, page 43 of Heisig's book)
    1. Heisig
      1. keyword -- stubborn
      2. primitive elements -- a blockhead, at the beginning
      3. imaginative story -- Abel and Cain seeking favors of heaven, with stubborn grimace on their faces.
    1. Tienzen's etymology
      1. word in roots (or radical) -- (beginning) + (human head)
      2. direct reading -- as a newborn's head (not the physical head but is about its mental capability).
      3. usages
        -- playful in a mischievous or nuisance sense.
        -- as a rascal, cannot be educated
        -- stubborn. By selecting "stubborn" as the keyword for 頑, it shows that not only does Heisig not know its etymology, but he does not know the true meaning of the word.
  1. (example 67, page 46 of Heisig's book)
    1. Heisig
      1. keyword -- heads
      2. primitive elements -- horns, nose (自, see his example 32, on page 32)
      3. imaginative story -- the picture of a moose head hanging on the den wall. with a note: ... a frequent metaphorical use of the term..., as head of state
    2. Tienzen's etymology
      1. word in roots -- (root 176, dividing) + root 47 (human head)
      2. direct reading -- combing the head or dressing up the head
      3. usages -- the abstract head of anything, leader, etc..
      4. the descendant words --
Obviously, Heisig does not know anything about the root 47 (human head) and mistakes it as a horn over the nose ( ). In fact, there are many words from root 47 without the horn, such as,

(worry) -- root 47 (the human head) over root 205 (covering) over (heart) over root 17 (pacing). Direct reading -- the heart is covered by the head while pacing to and fro. Higher generation words -- etc.

(the name for Chinese race, also means summer) -- root 47 (human head) over root 17 (pacing). Direct reading -- a cultured head pacing. Higher generation words --

Note: Heisig makes this type of serious error all over the places, such as,
胡, the right radical (meat) was mistaken as (Moon). This is excusable as most of the Chinese people do not know the difference on this one neither.
(head) as (one) over (shellfish), and this not only is a big error but is a laughing matter.
(head) as "animal horn" over (nose). Again, a joke.
  1. (example 86, page 54)
    1. Heisig
      1. keyword -- fourth
      2. primitive elements -- fourth of enumeration... a lunar calendar
      3. imaginative story -- someone waiting fourth in line, using a giant metal spike as a makeshift chair.
        His note: When used as a primitive, the character changes its meaning to nail or spike.
    2. Tienzen's etymology
      1. word in roots -- (root 1, heaven's chi) over root 5 (rooted chi)
      2. direct reading -- heaven's chi has rooted
      3. the usages
        (keep eye on ...) is (eye) + (rooted)
        (nail) is (metal) + (rooted)
        (hitting with hand) is "a variant of hand" +
        (repeated reminders or sting with a mouth) is (mouth) +
        (place order or sign agreement) is (speech) +
        (a permanent hilltop pavilion, as an ancient road site rest area) is root 208 (high ground) over root 205 (cover) over 丁. Direct read -- a permanent ( ) covered place on the hilltop.
        (stop) is (man) + . Direct read -- at 亭, man stop for a break.
        (tranquility) is root 118 (roof) over (heart) over (cookware) over (rooted). Direct read -- cookware is set (rooted) under roof (house), the heart is in peace.

        Can Heisig's provide the meaning for those words? What is the fourth eye? Fourth metal? Fourth hand? Fourth mouth? etc.. The etymology of above is already the best mnemonic device for those words. Heisig's error cannot be excused by claiming them as simply imaginative mnemonic devices.
Heisig's book could be a fun book for a beginner who knows not any Chinese word. If anyone benefited from Heisig's method, good for him. I, myself, do not see it as a good mnemonic device by arbitrary making up a story for a given Chinese character. In etymology, a true mnemonic device flows out from its logic naturally. Learning all those invented stories will definitely poison learner's mind for a true understanding of Chinese characters.

Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong

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