Product Review: Remembering Traditional Hanzi, by James W. Heisig and Timothy W. Richardson

Hanzi is the Chinese term for Chinese ideographs. Reading the Chinese language entails being able to recognize three to four thousand of these. There is a far greater number than this (to paraphrase Clinton, depending on what the meaning of "is" is). At least one Chinese dictionary listed 100,000 characters. But Zipf's law indicates that the vast majority of these would never be encountered in a typical human lifetime. I like to imagine some mischievous Chinese scribes living a thousand years or so ago playing a little joke, only to get their inventions immortalized in the dictionary.

So don't feel bad about your measly three or four thousand. Of course, learning even three thousand characters is no picnic. Thus the demand for anything which can smooth the process. Heisig and Richardson's Remembering Traditional Hanzi is one of several competing books promising to ease the memorization process. I like this one the best, for reasons given herein.

This particular volume appears to be adapted from Heisig's Remembering the Kanji ("kanji" being the Japanese equivalent of "hanzi"). Although the Japanese borrowed the idea of writing, and almost all their ideographs, from China, they simplified some of them and pronounce all of them differently. And the Chinese later went through their own round of simplificationalthough (as I have discussed elsewhere) not all Chinese use the simplified versions, and of course the earlier documents printed in "traditional" hanzi did not disappear. So one with ambitions to read both Japanese and Chinese may need to cope with as many as three versions of a single character, such as:
Versions of this book exist for all three forms. I chose the traditional hanzi because I think it provides the best basis for learning all three.

Learning several thousand characters would scarcely be possible did not most of them consist of combinations of simpler components (there are still more than enough "simpler components" to keep the student occupied for a long time). In some cases the meaning of the character can be explained by the meanings of the component parts. For example, a "man" standing by his "word" represents "trust." I have no idea whether this etymology is historically accuratefor this purpose history is beside the point.

There are several books out there which use the etymology approach to help the reader remember the characters. Heisig and Richardson's version adds a couple of unique wrinkles which I find extremely helpful. Here is a sample entry from the book:

As you see, the character is assigned a keyword send out. (A keyword is usually, but not always a single word, but is always a single concept.) This particular character is explained in terms of the keywords of the parts appearing within: missile, bow, and teepee. A little story explains how the meaning of the whole is derived from the meanings of the parts. I think it safe to say this particular etymology is not historically accurate.

One of the particular characteristics distinguishing Heisig and Richardson's book is the use of the single keyword. Many or most Chinese characters have meanings which cannot be captured in an English word. This one for example, has a meaning similar to "send out" but appears as part of words with meanings as diverse as "explode", "discover", "departure", "vivacity", "put [a product] on the market", or "run [a fever]." The typical dictionary will run a long list of words with alternate meanings. Sticking to a single keyword means all the nuances of meaning cannot be captured, but I find this is more than outweighed by the cognitive advantage of having a single clear-cut labelto look at this character, either alone or as part of a still more complex character, and say "Oh yeah, that's send out." And moreover the expression send out refers to one and only one Chinese character. The nuances of meaning will sink in over time as one learns various compounds and expressions containing the character.

A second distinguishing characteristic of the book is the order chosen for the characters. They are organized not alphabetically, nor according to the order in which they are taught in Chinese schools, nor according to frequency of usage, but according to the method. So immediately after a given character appears you might see several others which use that character as a component. Frequency of usage might be better if you planned on quitting the book part-way throughso don't.

A final advantage is that Heisig and Richardson also define keywords for several elements which do not constitute characters in their own right, but do appear as elements of several characters. The keyworda mental peg on which to hang the image of the componentis tremendously helpful.

For example, the keyword study is given to this important character:
This is part of the Chinese words for school, university, institute, and so on. The bottom part of this character:

is a character in its own right, and gets the appropriate keyword child. The top part:
is not an independent character, but gets its own keyword anyway. Since this component always appears at the top of a character, like others variously labeled roof, hat, teepee, etc., but is far more elaborate, it gets the apt (but probably historically inaccurate) name Carmen Miranda hat.

And now for some criticisms. My biggest problem with this book is the failure to include the Chinese pronunciation of each character in the entry for that character. This practice is probably carried over from the Japanese version of the book, where it makes more sensesince in Japanese a single character usually has at least two, and sometimes as many as seven or eight different pronunciations. But in Chinese almost all characters have one and only one pronunciation. Moreover, in many many cases, part of the character is an indicator of the sound. So, if the pronunciation were known, rather than concoct an elaborate story for why a particular component appears in the character, one could simply note that it has the same or similar pronunciation. But the book includes a simple numbered index of all the characters with their Chinese pronunciations, so this oversight is easily remedied with a ball-point pen.

My other complaint is that this is Volume I, and only contains 1500 characters. I would cheerfully buy Volume II and any that come after, but they don't exist.

In summary, I would definitely use this book as one of my tools if I were studying Chinese. To be more accurate, I am studying Chinese, and I am using this book.