Mnemonics for Pronouncing Chinese Characters (the Marilyn Method)

Update: This is the Marilyn Method for memorizing the pronunciation of Chinese characters. The method has generated enough interest that I decided it needs a name of its own.

Update update: The method has now been adapted to Polish and German, as well as adapting the target language to Cantonese.

Photo by Felix_Nine

For me a new mental gimmick is the best kind of toy there isbetter than a new electronic gadget. My latest toy is a technique for memorizing the pronunciation of Chinese charactersmy own invention, I am proud to say. This might end up being my greatest contribution to civilization, even better than my killer nacho recipe.

Lots of attention has been given to the problem of remembering how to write Chinese characters (see, for example, my review of Heisig and Richardson's book). By comparison, remembering how to pronounce the characters has been the neglected well-behaved sibling. But pronouncing the characters is by no means trivialespecially since the Chinese (Mandarin) language uses important sound contrasts that just don't exist in English, including of course tone of voice.

With my system I can link just two concepts (as is done in most memory systems) to represent the pronunciation of any Chinese character, including the tone. If you are using Heisig and Richardson or something similar to remember how to write characters, this is the perfect companion. You can also use the system to memorize spoken Mandarin words even if you don't care about writing them (not what I would recommend, but some people like it). It will take a bit of time and effort up front to memorize the basic correspondences, but this will be paid back with interest pretty quickly (within a matter of days in my own case). This post gives a complete description of the methodso bear with the length. You might also learn a little about Mandarin phonology.

The fact that this is possible at all is thanks to the Chinese "one character = one syllable" principle and also thanks to the rather constrained Chinese sound system, which makes it possible to list all Mandarin syllables in a rather modest table. My system uses a similar table, but pushed and pulled around a bit. It also has much in common with the "Bopomofo" system, which represents every possible Chinese syllable with one to three symbols taken from an alphabet of 37 symbols. I won't use the rather exotic-looking symbols themselves here, but their pinyin equivalents.

21 out of the 37 symbols can appear only at the beginning of a syllable:

b-, p-, m-, f-, d-, t-, n-, l-, g-, k-, h-, j-, q-, x-, zh-, ch-, sh-, r-, z-, c-, s-

Another 12 can appear only at the end of a syllable:

-a, -o, -e, , -ai, -ei, -ao, -ou, -an, -(e)n, -ang, -(e)ng

(...although certain syllables in both cases consist of a single symbol such as s ["si" in Pinyin] or ai, so that the beginning of the syllable is also the end.)

Three more symbols, representing -i-, -u-, or -ü-, can appear at the beginning, middle, or end. The -i- and -u- sound essentially like they would in Spanish, whereas -ü- sounds like a French "u" or a German "ü".


zh+ang = zhang in Pinyin
u + ang = wang in Pinyin
zh + u + ang = zhuang in Pinyin
zh + (e)n = zhen in Pinyin
i = yi in Pinyin
j + i + (e)n = jin in Pinyin

If you have been paying attention, you should have noticed I have only listed 36 of the 37 symbols. The remaining symbol, representing er, never combines with another and represents a syllable in itself.

All Mandarin syllables are made up of a limited number of such combinations. (Compare this with the rough-and-ready situation in English, where a single syllable might be "strength" or "boxed" or "splashed". Good luck finding a table of English syllables.)

The Basic Approach

The first step in the method is to use a mental picture of a given individual (real or fictional) to represent each of the initial symbols. We're going to call these representatives personages. I have made the following assignments, but you can use others if you like them better:

Babe (Ruth) for b-
Peter (Pan) for p-
Mark (Twain) for m-
Frazier (Crane) for f-
Darth (Vader) for d-
Tarzan for t-
Noriyuki (Morita) for n-
Leonardo (da Vinci) for l-
Groucho (Marx) for g-
Karl (Marx) for k-
Herman (Munster) for h-
George (Washington) for zh-
Charlie (Chaplin) for ch-
Sherlock (Holmes) for sh-
Ringo (Starr) for r-
Zach (Galafianakis) for z-
(Christopher) Columbus for c-
Sam (Spade) for s-

I tried to pick these to be as visually distinctive as possible. I put the last names in parentheses because I recommend you get on a first-name basis with your personages. You'll be spending a lot of time with them. Notice everyone on the list is male; also I left out j-, q-, and x-. The reasons for this will become apparent in due time. The names are a clue to the associated sound: Babe for b-, Groucho for g-, and so on. This "clue" will actually be important only in the early stages of useeventually (pretty soon, really) you will learn the correspondences by heart anyway.

We also need to introduce a new "null" initial symbol, which I will denote Ø-. So, for example (b- + -ao) gives you bao but (Ø- + -ao) gives you plain ao. This null symbol also gets an associated individual:

Ø- Albert (Einstein)

We might as well go ahead and introduce the "null" final symbol, denoted -Ø. So (s- + -ao) gives you sao but (s- + -Ø) gives you plain s (which is, however, written "si" in Pinyin).

(Now I have to interrupt myself to emphasize an important point: the "i" in Pinyin "si" is nothing like the "i" in "yi" or "ji". "Si" is pronounced more like "sz" than English "sea". Same for "zhi", "chi", "shi", "ri", "ci", "zi". If you don't understand this point then go back and ask your Chinese teacher about it, because it will wreak havoc with your Chinese pronunciation. The Pinyin symbol "si" is written with just the "s-" symbol in Bopomofo. To help keep this point in mind, I'm going to use parentheses to write it like this: "s(i)", "zh(i)", etc.)

Now the do-it-yourself part: for each of the twelve final symbols -a-o-e-ai-ei-ao-ou-an-(e)n-ang-(e)ng, and  -Ø, choose a familiar placea house, a restaurant, or a hotel. You will have to exert the modest effort to remember which places go with which symbols. I can't do this part for you because they need to be places familiar to you. (This is a point about the "memory palace" that many people seem to miss.) But for the sake of explanation we're going to pretend with a few examples:

-Ø your own house
-a the Plaza hotel in New York City
-e Maxim's restaurant in Paris
and so on....

(We lump -e and  together because these just happen never to appear in the same situation.) Now each syllable can be visualized as an image of a particular personage in a particular place. For example:

ba = b- + -a = Babe Ruth at the Plaza Hotel.
zha = zh- + -a = George Washington at the Plaza Hotel.
zh(i) = zh--Ø = George Washington at your house.
zhe = zh- + -e = George Washington at Maxim's.
ta = t- + -a = Tarzan at the Plaza Hotel.
a-Ø + a = Albert Einstein at the Plaza Hotel.

We can summarize all the combinations (so far) of initials and finals in a table:

-a -o -e -ai -ei -ao -ou -an -(e)n -ang -(e)ng
AlbertØ- er a o e ai ei ao ou an en ang eng
Babe b- ba bo bai bei bao ban ben bang beng
Peter p- pa po pai pei pao pou pan pen pang peng
Mark m- ma mo me mai mei mao mou man men mang meng
Frazier f- fa fo fei fou fan fen fang feng
Darth d- da de dai dei dao dou dan den dang deng
Tarzan t- ta te tai tei tao tou tan tang teng
Noriyuki n- na ne nai nei nao nou nan nen nang neng
Leonardo l- la lo le lai lei lao lou lan lang leng
Groucho g- ga ge gai gei gao gou gan gen gang geng
Karl k- ka ke kai kao kou kan ken kang keng
Herman h- ha he hai hei hao hou han hen hang heng
George zh- zhi zha zhe zhai zhei zhao zhou zhan zhen zhang zheng
Charlie ch- chi cha che chai chao chou chan chen chang cheng
Sherlock sh- shi sha she shai shei shao shou shan shen shang sheng
Ringo r- ri re rao rou ran ren rang reng
Zach z- zi za ze zai zei zao zou zan zen zang zeng
Columbus c- ci ca ce cai cao cou can cen cang ceng
Sam s- si sa se sai sao sou san sen sang seng

Notice that certain of the possible combinations, for example *be, just don't occur. This would mean, for example that Babe Ruth will never visit Maxim's. Notice also that we have handled the oddball syllable er by arbitrarily representing it as (Ø- + -Ø), or Albert Einstein at your house. This saves us from having to create an entire new column of the table just to handle this one case.  

This is the basic idea of the system. We still have some unanswered questions, though:

(1) What about those pesky tones?
(2) What about the intermediate symbols  -i--u-, and -ü-?
(3) What about the initials j-q-x-?

All to be answered in the fullness of time.

Handling Tones

First, question (1): we're going to expand the image to include the tone for the syllable by refining the location:

1st tone: In front,
2nd tone: Just inside the entrance,
3rd tone: Any other location inside,
4th tone: In the bathroom.

So, for example George Washington at the reception desk of Maxim's is zhe (2nd tone) whereas George Washington sitting at a table in Maxim's is zhe (3rd tone).

More Enhancements

Now, question (2), but first we focus just on the intermediate -i-. Standard Bopomofo practice would be to represent the syllable liao, for example, as l- + -i- + -ao. But we don't want to juggle three parts for the syllable, so our approach is to merge l- and -i- into a new initial li-. And since we need to distinguish li- from l-, we introduce a new personage Lauren (Bacall) to represent li- as opposed to Leonardo (l-). Similarly, we introduce:

Indira (Gandhi) for y- 
Brigitte (Bardot) for bi-
Paris (Hilton) for pi- 
Marilyn (Monroe) for mi-
Dorothy (Gale) for di-
(Mother) Teresa for ti-
Nancy (Pelosi) for ni-
Lauren (Bacall) for li-

Some points worth noticing: (i) This list is much shorter than the first, because f-, for example, never appears before -i-; (ii) These personages are all female, which will help you keep track of which initials have -i- and which don't.

And now we can introduce the remaining initials:

Gidget for ji-
Katharine (Hepburn) for qi-
Hattie (McDaniel) for xi-

There was no point in introducing these earlier because (just as f- never appears before -i-) j-, q-, and x- never appear except before -i- (or -ü-).

You may wonder why I chose Gidget to represent ji- instead of someone whose name begins with "J". This is to avoid confusion between zh- and j-, which are quite distinct in Chinese, although both come close to "j" than any other English sound. Confusing j- with g- is not really an issue because g- never appears before -i- or -ü-, exactly the opposite of j-.

(Representing j- by "G", q- by "K", etc. also has a solid historical basis, because Mandarin used to have a *gi syllable, but the g- took on a softer sound before -i [thus becoming ji], just as the English "g" in "giraffe" did, or the Italian "c" in "ciao". Likewise for *ki and *hi. Why do you think "Beijing" used to be spelled "Peking"? But once you learn the system by heart it won't matter anyway.)

So we can update our table with the new syllables (we're not finished yet, though):



The columns of the table are represented with the same places you already identified (all though you won't need all of them for this table).

Final Pieces of the Puzzle

Next step is to handle -u-. Just as with -i-, we fold this into the various initial sounds to make a new series of initials bu-, pu-, mu-, etc. And just as before, we assign personages for each of the new initial symbols:

Wonder (Woman) for w-
Bugs (Bunny) for bu-
Popeye for pu-
Mickey (Mouse) for mu-
Fred (Flintstone) for fu-
Dick (Tracy) for du-
Totoro for tu-
Ninja (Turtles) for nu-
Lisa (Simpson) for lu-
Garfield for gu-
Kang (& Kotos) for ku-
Huey (Donald Duck's nephew) for hu-
the Joker for zhu-
Charlie (Brown) for chu-
Shrek for shu-
Richie (Rich) for ru-
Ziggy for zu-
Casper (the ghost) for cu-
Superman for su-

This time I used characters from either comics or cartoons, to help keep this group distinct from the others. And here is the corresponding part of the table:

-a-o-ai-ei-an-(e)n -ang-(e)ng 



Charlie (Brown)chu-chuchuachuochuaichuichuanchunchuangchong

You will need to keep Charlie Brown distinct from Charlie Chaplin, but if you think this is going to be a problem for you, you can always change one name or the other. You will notice some spelling oddities: for example, zhu- + (e)ng becomes zhong instead of *zhung, but these merely reflect the way Pinyin works.

And then, finally, we create a series of initials with -ü- and their associated representatives:

Aphrodite for yu-
Neptune for nü-
Luna for lü-
Geryon for ju-
Cupid for qu-
Hermes for xu-

This time we use names from Greco-Roman mythology, to distinguish this series from the preceding three. You will notice that the Pinyin system drops the little dots over the -ü- in most cases. Once again, this is done only when there is no possibility of confusion. We keep the dots in nü-, because n- can precede both -u- and -ü-. We drop the dots in ju-, because j- can precede -ü- but not -u- (so you know the dots should be there even when not written). And Pinyin uses yu- to represent initial -ü- by itself.

Here is the final part of the syllable table:


The final column of this table (yong, jiong, qiong, xiong) springs one last gimmick. The combination (ju- + -(e)ng) does not represent *jung (that doesn't exist) but rather jiong. Strictly speaking, jiong would be composed of (j- + -i- + -u- + -(e)ng). For our purposes, this gimmick saves us from having to come up with another four personages to represent, for example, (j- + -i- + -u-). I wish I could take credit (or blame) for this idea, but it comes from the Bopomofo system. My guess is the creators of Bopomofo did not want to deal with sequences as long as four symbols.

Putting it all together

Let's close with an example. I'm going to take the case of this character:

Heisig and Richardson assign this character the keyword "seedling". It is composed of two simpler characters:  ("flower") and  ("rice field"). To memorize the writing of the character, the normal approach would be to make up a little story combining the elements of "seedling", "flower", and "rice field". But we're going to go one better, by working the pronunciation of the character into the same story. This is pronounced miao with a 2nd tone. (Note  is pronounced hua and  is pronounced tian, so there's no help there.) We break miao up into mi- and -ao. The personage for mi- is Marilyn (Monroe) and my location for -ao is the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku (you would of course pick your own location). So we could imagine something like this:

The lobby (2nd tone) of the Keio Plaza hotel (-ao) has inexplicably been converted into a rice field (). Strange seedlings sprout and rapidly grow to a great height, developing large flowers (). Each flower blooms to reveal a figure of Marilyn Monroe (mi-). It's important to visualize this, like a movie, rather than just read the words. This image will stick with you, and it contains all the basic facts about .