The sexiest, most badass script in the known universe? The Chinese characters. Devised thousands of years ago by ancient Chinese scholars. Revised, studied, worshipped, all while the Roman characters were wrapped in uninvented slumber. I’m going to talk about a book, James Heisig’s “Remembering the Kanji”, which helps English speakers learn the Japanese variation of the Chinese characters. There’s an awe-inspiring beauty in the flowing script of Confucius, and it becomes more beautiful as you learn more about the mysterious characters.

People have a misconception that it’s overly difficult to learn the Chinese/Japanese characters. People say: “In China, it takes ten years to learn to read a newspaper!” Well. When was the last time you saw a ten-year-old reading an English newspaper?!? The Chinese/Japanese characters are actually easy and fun to learn. They take longer because there’s more of them. They have a deep logical structure to them. Making the Latin alphabet seem childish, boring, arbitrary. Learning Chinese/Japanese characters gives all sorts of benefits to understanding Chinese/Japanese, offsetting the longer time it takes to learn them. The learning journey is one of fun and creativity, if you use James Heisig’s revolutionary method described in his book.

At first glance, a Chinese character looks like a bunch of arbitrary squiggles. In truth, it’s built up of sub-characters. You can break it apart into its constituent parts. This is the first half of the key to Remembering the Kanji.

In “Remembering the Kanji”, the kanji (Japanese versions of Chinese characters) are presented in such an order, that whenever you get to a character, you’ve already learned all the constituent parts. For example (if you have Japanese font support), by the time you learn the character 美 (beauty), you’ll already have learned 羊 (sheep) and 大 (large). If you look closely, you’ll see that beauty (美) is written by writing sheep (羊) on top of large (大). So, even though beauty (美) looks like it would be really hard to learn (look at all those lines!!!!), it’s actually easy, assuming you already know “sheep” and “large”.

The traditional method, taught in Asian schools, doesn’t use such a logical order. Instead, schoolchildren learn characters in order of commonness. They don’t take advantage of the fine structure of the characters. In part, this is because grade school children don’t have the sophisticated abstract grasp of structure that adult language learners enjoy. Adult learners have an astonishing faculty for abstract associations, while children have much less. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to force adults to follow the same method that Japanese and Chinese schoolchildren use! Enter James Heisig.

Heisig makes possible in a single year– or much less time, depending on how much time you spend every day– what it takes a Japanese child their whole youth to learn.

The second half of the key to Remembering the Kanji is to leverage the awesome hidden power of your visual memory. For obvious reasons, the human mind is programmed to remember vivid, intense imagery with ease. It’s extremely hard to memorize complex characters, but it’s easy to memorize vivid colorful exotic animated imagery. Mr. Heisig teaches us how to apply the latter type of memory to memorize the Chinese characters. I’ll illustrate with an example.

AN EXAMPLE

The character “store” (店). I call this a “second level” character because it takes two steps to break it down to elements that are so basic they’re pictographs and can’t be broken down further. First, break it into “cave” (广) and “fortune telling” (占). “Cave” (广) is itself a pictograph which can’t be broken down further. It’s pretty easy to learn on it’s own. “Fortune telling” breaks down into “magic wand” (卜) and “mouth” (口) . Each of these are pictographs, easy to learn, and can’t be further broken down.

To learn “fortune telling” (占) from “magic wand” (卜) and “mouth” (口) , create a mental image which combines the latter two, and associate it with fortune telling. This is where the fun really starts. Go balls to the wall here. I picture a giant magic staff like Gandalf would use, floating down a crowded street. At the bottom of the staff is a giant deformed human mouth, with sharp teeth and a long tongue. As it floats along it babbles and raves about the coming apocalypse. The details aren’t important, just that you make the story really vivid, make it something you wouldn’t soon forget! And… sure enough, you won’t soon forget it, and you’ll learn the character with ease!

Then, to learn “store” (店) from “cave” (广) and “fortune telling” (占), do the same kind of thing. Come up with a really exotic, head-turning visualization that combines the latter two into the former. Me, for example… I picture a gigantic superstore, built in a cave, run by mystic old shamans in flowing robes… aisle upon aisle of shining crystal balls, magic eight balls, ouiji boards, etc. It’s a fortune-telling Wal-mart! Picture the cackling witch who greets you at the cave entrance, complete with her Wal-mart greeter apron. Picture the executives gathered in the cave boardroom (you can picture them as vampires if that helps reinforce the “cave” part), using their own merchandise to forecast the next season’s profits.

GOING BEYOND JAMES HEISIG

The book alone is great. With the internet at your hands, you can supercharge Heisig and make the whole process even more streamlined. If you get stuck trying to invent a vivid image for a particularly tough kanji, you can go online and find what another learned used. If you’re really proud of a really off-the-wall image you created, you can even share it with others.

Heisig recommends you make paper flashcards to drill the kanji as you learn them. IGNORE HIM HERE. It’s the twenty first century and paper flashcards are for dorks. Get yourself going with a Spaced Repetition System (SRS): basically, get the computer to streamline the flashcard drill process by using advanced algorithms to decide which cards you should see. I’ve written some about SRS technology here.

There’s a site where a whole community of Heisig disciples share stories and advice. I’m talking about kanji.koohii.com (koohii (コーヒー) is the Japanese borrow-word for “coffee”). It also has its own SRS which you can use to study kanji, without even having to go to the effort of making the cards (it makes them for you).

THE TWO POWERFUL TYPES OF MEMORY

The are two powerful types of memory. They are muscle memory and visual memory. 99.9% of all the stuff we do is using one of these two types of memory.

Muscle memory comes from doing something repeatedly. When you walk, you don’t “think” about it, you just “do” it: it’s thoroughly installed in muscle memory. Those people on Youtube who do Tetris or Stepmania at the top levels, they’re playing off muscle memory.

Visual memory comes from seeing something really vivid, head-turning, traumatic, etc. When something really catches your eye, the image will stick with you for the rest of your life.

Here are the advantages and disadvantages of the two types of power-memory:

SPEED OF LEARNING:
Muscle memory: very slow. Visual memory: very fast.
POWER, ONCE LEARNED:
Muscle memory: very high. Visual memory: medium.
UNDRILLED LIFESPAN:
Muscle memory: depends. Visual memory: long.

“Speed of learning” refers to how fast it takes to chisel something new into muscle memory or visual memory. Memorizing something with muscle memory is a long tedious process of repeating it over and over. Most traditional kanji-learning appeals directly to muscle memory: students sit down and write the same kanji over and over hundreds or even THOUSANDS of times. Boooooooring!!!!!

“Power, once learned” is an abstract reference to the raw power of the memory. When something is chiseled in muscle memory, you can do it FAST and ACCURATE, without even thinking about it. The Latin alphabet is chiselled in your muscle memory: you don’t stop and think about the individual letters as you write them. You could write them in your sleep! Visual memory is less powerful in this sense. You have to stop and think, even if only for a split instant.

“Undrilled lifespan” refers to how long the memory lasts if you neglect to use it. Both muscle memory and visual memory have long undrilled lifespans. The lifespan of muscle memory can go up indefinitely, depending how deeply the memory is programmed into you. You could probably go a VERY LONG time without using the Latin alphabet and still remember it, because it’s so very deeply carved in your brain. The lifespan of visual memory is a function of how vivid the imagery is. If you make the imagery vivid enough, you might never forget it.

Traditional Chinese character learning is all about muscle memory. It takes students literally their entire school life (grade school through high school) to learn it all this way. NO WAY can an adult learner afford to take that long!!! Heisig’s Chinese character learning is all about visual memory. There are people who report learning the 2000 main Japanese characters with Heisig in under half a year.

It is true that muscle memory is more powerful, once learned. You’ll eventually obtain the muscle memory if you go on to actually use the kanji a lot after learning it. There’s no reason you have to get the muscle memory at the very beginning, though: it takes too long.

COMMON CRITICISMS OF HEISIG

1. “It’s just a bunch of illogical mnemonics.”

A common misconception among Heisig critics is that the learning is based on mnemonics. Mnemonics are usually logical memorization devices. Things like “ROY G BIV” which spells out “red orange yellow green blue indigo violet”, the colors of the visible light spectrum. Much (most) of the Japanese/Chinese characters are too hard to make such mnemonics for. It’s important to understand that the Heisig story-visualizing method has nothing to do with the sort of grade school spelling-things-out that mnemonics usually use. After the first 500 characters, you have to start getting REALLY creative. For example, “podium” (壇) is built up from “soil” (土) , “tophat” (亠), “-times” (回), and “nightbreak” (旦). Sorry, but you just can’t come up with a clever rhyme to remind yourself of all that.

No, Heisig is about making your mind remember this bizarre combination of characters by swirling them together with a really vivid story. For the podium example, here’s the top-voted visualization from kanji.koohii.com:

A man on the podium announces the rules for the contest: You must fill a top hat with dirt as many times as you can by nightbreak.

The strength of this story isn’t in some silly rhyme or spelling something out; there is none of that. It’s in being something visually memorable. You have to take this story and spend a minute really making it vivid. Imagine the man on the podium is Willy Wanka, standing on his chocolate podium addressing a bunch of wide-eyed kids. As he explains the rules of his challenge he takes off his own bright red candy tophat and starts filling it with fine chocolate powder, over and over again many times. All the while turning a concerned eye toward the horizon watching for nightbreak, beads of sweat popping from his face (you can make the beads of sweat gush out and make his eyes shoot lasers toward the horizon… anything to make it more vivid and burn it into your mind.) I just pulled that out of my butt (I use a different visualization than the koohii one myself), it’s really not hard. It’s EXCELLENT exercise in creativity, a skill that will enhance all aspects of your life, not just your kanji learning.

2. “Heisig teaches you obscure kanji like ‘decameron’ (旬) (Heisig’s kanji #67) and then makes you wait til almost the end of the book to learn ‘bird’ (鳥) (Heisig’s kanji #1941)!”

Heisig addresses this himself in the introduction to his book. Basically, to be literate, you NEED to know ALL the basic kanji. If you’re missing just 1 single kanji, then inevitably the fates will twist against you and you’ll start seeing that one kanji everywhere. With that in mind, it doesn’t really matter what order you learn them in. The order matters in the traditional method when you spend TWELVE YEARS learning the kanji. Adult learners must learn all the kanji fast, if it takes more than two years then you’re in trouble. So order’s not all that important.

Additionally, Heisig’s unique ordering keeps things fresh. Every new lesson in Heisig, you look forward to learning some highly useful kanji. If you ordered them by commonality, then the whole 2nd half of the kanji would be extremely boring because you’d have already learned all the “common” kanji!

Structurally, “bird” (鳥) is very complicated. To learn it from scratch would be a Herculean task of tracing it hundreds of times and then writing it on your own a few hundred more times, then repeating that regularly so you don’t forget it. But with Heisig, when you finally reach “bird” as the 1941st kanji, you know the components that make it up. There’s virtually no new writing to memorize, you’ve already memorized it piece by piece. And if you learned “bird” first, you’d still need to learn those pieces eventually anyway.

3. “The kanji themselves, with Heisig’s English keywords, are useless if you don’t know how to put them together and read them.”

People who say this are using what computer scientists call a “greedy algorithm”: going for the short term gain. Heisig is a long-term investment, in the sense that it doesn’t *immediately* increase your Japanese fluency. Once you learn it, the rate at which you learn the readings, will go through the roof. Heisig and his disciples refer to this strategy as “divide and conquer”, because you’re separating readings from writing to knock the latter out first. You’ll quickly regain any ground you lost, and come out way ahead.

Traditionally, people learn readings alongside kanji. The end result is that it takes much much more time before all the important kanji are learned. All that time, YOU ARE ILLITERATE.

When you know the entire body of kanji, the readings are easier to learn anyway. Many in the JSL community suggest you shouldn’t rote memorize readings of kanji anyway, but instead learn words in context.

I hold that, until you learn all the main kanji, you don’t even really know the kanji you DO know. That sounds a little contradictory, let me illustrate it with an example. Suppose you learn the character “not yet” (未), but you haven’t yet learned the character “extremity” (末) [If you don't have Japanese fonts: "not yet" and "extremity" look almost identical, except a long horizontal and a short horizontal line are swapped.] If you see “extremity” (末), you’ll assume it is “not yet” (未). The difference between the two is really minute and usually, such a small change wouldn’t change the kanji. Learn ALL the kanji first, BEFORE claiming to actually know ANY of them. You’ll be protected from little blindspots like this :)

4. “I learned the kanji by learning words in context.”

I’m actually doing this myself. The two are not mutually exclusive. I’m not finished with Heisig yet myself, but I know and can read tons of words that use kanji I haven’t learned. We learn words based on their shape, not on their precise writing. That’s why a fluent English speaker can understand English even when it’s utterly garbled. Here’s a little experiment for fluent English speakers, read the following:

“Tehse leterts wree ttolaly mxied anuord!”

Without much effort at all, you can read the mixed up words. It’s because you’ve memorized the *shapes* of English words. Well, the same thing happens in Japanese. Read lots of Japanese, and you’ll memorize the shapes of words even when the kanji are totally unfamiliar. You still need to learn to write the words. A common word is “keisatsu” (警察) which means “police”. It has a distinctive shape and is easily recognized, but try writing that just from memory…. good luck!! It’s way too complicated. You need Heisig if you want to be able to write anything above grade school level.

LET’S HEAR FROM SOME OTHER HEISIG READERS….

“Once I learned how to write kanji using Heisig’s book, I gained the power to fly and stop time with my mind.” – Joe in Little Rock

“I wish the presidential candidates would take a position on this revolutionary book!” – Adam in Pittsburgh

“KAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANJI !!!!!!” – James K. in San Francisco

CONCLUSION

You should read Heisig’s book and learn the kanji. Whether or not you’re learning Japanese. It’s an awesome way to improve your imagination. It will open your eyes to the amazing world of hidden meaning in the ancient Han writings. The visualizations are fun and will turn you into a sex machine overnight. Buy James Heisig’s “Remembering The Kanji”.