In-Depth Guide to Chinese Character Meaning Mnemonics

Kevin Kevin \\

One of the most difficult parts of Chinese is remembering the meaning and pronunciation of each character. After all, there are thousands of Chinese characters, each with their own unique form and meaning. In order to reach some level of fluency in Chinese, once must learn these Chinese characters.

A popular method for memorizing the meaning of each character is to use Chinese character meaning mnemonics. Popularized by Heisig’s Remembering the Hanzi series of books, these work by making a creative story for each character that weaves together its appearance with the meaning of the character itself, allowing easy recall and memorization.

Our character learning application, HanziHero, uses a supercharged version of this general mnemonic approach to help users learn thousands of characters. Given that we ourselves and our hundreds of customers have used the mnemonics in HanziHero to learn countless characters, we can confidently say that these sort of mnemonic approaches are really quite amazing in terms of results.

In this article, I’ll go over how a Chinese character can be broken down and made into a mnemonic story to help you memorize its meaning. I’ll also go over some limitations of Character meaning mnemonics, and how those limitations can be improved upon.

Let’s dive in!

Chinese character basics

Before we can jump into the process of creating meaning mnemonics for Chinese characters, we first need to cover the basics of Chinese characters themselves. Don’t worry, if you are already familiar with them, this section will be short and sweet.

Every character has a primary meaning

Every character has a primary meaning associated with it. Just like how words in English can have multiple definitions, so too can a Chinese character have multiple meanings.

Meaning mnemonics usually work by focusing on the primary meaning alone. This is because the other nuanced meanings will be picked up over time via context and by learning the vocabulary words that contain the character.

Every character also has a primary pronunciation

In addition to the primary meaning, each character also has a primary pronunciation. For the vast majority of Chinese characters, there is actually only one pronunciation to learn.

Given that a meaning mnemonic only focuses on memorizing the primary meaning of a given Chinese character, we won’t need to cover much more about pronunciation here. However, later on we will cover why this makes meaning mnemonics particularly limited for those trying to build up Chinese character knowledge.

Chinese characters are composed of character components

Every Chinese character is composed of one or more Chinese character components. For example, the character 好 hǎo is composed of the components 女 woman and 子 child. These components, which are broken down into four types, usually relate to the meaning or pronunciation of the character.

For creating a meaning mnemonic, all we need to know is that characters consist of multiple components, and each of those components can be associated with a given name (or meaning).

Making a character meaning mnemonic

Now that we’ve covered the basics of a Chinese character, we can demonstrate how we can use those basics to create a Chinese character meaning mnemonic.

Decompose a character into its components and meaning

For any character we want to memorize, we must first break it down into its components and meaning. Let’s demonstrate this with the character 好 hǎo .

As mentioned earlier, this character can be broken down into the 女 woman and 子 child components.

The primary meaning of this character is “good”. As in “good job”.

Create a story from the character components and meaning

With the character 好 hǎo broken down into its meaning and components, we can now create a basic story that weaves those together.

This is actually easier than it sounds. It just requires a bit of imagination. Here is a simple one:

It is 好 good for a 女 woman to be with her 子 child.

Here we have weaved together the meaning “good” with the two components, “woman” and “child”, to create a simple one-sentence story.

How the character meaning mnemonic is used

Now we finally have a meaning mnemonic for the character , now let’s cover how to use it.

Each time you see the character , you need to break it down into its main components. So in this case, the components 女 woman to be with her 子 child.

Once you have identified the components, you can use their names to try to remember the mnemonic story above. Once you recall that story, then you can remember that the meaning of the character is indeed “good”.

It sounds complicated, but it works really quite well. It shines best when you begin to learn hundreds of characters, as the individual stories helps you easily remember the differences in meanings between characters that look similar. For example, the characters and .

Limitations of meaning mnemonics

Now that we covered how character meaning mnemonics work, we can now cover their limitations.

Meaning alone is not enough

The first one, alluded to earlier in this article, is the fact that these character meaning mnemonic only help you with remembering the meaning of a character.

Unfortunately, this is not enough for those who want to read aloud a basic Chinese text. After all, reading aloud requires you to know how to pronounce all the characters you se within a text!

To put it simply: if you don’t know the pronunciation of a character, you do not know the character. Meaning mnemonics in this sense only get you halfway there.

Heisig’s Remembering the Hanzi association

This method, which is good in itself, was best popularized by Heisig’s Remembering the Hanzi. The method itself is sound in itself, but its association with that series of books has brought along some other misconceptions about how to use this method, such as needing to learn how to write Chinese characters in order to learn characters, or needing to have a unique English key word for each character.

In my article review, I go over why those negative aspects incorrectly associated with the core mnemonic idea can serve as roadblocks in your Chinese learning journey.

Improving upon meaning mnemonics

However, fear not! Those limitations of meaning mnemonics can easily be improved upon.

Use the Marilyn Method for pronunciation

One clear improvement that can be done is modifying the mnemonics we make to also include pronunciation information within them. That way, if we remember the mnemonic story, we can also remember the pronunciation of the character.

The best way to do that is to use the Marilyn Method. It is a mnemonic system that can be added to basic character meaning mnemonics in order to

HanziHero uses a modified version of the Marilyn Method, so you can understand more about it by reading how our Chinese character mnemonics work.

Learn words alongside the characters

Learning characters without learning the words they form is like learning roots, suffixes, or prefixes in English alone without any words that use them!

Additionally, learning words alongside the characters helps you more easily remember the meaning and pronunciation of those characters! This is because those additional words learned form new connections in your brain to those characters, making those memories less likely to be forgotten.

This is why HanziHero also teaches vocabulary alongside the Chinese characters it teaches.


Chinese character meaning mnemonics are a powerful way to remember the meaning of Chinese characters. However, the lack of pronunciation information within them makes them not great for those who are really trying to level up their knowledge of Chinese.

If you are looking for a way to easily learn Chinese characters via mnemonics that contain both meaning and pronunciation within them, try HanziHero to start learning characters today for free!