Improving the Marilyn Method of Character Mnemonics

Kevin Kevin \\

The Marilyn Method is a mnemonic method for learning Chinese characters that HanziHero itself uses. In short, it is a way to easily remember the meaning and pronunciation of a character based on the components within it. If you aren’t familiar, you can read our in-depth article about it. Knowledge of the Marilyn Method is needed to understand this article.

However, the original Marilyn Method, while great, is not perfect. In this article, we will go over the main problems with the method and the improvements we made to it to make it easier for our many users to learn Chinese characters.

Problem: initial groups are confusing

In the original blog post that outlines the Marilyn Method, the author lays out a system of grouping initials according to the sounds within it.

For example, he groups all initials that contain an i sound in it, such as bi-, pi-, and so on, into one group. Each group has a rule about the type of personas that can be used to represent any initial within the group. So for the group of i containing initials, they can only be associated with personas that are female in nature.

The rationale behind this rule is to make it so that if you have two personas that both begin with an m, such as Marilyn Monroe (mi-) and Mark Twain (m-), you can know which M-beginning persona corresponds to a sound with i and which doesn’t.

However, this rule makes an already complicated system even more complicated. To improve this, we made two small changes.

Improvement: remove initial groupings entirely

The first is to get rid of initial groupings entirely. Our reasoning for this is that there are only ~55 initials to create personas for, and thus only ~55 personas to remember the initials for. This pales in comparison to the thousands of characters you will need to learn and memorize.

Since each character you learn a mnemonic for which contains the persona will help reinforce the link between the persona and the initial sound, we believe there is no need to create a rule for personas to help you remember what sound they correspond to.

Improvement: use an SRS to remember initial groupings

Since the main reason to add these strange initial grouping rules is to make the link between a sound an it’s persona more clear, we made another obvious improvement: use an spaced repetition system (SRS) to reinforce those associations.

Since HanziHero has a built-in SRS, this was easy to do. All HanziHero users learn each sound and its association before they come across any character that uses it, allowing them to cement this mnemonic association in their mind early on. And by continually quizzing users on the association, we can ensure that they don’t forget it.

Problem: confusing initial/finals

Another issue with the Marilyn Method is that some of the ways the initials and finals combine in its modified pinyin system are not obvious.

In the Marilyn Method, the “null initial” _- and the “null final” -_ combine to form the er pinyin syllable. This is a self-admitted quirk of the system, but as we will see shortly is ultimately avoidable.

Additionally, when some initials and finals combine, it is not clear why certain vowels are dropped in the final resulting syllable. For example, initial di- combines with the final -ou to form diu. For new students, it is not clear why this should be diu instead of diou or dou.

Lastly, the lack of an -ong final means that cong is instead represented by the initial cu- and the final -eng. This is another quirk in the system that comes from the fact that it is derived from bopomofo where cong is indeed roughly represented this way.

In our experience running HanziHero, many users get hung up on these rough edges in the original system. Let’s see what we did to improve it.

Improvement: add more parentheses around vowels

First, we added some additional parentheses around vowels in finals that may not show up in the final syllable when combined with an initial.

The Marilyn Method already did this with the -(e)ng final. The parentheses make it far more clear that the enclosed vowel will sometimes be dropped when the initial contains a vowel, for example:

  • ni- + -(e)ng = ning
  • n- + -(e)ng = neng

We extended this idea for -(o)u final:

  • d- + -(o)u = dou
  • di- + -(o)u = diu

And additionally for the -(e)i final:

  • f- + -(e)i = fei
  • cu- + -(e)i = cui

We think these two small improvements make the overall system more clear, as shown in our pinyin chart.

Improvement: add an -er final

To improve the “edge case” where the null initial and final produce a magical er syllable, we instead introduced an -er final directly.

Though this -er final only combines with the null initial _-, we think having it be an explicit final is easier to understand, even if it means students need to learn one extra final.

Improvement: add an -ong final

Additionally, the lack of an -ong final in the Marilyn Method system was a constant source of confusion for our users. This is made more confusing by the fact that Standard Pinyin actually contains this final, but the modified pinyin system for the Marilyn Method does not!

To improve this situation, we added back in the -ong final, associating it with a temple since it contains “gongs” which make this sound!

To demonstrate the improvement with the cong syllable:

  • Before: cu- + -(e)ng = cong
  • After: c- + -ong = cong

This is much more clear!

Problem: characters taught in isolation

The final problem is less of an issue with the Marilyn Method per se, but the way it is often used in practice. For most users of it learning characters, they will learn the meaning and pronunciation of the characters in isolation by using the method.

However, learning characters alone is not enough to fully understand how they are used in practice to form words. More importantly, learning words that use the the specific meaning and pronunciation you learned for the character reinforce your memory of the character!

However, we understand why this is not done in practice. Finding the correct words to learn for the character is laborious. Furthermore, a lack of pre-existing Chinese knowledge means selecting the correct words and meanings for those words will be difficult.

Improvement: teach words alongside characters

Our improvement for this issue in using the Marilyn Method in practice was to teach vocabulary words alongside the characters. For each vocabulary word, we also have a small mnemonic that helps you remember how the meanings of the characters combine to form the meaning of the word. This makes learning the extra words little trouble at all, since we do all the hard work for you!


The Marilyn Method is a great way for creating comprehensive mnemonics for every Chinese character. It allows you to remember many characters for a long period of time, allowing you to get to learning the Chinese language itself as quickly as possible.

At HanziHero, we’ve made various improvements to it to make it even easier to learn Chinese characters. Whether that was making our own system of pinyin sounds or by creating own spaced repetition system to make using the system as easy as possible, we’ve got it. Best of all, you can start now for free to see if our system works for you. If you are looking to learn Chinese characters, try it out today!