Getting serious about Mandarin

I'm finally making a big effort to learn mandarin properly. In addition to taking formal lessons at UC Berkley starting in February, and learning about usage from Cindy, I'm using flash cards to increase my knowledge of Chinese characters and their mandarin pronunciation (including the tones, which I've had a hard job remembering up till now while picking up mandarin informally through random conversation).

I've been using some tricks to memorize characters, and this technique seems to work well for me.

Here's the first set of characters. The first ten are numbers, and mostly pretty easy.

一 二 三

one (yi1), two (er4), three (san1). These are quite possibly the simplest Chinese characters ever. :)

four (si4). This one is kind of easy for me to remember, since I visited sichuan last year, and this character was everywhere :) It's also a box with four sides.

five (wu3). I convinced myself that this character has five distinct lines in it, which made it easy to remember (although it actually has only four strokes - the middle horizontal line and the smaller vertical line are combined together as a single stroke).

six (liu4). I found this one a bit tough. I sort of convinced myself that it looks like a lion (the sound liu4 is a bit like the English "leo", as in "Leo the Lion").

seven (qi1). This was tricky too. Until I turned my flash card upside down and realized it looks like an upside down 7 with a stroke through it. Nice.

eight (ba1). No tricks here, I just remember this character because it's pretty simple.

nine (jiu3). With the right amount of squinting, this character looks like a roman J and lower case i without the dots and with a weird line connecting the J to the top of the i. So if you can remember that jiu3 == nine, it's pretty easy.

ten (shi2). If you have Chinese friends, you might notice that sometimes when they say "ten", they make a hand gesture where they cross both index fingers over each other. If you ever wondered why, this character is the answer :)

And here's a random sampling of two more non numeric characters:

ask (wen4). This combines the character for door (门 men2) with the character for mouth (口 kou3). Can think of it as opening the door of your mouth to ask a question. The sound (wen2) is also similar to the sound for door (men2).

good (hao3). This combines the characters for female (女 nü3) and offspring / son / child (子 zi3). I guess that's good and harmonic.

Anyway, lots more where those came from. Kind of fun to learn.... :)

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  1. Thanks for the tips. I still have trouble sometimes with 六-九。I'm in my second semester and I have to say that studying Chinese is on par with the level of effort I had to put into my most difficult engineering classes. I'm really enjoying it though.

  2. Ha, what a surprise! You are doing really well Brian. For most Chinese we do not distinguish ü and u on computers partly because ü is difficult to find on the keyboard... You reminded me my Chinese lessons when 6 years old. :D Keep it going! 加油!

    BTW, hate to say this but 问 is wen4 rather than wen2. :)

  3. The sound of 問 ask (sorry I only has the traditional Chinese character in my computer) should be (wen4) not (wen2).

    Hope you enjoy learning Chinese ^_^

  4. Brian, I stumbled across your site while searching for some oracle stuff. To help people learn Chinese, I built a list of Chinese characters sorted by usage frequency. See

    I completely agree with you on using hints to memorize characters, or words in any foreign language. I can memorize about 20 new Spanish words in a few minutes with this method. For Chinese, I have a short writeup:

    Yong Huang