For many of us, memorizing characters is a difficult thing. In Chinese, just because you can speak the word doesn't mean you can read it. Just because you can read it doesn't mean you can write it. At least for me, I find myself constantly forgetting characters I used to know, especially when it comes to writing.

Do you guys have any tips or trick to avoid this? Aside from just constant writing?

EDIT: I'm getting a lot of answers on learning based on the radicals, which is valid and works for quite a lot of characters. But it doesn't always work. There are many cases where there are no such obvious correlations, especially in simplified characters, where many things are removed and sometimes loses the meaning the traditional character. Also, the below characters have obvious hints of pronunciation or meaning.

  • 限制
  • 矛盾
  • 3
    do what chinese children do: memorize lots of stuff, and recite it out loud or copy it out by hand. in some schools, lu xun's stories have also been memorized verbatim, down to punctuation. he's not my favorite chinese writer (i think wang xiaobo takes that cake) but getting a feel for his prose style is very useful.
    – magnetar
    Commented Dec 25, 2011 at 21:30
  • also, take up calligraphy. when you get a 'problem character', learn to write the character in as many styles as you can.
    – magnetar
    Commented Dec 25, 2011 at 21:31
  • 2
    Listen to people who have more experience than you. If they say you need to learn your radicals better, they might be right.
    – Jay
    Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 14:16
  • 1) Learn them in context (in books, subtitles, etc) so you have a reason & additional hooks to help you remember them. Flashcards or radicals alone don't provide this. 2) Actually write them! The kinetic act of writing by hand vs. only reading/typing utilizes different parts of your brain and has been shown to increase retention. 3) Find things to read about your favorite hobby or interests. This helps w/motivation as well as #1 above putting things in context that you're already familiar with. 4) Make up dumb stories to help you recall tones, or mark up text as you read, then review.
    – mc01
    Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 22:11
  • A Chinese learns about 2000 characters when she reaches 12, that is after more than 6 years of formal learning and full language immersion. Take it slow. As long as you remember more than you forget, it would probably be OK. Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 1:07

17 Answers 17


You can use a SRS (Spaced Repetition System) software, I personally use Anki to create a deck of study cards and I review them on my mobile phone.

I also recommend Memrise.

2014 update:

I still use Anki, but combined with Google Images Search and Forvo: When I make new flashcards, I'll add the writing (hanzi & pinyin), its pronunciation (from Forvo) and a picture of the character's meaning (from Google Images), that way all the card's content is in Chinese, and I avoid relying on translation. By the way, Anki now allows to synchronize media files (audio/images) between devices.

I've started using this new method few months ago, and it has worked very well for me (especially with nouns). Credits of this method goes to the "Fluent Forever" book.

  • +1 to SRS method of learning. I use Train Chinese. It's pretty good as it supports simplified/traditional and you can practice via your browser or a mobile running Android/iPhone.
    – pyko
    Commented Dec 14, 2011 at 6:25
  • I wish there was something like Anki (or Anki itself) for Symbian phones too.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Dec 14, 2011 at 14:33
  • +1 Memrise is really really fun to use ! Commented Aug 25, 2012 at 8:37

I generated a bunch of files for some flashcard software that uses spaced repetition to help you learn efficiently. It's still a lot of work to memorize the flash cards, but I don't know of anything easier.

In total, I generated 32614 cards with 4166 characters and 18385 words. They are divided into separate files, each with about 100 cards in it. You can download the flashcards for the 700 most common characters from my Google Code page. I'll publish the remaining characters after I'm happy with the current set.

The cards cover English definition, simplified character, traditional character, and pinyin pronunciation of each character, as well as the most common words using those characters.

The software is Mnemosyne, which uses the spaced repetition technique to schedule when you review the cards you already know. It's not fast, but it seems to stick a lot better than manually reviewing vocabulary lists.

Here's a screenshot:

Mnemosyne screenshot

In a couple of more recent projects, I tried to build some tools to help with reading practice. I sieved through Chinese text looking for sentences that use only the characters I know. My first attempt was with Twitter updates, but it was kind of a slow process to find and translate them. More recently, I found a huge collection of translated sentences on Tatoeba. I've collected all the sentences that used the 500 most common traditional characters and posted them on my Google Code page. They're sorted with the most common characters at the start of the page.

  • not sure why this answer got some down votes?
    – StarCub
    Commented Dec 14, 2011 at 1:53
  • Perhaps could have been written better - i.e. elaborate a bit more on the flashcard software, and technique for remembering, but I don't see the need for a downvote either - it actually looks like quite handy software.
    – Ciaocibai
    Commented Dec 14, 2011 at 2:11
  • 1
    Well, I fleshed out the answer more, we'll see if the votes are any kinder.
    – Don Kirkby
    Commented Dec 14, 2011 at 6:20
  • Great answer - I upvoted :-) Good on you for sharing as well.
    – Ciaocibai
    Commented Dec 14, 2011 at 7:31
  • I'm just paying it forward, @Ciaocibai. I couldn't have built any of my tools without the huge effort that other people put into projects like ZDT, CEDICT, and Tatoeba.
    – Don Kirkby
    Commented Dec 14, 2011 at 7:49

Generally, there are two types of characters: "compound characters 合体" and "single component characters 独体".

And there are four character building methods: "pictogram 象形","ideogram 指事"、"indicatives 会意","phono-semantic 形声".

"Single component characters 独体" are characters that derive from "pictograms 象形" or "ideograms 指事".

  pictogram:   "人" means people "山" means hill  "木" means wood
  ideogram:    "上" means up     "下" means down  "本" means origin

These types of characters should be remembered by rote, and they are often used as components in "compound characters 合体".

And 95% characters in modern Chinese are "Compound character 合体" .

About 90% or even more of the "compound characters 合体" are "phono-semantic 形声", which means characters built with a semantic (形) part and a pronunciation(声)part.


"dove 鸠" is built with "九" and "鸟" . 
means it's a kind of bird(鸟).
and its pronunciation is "jiū", which is similar to "九 jiǔ".
and there are "pigeon 鸽" "duck 鸭" "crow 鸦" "chick 鸡" "ostrich 鸵" ... 
they are all kinds of birds.

then "steel 钢 " "iron 铁" "bronze 铜" "silver 银" ... are other examples 
which use "钅"(simplified "金" radical ), 
they are all kinds of metals.

Of course , there are lots of exceptions to this, as the pronunciation may have changed since ancient times, or because the parts may not have the exact same meaning [as originally]. But it's a good method to retain the characters together.

The "indicatives 会意" are another way of building "compound characters". But not many characters are built this way.

e.g.: "尘", which means dust, consists of "小" (small) and "土" (soil).

So, you'd better learn the "single component characters 独体" by heart, and remember the "compound characters 合体" by their radicals and components which are often the "single component characters 独体".

Here is a online tool I often use to look up characters by radicals: http://www.zdic.net/zd/bs/

NOTE:I'm using simplified Chinese characters here, but the rules are the same for traditional Chinese characters.


I will describe the way to learn "独体字" : (My way is using Google before using this, but this may not suitable for you.)

See the character :

  • e.g: "矛"

Write the character and input it into the PC (when it's on your PC, go to the next part):

  • For this part you need a Chinese IME. QQ Pinyin Or sogou Pinyin if you know it's pinyin "拼音" and works in Windows. They both have handwriting tool as well if you can only write it.

    For Linux Users. There is not any good handwriting IME. You can only use pinyin with fcitx or ibus-pinyin.

    You can use Cloud IME or QQ’s Cloud IME both on Linux and Windows as well. They only support pinyin currently.

Lookup the character you input in an online chinese dictionary like zdic:

  • search the character in it and check the 字源字形 tab. This means the origin of the character.

  • If you can not input the character, you can check the character by its radical 部首 using 【字典部首检字】.

    the 矛 ‘s stroke 笔画 is five. So you look up in 笔画五 and you will find it there. If not, check if it is using parts in 笔画一:丨亅丿乛一乙乚丶. In this case, you can find it in 笔画五.

    But if you are looking for "予", you can only find it in 乛 of 笔画一.

http://www.zdic.net/zd/zi/ZdicE7Zdic9FZdic9B.htm is the page you get about 矛’s 字源字形.

You can see the origin and evolution of the character. And there is also basic info about it, like pronunciation, explanation and stroking sequence.

It may help you understand the character better.


And the best way to learn a single character(矛 here) I think is to read, write and learn it in words (矛盾 here) many many times. All student in primary and junior school in "语文" (Chinese Language Lessons) must do this over and over.

And in fact, we are using words not characters. We don't use single 矛, as we haven't used spears for a long time.
But 矛盾, which means contradiction, are more vigorous.

  • All those character parts are easy and all, and works easily for the examples you presented. But not all characters are so easy.The radicals don't always infer the correct pronunciation or meaning. Lets take 矛盾 for example, non of its部首 really clearly indicates its meaning or pronunciation. There is no doubt some way to interpret it, sometimes there is some ancient chinese story associated with a character. But whatever it is, it's not as obvious. I have the most trouble with these kinds of characters.
    – mugetsu
    Commented Dec 14, 2011 at 23:47
  • the 矛盾 both are 独体字 . so they should be remembered by rote. maybe a better way is to find the origin of the word and remember it . but it's sometimes far too cost in time and stamina. e.g.: 矛 zdic.net/zd/zi/ZdicE7Zdic9FZdic9B.htmzdic.net/zd/zi/ZdicE7Zdic9BZdicBE.htm . they are both created with "pictogram 象形"
    – Ryk
    Commented Dec 15, 2011 at 4:42

I would suggest taking a look at skritter.com. You can directly check out their demo on their site.

Skritter is a website helping you to learn and memorize Chinese and Japanese characters. It uses the spaced repetition algorithm to get your Character retention to about 90%.

Skritter basically shows you the pinyin and asks you to write the character stoke by stroke. It also has other memorization options, like word and character definition and tones.

They have an active forum of learners. And they just came out with a new iOS app. It works fabulously on my iPad. You can add words to your skritter list directly through MDBG.net, by pressing the 's' icon near the character.

I have learnt 200 new characters in the past month after not learning a thing for a while, and I feel that I do remember their writing.

Disclaimer, I do not work for Skritter, but absolutely love it.

  • added more to my answer. thanks @Alenanno!
    – Doody P
    Commented Aug 8, 2012 at 9:52
  • +1 for Skritter, it's a very helpful tool
    – dusan
    Commented Aug 25, 2012 at 16:34

Most of the answers involve SRS, rote and methods. I use Anki. I have thousands of words in my deck. I've tried rote. They work but they're mind numbingly boring.

Here's my take. Read. Read a lot. What's the use of memorizing if you're going to spend so much time memorizing, no practical usage? Read things you're interested in. Not just from books, but from anything you can get your hands on. online news, Twitter, Weibo, blogs, print books, movie/tv subtitles, video newscasts that have transcriptions available, commercials with transcriptions available. This way you're taking in info you're for the most part interested in too.

There is probably a wealth of reading material out there of things you are interested in and tools today - popup translation and handwriting recognition make it way easier compared to pre-computer days.

  • 1
    It is a really good comment IMHO, and this is how I build up my English vocabulary. However, you need to have a threshold proficiency to be able to read interesting stuff. I don't know what it is the threshold for Mandarin though, I am trying to know 1000-1500 characters because switching from SRS to reading (massively)
    – Xavier T.
    Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 13:30
  • I agree. When you first start, there's really not much of a choice, you need to get a minimum comprehension level or you'll be looking up every word. I think it'll be different for everyone when they transition to reading material not written for learning purposes.
    – Steve
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 11:10

For me, I found learning the meaning of all (or at least most) radicals (the parts that make up each character) the crux of it all.

Once I learned the meaning and could recognise the parts it made it a lot easier to remember them long term. For example, all metals seem to have the 金字旁, and every time I see a character that has this, e.g. 钢,铁等等, I can recognise them pretty immediately. Putting them together with the other parts, in this example 冈和失, I find it much easier to remember.

Hope that makes sense to you. Let me know if you want some clarification. Good luck!


I'm getting a lot of answers on learning based on the radicals. Which is valid and works for quite a lot of characters. But it doesn't always work.

Beyond learning radicals and "families" like other posters suggested, there are no shortcuts.

The only way to learn and retain characters is to constantly practice and reinforce what you learned by using it. Just talking from experience: I've done my share of copying down Chinese characters over and over again. But if I didn't use them, I'd quickly forget what I "learned."

This is probably true for any language you learn - you have to apply what you learned (and keep using it). I am a native and fluent Portuguese speaker, but after a few years of not using it as often, I am starting to forget things.

So keep practicing. This is probably the best advice I can give you.


Make up stories / mnemonic devices and memorize them. Review them periodically and write the characters based on the elements in the stories.

For example (聘):

Story: @hire@ the archer who draws his BOW (弓) back to his EAR (耳) and hits the X-MARKED SPOT (由).

If I follow the story and recognize the capitalized words, I'll write an ear on the left, an "x-marked spot" on the top right and a bow under it: 聘.

Don't worry about making the story accurate or too logical. The more vivid, dirty, or crazy the more memorable it will be. I do try to keep the keywords for the radicals / components from changing too much from character to character.


I rely heavily on SRS. My method is to mainly use Recognition cards (ie the front has the character & the back has the pronunciation & meaning). If I notice a certain character is repeatedly causing me difficulty, I will add more example sentences that include that character. Pleco dictionary & the website nciku.com are helpful sources for this.

Once I feel confident that I can recognize the character reliably, I will reverse the card with the meaning on the front & the character & pronunciation on the back.

Once I can recognize the character from both directions, I will move on to learning to write it.

Writing is less important to me on a day to day basis than being able to recognize the character or translate what I want to say into Chinese, so it is the last step in my mastering of a character. Once you can recognize a character, translate to the character from your language, and write it, I think you will find that it is much harder to forget it.


I try to learn Chinese words in "families."

For instance, this word 妈 means "mother," and is pronounced ma (first tone).

Take away the woman radical to the left, and you get ma (third tone), which means "horse," which is the "root" word.

Place the mouth radical to the left and you get ma (unaccented), which is a word that makes a sentence a question (equivalent to the French n'est pas?)

Other variations of this word, take the meanings "to scold," "docks," "agate," etc. Depending on the word, you could have 5-10 or more "compound" words from one root word.

There are something like 858 phonetic "families" of which maybe 400 are fairly common.I would try to learn these 400-800 "families" first. Once you master them, individual words are just variations of these.


Well, I had the same question when I was studying Chinese several years ago.

Many people recommended to use SRS software, such as Anki, Skritter, Memrise etc. But non of them helped me as I expected, I kept forgetting how to write characters anyway.

And finally I realized that the reason why I kept forgetting characters was 拼音输入法. Because of constantly using 拼音输入法 on mobile phone and computer, not only foreigners, but also native Chinese speakers sometimes forget how to write some rarely used complicated characters.

So the best solution for me was to completely delete 拼音输入法 from my mobile phone and switch to 笔画输入法 instead. To be honest, at the beginning it was not easy to learn 笔画, since you definitely have to know how to write the character to be able to type it with 笔画. But after one year of practicing I just get used to 笔画 and do not have an issue with forgetting Chinese characters anymore.

For example:



You could try to use some Chinese flashcard software like ZDT or Easy Hanzi, and try to remember the pinyin, Chinese character or definition. If you don't want to write though, it's going to be difficult to remember them no matter what.


First, you should know I am fairly new to the Chinese language. So what I like for me may be too rudimentary for you.


Recently, I have used Anki, Skritter, and Memrise.

Of them, I think that Memrise is the best for beginners. I like their system of additive learning. The package I have been going through most recently is their Chinese lesson on menus. It is great.

The hardest to use for me was Anki since you need to own the direction of your learning. This seems better for someone that has particular higher education goals (e.g. HSK) rather than just wanting to improve their knowledge. There are lots of options to play around with and you can get backlogged pretty easily.

More recently, I have been using a mobile app I helped build called Whizz Learning for Chinese. It combines SRS with a keyboard system referred to as CALLS to make parsing Chinese characters easier.

The system was created by a neurolinguist here in Hong Kong and it focuses on breaking characters out into symbols. I found it easier to write down new characters (and look them up) rather than using the radical and stroke system.

It probably doesn't hurt to try all of them (they are free or have free modes) as it seems that people have opinions about what is best.

Behaviors (non-apps)

Along with the apps, I think focusing on the environment around you is very helpful if you live in a Chinese speaking country (or you could just go to the Chinatown in your city).

For example, I am constantly scanning business signs, menus, ads, etc. to see if there are characters that I recognize. If there is one that I recognize, but I can't remember the meaning of I look it up. It starts to build your ability to see the character in context.

Once I get up to 500 or so characters I am going to start trying to read newspapers or magazines. Until then I have found it to be pretty frustrating since I am looking up everything as I read. From what I have heard proper nouns are a sticky point when starting to read newspapers.

Happy learning and best of luck!


Total Recall

I find the best way to recall characters is reading. I have found lots of material that one can read online. I prefer fiction and find the work of 倪匡 pretty interesting (note: you will need to enable Traditional Chinese Windows encoding). Since I use a Mac, I have added multiple Chinese-English Dictionaries to the computer, which makes for easy lookup.

Music is also a very important way to remember characters. A good song goes quite a long way to help in this area as most folks tend to love memorable songs. One can search for song names, download lyrics, and singalong. In fact, there is a website for that at SingChineseSongs. Karaoke works wonders too.. Here is a list (with links) of some of the entertainers who have inspired me to learn Mandarin.

One of the best way to remember is to force yourself to start fearlessly speaking/reading/writing Mandarin at home. I am lucky to be able to do this (sometimes I'm forced to as my wife will sometime insist talking only Mandarin or Cantonese). Find online games can be another way to build recall (Check out memory game at Yellowbridge). Read character books, Chinese Cartoons, and watch Chinese Movies are also good.

Interesting New Google Service

Google Translate has added something quite useful called a phrasebook. One can add translated sentences, phrases or words to a list (together with a translation, which one can edit for correctness before adding to the phrasebook). The phrasebook can then be converted with a single click to a Google spreadsheet (and from there downloaded as a CSV wordlist).


Write each new character you learn 250 times in a row, slowly, on a notepad. Pronounce it every time you finished writing it. Pen, paper and practice. Nothing can beat that...


I picked up some Chinese words, like ni hao or xie xie simply by being exposed to them so often that it would be impossible to not remember them. I like passive learning activities, like watching YouTube videos or TV shows in Chinese, where I’m repeatedly exposed to various frequent words and I start recognizing them without some dedicated study time.

When it comes to conscious learning, techniques for learning characters are commonly divided into associative and rote. Both work well for me but in different ways:

  • Associative techniques, such as inventing stories or drawing pictures to provide meaning to the characters. These techniques work best when I want to explore some Chinese words in depth and speed is not my priority.

  • Rote techniques like making flashcards, saying or writing the words many times, and other techniques based on memorization through repetition. These techniques are good for quick memorization of a large number of characters as they don’t require to dedicate significant study time to each character.

I’ve noticed that flashcards coupled with spaced repetition help me learn a bunch of new words on a weekly basis. It seems that the words I’ve studied with flashcards are the ones that I can recall instantly when needed. I make a word list for every textbook lesson and I retain these words reasonably well.


Yes, I do!

Learn Cangjie input method. (with the caveats below)

That is what has helped me the most.

Without any writing practice whatsoever, I was able to write tons of characters, from memory, after learning Cangjie.

Cangjie decomposition really helps you remember whole chunks of characters and picture them in your mind.

For instance, I used to forget what 題 日人一冖金 aombc looked like and how to write it. But now, I know that it's just 是 日一卜人amyo and 頁 一冖山金mbuc.

likewise, 新 卜木丿一丨ydhml is just 亲 卜廿木ytd  and 斤 丿一丨hml and 所 丿尸丿一丨hshml is 戶 丿尸hs and 斤 丿一丨hml.

You'll learn many common shapes like 耳 尸十sj and 隹 人土 og in the process of learning Cangjie, and It'll simplify the decomposition process and help you to easily picture and recall the characters into your mind. And thus, you'll be able to write them with ease.

And since you mentioned Simplified characters, Cangjie 5 handles these with ease.

个 is just 人丨 or ol ,

贝 is just 冖人 or bo ,

车 is just 大手 or kq,


输 is just 大手人一弓 or kqomn


  1. Obviously, there are some really complex characters where the Cangjie decomposition isn't going to help you remember how to write them. For instance, 𰻝 卜十金心 yjcp𰻝yjcp 十水一田中 jemwl (biang biang noodles) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biangbiang_noodles#/media/File:Bi%C3%A1ng.svg

But generally, it helps with most characters. And you can just devote a little extra study to those exceptions.

  1. Cangjie doesn't follow standard stroke order.
  2. Instead, it graphically decomposes the main elements. For some more complex characters, Cangjie can help you remember the trace elements and the general shape, but you may have to think a second to fill in the gaps and lookup the stroke order if you've forgotten. For Example:
鬱  木木冖山丿  ddbuh

In cases like this, I usually break down the element(s) not included in the Cangjie code to ensure I remember them. So, in this case, the main element not included is just

缶 𠂉 or oju

Additionally, I might note that u is short for

𠚍 =  or ukii


丿h is short for 彡 hhh

For many other characters, however, Cangjie code doesn't leave out too many elements and the stroke order is obvious. So visualizing and writing are usually a breeze.

  1. Cangjie, itself, has some simplified codes for more complex characters.

Example: 龜 弓難山 nxu

Maybe the 弓N and the 山U can help you remember the beginning and the end, but you have to use another method to remember the X portion. And the stroke order isn't obvious, so you have to study that, too.

However, there are only 14 of these simplifications, that I'm aware of, so you're cutting your study pool (for writing practice) down to 14 from many thousands before. I'd say that's a pretty good deal overall.

Anyway, hope that helps!

(Only) If you're interested:

( A word about Cangjie's speed and convenience. )

  1. Once you've learned Cangjie, you can type quite fast. https://chinese.stackexchange.com/a/47794/28803
  2. And, knowing Cangjie enables you to use Abbreviated Cangjie to vastly reduce the number of keystrokes.

It's analogous to typing the phrase "how are you" by merely typing "hwaeyu". The mental process of picturing the characters in your mind is the same. You just hit less keys.


十十人一弓 人竹 水土丶 jjomn oh egi   <--Cangjie
十弓人竹水丶       jnohei         <--Abbreviated Cangjie

http://chinesecj.com/ime/cj5.php Cangjie 5 online IME https://www.simpleinput.com/?lang=en Abbreviated Cangjie online IME

Best of luck to you in your studies!

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