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Announcing the long-awaited publication of:
Remembering Traditional Hanzi, Book 1, How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters
Remembering Simplified Hanzi, Book 1, How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters

by Timothy W. Richardson and James W. Heisig


Comments on a Dissertation Dealing with James W. Heisigfs Approach to Kanji Memorization

by Timothy W. Richardson, Ph.D.
Brigham Young University--Hawaii


The purpose of these brief comments is to provide an introduction to the work discussed in my dissertation, entitled: James W. Heisigfs System for Remembering Kanji: An Examination of Relevant Theory and Research and a 1,000-Character Adaptation for Chinese. This dissertation was completed in 1998, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the doctoral degree I received from the University of Texas at Austin that same year.

My purpose in undertaking this research was, in essence, to find initial answers to these two questions:

1. How strong is the theoretical and empirical justification for using a system such as Heisigfs (1986) as an aid to the learning of Chinese characters, especially in the early stages of language study?
2. How well can the system be adapted to Chinese for at least 1,000 high-frequency characters?

These questions reflected (and reflect) my ongoing interest in the learning of Chinese--I have no background in Japanese-- and, particularly, in the enormous memory burden that confronts beginning, English-speaking students who start down the path toward literacy in this language.

Answering the first question involved extensive investigation into three main areas of theory and research:

1) that dealing with the underlying cognitive processes Heisigfs system could be expected to involve;
2) that concerned with vocabulary acquisition (with particular attention to the uniqueness of vocabulary learning for Chinese); and
3) that focused on the reading process itself.

Enormous literatures were involved. Answering the second question entailed the creation of a unique list of 1,000 high-frequency Chinese characters, and the subsequent integration of each character into a coherent Chinese version of Heisigfs original work on the kanji.

The dissertation includes two important delimitations:

1) I made no attempt to deal with Heisigfs (1987) work on character pronunciations in connection with either question above. My judgment was that such pronunciation regularities as do exist in Chinese are not exploitable to a very helpful degree.
2) I did not empirically test either Heisigfs system for the learning of kanji or my Chinese adaptation of his system. My interest was that of extending the examination of relevant theoretical and empirical issues well beyond what is found in a more standard literature review, a process that I hoped would, among other things, be useful for hypothesis generation.

Heisigfs System--Concerns and Objections

As many readers are undoubtedly aware, Heisig (1986) offers an gimaginative alphabet,h or an alphabet of images, one that he intends to be gas rigorous as a phonetic one in restricting each basic element to one basic valueh (p. 7). This alphabet is made up of gprimitive elements . . . . the fundamental strokes and combinations of strokes from which all the characters are built uph (pp. 7-8). Heisig starts by associating a few of these basic components with images and English definitions, which he calls keywords. These combine to form simple characters, each of which is also associated with an image and a meaning, and which may, in turn, be used as a component of more complex characters. This procedure is followed, with additional components being included as needed, until the most complex characters are built up.

The dissertation discusses in detail, and in connection with perspectives from the relevant literatures, many of the concerns and objections that have been, or might be, leveled at this approach to character memorization. Among these are objections to (and concerns about)

1. the use of mnemonic elaboration in general
2. the use of mnemonic elaboration with Chinese characters
3. the irregularities that exist in Heisigfs system
4. Heisigfs emphasis on characters, rather than on words
5. Heisigfs emphasis on the imaginal modality for memorization, as opposed to the verbal modality
6. Heisigfs emphasis on characters, rather than on reading
7. Heisigfs use of keywords, which some might consider to be inadequate indicators of meaning and inhibitory of cognitive flexibility
8. Heisigfs seeming obliviousness to the role of phonology in mediating lexical access
9. Heisigfs being an eoutsiderf--a philosopher, rather than a language professional

Answers to the Research Questions

The above-mentioned concerns and objections (and their various sub-concerns), as analyzed in the dissertation, fail to undermine the potential value of Heisigfs work. In fact, the answer to the first research question mentioned earlier is that the strength of the theoretical and empirical justification for using a system such as Heisigfs (1986) for character memorization seems to be very strong. As discussed at length in the dissertation, Heisigfs system incorporates principles known to positively affect learning; it makes sense in terms of the underlying cognitive processes it involves. Furthermore, clear reasons exist for believing that metacognitive elements built into the system will be helpful to a learner who has goals compatible with its use, and that the system should, for such a learner, infuse positive affect into the mammoth task of character learning. Finally, there are persuasive reasons for believing that Heisigfs system has the potential to help the learner more quickly establish high-quality orthographic representations, which should allow both earlier and increased exposure to character texts, and all the learning advantages that meaningful print exposure brings.

The answer to the second research question, about how well the system can be adapted for use with Chinese, is also positive. Clearly, there are difficulties here, but they are not insurmountable. The system can be fully adapted, although the number of changes and additions required will number well into the hundreds and beyond. There are some inevitable losses. The most unfortunate is the loss of the some of Heisigfs original stories. Some of these cannot be transferred to Chinese due to form differences between the Chinese characters and their kanji counterparts; others because they are specific to Japanese. Still, these losses, and others, provide opportunity for new creativity to show what can be done.

Importantly, the 1,000-character Chinese adaptation was never intended to be a usable final-form version. It was created only for the purpose of learning what adapting Heisigfs system for use with Chinese would entail. A version intended to be fully usable for Chinese should perhaps employ a set of 2,500 characters, or more, as an adaptation of this size would contain important economy-of-scale advantages over a smaller one. (I am currently working on an expanded adaptation.)


After having gone through the lengthy investigative process required for the dissertation, I am persuaded that conscientious use of a Chinese adaptation of Heisigfs system should enable at least some (perhaps many) learners to markedly shorten the time it takes to gain literacy in Chinese. To me, therefore, it seems unwise--especially for those of us who initially confronted character memorization in more standard ways--to too hastily dismiss the systemfs potential.

To order the dissertation, which includes the 1,000 character Chinese adaptation:

If in the U.S.:

The publication # (or UMI #) is 9838097.

Call toll-free: 1 (800) 521-0600 (ext. 7044).

Or write:
Dissertations: Customer Service
300 North Zeeb Road
Ann Arbor, Michigan? 48106

If outside the U.S.:

Again, the publication # (or UMI #) is 9838097.

Dissertations: Customer Service
International Department
300 North Zeeb Road
Ann Arbor, Michigan? 48106


Heisig, J. W. (1986). Remembering the kanji I: A complete course on how not to forget the meaning and writing of Japanese characters (3rd ed.). Tokyo, Japan: Japan Publications Trading Co., Ltd.

Heisig, J. W. (1987). Remembering the kanji II: A systematic guide to reading Japanese characters. Tokyo, Japan: Japan Publications Trading Co., Ltd.