Dealing with frustration by smashing up characters!

I had a fairly negative experience with my Chinese studies today. But it caused me to stop, reflect, and change path.

First off, I got my test results back from last week. I wasn’t exactly over the moon with my score! You might look at this and think ’81! That’s nothing to be too upset about!’ But honestly, it wasn’t the most difficult of tests. I lost points when it came to writing characters.

I became further exasperated when it came to today’s 听写 (dictation) exercise. Today wasn’t the traditional 听写 of listen and write, as the sentences were presented in pinyin on the projector.

Eight sentences. I read and understood every single one in a matter of 2mins. It was time to write. Nothing. Nada. I could only write the easy characters from lesson 1, such as

  • 西

Very basic characters. When I tried to write sentences such as 我的宿舍在校园的东西边,(The only sentence I managed to do!) I struggled. I’m currently writing this blog on my phone and just typed that without predictive text, choosing each individual character. Easy-peasy. Can I write on paper with a pencil? Hardly:

This made me feel incredibly frustrated. I’ve been studying at home and in the library, writing the characters multiple times, using flashcards, reading dialogues. I recognize them 100%. I just can’t write them.


Once my frustration subsided, I realized I need to address this. I actually got so livid with myself that I missed out on the next twenty minutes of the class! It sounds ridiculous and immature when I write that in this blog. It is indeed ridiculous. It’s no use just being angry with myself, what good does that do? It’s not at all conducive to progress.

I need to be honest with myself and change something / find a new method.

Personally, the way I’ve learned to speak Chinese is by breaking words up. That’s just how it works for me. I do it with English to make puns, and work out the etymology of words. I just find it interesting. Nerdy, I know. So, I enjoy breaking up words into pieces and then how and most importantly why they fit together.

On a simple level, it works like this –

look at the character 安 (an) as in 安全 meaning ‘safe’. The first character consists of a roof over a woman. A woman with a roof over her head is safe. The second character is which consists of a 人 on top of a 王. A person, and  a king/jade. By itself, that character means ‘complete or pure jade’. Put the two together, and you have a roof, a woman underneath, and a person with jade. Safety. Makes sense.


Let’s look at some more complex words/characters. For example: the word for ‘owl’ in Chinese is 猫头鹰 mao tou ying- literally cat head eagle.


Chinese is an ancient language, and new characters aren’t created in the same way that you can make up new words in English such as ‘amazeballs’ (awful word) the result is that newer words or concepts from outside of China are given very literal definitions. There are two ways to look at this. Simple characters have their origins in images, like so:

And other words are made up of radicals, or composed of a few characters put together to form a meaning.

Imagine if you’d never seen or heard of an owl before and then one just suddenly popped up outside your window. First off, you’d shit it. What is this thing?! What is it? You might call your friend – “mate, there’s this thing outside, it’s…it’s…well, it’s got the head of a cat but the body of a big bird, like an eagle or something!” BOOM, new definition – it’s a cat head eagle. A bloody 猫头鹰。 Don’t know whose idea it was to mix those two animals up to create this silent killing machine with wings, but whoever did, they’re a genius. While we’re here, check out some other animals and words with literal origins –

鲨鱼 shark – ‘kill fish’

袋鼠 Kangaroo – ’bag mouse‘

鸵鸟 Ostrich – ’camel bird‘

长颈鹿 – Giraffe – ‘long neck deer’

路人 – passerby/stranger – ‘road person‘

问题 – question/problem – ’ask topic‘

Okay, so I remember words that way. But what about these pesky characters? Let’s go back to this cat head eagle aka an owl. Cat is fine, as with most mammals in Chinese, it has the 犭(quan / dog) radical at the beginning. 头 to me looks like 大 (da – big, which looks like a man holding his arms out to express ‘large’) with some dots to indicate hair or where the head is. Head. No bother. But ‘鹰’?! Look at that thing. A bloody nightmare of a character. How on earth do I remember that, let alone write it? At first glance, it’s absurd. Let’s break it down to make it more manageable:

Okay, so the guang 广 as in Guagzhou or Guangchang is there. That indicates ‘big’ or ‘wide. There’s also a 鸟 niao meaning bird down below.  The complicated bit above that is 倠 sui, which also represents a bird. They’ve squeezed in a 人 ren next to that, which when squeezed in, becomes the radical 亻ren.

Put these all together – it becomes clearer in my mind – wide wingspan, human-like intelligence-bird bird. 鹰。

Now, if I’ve already had success learning spoken Chinese using this method – why not apply it to the written form? A few companies have capitalized on this technique – just look at memrise, or Shao Lan’s Chineasy (most definitely go and check these out if you haven’t already), for example:


Okay,so out of my initial frustration, I’ve embarked on a new method of learning characters. Smash em, boil em, put em in a stew and eat that up.

7 thoughts on “Dealing with frustration by smashing up characters!

  1. Dave

    All I can say is. Good job. Just like anything else. Keep going. I can’t really write. But I know a lot of characters. I really wanna practice character writing. Yet I can imagine your difficulty. Soon enough in sure you’ll get your groove back. Peace dude.

    • guangjoeblogger Post author

      Thanks for the encouragement Dave. You’re right, sometimes it’s just a case of knuckling down and continuing. Though as with any new learning experience, it’s important to realize when one particular method is working for you/your students and try a different technique. Let me know how you get on with character writing, and let me know if you find any useful tricks!

  2. Chris

    I have recently being doing a casual research on student behaviour. I came across many things saying meditation can improve student academic results because it leads to clearer thinking and reduced stress. It sounds hippy, but it has been trialed in many schools in the U.S. I am thinking about trying it for myself. I am currently looking at some articles I found on Google saying 10 to 15 mins a day can make a significant difference to stress.

    • guangjoeblogger Post author

      Hi Chris, that’s really useful. You’re definitely onto something with relaxation being key to positive learning experiences. I can definitely see how feeling stressed and frustrated literally blocks your brain from taking in new information. On that note – check out the podcast ‘Anthony Metivier’s Magnetic Memory Method’ podcast on iTunes – he talks about meditation and how the brain should be relaxed in order to learn, just as an athlete’s muscles are relaxed before a race.

  3. Nate

    Great article! Keep at it and it will come naturally. It takes a bit to remember pictures instead of words, but when you start putting them all together it becomes easier and easier. I like the way you broke down 鹰, not every character can be dissected but it helps a lot when it works

  4. Maureen

    Aaaawwww this is very impressive how you learn it, keep at it and you’ll make huge progress. I can help too if you need!!

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