Chinese Hanzi Adventure Method

(As promised here, this is my separate post about hanzi.)

Anyone want to make some money? You’re welcome to my idea about how I think hanzi should be taught:


If you’ve never had the chance to play an adventure video game (or even some RBGs), you’re missing out on the virtually-fueled feelings of constant improvement and the thrill of using your ever-increasing resources to make progress. You’ll never know the feeling of coming to a locked door and wondering where the key is, only to find it was in the chest in the very first room of the game and you’ve been walking right past it this whole time! The discoveries, improvements, progress, and collection of items all help you work toward your end goal in those games.

I think the spirit of adventure games could be put to work to teach hanzi a lot more efficiently and maybe even more funly than it is currently. Allow me to explain.

How Hanzi Is Taught Now

The following are currently emphasized when teaching hanzi (as I understand it from people who have actually taken Chinese classes):

  1. Learning to write hanzi from the first day of class
  2. Hand writing
  3. Number of strokes / stroke order
  4. Radicals (the ones on this list)
  5. Learning to write 你好 (nǐ hǎo) on the first day of class

Let me go through those one by one and tell you why I think it’s time for an updated approach.

1. No need to learn hanzi until you’re already speaking. You can if you want to (indeed, some people ONLY want to learn the characters because of their beauty, etc.), but for communicative skills I think it’s better to build up a fluency in the language using only pinyin before introducing the hugely time-consuming characters. That is the same order, of course, that Chinese children learn oral and then written fluency.

2. No need to learn hand writing. Again, you can if you want to (and I would recommend Skritter if you want to because I think it’s very cool), but I think recognition is more important than handwriting. (Here’s a 12-year-old article (PDF) that agrees with me … oh …  I mean, that I agree with.)

3. (see number 2) Besides, we’re looking stuff up in pinyin dictionaries or computerized / iPhone dictionaries now (one of the main uses for number and order of strokes in the past was to be to help us find things in complicated hanzi dictionaries). If you’re not going to write the characters by hand, the number of strokes and their order isn’t really that important now.

4. Some of those radicals are pretty complicated. Look,  (gāo = high) is listed as a radical with 10 strokes! Yikes! Aren’t there smaller pieces? (Yes there are, I’m getting to that.)

5. 你好 is too complicated for a first hanzi lesson. Once you are ready for hanzi, 你好 is not the place to start. I know not every teacher of Chinese will try to get the students writing 你好 on the first day of class, but that’s exactly what happened in some classes I’ve heard about from friends. The teacher’s idea is: “Well, that’s the first thing you say in Chinese so you might as well write it too.” Actually, as long as you accept my idea to get the students’ verbal proficiency way ahead of their hanzi proficiency (see number 1), it won’t matter what the first thing they said was (way back then). You are now free to learn hanzi in any order you want.


I turn now to Minecraft, a game I’ve never played, as the perfect example of how hanzi should be taught. (For my purposes I’ll call Minecraft an adventure game.)

My brother explained to me that, in Minecraft, you walk around and get stuff that you use to make other stuff. You have a 3 x 3 “workbench” that you can put raw materials onto and then: voila! Out come more complicated things.

For example, you can put together 3 bricks of gold and 2 sticks in a certain formation to make a gold pickaxe.

You can then use the pickaxe to do things you couldn’t do before and get even more stuff then make more stuff, and the beat goes on.


That’s exactly how I think of hanzi. Rather than talking about “radicals” in the strictest sense of the word (this list), characters should be broken down into even smaller “items” that you run around and “pick up.” Then, once you’ve got them in your “inventory” you can start making hanzi out of them.

Here’s an example of the difference between my “adventure” method and the traditional thinking:

  • Traditional thinking: = +
    Total parts (radicals) = 2
  • Adventure method: = + +
    Total items = 3

My adventure method immediately shows that is actually 1 “thing” more complicated than the traditional view of it.

I’m interested in learning characters in order of complexity rather than by their radicals or number of strokes. I don’t care if a character has a million strokes as long as it’s made up of stuff I already know.

So just to summarize, the adventure method is about learning characters according to:

  • Complexity (which I define as number of different “items”)
  • Inventory (what different “items” do I already know)

So here’s how you would “build” in the adventure method:

That’s kind of complicated, and it’s only the second half of saying “hello.” Why are we doing this on the first day of class?

The adventure idea is that you’d want to learn those three “items” that are in red boxes first. But that seems a little bit advanced to me. That’s like asking the students to start making and using the pickaxe before they’ve figured out anything about the sticks and gold.

Here’s how I would start:

Look what I can do with just one “item” yī:

Tada! I’ve only learned one item () and I got 2 more hanzi characters out of it without even learning any new pieces. The characters aren’t more complex (according to my new system) if you’re just reusing “items” you’ve already got. The complexity rating could be thought of as “total number of different items needed to make this.” So even though and are 2 and 3 strokes, respectively, they’re still “level 1” in complexity and “learnable” because I’ve got all the pieces in my inventory.

Now look what I can do when I go “pick up” a :

So now I’ve only “collected” 2 items ( and ), but already in my inventory I’ve got 7 hanzi (一,二,三,人,大,天). That’s my kind of game! 7 for the price of 2!

And that’s just the beginning because I can now use those new hanzi to build more stuff. tài would be a logical next step.

So look at how complex 你好 nǐ hǎo really is:


No need to do that until you’ve got all 6 of the items leading up to it, and there are a bunch of other hanzi to “build” first along the way.

A quick word on the “mystery item:” It’s testament to the freshness of this idea that the little cover thing at the top of doesn’t have a name or it’s own unicode character (that I know of) even though it’s used again here:

I just used because that’s the closest thing I could find that was like that. It’s ok if the thing at the top of and doesn’t have it’s own name or meaning. Some items may be useless unless combined with other stuff. But I still prefer to think of each individual, reusable piece as it’s own thing so I can “build” any characters I need to out of it.

So there it is. That’s how I recommend learning hanzi characters, and I’ve never seen anything that does this (which certainly doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist). Some things come close, but not ever quite what I want.

But don’t forget, at the same time you’re learning hanzi (or probably better to do it first), you should use pinyin to get yourself speaking up a storm. Learning the hanzi can and should be it’s own separate adventure.

An Actual Game / App

I seriously think this would be a good game or at least an app. If someone would like to make it, go ahead! I hope I just get to try it.

If you want my help (in spite of my horrendous color choices in this article), I’d love to be a part of the project. (Oh don’t worry. I’ve kept a bunch of fun ideas for the game to myself in case I do get to be on the design team [wink].)

29 Replies to “Chinese Hanzi Adventure Method”

  1. Thanks for the good article.

    I think the idea of learning characters by what elements it takes to compose them is not totally new. There are a number of books out there that teach you characters in such a way:
    Heisig: Remembering the Hanzi
    Tuttle: Learning Chinese Characters
    Hoenig: Chinese Characters (which I consider to be the best book for a number of reasons)

    However, as these books mean hard and boring work, turning the learning the process into a game sounds promising. I know just one game that is based on this idea (ChineseCharacersFly for iOs, but I wouldn’t say it’s good for learning). So I’d like to support you on that project!


  2. Hey Albert,

    using the Minecraft analogy is excellent. I literally went, no way, genius! (I’m a big Minecraft fan too).

    I’m currently doing research into Chinese vocabulary acquisition for my masters, especially focusing on radicals. This idea is really excellent. Lots and lots of research point to radicals as a big helper in character retention and understanding.

    Your idea actually reminds me a lot of another app called “Alchemy”. You can find it on Android and iOS. You start with simple elements and start to combine more and more to form other elements. It turns about to be very random later on, as some combinations just don’t work. If you have a compatible phone I’d recommend playing it to see what I mean.

    Unfortunately, my coding skills for apps are non-existent, but I’ve recently started doing some more web development though. I’ll maybe play around with the idea when I have time and let you know, how feasible it is do something like this.

    Niel (Confused Laowai)

  3. What a FABULOUS idea, Albert!

    Who wouldn’t want to play a game like that… and actually be LEARNING something! This idea is totally in step with all the computer games that people want to play anyway! AND I bet retaining the knowledge will be far easier than just rote memorizing.

    Who out there wants to build this program?


  4. I like the building blocks idea.

    How would you incorporate mnemonics into this approach?

    I suppose the same as in the “Remembering the Chinese”, only we wouldn’t be restricted to official character components, but could define our own (down to the lowest common denominators) and associate mnemonics to these?

    In the past, I considered starting a Creative Commons page whereby people submitted their homemade mnemonics for learning Chinese characters. The idea was to eventually house a large collection of great mnemonics. Maybe Skritter will eventually take the lead on that, but I’m curious if anyone is aware of something like this already in existence in the public domain?



  5. I wasn’t sure if you meant you’d not seen this sort of breakdown before, or if you meant you’d not seen this approach used in a valuable learning tool.

    The first time I noticed this kind of breakdown was on nciku. For example, they break down into three parts:

    = +

    = +

    = +

    • @Jens,

      Ah ha! You’re right. I knew I couldn’t be the first person to think of that. They’ve got a pretty good break down system (scroll down to “Character Decomposition”). But look what happens for : They don’t know what to call that cover thing either 🙂 That indicates to me that this breaking things down into their most basic elements isn’t really a common thing… or at least not widely used… yes!


      Have you seen ? They’ve got some cool stuff for Chinese (although their website isn’t ONLY about Chinese).



      @Confused Laowai,

      Once again, my total lack of Apple products prevents me from trying out Alchemy. But I’m glad you liked this idea 🙂

  6. Love this. I’ve had similar thoughts in regards to learning approaches for 汉子, and it is SO much easier to learn a new character if I’ve already learned all the component parts, then it’s just a matter of learning what the arrangement of those parts is.

    Your game idea is fantastic. I have no abilities that would be useful for helping implement the game design, but I’d love to be an alpha/beta tester if you guys ever do start developing one. Put me on the waiting list!

    languagedan, as far as shared mnemonics, I do agree that those are really useful. I do think Skritter’s current way of dealing with those is terrific. Users can choose from a list of others’ shared mnemonics, and see which ones are most popular, as well as submitting their own. Sweet.

    Speaking of Skritter, I also love it for learning character literacy (and it’s pretty good for studying pinyin too) I noticed in the blog entry you linked it but didn’t provide an affiliate link. Here’s mine, which will give you (and me) two free weeks of Skritter on top of the free trial period, if you decide to sign up.

  7. Thanks for the tip on Memrise, Albert. Looks neat. Seems useful for beginners with no previous experience studying characters (i.e., they feed you the characters as opposed to letting you search the character you want to learn). The graphics are nice though.

  8. As far as I know, instead of teaching handwriting,many Chinese programs in the US go to the opposite way,not teaching hanzi at all. That’s very unscientific as Chinese relies on hanzi to differentiate the meanings. I think handwriting is optional but the presentation of hanzi is very necessary. Also, I think the adventure method is good for introducing hanzi. But not worthwhile for intermediate learners? Nice article!!

  9. You have some interesting ideas. I have had some similar ideas for Chinese language adventure game. You can check it out Hanzi Warrior on App Store ( What I like about your idea though is how you build upon the radicals as part of the puzzle to learn the characters. I think we should all band together it’s the 21st century we should build more immersive learning experiences not just another flashcard app.

  10. I’d love to be an alpha/beta tester if you guys ever do start developing one. Put me on the waiting list too! I am an intermediate student. I think this can extend to putting characters together to make more words.
    Thrilled to meet you. I am a lifelong, since college in the 70s, student. Computers changed everything. I used to have to look up each word in a dictionary using radical plus strokes and still could not find the correct meaning or combination. I do know my radicals!
    With a computer I can write anything I can say. I can hover and translate word by word. Makes me lazy about trying to read.
    Good thoughts. thank you.

  11. Absolutely right. 一,二,三 is the place to start learning Chinese characters, not 你好. So, as I have written on my blog learners should “adopt a logical learning sequence, starting with simple characters and accumulating graphical knowledge, but at the same time paying attention to the relative frequency of use of characters.
    e.g. Learn before ”.

    Games are a great way of learning Chinese characters to make it more fun and less laborious but there are not enough of them available as yet. Chinese character element Sudokus, word searches and character differentiation exercises can all be used, but the idea of an adventure game for learning Chinese is a great one and somebody should take it up.

    One problem is that native Chinese teachers seem to think the only way to learn characters is by handwriting them over and over again. I know from my own experience that this is boring and didn’t even work for me until I learned to recognize characters from the graphic elements they contained.

    • @Chris McColl re: ⺈,

      Woah! You found it! Thanks very much. By the way, HOW did you find it? No one else (including Chinese people) seemed to know about it.

  12. Ah yes, currently the lookup stops when it finds a radical (semantic radicals) and doesn’t dissect it. is a radical. I’ll have to add a feature with a checkbox that gives the option to dissect or not.

    Adding it to my list of future updates.

    But if you’re interested, I went through the data manually and it gave me this: ⺈,

    So it is the same one.

  13. Albert, you are falling in the same trap as those who say “you don’t need to learn characters, you can just speak, and check words by pinyin”. They are in fact just rationalizing their own failure and turning a blind eye on the fact that their progress will be impeded from the start.

    Writing characters is essential in many ways:
    – you memorize them better. The hand remembers. All characters that I am really confident with are characters I have written often. For other characters, that I recognize easily enough in context, I sometimes feel hesitant when the pinyin IME presents me with several, somewhat similar characters.
    – it helps understand how a character is made up of different *graphical* parts (something that, hem, everybody knows; but it might have helped if somebody had explained it from the start).
    – stroke order and a feeling how the character is written is compulsory if you want to read handwriting; even for recognizing the character in different fonts, it helps.

    Of course you don’t have to practice writing *every* character n-times; you have to aim for some balance between simply recognizing characters, and being able to confidently produce the more common ones.

    • @yves,

      Thanks for your concern and the detailed reasons for why hand writing can be helpful. I don’t deny that it’s an advantage to be able the write the characters (for example, I never write my own orders at those restaurants who hand me a pad and paper 🙂

      But, I actually AM one of those people who say: “you don’t need to learn characters, you can just speak, and check words by pinyin.”

      It’s all about the word “need.” If you just want to speak and listen, then I guess you don’t NEED to learn Characters. If you want to learn to read and write also, then you definitely DO need to learn characters. Everyone has different goals for the language. There are even “hanzi hobbyists” who don’t want to learn to speak or listen at all. They ONLY want to learn the characters, and so they don’t NEED to learn to read and write. It’s complicated because everyone comes to the Chinese language with a different perspective and different goals. If you want to be the Ambassador to China, maybe you need to learn to read and write. If you just want to “get around” for a two-week trip, maybe you don’t need to.

      So I’m basically agreeing with you. It’s clearly beneficial to learn to hand write. But each person needs to decide whether they want to invest that time and whether it’s part of their learning goals.

  14. A great and informative article as usual, and I particualrly agree with your point “No need to learn hanzi until you’re already speaking”.

    Some people just made the mistake of “if I learn both speaking and writing/reading at the same time, I can boost my efficiency of learning Chinese”.

    That is not true, everyone learns how to listen first for picking up a language, then speak, and reading and writing come afterwards.

    If you mess up this order, you will definitely backfire yourself and sooner or later, you will lose the motivation of learning Chinese (which is a really bad thing).

    I’ve addressed the questionhow to speak conversational Chinese effortlessly and automatically on my website, for anyone who is interested in speaking Chinese fluently, you should definitely have a look.

  15. Albert,

    no quarrel here. If you don’t want to be able to read and write, you don’t have to learn hanzi. Of course. (But I have never met someone really fluent who couldn’t read. Come to think of it, I would feel very hampered If I had learned to speak English, but not to read it. And I don’t want to be ambassador to the States; yes, English is a second language to me)

    But this post was about learning hanzi, right? And I was pointing out that, despite all the Web literature about shortcuts to learning Chinese (see Alan above), yes, traditional methods still have some validity. Like, practicing handwriting a few chars will help you learn hanzi. Even if you don’t intend to ever write anything.

  16. Pingback: How to teach written Chinese « Qaqan

  17. (Long after the original post date, but hopefully relevant!)

    Absolutely on target with (1) the concept of separating the instruction of spoken vs. written Chinese; and (2) the need for a simple, progressive way to teach the characters.

    I had an analogous experience years ago as a professional trainer, teaching(complex 1970-1980) computer software. The way it was originally taught was to teach how to write a program “from scratch”. But, the easier way to learn was to start by “reading” an existing, hopefully well written program, and making small changes to adapt it. I was successful using this method but when I recommended it to my colleagues they scoffed, with the same idea as teaching “ni hao” first since it is the first thing you need to SAY.

    • @Brad Pritts,

      Never too late for me! I THINK I might be getting my wish soon. Let’s just say I’m considering buying a iPhone for the first time in my life because of a certain app that I test-drove last week. It’s not quite ready yet, but neither is the new iPhone, so I think it’ll wait about a month and see what becomes of them both…:-)

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