The Hanzi Movie Method (Part 5): Using Movie Scenes to Learn Chinese Characters

The Hanzi Movie Method is a mnemonic system for learning Chinese characters. It is the most critical subset of our larger curriculum The Mandarin Blueprint Method. This is part five of a series explaining the method. Click below to navigate the various parts:

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4 – Part 5 – Part 6Part 7New Pinyin Chart

P.S. If you are brand new to Chinese characters, we recommend first checking out our series Chinese Characters 101

We now have all the elements necessary to visually represent the pinyin (Actors & Sets), tone (Room) and character components (Props) for any individual character you want to learn.

Now it’s time to figure out how to visually express the character’s meaning.

We give every Character an English “Keyword” that represents one of the general meaning of the character. Characters often have several meanings, but we try to choose the most common one.

Throughout this post, we’ll be quoting 8-time memory champion Dominic O’Brian several times from his book “You Can Have an Amazing Memory” one of our favorites. 

Before You Start Creating: Some Things to Keep in Mind

#1 Catch the right brain waves

Research has shown that the brain produces several types of waves depending on your physical and emotional state.

Beta waves (13 to 40 Hertz): These are vital for taking action, decision making and concentration. With such a broad frequency spectrum, beta waves are often subdivided into high beta and low beta. High beta waves (24 to 40 Hertz) can be associated with stress. In short bursts, frantic brain activity is good for quick thinking and instant reaction, but prolonged high-beta activity is draining and can lead to burn-out.

Alpha waves (9 to 12 Hertz): The “chill-out” waves that are produced when you are relaxed. These are the best waves for creative visualization.

Theta waves (5 to 8 Hertz): Associated with dreaming and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, when many researchers believe our memories are consolidated. During wakefulness, our theta waves promote creative thinking and logical thinking, both of which are important for improving memory.

For the Hanzi Movie Method, you’ll want to be as Alpha and Theta as you can. Be relaxed, and you’ll be able to access surprising new levels of creativity.

#2 Close your eyes

This usually helps a lot, as any visual cues or distractions from your environment could affect the quality of your scene.

Learn Chinese Characters, The Hanzi Movie Method (Part 5): Using Movie Scenes to Learn Chinese Characters

#3 Choose a quiet environment

For best results, you’ll need to access those “chill out waves”, so a calm, quiet environment would be ideal. However, once you get used to doing this, you’ll be able to use these scenes to memorize characters in a taxi, in a bar, or anywhere pretty much instantly, after which you can put them into Anki for review when you get the chance.

#4 Be “present” in every scene

You are the observer, and these are your places, actors and props, and you are in every single one of these scenes looking on. This is not only really effective but also really easy because you know exactly how you would respond to any given action or situation. Think about how you feel towards everything that is going on, as well as thinking about how your actors are feeling. Is somebody menacing? Be intimidated. Somebody exploding? Be surprised. You can also add yourself in as a third person character whenever you like.

“The circuitry of your brain – that is, the individual neurons and networks of neurons it contains – can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what you’ve imagined. Only “you” as a whole conscious being know the truth – that’s why tricking your brain is relatively easy. Once you bring your humanity, vulnerability and “realness” to your story, your brain can believe it as true – and that makes it even more memorable.”

How to Make Killer Associations

The creative visualization involved in the Hanzi Movie Method brings both hemispheres of your brain and your senses into play, working in harmony together to create incredibly memorable “scenes” for each character.

Your left brain gives you the logical functions of the various props (e.g., a razor blade is used for cutting things) and actions of your actors (How they would respond to certain stimuli).

Your right brain gives you imagination, color, spatial awareness and size and shape of objects.

On top of that, your five senses give you sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch.

It’s these three significant components combined that will trick your brain into thinking the scene is real, making it just as unforgettable as your various memories from different chapters of your life.

Below are some overarching principles you should apply to every scene you create. Follow this advice, and you’ll be making unforgettable memories instantly.

#1 Bring your emotions into play

This is the top rule because it is the factor that will make a scene genuinely come alive because our judgment of any experience comes straight from how it makes us feel.

Our brains are powerful machines when it comes to association and memory, and they respond exceptionally well to emotions.

“Emotions are powerful, instant knee-jerk reactions to what we experience and are the primary link we have to memories from our past. Think about your first day at school, your first kiss, or your first injury. Regardless of the sensory information, you can recall, the overarching details are those related to how you felt. When recalling, just as when you recall a dream, things will seem fuzzy or distorted, but it’s the “emotional footprint” that the scene leaves behind that will trigger your memory, just as with real-life events from your past.”

Make things surreal and fantastical if you like, but never forget to put emotional content in there, both from your actors and (more importantly) yourself. Also, make sure you not only set in emotional reactions to what’s going on from your various actors within the scenes you create but also feel them yourself.

Learn Chinese Characters, The Hanzi Movie Method (Part 5): Using Movie Scenes to Learn Chinese Characters
Learn Chinese Characters, The Hanzi Movie Method (Part 5): Using Movie Scenes to Learn Chinese Characters

#2 Bring your senses into play

“If you can hone your natural ability to make connections and bring alive episodes from your past by using your emotions and senses, as well as logic and creativity, you make it easier for your brain to memorize new information in an instantly vivid, memorable way.”

Every time you interact with your actors, the environment (i.e., your sets) or various objects (i.e., your props), focus on applying your senses to them. Don’t just think about how things look, but also how they feel, what sounds they make, their aromas and even how they taste!

On top of that, don’t forget other, more subtle senses such as weight, temperature, pain, the momentum of movement, pressure, muscle tension and even itchiness! The more of these you apply, the more your brain thinks that what is happening is real, and therefore more memorable.

#3 Draw from your knowledge and experience

You can apply your knowledge and experience to props, actors, and sets so the actions that occur happen with very little strain. This excerpt from O’Brian’s book explains this concept perfectly

Wall: “makes me think of the Pink Floyd album, a wall I climbed as a child, the wall I used to jump over on my way out of school and so on. As the associations come thick and fast, I come across the most obvious link: the traditional nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.” Eureka!”

Pen and soup. “Using free association and my imagination, I come up with the following possibilities: use the pen to stir the soup (perhaps the soup changes color as the ink from the pen mixes in); use the pen to make a pattern or perhaps write a word in the thick soup; fill the pen with soup as though it was ink to write a letter; use the pen as a straw for the soup; and so on.”

Although the connections to my past aren’t evident in this example, all the associations draw upon my experience and understanding of both a pen and a bowl of soup. Memory and association are inseparable. The goal is to allow your brain to arrive at whatever common denominator it wants to find without prejudice or preconceptions getting in the way.”

#4 Start from the keyword

You are the director, scriptwriter, and cameraman. Do you think anyone in any of those professions starts filming a scene before knowing the message they are trying to send with it? Of course not. Before you begin creating your scene, think about an object or specific action or series of actions that best represents the keyword to you. When going through the character building handout, look at each keyword and see what flashes from the past they bring up for you. This doesn’t have to be anything particularly significant; it could be a film you watched, a game you played, a person you knew, etc. Then let the images, thoughts, emotions, and senses resurface in as much detail as possible. Doing this may take a second, or it may take several minutes. This process is called the “Linking Method,” and getting good at this will be very useful for learning words later on in the course.

Learn Chinese Characters, The Hanzi Movie Method (Part 5): Using Movie Scenes to Learn Chinese Characters

For more abstract keywords:

Scenes for characters with keywords like “car”, “river”, and “brain” are easy to create, but words like “individual” (个 – gè), “what” (什 – shén), and “need” (需 – xū) are tougher for beginners because they are abstract. All you have to do is connect to something tangible. The connection can be tenuous, and can even have a few degrees of separation.

#5 Involve the environment

Remembering where the scene takes place is essential for remembering the pronunciations correctly. Focus on a specific part of the room you’re in (referred to above as “loci”) and find ways to interact in some way with the walls, ceiling, floor, or furniture. Doing this will not only make the scene more realistic (as mentioned in the section above: “Make the intangible tangible”) but will also clearly imprint the set you are in at the same time.

#6 Make it logical to some degree

All we’re doing here is essentially creating “fake” memories, and your brain can’t tell the difference between real and imagined memories very well, even if they’re a little surreal or fantastical. However, there are limits. There has to be some plausibility or possibility of the actions taking place for it to be memorable, i.e. some bearing on reality. Use your understanding of the properties of the objects in play and apply them to the scene. For example:

For the story I created above for “what” (shén – 什), Chuck Norris hits the Christian cross and hurts his hand. Simple and straight-forward. Nobody needs to be flying, and the cross doesn’t have to pop like a balloon or transform into fairy dust. Your scenes might be a bit bizarre or unconventional but in theory perfectly plausible or possible. Just keep it (at least mostly) real.

“Don’t try to make the connection any more weird or fantastical than it needs to be – there’s no need to do your creative work overtime. The more natural and logical the imagined scenario is to you, the more likely it is that the two halves of your brain are working in harmony and your brain will accept and remember the associations you come up with.”

Troubleshooting

In the early days, some can struggle with this method, and that’s understandable. We adults very rarely use our brains like this and, like any muscle, it has to develop with practice. Luckily though, we have many class hours of experience with teaching this and are have some significant fixes to some common problems:

#1 Ask questions

If you’re having trouble making the actor or props interact to create the keyword, ask yourself questions about the actors and props with the scene:

Why is this here? How could that get there? What properties does this object have? How could it interact with the other people and objects around?

Are there any traits about this actor that I can incorporate into this scene?

Your brain will apply your intuitive knowledge of the physical world and combine with your experiences to create the associations necessary.

#2 Reduce “Interference”.

Dominic O’Brian uses this term for internal goings-on that makes this process of free association and visualization harder than it needs to be. Here are the most common causes of interference:

#3 Over-creativity

When you’re first starting, a common mistake is trying way too hard to think of unnecessarily complicated images and actions to combine props to show the meaning of the characters or “keywords”. Working hard is what brings your Beta waves into play, which are very draining on your energy levels.

Rather than trying to craft every minute detail of your props and actors’ various actions, get a rough idea and focus on the emotions of the actors involved and yourself.

“It’s quicker and more effective to imagine a scene and monitor my emotional response to it, and then afterward to recapture that emotional response as my memory trigger, than to fill in every last detail of how the image might look in reality. Set your imagination free and don’t try to make the connection any more weird or fantastical than it needs to be.”

#4 Don’t be picky with your associations

“In 干 Shall I make Gandalf throw the razor blade at the syringe? How push the syringe onto the razor blade from below then pull the razor blade up? How about I start with the desert and then turn it into a grass field? Maybe the opposite way around? No, I prefer cacti to have two arms, not three. What if I get confused and think the character means “cactus” not “dry”?

……and so it goes on.

“Go with whatever association comes naturally. The goal is to allow your brain to arrive at whatever common denominator it wants to find without prejudice or preconceptions getting in the way. Don’t try to make sense of how the associations are connected. Just trust that they are connected and let the pure power of association “happen”.

Remember: Relax and go with your first association. Don’t analyze and perfect until you review it in Anki. The recall stage is when you find weaknesses in your scenes. Forgot a certain component? That needs to play a more specific part in the scene. Got the right components but messed up their positions? Go for a clearer focus on where the props are in the scene, etc.

#5 Take breaks

If you’ve tried all these things above and still feel like you aren’t getting anywhere, that’s probably a sign that you need a break. These various mental gymnastics require a lot of energy to fire neurons and create connections between them. Be sure to take short breaks after every few minutes. Indeed, don’t do it for any longer than 25 minutes at a time! Timeboxing is a fantastic technique to regulate this.

#6 If all else fails, google it!

Whether it’s for the keyword or a prop idea, typing the word(s) into google will bring you all the inspiration you need. There’s nothing wrong with doing this whatsoever as you will still be making your associations to the images you see.

Reviewing Is Key

Make sure to finish reviewing your flashcards before looking at new cards. Otherwise, you’ll be wasting your energy as you will eventually forget the scenes you create.

Make daily, weekly and even monthly goals on how many characters you want to learn. Adjust and review these goals as you become better at the method.

Use a pen and paper when learning and reviewing.

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