Variation certainly helps in learning new characters (and to a lesser extent also words) in Chinese – it is much easier to mix together two words that sound alike or two characters than look alike, than it is to forget about a word that is absolutely unique.

There are several examples in Chinese of characters that look like they’d come from an entirely different language, often because the characters are of a more complex nature, with four parts instead of the usual two (or one or three, but two is most common). I always find it helping to discover obvious symbols in the characters, such as X:s, plus signs and characters that look like Latin letters (most commonly B), and the more complicated a character is, the easier it is to find some symbols that are easy to remember. Alongside the fact that more time is spent on more complex characters than simpler ones, this is the reason why I can much easier remember these ones with time than I can the simpler ones.

Today’s example of such a word that belongs in the complex category, yet is one of the simplest in that category, is:


xī wàng

”to wish for” / ”to desire” / ”to hope”

The word consists of two characters. 希 means ”rare”, while 望 has several meanings, including ”full moon”, ”to hope” and ”to gaze into the distance”. A direct translation is basically ”to hope for something unusual”.

The characters have several nice rules of memory that I keep with.

  • 希 has distinct symbols in an X and what to me looks like a dagger, and so it helps me imagine a treasure hunter sticking his dagger (or more preferably his spade) into the X that marks the spot, hoping for an unusual discovery.
  • 望 includes as one of its three parts (two on top, one bottom) 月 (yuè), the character for ”moon”, which seems logical since one translation of the character is ”full moon”. The bottom part looks like a deformed plus sign, and ofcourse the full moon is one added size of the other moon phases. In the first days of learning the character, I constantly had it mixed up with 恐 (kǒng, ”afraid”) which I was also learning at the time. Both characters are of three parts, located the same way, with an I-like symbol in the top left and a 月-like symbol in the top right. My way out of the trap was to recognise the 月 (and not the similar but different character in 恐) as vital for 望:s meaning, and the top left character followed organically from there.

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