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Brain Training with Chinese Characters

Updated on September 26, 2011

You can train your brain by trying to write chinese characters as answers to questions as fast as possible. The key is to use characters that you already know. The questions can be the English definition for the character or its Chinese pronunciation (in pinyin or Zhuyin or Gwoyeu Romatzyh... depending on which one you prefer to use.)

As an example, you might have these three words: I, you, her. You have to write the chinese which would be: 我, 你,她.

(As a side note, you could do this writing by hand which is what I first envisioned. However, if you are learning a Chinese Character touch typing technique like Cangjie, then you could use this "method" to practice your chinese typing skills.)

Before I go on about writing Chinese Characters as quickly as possible, some background information is required. What is brain training exactly and how does it work?

Brain Training

My first exposure to brain training was via "Train Your Brain: 60 Days to a Better Brain" by Ryuta Kawashima (aug 2005). In this book, the simple guidelines to training your brain were to practice answering math questions, simple ones, as fast as possible.

Another way that was mentioned is to practice reading aloud.

The book contains a series of math quizzes each containing 100 questions. The questions where simple add, subract, multiply or divide questions. The goal was to answer the questions as fast as possible. And to make it more interesting the author provided some time goals. For the Bronze level, the time you needed was under 2 minutes. For Silver, under 90 seconds. For Gold, under 1 minute.

What I found after doing these brain training exercises is that I felt refreshed afterwards. I felt like I could think clearly. My whole body also felt slightly energized, like I'd done just done a really nice yoga class, but all I'd been doing is answering math questions as quickly as possible.

I found that I most often felt this way the less I thought about the answers and the quicker I just let myself write the answers down. I didn't worry about getting the answers wrong or write. Instead I focused on not thinking.

By the way, you did get penalized for wrong answers. However, whether I got the bronze level or not, when I tried to answer questions quickly and without thinking, that is when I felt the best afterwards.

Simple Questions Or Questions We Already Know the Answers To

Part of the reason is that the quizzes used simple questions. Or is it?

Most of us have enough math experience that we know automatically the 2x3=6 or that 9/3=3. We've done simple math equations enough times that we don't have to figure the answers out. We've learned them or memorized them simply by repeating them so many times.

And in my case, over and on top of regular school work, every time I came home from school I had to write out the multiplications tables by hand, sometimes 2 or 3 times. So I know they became "built in."

Brain training in this case was learning to access answers that I already knew as quickly as possible.

What we tend to think of as "simple" are things that we don't have to think about in order to know the answers. If you took the time to practice multiplication tables up to 25x25 (and not just square roots mind you!) you could use these types of questions to train your brain.

Far East 3000 Chinese Character Dictionary (Traditional Character Version) (Chinese Edition)
Far East 3000 Chinese Character Dictionary (Traditional Character Version) (Chinese Edition)

Contains stroke order diagrams for all 3000 characters. Also shows four or more character combinations containing the character you are looking at. In some cases also has a Chinese phrase or idiom that contains the character in question.


Going For Gold

After practicing for a few weeks, I reached the silver level.

For an experiment I tried writing out numbers as quickly as possible to see how fast I would have to write to get to the gold level.

Basically I would have to write non-stop. There was no time for to look at the question or figure it out. I wondered how I'd be able to get to Gold level. It seemed impossible.

As I said, the idea was not to think about the answers. The answers where already apart of me. What I did was to look at each question and as soon I started to write the answer I moved my eyes to the next question. Then, when I finished writing the question, my eyes moved from the question I was looking at to the next question. Meanwhile my hand wrote the answer to the question I'd just been looking at.

Meanwhile, I didn't try to figure out the answer. It went from my brain to my hands without "me" having to think or intervene.

This is when I truly started to feel alive and glowing.

I think this skill is similar to learning to touch type. Once you've learned how to touch typeyou don't think about which keys to press. You let your fingers do it for you. This was more or less what I was doing by "looking ahead."

I'd led my mind figure out or access the answer each time my eyes saw the question. Meanwhile my fingers and hand would write the answer out.

Again, I should emphasize that I was not thinking. I didn't say to myself, hhmm, 2+2 is... oh yes 4. I simply wrote down the answer. And I didn't even look at my hand as I was writing. Instead, I wrote on auto pilot, or so it seemed.

Did I get every question right?

No I didn't.

But getting the questions write was only an indicator of which questions and answers I hadn't made a part of my long term memory. The goal was to feel good. And as for the wrong answers, it was a simple enough process to practice the questions I got wrong so that in future I could get them right without having to think about the answer.

So then, how does this apply to writing chinese characters?

Top 10 Chinese Characters

Chinese Character
Cangjie Typing Code
Makes previous character possesive or adjective
hapi, 竹日心戈
buˋ, buˊ, fouˇ, fou
No, not
mf, 一火
yiˋ, yiˊ, yi
One, a, indefinate article
m, 一
I, me
hqi, 竹手戈
yes, is, am, are
amyo, 日一卜人
o, 人
have, possess, own
kb, 大月
le, liaoˇ, liaoˋ
particle that shows completion
nn, 弓弓
big, important, grown up
k, 大
country, state, nation
wirm, 田戈口一

Your Chinese Hurts My Ears

Say you focus on learning characters in groups of ten. You focus on learning how to write the character. Then you learn it's meaning. And then you learn its pronunciation.

Focusing only on the ten characters you've just learned, you could have a sheet with the randomized english meanings of those characters. Then, as you read each definition you write out the character without thinking. Meanwhile your eyes look to the next definition so that you are ready to write out the next character. You repeat the process for each successive question.

If you are writing a character without looking it may end up looking not so pretty. For the purposes of brain training that's alright. Just so long as it is legible or recognizable.

You could practice doing this for each group of ten characters. Then, when you've practiced and learned 50 characters, you can mix all 50 character definitions up and try to write the characters as quickly as possible.

You could also test yourself and train your brain by using the pinyin pronunciation as the question. So long as you don't have two characters with the same pronunciation you are okay. (Or to be more specific your question sheet could contain the pinyin pronunciation and the English meaning of each character.)

You'll quickly find out which characters that you don't know so well. And then in between tests you can practice writing these characters so that you do know them well.

 Lazy Devil Likes to Sleep.  This is a piece I painted for fun.
Lazy Devil Likes to Sleep. This is a piece I painted for fun.

Training Your Brain while Learning

Now a large part of learning to write characters and make them a part of you is first learning them and that can be a part of your brain training process also.

Each time you learn a new chinese character you are downloading a new pattern into your brain. And if you are practicing writing characters, you are not only changing the memory part of your brain, you are also changing the motor control portion, the part that controls your hand.

You can train your brain while learning to write characters by breaking down each character into easy to remember parts. You focus on one part at a time, working on five or so strokes, enough that you can practice flowing from stroke to stroke but not too many that you have to think in order to figure out the strokes.

You can practice the same strokes over and over again until they become built in and then you can go on to the next portion of the character.

Add together the pieces until finally you can do the whole character from memory without having to think. Then it's time for the next character.

When doing this "breaking down" process, don't be afraid to break down characters in abnormal ways. Also, don't be afraid to practice the last few strokes first, and then the strokes before that. Like when writing out math equations as quickly as possible, when you find problem areas, stop and focus on the strokes that are giving your problems, then gradually add in the rest. And then take a rest when you've had enough.

Taking a break is important to, since if you keep on pushing yourself you'll end up with a sore head instead of an energized and refreshed feeling.

I've created some PDF's that contain the top 500 chinese characters organized by:

  • Frequency,
  • English definition,
  • Pinyin and
  • Radical.

They also contain Cangjie typing codes.

You can check them out at

Getting Into the Flow

Ideally what "brain training" does, whether which characters or math questions is get you into the flow. The flow is a state of being where you don't think. Instead you can be watching yourself, or you can be focused on using your senses and responding to what you sense.

In the case of answering math questions or writing chinese characters, the questions are what you sense, and the answers are your response.

Because you aren't thinking, you are learning to access memory as quickly as possible. You are also allowing yourself to write (or do) without limiting or second guessing yourself. This state of being is very similar or even the same as the state that jazz musicians get into when they do improv.

As you practice flowing your non-thinking mind begins to see connections that your thinking mind mind not notice. You enter a creative space where the limitations no longer apply. That isn't to say that limits are a bad thing. You need limits when learning.

You limit yourself to 10 characters, or to certain brush strokes within those characters. Or you limit yourself to math questions that you have trouble with, until they no longer trouble you. Then you no longer need the limits. You practice being creatively free. And even though you free yourself of one set of limits you are still limited. It is just that what limits you is the idea of what you are doing whether it is answering math questions or painting chinese characters or playing jazz.

It's just that now what you have is possibilities within a large set of limits, and those could very well be endless.


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