Chinese Domination Tools: Mastering Chinese Characters

BiángBiáng Noodles characterA few weeks ago, I told you about Anki, a wonderful tool which can help you learn and memorize many things faster than you would’ve ever thought possible. That post was quite general — this post focuses more strictly on Chinese learning.

[3/14/2015 Update: The Mastering Chinese Characters have been removed from the Anki website. Unfortunately I no longer have copies of the decks, and I’m not sure where you can get them. If you have any information about where the decks can still be downloaded, I’d love to hear about it. Thanks! — Henry]

So, you’ve started using Anki and you’ve realized that like I said, it’s essentially a digital deck of flashcards.

And just as with traditional flashcards, it’s possible to either make your own cards or find premade cards for a particular subject. Yet unlike traditional flashcards, you can find Anki decks online and download them for free.

If you’re studying Chinese and looking for premade decks, I highly recommend the series of Anki decks entitled Mastering Chinese Characters.

What is Mastering Chinese Characters?

Mastering Chinese Characters is a set of ten Anki decks. Allow me to quote their description from AnkiWeb:

The Goals in the “Mastering Chinese Characters” series are divided into 10 levels. These characters collectively represent over 98% of the characters used in written form in newspapers and other journalistic essays. (Emphasis added – HJO.)


Levels 1 to 3 cover the characters that a student would be expected to learn in a one-year full-time intensive course aimed at fostering professional competence in Chinese. Levels 4 to 8 are those that a student should try to master in the second year of full-time intensive training, to provide a solid basis for attaining true professional proficiency in reading. Levels 9 and 10 are for advanced learners. Needless to say, reading Chinese requires many skills besides individual character recognition, but automatic and accurate character recognition is indispensable in achieving reading fluency and comfort. (Emphasis added again – HJO.)

Learning all of the cards in this deck will put you well on the way to reading Chinese fluently. Remember, however, that Anki is only one piece of a well rounded learning strategy.

What do the cards look like?

There are two main styles of cards:

  • Character cards, which contain a single Chinese character and a definition of its individual meaning
  • Sentence cards, which show the Chinese character used in an example sentence.

All cards also contain audio samples, which is a big reason why I love these decks so much. The audio element adds a lot of value.

Mastering Chinese Characters Mastering Chinese Characters

There are two ways to view each kind of card:

  1. Anki shows you the written character or sentence and you say it aloud.
  2. Anki plays the audio of a character or sentence and you write it down.

Anki will show you all of these different variations by default. However, if you want to save yourself a lot of confusion, there is one small modification you should make.

A modification?

Yes. By default, Anki will you show you cards that play only the audio for a single character. The expectation is that you’ll be able to write the character after listening to the audio.

The problem with that expectation is that Chinese is littered with homophones, which makes it impossible to distinguish between characters by sound alone. Frankly, I’m not sure what the developers were thinking when they designed the cards in this manner.

Don’t worry though, because Anki is flexible and makes this easy to fix. You just need to combine the Production and Listening vocabulary card types. Here’s how:

  1. After you’ve installed the deck in Anki, open the card browser in the desktop application.
  2. You should see a list to your left. Select the option labeled iKnow! Vocabulary
  3. There are two buttons labeled “Fields” and “Cards.” Click “Cards.”
  4. Click the Production tab and copy the text “{{Meaning}} <br>{{Image_URI}}”
  5. Next, click the Listening tab and paste the text you copied into the Front Template box, careful not to delete the code that’s already there. You should now have two lines of code, “Listen.{{Audio}}” and “{{Meaning}} <br>{{Image_URI}}”
  6. Go back to the Production tab and find the button labeled More. Choose Delete.
  7. You’ll have to resync your deck with AnkiWeb after doing this. Make sure you upload your local deck to AnkiWeb, rather than sync your desktop deck with AnkiWeb.

Follow these steps and you’re set for learning! Note that because there are ten individual decks, you’ll have to repeat this process each time you start studying with a new deck.

Do I need any other materials?

Most likely, yes. The major downside of this deck is that it doesn’t show you how to write the characters step-by-step. So, at least initially, you’re going to need another resource that will teach you how to do this.

While learning proper stroke order is beyond the scope of this article, I will mention that I personally learned stroke order from a book called Remembering the Kanji by James Heisig. Here’s a Wikipedia article about Heisig’s approach to learning Chinese characters, which is somewhat controversial within the East Asian language learning community.

To tell you the truth, even now I’m still not always 100% sure about how to write certain characters. When I need to look up how to write a character, I use the Animated Chinese Character Stroke Order dictionary at, which is both easy to use and free!

How long will this series take to complete?

That really depends on how dedicated you are.

My goal is to finish it in about a year, studying one to two hours a day about 6 days a week. While that may seem like a long time, keep in mind that once I’m done I should be able to fumble my way through nearly any modern Chinese text — I may not understand every sentence, but I’ll at least be able to read nearly all of the words.

Obviously, a year is a big commitment and I have a long way to go. I’m almost finished with deck #2 right now, and hope to move on to deck #3 soon. Even though I’m only two decks in, I’ve already noticeably improve my character recognition — while walking along the streets of Taiwan, I can understand and pronounce many of the characters I see on signs and elsewhere (much to the surprise of my Taiwanese friends, given my current lack of verbal fluency.)

A final note…

I know I’ve mentioned this multiple times, but please remember that Mastering Chinese Characters alone will not make you fluent in Chinese! It’s a good tool, yet it’s only a tool. It’s still important to find people to speak to and other, real materials to read, enjoy, and study. As I continue to learn Chinese, I will definitely be sharing more information on these topics with you.

That’s all for today. Good luck! And if you have any questions about the Mastering Chinese Characters deck or Anki in general, don’t hesitate to contact me and ask.

The header image is the character for Biángbiáng noodles, a Chinese delicacy. The character is supposedly the most complicated one still in modern use. The other two images are screencaps from AnkiDroid, taken on my Google Nexus 7.

Henry Olsen

Writer, adventurer, and humble servant of the universe since 1986.