Chinese is a difficult language to learn, and speaking is only half the task anyway. To really understand the culture, you have to learn to read characters.


Chineasy is a new learning tool that promises to ease your way into written Chinese. The system uses minimalist graphics to teach you 200 basic and ubiquitous characters.


Developed by Taiwanese, London-based entrepreneur and software guru ShaoLan Hsueh, Chineasy turns everyday characters into colorful--memorable-- illustrations. There are eight basic building blocks that can be combined in several hundred ways.


The illustrations that comprise the curriculum are pictographs, characters whose construction mimics what they represent. For example, the character for sun (日) looks like a window through which light falls.


ShaoLan and the Chineasy team have developed 300 graphics, which will be realized with funds raised for their Kickstarter campaign.


They have plans to design as many as 1,000 character-drawings, as well as expanding the project in different visual and audio forms.

Above: flocks of cute sheep (羊)


Back the project, and you’ll receive themed gifts, like a flashcard set and book.


Kickstarting: A Smart System For Learning Chinese With Minimal Pain And Posters

Chineasy uses pared-down graphics to ease the process of learning one of the world’s toughest languages.

There are some 20,000 characters in contemporary written Chinese. Knowing about 4,000 is considered educated, while the threshold for standard literacy is 2,000. "Basic" (or just-getting-by) literacy is 200 characters. Chineasy, a new system for learning Chinese characters, promises to get the novice to that level, and it’ll do it using just minimalist posters.

Developed by Taiwanese London-based entrepreneur, software writer, and TED presenter ShaoLan Hsueh, the project applies approachable, bare-bone graphics to a serious education tool. ShaoLan conceived of the idea when she had trouble teaching her children, who were born in the U.K., how to identify and remember Chinese characters. She searched for a method out there—there must be, right?—came up empty, and eventually devised her own. Her efforts led to Chineasy, which she, along with a team of designers, has taken on full-time.

The team is ready to launch the project, and is currently seeking the funds to do so through Kickstarter. With under two weeks left, the campaign has surpassed its original funding goal at £75,000.

Chineasy aims to break, or at least dent, the formidable barrier—what ShaoLan likens to the Great Wall—that keeps Westerners and other non-Chinese natives from learning the language spoken by 15% of the world’s population. It won’t teach you how to speak Chinese per se, but it will give you the basic tools to take it on.

"I see the melding of these two cultures, east and west, as instrumental in creating a more culturally literate world," ShaoLan tells Co.Design. Chineasy, she says, is a fun step toward doing that. Using custom software she developed, the system narrowed down the 200 most commonly used characters in Chinese literature, culture, and restaurant menus. A knowledge of these characters, ShaoLan explains, will allow you to read 40% of popular Chinese texts. But you don’t have to start with hundreds; Chineasy breaks the learning curve down to the eight most essential characters.

Characters like 口 ("mouth"), and 山 ("mountain") are the basic building blocks of the Chineasy method. They happen to be pictographs, forms that mimic the objects they represent. Each of the characters, or "radicals," is then transformed into an illustration with unique features designed to leave an indelible impression in the mind. For example, "person", 人, already looks somewhat like one of the Beatles jaywalking across Abbey Road. To make the anthropomorphic connection more explicit, ShaoLan and Chineasy’s illustrator Noma Bar add a head and a pair of shoes to the three-pointed figure.

Now you’re never going to forget that radical person. From there, the Chineasy starter symbols can be aggregated to form new words, new characters, and simple phrases. "With very little effort," ShaoLan says, "learners will be able to read several hundred Chinese characters and phrases and gain a deeper understanding of the historical and cultural influences behind the vocabulary."

Of course, if it seems too simple to be true, there’s the great wall of a fact that only around 5% of characters used in contemporary China are built from the Chineasy pictographic elements. If and when the system is expanded, it will have to find ways to help users construct and decipher more complex characters when no obvious visual representation is present.

ShaoLan stresses that the method is structured to enable learners to fill in these gaps with the cultural tidbits they’ve picked up along the way. One example of this is 出, meaning "to come or get out." If you remember, 山 is "mountain," and so the former character looks like a mountain range superimposed on another. At this point, Chineasy will have explained that in ancient China, an emperor would banish his adversaries into the depths of the mountains, or in the land beyond the tallest mountain peaks.

With the Kickstarter funds, ShaoLan says that the team will be able to execute the 300 characters now on the drawing boards. They will continue to grow the collection—she claims that the method makes up to 1,000 characters possible—while also developing sets of flashcards for learners to use. A Chineasy app is in the works as well, with potential audio aids for pronunciation help. As that Beatle crossing that iconic road that’s now etched in your memory will tell you, sound is important, too.

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  • jamie

    I found that making up little stories for difficult characters made it easier for me and my classmates to remember how to write them. Like, the "fu" in doufu (tofu): 腐 Looks like a little person (the vertical radical of 人) is in a pantry, hanging meat (肉) on a hook. They're putting it away because they don't need it if they've got tofu!

  • Sid Iyer

    I suppose the only thing this really addresses is the fear that beginning Chinese learners have of attempting to learn characters.

    MAYbe that little kickstart is enough to get them to dig deeper.

    Characters like 日and木 are easy enough. Let me see the explanation for 感觉 and I'll be more impressed.

  • ggaohk

    Hi Sid,

    My name is Glenda Gao. I've been working on a project called"汉字动画" for the last two years. It's aim is to help students to memorize chinese characters more efficiently by watching the animations of Chinese characters. Our approach is based on etymology or the impressions of etymology.Our plan is making animations for the 2000 most frequently used characters. our initial release is early next year. Anyway, We do the animations for character"感" for you . Please check out this:

    Will email you the video for "觉",after you email me:

  • Bebe

    A clever way of introducing simple Chinese characters to grade school children. I have a little book used by my tutor to teach me such basic characters with similar pictures when I was in high school. Nonetheless, anyone who wishes anything more than that level will bypass this "pictographic" system. There is no substitute for flash cards and rote memorization.

  • blargh_11

    Nice looking but not completely thought out at all. If anything, the colorful pictures only make it more confusing as Chinese characters are already "visual" pictograms, super-imposed another set of visual information on top of it only make things more complicated.

    It might work for a small set of chinese characters for kids, but beyond that, I don't think it has potential. Plus she is ignoring the speaking/tonal component of the characters. Without that, what's the point of learning how to read if I don't know how to pronounce it?

    A better system out there for learning:  I think they're already ahead of the game. 

  • Vince

    Nice promotion and marketing but the material is totally lack of research and the design is amateurish. 

    Chinese characters could be basically categorized into 6 ways of creation and pictogram is the easiest among them to be visualized and communicated. Visualizing the "building block" is easy but forming complicated characters with them by just putting all together without fully understanding how or why the character was formed could actually hinder the learning of those new characters.

    With sufficient funding Hsueh should have someone who is genuinely equipped with sufficient knowledge of the Chinese language and some good graphic designer working with her, so there will be nicer presentation and, most importantly, no such a hilarious mistake of having some characters wrongly placed.

  • ggaohk

    Hi Vince,

    I agree with you completely. That's why with our project"汉字动画", to explain to the students how the characters assembled form the etymology point of view. This way not long the characters start to make sense, and it makes learning the characters more fun. We are making animations to explain the characters. Our initial release is 700 most commonly used characters by early next year. Please check out this:

    For more info, please email me :
    Our website is under construction now.

  • Mikeskreb

    Vince has a good point. Don't let an easy mistake make the artist design less valuable. (For example, is there a character with two suns side by side as shown on the poster? Isn't 'bright' a sun + a moon?)  I'm looking forward to showing the 1000 character-drawings to my Chinese students. Keep on the great work!

  • Nick

    Vince, I disagree (to a point.)  I think that learning like this certainly has its limitations, but the way she puts them together is really quite clever. Especially for those just being introduced to the characters. 

    Her grasp of the language is obviously fantastic (being from Taiwan herself) and having looked into the project a lot, she explains each new "compound" etc with great explanations.  She explains why the characters are formed the way they are and what the combination means, as well as the origin of the word. 

    It's a great system that seems to be working for a lot of her new members.  My only worry for it, is that surely a serious learner will only use this as an added extra at most. 

  • Roberto Tomás

    200 characters is two-week vacation survival level Chinese, not "basic literacy".