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Rediscovering Chinese “Rote Memorization”

It turns out, Western critics of Chinese “Rote Memorization” methods may have been proven wrong by Western educators.  Not surprising, critics were far too quick to jump to conclusions of what’s bad in education, while without really understanding the education process in depth.

Many recent year researches from educators have shown that “repeated reading” of learning material increases comprehension, (not just memorization).


Without admitting or comparing similarities of the “repeated reading” methods to traditional Chinese education methods, the education researchers shown benefits of such methods, which the ancient Chinese educators made popular (sometime around the Han Dynasty).


Some modern Chinese have dismissed the values of the old ways.  (While I do not entirely adopt EVERY thing about the old education ways, I would think understanding its values is reasonable and necessary).

Thus, I wondered about my own education experience.  Back in China, I hated memorizing.  Yet somehow, after so many years, I developed a habit of “re-reading” things.

I would watch movies, read books, magazines, even blogs, over and over again.  I even tutored some American kids to repeat reading out loud, which to their amazement worked very well.

People sometimes ask me why I’m so “obsessive” about “re-reading” old things that I already read.

I always tell them that because I find NEW things each time I re-read old things, and I never find my “comprehension” of the material to be complete.

Looking back, I realized that unconsciously, I was duplicating the very old Chinese way of learning:  COMPREHENSION through repeated reading,

The ancient Chinese way involves repeating out loud text passages over and over again, and copying the characters over and over again.  I didn’t understand it, and I used to hate it.

But now, I realize, one can find rich new meanings even in a single Chinese character, if one slows down.

In Tai-Chi, there is a similar concept of repeating the same movements of the body over and over again, each time feeling and learning new control of one’s body, thus truly comprehending one’s FULL range of control.

The Chinese learning philosophy, similarly, is about intense focus in the repeated writing and reading of each Chinese character, each concept, each time feeling and learning new aspects of the character or concept.

(Of course, kids may not realize this, and may simply repeat the exercise.  But as the Western researches have also shown, even without realizing the goal of the philosophy, kids may still receive the benefits of “repeat reading”.)

There is a Chinese concept for the ultimate goal of this:


or in ancient Chinese, 

In simple translation, the character is very roughly translated to “comprehend.”  However, the more accurate translation is “an epiphany.”

The 2 parts of the character indicate the origin of the character, 1 part “heart”, the 2nd part the ancient Chinese character for “myself”, but also means “arrow hitting the target dead on.”

If one takes on all of these concepts, for this 1 single character, one realizes the character means a variety of things:  comprehension, epiphany (the experience of a sudden realization), like an arrow hitting suddenly in one’s heart.  It’s an feeling of revelation, intense, not easily describable.

BTW, the Buddhist name for the fabled Monkey King in Chinese legend is 悟空, which means roughly “to have epiphany of the emptiness.”

In traditional Chinese education process, it is believed that 悟, can only arise through repeated tries, like literally practicing to shoot an arrow to a target, each time coming closer and closer, while learning control.

Intuitively, that makes sense.  Roughly reading any thing once won’t make much sense.  Each new reading allows the ideas to flow and make associations to other ideas in one’s mind, thus giving more possibility of 悟.

Westerners do this too, more so in some traditional settings, such as where Jewish Rabbis undergo intense study of the Torah, through repeated readings.  Or when Christian priests study specific passages of the Bible in great details, tracing back the original Hebrew or Latin words for some sentences, and learning new views and aspects of the old repeated words.

*Yet, somehow, arising in modern times the great criticisms of the Chinese “Rote memorization” system.

No, evidence point to otherwise.  There is great traditional value and benefits to the Chinese education process, with its root in long history of China.

Some Westerners may have dismissed and abandoned their own similar ways.  That is their loss.

They do not know and they are missing the 悟 experience in their own educations.

As for we Chinese, I think 悟 can be also applied in other aspects of our lives, especially when it comes to examining ourselves and improving ourselves.

A person is like a book, and one must strive to continuously and “obsessively” examine (re-read) one’s own virtues and faults.

A good example:  Melektaus, through his articles examining the bad behaviors of some modern Chinese.

Too often in modern life, we do not take the time to 悟 one’s own inner nature.  Surely, one’s own soul is far more interesting and more deserving subject of the 悟 experience, instead of hoping for 悟 by seeking out wanton wasteful materialistic experiences in life.

This is my recent 悟 experience, on the word 悟, as well as the value of my own learning habits, and the traditional Chinese education process.

While I do not claim that my 悟 experience is perfect (or should be duplicated), I can only hope that others can find their own 悟 experiences by any means they find helpful.

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  1. June 5th, 2013 at 18:52 | #1

    The best predictor of high IQ is the ability to hold long strings of information in current, active memory.

  2. dancingfrogs
    June 5th, 2013 at 19:58 | #2

    As a veteran teacher, I can certainly attest to that in my classroom every day.

  3. June 5th, 2013 at 21:02 | #3

    Or, as in elementary school, memorizing addition and multiplication tables early on brings incredible advantages in understanding math. More understanding can come over time, but meanwhile you get the advantage of such math at the tip of your tongue.

    Love this post, Black Phoenix!

    Nowadays, if some bigot wants to trash the Chinese for “rote memorization,” my first thought is: if ignorance is bliss for you, then so be it!

  4. Zack
    June 6th, 2013 at 03:22 | #4

    it’s said that in order to speak and understand Chinese on a day to day basis, you need to be able to have 1000 Chinese characters in your vocabulary; in order to understand Classical Chinese, you need about 10,000 characters.
    This is the very essence of why rote memorisation is central to Chinese education: you NEED to be able to recognise these characters in order to communicate in Chinese and that’s going to require hours of memorisation, similar to knowing the multiplication tables off by heart.

    As for ‘creativity’, i suppose people are referring to innovation. THe best stimulus for innovation are Need and Profit. Enough said.

  5. Black Pheonix
    June 6th, 2013 at 06:18 | #5

    One other aspects of the Chinese gentleman education is Calligraphy.

    It is said that sometimes it may take a man years to just master the calligraphy of a single Chinese character, where he practices slow and meticulous tracing/drawing of the Chinese character daily.

    Many people in the modern time can’t understand why the ancient Chinese would do such things, chalking it up to some kind of simple artistic refinement.

    Actually, it’s more than that.

    Chinese characters are rich in meaning, because each character has its origin and its own stories in history.

    By carefully and repeatedly drawing each character, the Chinese calligrapher is attempting to discern from the shape of the character (in variations), its original meaning and possible alternative meanings.

  6. Black Pheonix
    June 6th, 2013 at 06:25 | #6


    I think the “repeated reading” process in China does encourage creativity, by effectively forcing oneself to “reconsider” and reexamine knowledge/experiences with different aspects and view points.

    Creativity is in essence, a paradigm shift in one’s mentality and view points. Examining old problems with new perspectives, to attempt to generate new solutions.

    Well, really coming down to it, to be “creative”, ONE MUST force oneself to RE-examining old things, to create NEW ideas.

    Thus, I believe, the Chinese repetitive reading process can foster creativity, if properly applied to all aspects of human knowledge and daily experiences. (and with the “obsessiveness” of many creative geniuses).

  7. Zack
    June 6th, 2013 at 06:38 | #7

    @Black Pheonix
    couldn’t have put it better myself; sometimes-no, everytime, i am consistently in awe at the utter inability of certain Western pundits who have their heads stuffed up their own arses, in love with their own fumes, that they cannot even entertain the possibility that y’know, they might be wrong about the Chinese civilisation/culture of learning is somehow counter to innovation and creativity.
    What’s the statistic on chinese patents and scientific breakthroughs? almost close to surpassing that of the US i believe.

  8. Rhan
    June 6th, 2013 at 07:35 | #8

    Very interesting read.

    Many associate the lack of creativity to rote learning by comparing the west and east. I personally don’t subscribe to this claim, but we also see many Eastern countries moving away from their traditional Rote Memorization method and start to adopt new program like problem based learning, and less and lesser homework. I have no problem with this but i hope we still preserve the habit of rote learning.

  9. Black Pheonix
    June 6th, 2013 at 08:31 | #9

    I should emphasize that the term “rote memorization” when used to characterize the Chinese education process is in itself highly misleading, biased, and stereotypical.

    The Chinese education process is “repeated DRILLING”, not “rote memorization”.

    While learning Chinese characters require memorization, repeated drilling in Chinese education process does not actually test on how well things are memorized, for most part.

    In China, math classes test how well and how fast students can apply basic math theories in problems. Chinese literature and English classes test how well students can read and write using literary devices and concepts, imageries, dramatic verses, etc., NOT how well they can recite things. Student are asked to explain some times in detail what specific passages may mean, as test of comprehension.

    NONE of these are “memorization” based.

    *Thus, “rote memorization” may be just another in a long line of dismissive stereotypes conjured up by Western cultural supremists, purposefully designed to denigrate something they don’t understand.

    For certain, no Chinese students ever passed the very competitive Chinese college entrance exams, based purely on how well they “memorized” and regurgitated information.

    Yes, “memorization” of basic theories and grammar, vocabulary, etc., may be very important, in pretty much any education system. Big portion of the SAT is on the English vocabulary.

    But it would highly misleading to call SAT a “rote memorization” test. (And I would say SAT contains more “rote memorization” based testing than the Chinese college entrance exam).

  10. Black Pheonix
    June 6th, 2013 at 08:40 | #10

    Even some Western educators are realizing the problem in their own perceptions:


    There is now a concept of the “Paradox of the Chinese learner”.

    ” If Asian students suffer such oppressive classroom conditions, why do they outperform Western students in mathematics and science in comparative multi-national assessments such as TIMSS (http://nces.ed.gov/timss/) and PISA (www.pisa.oecd.org)? Why is it that they not only demonstrate deeper content knowledge but also better conceptual development than American students of similar age and grade levels?

    There is no accepted explanation among education experts for this apparent paradox. But one suggestion is that Chinese students learn at early ages how to be “active memorizers.” Maybe they have learned how to use memorization as a tool for concept development rather than a block to it. It has even been suggested that this may be related to their earliest experiences of language learning as children. Researchers have shown that when Chinese (also Korean and Japanese) mothers talk to their babies, they use mainly verbs and other relational words, while English-speaking mothers use many more nouns and focus more on object naming. Some authorities suggest that these early language learning experiences may influence a child’s problem-solving and theory formation capacities later in life.”

    However, I note, many Western academics still refuse to challenge their basic assumption/perception that the Eastern education systems are based on “rote memorization”. Hence, there lies the problem in their basic premise.

    I.e.: It’s not a “paradox” at all, if you consider that the Eastern education is NOT “rote memorization”.

  11. perspectivehere
    June 6th, 2013 at 11:43 | #11

    “To break the rules, you must first master them.”

    This quote comes from the current global ad campaign for Audemars Piguet, a Swiss watch maker.

    Here is a Chinese version of the ad. The ad shows an eight character couplet.

    I had seen the ad in a poster the other day, and after reading this post, I thought of the ad.

    I tried to search for the origins of the quote, but could not find any, so I think this quote was dreamed up by the watch company’s ad agency. It is a pretty good quote, with a timeless quality, yet simplicity. I think when people denigrate Asian education, this quote will be a good response.

    When I searched the phrase, I found this website forum discussion which generates some interesting points, philosophical and relating to martial arts, and the Japanese martial arts concept of Shuhari.

    “It is known that, when we learn or train in something, we pass through the stages of shu, ha, and ri. These stages are explained as follows. In shu, we repeat the forms and discipline ourselves so that our bodies absorb the forms that our forebearers created. We remain faithful to the forms with no deviation. Next, in the stage of ha, once we have disciplined ourselves to acquire the forms and movements, we make innovations. In this process the forms may be broken and discarded. Finally, in ri, we completely depart from the forms, open the door to creative technique, and arrive in a place where we act in accordance with what our heart/mind desires, unhindered while not overstepping laws.”

    Another reader referred Wittgenstein’s Ladder:

    “My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb beyond them. He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.”

    Searching for the Wikipedia article on “Wittgenstein’s Ladder” leads to an article with the surprising title “Lie-to-Children”.

    “A lie-to-children, sometimes referred to as a Wittgenstein’s ladder (see below)[citation needed], is an expression that describes the simplification of technical or difficult-to-understand material for consumption by children. The word “children” should not be taken literally, but as encompassing anyone in the process of learning about a given topic, regardless of age. It is itself a simplification of certain concepts in the philosophy of science.

    Because life and its aspects can be extremely difficult to understand without experience, to present a full level of complexity to a student or child all at once can be overwhelming. Hence elementary explanations tend to be simple, concise, or simply “wrong” — but in a way that attempts to make the lesson more understandable. Sometimes the lesson can be qualified, for example by claiming “this isn’t technically true, but it’s easier to understand”. In retrospect the first explanation may be easy to understand for its inaccuracies, but it will be replaced with a more sophisticated explanation which is closer to “the truth”. This “tender introduction” concept is an important aspect of education.

    Such statements are not usually intended as deceptions, and may, in fact, be true to a first approximation or within certain contexts. For example Newtonian mechanics, by modern standards, is factually incorrect, as it fails to take into account relativity or quantum mechanics, but it is still a valuable and valid approximation to those theories in many situations.”

  12. perspectivehere
    June 6th, 2013 at 11:55 | #12

    Another response which will resonate with Americans of a certain age is the iconic “Wax on, wax off” scene in Karate Kid I.

    I like the original much more than the Jackie Chan remake.

  13. June 7th, 2013 at 01:14 | #13

    memorization is often necessary for learning language or music and elemenatry mathematics. But the brain needs a variety of learning methods and memorization is only a small (but often necessary) part of the equation. This may be especially true for learnng Chinese characters. But you can’t rely on memorization for everything.

    As Confucius said, “If a gentleman can recite the 300 Songs and yet when you give him official responsibility and he is not able to act on his own initiative, then though he knows so much, what good is it to him?”

    There are elements of the Chinese school system that western schools ought to adopt (such as drilling the fundamentals of the three Rs which takes rote learning. But China should also adopt more modern systems of learning for a modern society information as well.

  14. Zack
    June 7th, 2013 at 04:10 | #14

    i really have to emphasize that you can’t really ‘teach’ creativity. Even lessons in ‘creative writing’ in classes tended to follow a formula where stories needed to have introduction, drama and resolution.

  15. Black Pheonix
    June 7th, 2013 at 07:10 | #15


    Again, it is not “memorization”, and the Chinese traditional methods do not emphasize on “memorization” as the end result, or actually testing memory.

    As you have indicated, even Confucius implied that memorization was not the true goal, or the value in true talents.

    AS I have said, it’s “repetitive drilling”.

    In each reading, each writing, the student forces his/her mind to view the concept again and again.

    Such repetitions are shown to increasing comprehension, because by the simple matter that our brains can’t possibly digest information as fast as we can read.

    By repetition, we are actually forcing ourselves to slow down and to look at things that perhaps we missed (and didn’t even realize that we missed).

    *And I do not think we can “teach creativity”, but I think repetitive readings can be a tool to aid creative thinking. (Afterall, Critical thinking methodologies in the West is also based partly on forcing oneself to reexamine previously accepted theories or concepts).

  16. June 9th, 2013 at 06:10 | #16

    @Black Pheonix
    “Again, it is not “memorization”, and the Chinese traditional methods do not emphasize on “memorization” as the end result, or actually testing memory.”

    This is untrue. All education systems at some point focus on memorization. In the Chinese system, that is the only way to learn Chinese characters and in the west, letters. In all systems, things like multiplication tables are taught through memorization. Maybe you are thinking of something else? This is what “memorization” usually means in the English language


    “Memorization is the process of committing something to memory. The act of memorization is often a deliberate mental process undertaken in order to store in memory for later recall items such as experiences, names, appointments, addresses, telephone numbers, lists, stories, poems, pictures, maps, diagrams, facts, music or other visual, auditory, or tactical information.”

    “*And I do not think we can “teach creativity”, but I think repetitive readings can be a tool to aid creative thinking.”

    Didn’t you you already say this? What’s the point of repeating it?

  17. Black Pheonix
    June 9th, 2013 at 08:11 | #17


    I think you are bringing up an interesting question of “what is memorization”.

    While most people go by the general dictionary definition, as pointed out by you, I think in Education and Learning, “memorization” means something a bit more specific, as in contrast to “comprehension”.

    For example, in Math, “memorization” means to commit to memory things like a math theorem, (for example, the Quadratic Equation). However, “comprehension” may also require some memories, (for example, HOW to use the Quadratic Equation).

    Thus, in Education process of China, students don’t just memorize the equations/formulas, but they are REQUIRED to drill on their “comprehension” of how to use the equations/formulas. And the TESTS don’t actually test how well they “memorize” the equations, but instead, whether the students know how to use them.

    But the debate is, though, whether the Chinese exams is more on memory, because in US for example, students are sometimes given “cheatsheets” of math equations/formulas. Some have argued that by comparison, US math exams are testing PURELY on “comprehension”/application of the math formulas, and completely disregard the “memorization” aspects.

    Thus, by comparison, Chinese education system does appear to emphasize more on “memorization”. (Afterall, a Chinese student would be required to remember a lot of math equations).

    But I think this distinction is rather superficial, because even American students are generally not allowed to have “cheatsheets” when they take standardized exams like the SAT math portion, especially when “comprehension” is the real result being tested in the Exams.

    *For another example, compare Chinese language classes in China, vs. English classes in US/UK.

    Yes, Chinese students do memorize characters, as American student memorize vocabularies.

    However, the major difference is, Chinese language classes in China test more “comprehension”/application of the characters, which may have many many different means in different combinations of characters.

    Some may call it “contextual memorization”, but it really is APPLICATION of knowledge, where students learn to associate 1 character to multiple possible context of uses. Some education experts have attributed the complexity and context dependency of the Chinese language to why Chinese students appear to develop “active memorization” (see above).

    Again, “active memorization” may also be boiling down to “comprehension”, i.e. when one remembers HOW to apply a specific character in specific context for various different meanings, that’s “comprehension”.

    *All and all, one can broadly call all learning as “memorization”, but in the Education/Learning field, “memorization” means something more specific.

    Maybe the confusion is simply the riddle: Do you remember things because you comprehend them, or do you comprehend things because you remember them?

    I think the Chinese approach is really NOT trying to divide memorization/comprehension, but rather try to do both at the same time (for balance and synergy).

    But the TESTING in the Chinese Education process is NOT emphasizing on purely how a student can recall how to write a character or pronounce a character, but how to use it. (It’s the difference between a Spelling contest, and an essay).

  18. June 9th, 2013 at 19:13 | #18

    @Black Pheonix
    “I think you are bringing up an interesting question of “what is memorization”.

    Really? I don’t think it’s interesting at all. You can find the definition in the dictionary.

    “While most people go by the general dictionary definition, as pointed out by you, I think in Education and Learning, “memorization” means something a bit more specific, as in contrast to “comprehension”.”

    No, you are reading things into the lines which don’t exist. Like I said, memorization is often necessary for learning (which includes understanding and comprehension).

  19. June 9th, 2013 at 19:30 | #19

    Again, memorization and rote learning


    With some material rote learning is an effective to learn it in a short time; for example, when learning the Greek alphabet or lists of vocabulary words.[citation needed] Similarly, when learning the conjugation of foreign irregular verbs, the morphology is often too subtle to be learned explicitly in a short time. However, as in the alphabet example, learning where the alphabet came from may help one to grasp the concept of it and therefore memorize it. (Native speakers and speakers with a lot of experience usually get an intuitive grasp of those subtle rules and are able to conjugate even irregular verbs that they have never heard before.)

    The source transmission could be auditory or visual, and is usually in the form of short bits such as rhyming phrases (but rhyming is not a prerequisite), rather than chunks of text large enough to make lengthy paragraphs. Brevity is not always the case with rote learning. For example, many Americans can recite their National Anthem, or even the much more lengthy Preamble to the United States Constitution. Their ability to do so can be attributed, at least in some part, to having been assimilated by rote learning. The repeated stimulus of hearing it recited in public, on TV, at a sporting event, etc. has caused the mere sound of the phrasing of the words and inflections to be “written”, as if hammer-to-stone, into the long-term memory. Excessive repetition within a limited time frame can actually be counter-productive to learning, through an effect termed semantic satiation.

    Rote learning in mathematics [edit]Rote learning or memorization is a common element in mathematics education, for instance in memorization of multiplication tables. While complex problems can be broken down into simpler multiplications, the answers to these basic operations themselves are essential for more complex mathematical operations. It is believed, therefore, that having them at hand mentally will facilitate not only these operations (which are of use directly), but also more progress to more advanced concepts. A mechanism for such progress would be chunking, whereby the cognitive load of a task is reduced if its basic building blocks are larger.

    Acquisition of basic skills typically involves not only work demonstrating why the operations work the way they do, but also repetition or drilling using examples. It is believed also that practice in using mathematics can precede a solid knowledge as to why equations are able to be solved in the ways being learned, with learning of these reasons actually being facilitated by rote-knowledge of the results of the concept. This combination of mathematical properties and theorems and enhanced memory through rote learning and practice that are believed to be important in mastering mathematics.

    In college mathematics, when students start an introductory course in linear algebra, abstract algebra, or topology, they require rote learning of primitive notions and axioms to tackle their course requirements. Similarly, high school students that rote learn the definitions and axioms of Euclidean geometry will be better prepared to construct the proofs characteristic of that course.

    Rote learning, called bookwork, was used in mathematics at Cambridge University in preparation for mathematical tripos:

    Conscious that they might be asked to write out any proof, theorem, or principle with which they were supposed to be familiar, Cambridge undergraduates committed all such material to memory.[9]
    Music [edit]This term can also refer to learning music by ear as opposed to musical notation interpretation. Many music teachers make a clear distinction between the two approaches. Specialised forms of rote learning have also been used in Vedic chanting to preserve the intonation and lexical accuracy of texts by oral tradition. The Suzuki method’s underlying key is rote learning.[citation needed]

    Rote learning music is also used in music where notation isn’t sufficient to tell how it should be played (polymetric music, and others). Also this technique is commonly used in jazz, as a method of getting the musician to think about the piece played in another way.

  20. Black Pheonix
    June 10th, 2013 at 06:20 | #20


    I think we just have to agree to disagree.


  21. June 10th, 2013 at 06:24 | #21

    @Black Pheonix

    I don’t even know what you are “disagreeing” with. I don’t even know if you’ve even understood what I’ve wrote. I know I certain have no clue what you have wrote.

  22. Black Pheonix
    June 10th, 2013 at 08:36 | #22



    “Since at least the mid-’80s, findings have accumulated from research investigating the nature of misunderstanding. The research reveals unequivocally that the ability to memorize facts does not necessarily imply understanding of a concept.

    Apparently, understanding is not so much a destination as it is a point along a continuum. We may never arrive at perfect understanding of a subject, but we can deepen our understanding beyond the superficial.

  23. June 11th, 2013 at 01:12 | #23

    @Black Pheonix

    Who said that memorization “necessarily” implies understanding? I don’t know of anyone that believes this.

    Memorization however is a necessary though insufficient aspect of learning. Do you understand the difference between saying that something is necessary (for some aspect of learning) and saying that it necessarily implies understanding? So, again, I’m having difficulty understanding what points you are trying to make.

    If you deny what I said that memorization and rote learning is often necessary for some aspects of learning (such as Chinese characters, alphabets and multiplication tables etc) then please give a alternatove method. All I’ve seen is you playing word games such as calling memorization by another name and pretending that it isn’t memorization. It would be like me saying that Obama is not the president because I define “president” as potato.

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