The Marilyn method explained


Back in 2012, Serge Gorodish published the "Marilyn method", a method to remember the meaning, pronunciation and components of Chinese characters. He explained it at length in his original blog post, so check out his blog if you're interested in the details.

Let us explore how this method works using the most difficult Chinese character: 的.

的 is the most common Chinese character, but also the most complicated one to remember. Why is it so difficult? Because I am going to introduce you to a lot of concepts to make remembering Chinese characters easier. This requires quite some effort upfront, but it pays out in the long run. Once you have finished this tutorial, each subsequent Chinese character will be easier to remember than the one before.

Translations for 的

的 is more or less equivalent to the possessive 's:

de = d + e5
of; ~'s (possessive particle) / (used after an attribute) / (used to form a nominal expression) / (used at the end of a declarative sentence for emphasis) / also pr. [di4] or [di5] in poetry and songs

This is why 的 is the most common Chinese character. It's used to indicate a possessive relationship between people or things. For example:

  • Child 的 bicycle = the child's bicycle
  • I / me 的 computer = my computer
  • Car 的 color = the car's color

As a side note, there are also other translations for 的. We can safely ignore those until much later. You can check them out by clicking on "的" in the translation above if you want to have a look now.

Part 1: how to remember the pronunciation "de5" of 的

Let's look at how to remember the pronunciation "de5" before we learn how to remember its components.

Each pinyin syllable is split into two components: the initial and the final, in this case: de5 = d + e5. While "de5" is a pinyin syllable, let's call "d" and "e5" the "Marilyns" in recognition of the original name of the method. In the mnemonics, Marilyn initials are represented by personas, while Marilyn finals are represented by locations. Additionally, since the finals carry the tone number, let's identify these by specific sub-locations:

  • First tone: in front of the location
  • Second tone: in the location's kitchen
  • Third tone: in the location's living room
  • Fourth tone: in the location's bathroom
  • Fifth tone: on the location's roof

Let's use Don Quixote for "d" and the elevator's, um, roof for "e5".

Yes, this is complicated and requires some upfront effort to learn the system. But it's worth it: there are 520 Chinese characters with a pronunciation starting with "d", and 32 Chinese characters with a pronunciation ending with "e5". To remember these characters, we're now able to build mnemonics with Don Quixote, and mnemonics which are located on the elevator's roof. This helps immensely with remembering the pronunciation of these Chinese characters.

For example, here are the characters starting with "d":

de = d + e5
of; ~'s (possessive particle) / (used after an attribute) / (used to form a nominal expression) / (used at the end of a declarative sentence for emphasis) / also pr. [di4] or [di5] in poetry and songs

= + : Don Quixote (d) ends up on the elevator's roof (e5) after a standoff. His only weapon left is a silver spoon (勺), so he can only wave with a white flag (白).
big; large; great / older (than another person) / eldest (as in 大姐[da4 jie3]) / greatly; freely; fully / (dialect) father / (dialect) uncle (father's brother)

= + : The big (大), huge (大) robot (mnemonic symbol for 大) is working out in the ashram's bathroom (a4). He's lifting a flute (一) to which Don Quixote (d) and Neanderthal man (人) are clinging.
see 大夫[dai4 fu5]

And here are the characters ending on "e5":

de = d + e5
of; ~'s (possessive particle) / (used after an attribute) / (used to form a nominal expression) / (used at the end of a declarative sentence for emphasis) / also pr. [di4] or [di5] in poetry and songs

= + : Don Quixote (d) ends up on the elevator's roof (e5) after a standoff. His only weapon left is a silver spoon (勺), so he can only wave with a white flag (白).
de = d + e5
-ly / structural particle: used before a verb or adjective, linking it to preceding modifying adverbial adjunct
le = l + e5
(completed action marker) / (modal particle indicating change of state, situation now) / (modal particle intensifying preceding clause)

= + : Sir Lancelot (l) has completed (了) his preparations to fight the world. There he stands ready, on top of the Elevator (e5), with a sickle (乛) and a crowbar (亅) in his hands.

Two Marilyns form a Pinyin syllable

As in the example of Pinyin "de5" = Marilyn "d" + Marilyn "e5", every Pinyin syllable can be split up into two Marilyns. There are five groups of Marilyns:

  • Pinyin starting with "i" sound (similar to English "ee")
  • Pinyin starting with "u"
  • Pinyin starting with "ü"
  • Pinyin starting without vowel
  • The Pinyin ending (or "final") is represented by a location as described above.

You can see the full table here:

Pinyin to Marilyn index

The mnemonic personas for each group are as follows.

Marilyn initials with "i" are represented by women

bi: Brunhilde, shield maiden and valkyrie
di: Dorothy Gale from "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"
ji: Joan of Arc, patron saint of France
li: Li Qingzhao, writer and poet of the Song Dynasty
mi: Marilyn Monroe, American actress, model and singer
ni: Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt Nefertiti
pi: Pocahontas, famous Native American from the Powhatan people
qi: The Queen of Hearts, as on the playing cards
ti: Mother Teresa, Albanian-Indian Catholic nun
xi: Marie Curie, Polish-French scientist working with "X"-rays
y: Maud Younger, American suffragist, feminist, and labor activist

Marilyn initials with "u" are represented by animals

bu: Bruno Bear
chu: Chantal Chicken
cu: Kitty Cat
du: Doggy Dog
fu: Frieda Fox
gu: Gitta Giraffe
hu: Helga Horse
ku: Karl Koala
lu: Lenny Lemur
mu: Malte Monkey
nu: Nelson Newt
pu: Petra Penguin
ru: Rachel Rhinoceros
shu: Sheldon Shrimp
su: Susan Saint Bernard
tu: Tommy Turtle
w: Willy Walrus
zhu: Julian Giant Squid
zu: Zapatista Zebra

Marilyn initials with "ü" are represented by deities or mythical figures

ju: Zeus
: Loki
: Neptune
qu: Cupid ("Cu" in "Cupid" sounds like "Q")
xu: Xu Xian, who fell in love with a white snake demon
yu: Yu the Great, who tamed the floods

Marilyn initials without vowel are represented by men

b: Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies
c: King Wu of Chu
ch: Charlie Chaplin, famous actor
d: Don Quixote, knight-errant
f: Frankenstein's monster, monster
g: Guy Fawkes, member of the group around the Gunpowder Plot
h: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
k: Karl Marx, philosopher, economist, revolutionary socialist
l: Sir Lancelot, knight of the Round Table
m: Mahatma Gandhi, Indian independence activist
n: Napoleon, military leader and emperor of France
p: Pinocchio, wooden puppet
r: Robinson Crusoe, castaway
s: Socrates, Greek philosopher
sh: Sherlock Holmes, detective
t: Tecumseh, Native American leader of the Shawnee
z: Zorro, masked vigilante
zh: James II of England

Marilyn finals are represented by locations

in front... in the kitchen... in the living room... in the bathroom... on the roof... ...of the
a1 a2 a3 a4 a5 Ashram
ai1 ai2 ai3 ai4 - Airplane
an1 an2 an3 an4 an5 Anthill
ang1 ang2 ang3 ang4 - Anglepod
ao1 ao2 ao3 ao4 - Aorta
e1 e2 e3 e4 e5 Elevator
ei1 ei2 ei3 ei4 ei5 Eiffel tower
(e)n1 (e)n2 (e)n3 (e)n4 (e)n5 Encampment
(e)ng1 (e)ng2 (e)ng3 (e)ng4 - Engine
o1 o2 o3 o4 o5 Observatory
ou1 ou2 ou3 ou4 ou5 Outhouse

The special symbol "Ø"

There are cases when a Marilyn can represent a Pinyin syllable on it's own, without the need of a complementing initial or final Marilyn. In this case, the missing other symbol is represented by "Ø". The mnemonics are:

  • When there is no Pinyin initial, Ø is represented by Albert Einstein.
  • When there is no Pinyin final, Ø is represented by the space station.

This sounds very abstract, so I recommend to take a look at the Pinyin index to see how this works, specifically the last column in each table and the very last row in the very last table:

Pinyin to Marilyn index

The one last Pinyin syllable to complete the picture is "er". It is conveniently represented by combining "Ø" as initial and "Ø" + tone as final (as a convention set up by the inventor of the Marilyn method).

Part 2: breaking 的 up into its components

Now that we've covered the pronunciation, let's look at the components.

As you can see, our example character 的 consist of two component characters:

spoon / ladle / CL:把[ba3] / abbr. for 公勺[gong1 shao2], centiliter (unit of volume)

= + : Mnemonic symbol: as 勺 should not be confused with 匕 (ladle), the mnemonic symbol for 勺 is a small silver spoon.

Sherlock Holmes (sh) feeds an elephant (勹) medicine in the aorta's kitchen (ao2). The medicine looks like a petal leaf (丶), and Sherlock Holmes uses a small silver spoon (勺) to feed it to the elephant.
surname Bai
white / snowy / pure / bright / empty / blank / plain / clear / to make clear / in vain / gratuitous / free of charge / reactionary / anti-communist / funeral / to stare coldly / to write wrong character / to state / to explain / vernacular / spoken lines in opera

= + : Mnemonic symbol: a white flag. The sun (日) is waving with a white (白) flag (白) in the airplane's kitchen (ai2) while Beelzebub (b) is beating them with a big petal leaf (丶).

Fortunately, someone has already assigned "mnemonic symbols" for those two characters. Mnemonic symbols are specific objects that represent their characters in the mnemonics of compound characters, just as the spoon represents 勺 (spoon) and the white flag represents 白 (white). It's obvious for the spoon, but the white flag is a very good example: it translates a somewhat abstract concept (a color) into a specific thing which can act as a reference in our mnemonic. Click on the characters in the translation boxes on the left hand side to see how their mnemonic symbols are used in mnemonics of other characters.

If 的 was used as a component in many other characters, we would also define a mnemonic symbol for this character: a very specific object which represents the meaning of 的 in the mnemonics of the compound characters which use 的 as a component. However, 的 is only used as a component in two rather obscure characters you probably will not bother to learn. Additionally, the meaning of 的 is extremely abstract, which makes it very difficult to distill into a specific object to be used as mnemonic symbol. Finally as 的 is the most common character, you'll learn its meaning through exposure automatically, so a mnemonic symbol doesn't help here either. Instead, we'll be satisfied with a mnemonic which contains the pronunciation and the elements of 的.

de = d + e5
of; ~'s (possessive particle) / (used after an attribute) / (used to form a nominal expression) / (used at the end of a declarative sentence for emphasis) / also pr. [di4] or [di5] in poetry and songs

= + : Don Quixote (d) ends up on the elevator's roof (e5) after a standoff. His only weapon left is a silver spoon (勺), so he can only wave with a white flag (白).

And that's how the Marilyn method works.


I've spent more than a day writing this page, and you'll need more than a day to learn the Marilyn method if you decide to do so. Is it worth the effort?

Personally, I'm absolutely convinced that it is worth the effort. Here are some of the advantages that I appreciate:

  • It's fun! Due to the constraints of the combination of mnemonic symbols, personas, and location, the resulting stories are often ridiculous and cringy, which is perfect for forming a strong memory.
  • Mnemonics help a lot to distinguish very similar characters. Two Chinese characters which differ in just a tiny dot are easily confused without mnemonics, but with mnemonics it's almost as different as night and day.
  • On the other hand, I dislike rote learning - which would be the alternative.

If you've seen any of the mnemonic comics on this site and they raised any emotion with you at all - be it joy, surprise, disgust, cringe, awe, annoyance, or even anger - you will remember the comic. If you can remember a comic, you can remember a Chinese character, if you know the key to the mnemonic system.