The first difficulty we English speakers face is Visual Discrimination. Visual Discrimination is the ability to detect small differences in details between one item and another. Our language has only 26 letters, some of which aren't used very often, so our Visual Discrimination skills aren't very developed. Our worst problem in English lately is the correct choice between "their" and "there," and "your" and "you're." This issue is nothing compared to the seemingly tiny differences between Chinese characters, which contain huge differences in meaning. Until we can learn to SEE differences between characters, we can't begin to decipher them. The problem is, Chinese characters look like a mishmash to most English speakers.
Another problem is the abysmal pedagogy in self-taught books and online apps. These materials often start out in very unhelpful ways, either by focusing on tourist reading like renting an apartment, or the book goes straight into full sentences. And no matter how the books start out, they all end up relying on the same method of memorizing dozens of characters literally by rote, via flash cards or by smart apps which re-test on your mistakes. What the English speaker really needs is help in Visual Discrimination first, a method to decode what the characters are really about.
A hanzi or kanji character is really just a stylized picture of its meaning. These pictures started out on clay tablets, and the original Simplified form looked a lot more realistic. Later on, calligraphy and ink brushes led to characters looking like they do today. But the very early Simplified forms aren't so hard to distinguish and help make sense of what today's characters mean. And the Simplified forms are nearly the same as stylized Simplified characters you see on Tea Wrappers and Tea Ware stamps.
I'm going to recommend two small books which are a good introduction to someone who is interested in learning basic characters, and just to improve in ability to discern one character from another. The books cost a penny each on Amazon, which won't dent the tea budget. These books are: Understanding Kanji Characters by their Ancestral Forms, and Understanding Chinese Characters by their Ancestral Forms by Ping-gam Go. These books are only around 75 pages long, are excellent bathroom reading and you can open them to any page, any time. The Japanese Kanji book is a good first read because it spends more time on basic characters common between Japanese and Chinese. The Chinese book covers more complex ones. In addition, the Chinese book has a full section on Good Luck characters that you often see on teaware and other art works that we are likely to buy.
Here are some images to show you how the books work, and with images we avoid the problem of Character Encoding on internet browsers.
Notice how the head and arms were originally in the character, and over time the legs and part of the torso remain. Ink and brushes making straight lines allowed the character to be written quickly.
With the Simplified form of Woman, you can decode and interpret my silly cartoon at the top of the post.
Notice my red lines, how the Simplified version of Man is part of the character. The "grass" is the tips of the tea leaves above the man's head, and the bush itself is both above and below him.
How a smiley became a character. :D
Not so obvious, but easy to memorize.
Here we are building upon having learned Ten and Mouth. How word of mouth over time became a representation of Old. All of humanity's ancient texts including the Bible were passed by word of mouth for many generations before being written down.
Notice the words for "mouth" here, and something inside the mouth. Tea is held in the mouth, and then becomes "sweet." Hui is also means to return, to go back, to recollect thoughts we have held. So too the sweetness of tea is the memory of the initial bitterness. Here I can appreciate how these characters function as language and meaning together. In English, our word like "sweet" looks like sweet because we have learned to see the word's meaning. In Chinese characters, the words actually mean what we see, form and function.
The word Raw also means uncooked, and unprocessed and is taken from "green" and green comes from "earth." If you look up Green and Earth in the books or on Google, you can see how part of the character for green was adapted for the word Raw, which is pronounced "sheng." Again, form meets function.
This is a more complicated character, but it shows how simpler characters are stacked and arranged to produce a new character, and add to the meaning. This one is pronounced "shu." You can start to "take apart" the pieces of the character visually in order to get the meaning. Notice cooking is done over the "flames" of the fire, seeing this helps to remember the character.
Okay I got the Books, now what?
1) Chinese: I really like the app called Pleco, which is a user-friendly dictionary of sorts. Download Pleco and start typing in words. Try typing "raw" and "sheng" and "shu" and "cooked" and "green" and "Puer." Explore reading the results the app gives you. You can click/press on characters for more information.
2) Japanese: Get a Playstation 3 or 4. The controller has "smart" Japanese keyboarding built in. Press the Select button several times in a Chat box to see the Hiragana and Katakana alphabets. Typing in these will get you a list of characters on the Right to pick from. Use Google Translate to get both the Kanji and the Hiragana for the word "tea." Using the controller, type the Hiragana and see if you can find the character for Tea popping up in the list of choices. Pick up a game that is available in English and Japanese. Play the English one first, then the Japanese. Many people around the world play games in Japanese because the games aren't available in their own language, and because the online servers they have access to are Japanese.
Americans are often rightly criticized for lacking any ability or interest in languages apart from English. Now I don't speak Japanese or Chinese, but despite this we, and many people around the world, can learn to read a little of these languages in order to chat, play games, navigate websites and buy what we want on the internet. I've learned to type a basic conversation in a Japanese gaming room on the Playstation, and I've played Naked Avatar hide-and-seek with my Chinese guild mates online. While Japanese gamers are quick to boot English speakers out of an online gaming room, they are on the other hand warm and friendly to English people when you make even a small effort to cut-and-paste or type characters. You've improved your Visual Discrimination ability just a little bit by reading this post. Anything else you learn will allow you to meet even more Tea Nerds online, and make your tea hobby all the more enjoyable.