Been busy and as always sparetime priority is learning Chinese rather than blogging, but got some time now. I think the series of Heisig related posts will continue for a fair while longer, the debate touches on some fundamental learning issues and besides the background reading (both directly related and less directly) is interesting. My schedule for these posts will be a little random and I will start mixing some more interesting posts back in, like how to get into Chinese conversations with real people for example.
So what does it mean to know or read a Chinese character.
Seemingly not very much, many of the posts I have read about using the Heisig approach talk about knowing X amount of characters or the advantage of being able to read Chinese now before you start the rest of the language.
My position would be that someone who starts with Heisig, even after they have completed the course actually knows diddlysquat (a relatively small amount ;)) about each individual character, or perhaps to put it another way they know the character in the same way that many of those friends in their Facebook or similar friends list are actually their friends.
Add to this the fact that in my experience the main thing that you do know about the character (how to handwrite it) I haven't found particularly useful yet...
Ultimatately you could say that discussing the meaning of "know" and "read" is pointless, those using these words know what they mean particularly if they have been studying Chinese for some time already. Unfortunately I remember what it was like to start from scratch and I would have been misled at that point, and based on some the Heisig related posts my expectations would have been much too high.
I don't want to go into too much depth here, but just consider the stages that you and others went through to learn to read English (I assume your mother tongue), painfully assembling each letter, reading out slowly aloud, sub-vocalizing ("hey that kid's lips are moving when he reads"), internal voice (many adults still stuck here), straight to meaning (you can read far faster than you could speak and receive pictures and ideas etc.).
The process with Chinese will have differences however I am saying that with Heisig alone you have barely (made the first step). Of course someone may post a comment below that shows I am wrong (I will be interested to read it).
Many Heisig related posts still refer to reading characters however, combined with other acquired Chinese knowledge this may be the case but in isolation ....
I could leap into a lengthy discussion of various aspects of Chinese but I will just ask you imagine a hypothetical conversation with a new Chinese friend. She writes out a character on a piece of paper to try to illustrate something, you look at the character and although there are vaguely familiar aspects you come up blank, it looks kind of squiggly and squashed becasue she has handwritten it in a cursive style. Realizing your predicament she writes it out again slowly and kindergarten style (like a Child would learn it). Ahhh bingo "I know this character" you say with relief (you told her you have been learning Chinese for 4 months but so far you feel like a loon). "Ohhh you know how to pronounce it?" she asks, ohh dear, "well actually no, but I know it means XXXX in English". Your new found friend frowns a little and consults her electronic dictionary, "well kind of she replies, do you know it's other meanings and did you know we don't use it on it's own". No you didn't, "do you know any words it is used in" she asks helpfully, no you don't. You begin to wonder that if you had spent the Heisig time on learning more Chinese and listening etc. you may have been able to have some sort of conversation in Chinese by now.
Contrived I know, but I hope it illustrates my point, she could have asked you about a grammatical useage or many other things you wouldn't be able to answer, yet somewhere you have ticked a box that indicates that along with 1499 other characters you know this one.
I think that the clue-stick here is in one of the rationales that the Heisig system itself uses to justify learning the characters the Heisig way, the strong dislocation between the characters and the spoken language. If you learn the traditional characters for example much of what you have learned in isolation from the language would be equally applicable to Japanese and Chinese (two very different languages) and in the case of Chinese could be used to write in two mutually unintelligible dialects.
If you read carefully the introductions to the Heisig books this is made quite clear but many blog posts written about Heisig by people who already have a strong grasp of Chinese or Japanese do not address this at all (they are assuming that the reader has a similar domain knowledge, if that is they even take the time to think about it). The average westerner has no grasp of the Asian writing systems (why should they) and nothing really to base informed decisions about study method on. If you are a beginner then use Google by all means read the enthusiastic posts, but as I would always do make sure you read some opposing views before you make a decision about where and when to spend all those hours studying.