7 ways of learning to write Chinese characters

I think that anyone who is serious about learning Chinese should learn to write characters. This isn’t necessarily because you will be required to write a lot by palm (that almost never happens to me), but because it will instruct you a lot about how characters work. This will help you recognise characters as well, which is truly essential once you get beyond everyday conversations.

I can (and very likely will) write several articles about writing characters, discussing questions like when you should embark, how many and which characters you should concentrate on very first. I think all these questions are up for debate and in general, I think Chinese 2nd language education today is focusing way too much on writing characters, routinely requiring students to be able to write all characters by forearm (this isn’t indeed necessary ).

Different ways of writing characters

Let’s just assume that we have determined to learn to write characters. You could be a beginner working through the very first words in a textbook or an advanced learner like myself expanding beyond what’s actually necessary to know.

How should you write the characters? I don’t mean what the strokes should look like or in what order they should be, I mean how do you practically go about writing them?

There are many ways of writing characters, all with their pros and cons. Below I’m going to discuss some of them. I will discuss all of them in terms of their major advantages, how close they are to actual handwriting, how effortless it is to cheat and some other factors I find interesting.

Seven ways of practising Chinese characters

Writing on paper – This is the most demonstrable way of writing and has been around for a while. The main advantage with this method is that if being able to write Chinese on paper is your purpose, it makes sense to practise just that. Compare this with if you want to learn more about the structure and composition of characters when it doesn’t indeed matter what your strokes look like. Of course, you need paper and pencil to do this, so it’s a bit inconvenient. Unless you have a teacher to check, you also don’t know if your writing is good or not. Still, it’s hard to cheat with this method, if you don’t know how to write something, it will be fairly demonstrable, at least for yourself.

Writing with your finger – This is the natural extension of the above method to be used whenever you don’t have paper and pencil around. For some people this becomes the main method, especially when combined with spaced repetition software. You skip the paper and pencil entirely and just write with your index finger on your palm, a vapid surface or even in the air. This is obviously more practical because you always have your index finger with you (hopefully). The drawback is that you don’t see the result, which comes with two problems. Very first, you don’t practise the actual strokes and your handwriting will most likely be very ugly if you only practise this way. 2nd, it’s lighter to cheat by being too quick and just telling to yourself that you actually knew that character. If you made a minor mistake, you’re less likely to find it out, too, even if it’s an fair mistake.

Writing in your mind – This is the next step in the abstraction process and it works even if your nemesis captures you and cuts your arms off. Simply imagine writing the character on the canvas of your mind. If you’re not very familiar with character components, you might have to do this stroke by stroke, but as you learn more about characters, it works best with just imagining the different components being put into place. ?. ? makes ?. add ? and you get ?. Since all these components are common, imagining the writing of this character is pretty effortless. The downside with this method is that you’re not actually writing anything, so this helps you reminisce the composition of the character, but it doesn’t help you actually write it. I’d say this is very good if your handwriting is already acceptable and your main aim is to expand your vocabulary. The method is very quick and it’s most likely the one I’ve used the most over the years.

Writing on screen without feedback – There are several programs for mobile phones and computers that permit you to write either directly on a touch screen or by using a stylus or writing tablet of some kind. Most of these programs don’t suggest you any feedback, so in a sense, it’s just a very expensive kind of paper and pencil treatment. However, this is not entirely true, because writing on the screen permits more direct comparisons to model characters and will thus improve the chances of spotting errors. A clever phone is also something most people carry around all the time, which isn’t the case with paper and pencil, so I think these programs are fairly good. The most common example of this is Pleco. which offers on-screen writing when reviewing characters. The disadvantages are mostly the same as for paper and pencil.

Writing on screen with feedback – This is an treatment that has only been around for a few years and the only program I know that does this well is Skritter. I don’t say this because I’m a part of the Skritter team or because I like Skritter in general, I simply haven’t seen any other program that can recognise your strokes one by one and suggest feedback on stroke order, stroke placement and even stroke direction (you wrote that rearwards). The advantage here is demonstrable, it gives you feedback on your writing, which makes it both more joy and more effective as a learning method. The downsides are that it costs money. This is by far the best alternative to maintain writing capability, save for having a teacher looking over your shoulder all the time, correcting your writing, but that’s roped to be prohibitively expensive and not very practical.

No writing, just looking – This isn’t a method as such, but it’s something many students, including myself, sometimes revert to when too tired. Instead of actively checking if we can write a character, we just look at the reaction and attempt to reaction the question: “Would I have been able to write this if asked to,?” The problem with this treatment is that your response is likely to be inaccurate. It’s enormously hard to determine if you knew something after observing the reaction, so you’re likely to overestimate your capability to write the character. Don’t do this! This method has no advantages and it’s only mentioned here so that I can point out that if you want to recall the character, simply looking at it isn’t enough, you need to actively process how the character is structured and written. Use method #Trio above instead.

Only reading and typing – Many native speakers mostly read and type Chinese rather than write it by arm. Still, we shouldn’t compare ourselves with native speakers. They’ve had a lifetime to practise Chinese characters and even if they don’t practise much writing actively, they can still write most characters. There will of course be exceptions, native speakers leave behind characters all the time, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t write Chinese by arm if asked to. Even however I haven’t seen any research on this, my own practice tells me that as 2nd language learners, simply reading and typing is not enough, you have to combine this with at least some writing practise. I read 25 books in Chinese last year and very likely typed a few hundred pages of text. but even that isn’t enough, I need about 20 minutes per day to maintain and expand my handwritten vocabulary.

The best way of writing Chinese characters by palm

I think the very first five methods mention above all work pretty well, but they yield slightly different results and request different things from you as a learner. It’s effortless to cheat with some methods, but if you’re vigilant and stringent when grading yourself, this isn’t a big problem. Some methods are less convenient than others, but that also depends on habits and routines.

I personally use mental writing and Skritter the most. I use mental writing because it’s indeed quick and I feel that I already know how to write the components, I just need to recall how they fit together to form a character. I use Skritter because it’s joy and because it stops me from cheating when I’m lazy. Thus, they complement each other fairly well.

What method(s) do you use?

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11 comments

I’m a total novice so pardon my ignorance if I say something foolish… but as I understand it there is a neuromuscular component to character recognition, something I learned about while reading about character amnesia. What I read is that modern ways of writing characters (e.g. Pinyin input on a smartphone) can lead people to leave behind characters entirely. This might be incidental given that smartphones are fresh and most people would have learned using their arms… but if the physical act of writing characters is closely tied to character recognition in the mind I’d imagine some of the more abstract methods you list are much less effective than others. Do you think there’s much of a difference for people just embarking to learn Chinese?

I’m not sure if you understand your comment correctly, but it’s true that Chinese people leave behind to write characters and that this is an enhancing problem because of the enlargened use of computers and phones (and a decreased use of actual handwriting). However, it’s not the case that people read less (they most likely read more because of the internet) and people will of course not leave behind their native language if they keep using it. I find the abstract methods listed here very useful (as I think I mentioned), provided that the objective is to reminisce the composition rather than being able to write the character beautifully/quickly/effortlessly. If that’s the aim, you truly need to write. For beginners, I Suggest staying away from the more abstract methods tho’, you need corrective feedback, preferably both from a program and a teacher.

It seems I may have mixed up recognition and writing in my original message ?? thanks for the clarification!

I rely on pen & paper for my basic practice. Early in my lessons, I got to practice with a teacher’s Chinese writing brush & «magic paper» and liked this so much that I got a duo of brushes and some «magic paper» for my own practice. I don’t know if this actually helps, but at least I find practising pleasurable. I have also found differences in how pencils and pens feel while I practice. I favor Flair felt peak pens for most of my actual pen practice. These felt peak pens behave more like a writing brush than any other pen or pencil I have attempted, minimal pressure is needed to leave a mark (just like a brush) and my results look better.

Mostly ink stick, paper and brush, or from time to time a brush pen.

Olle, I can successfully recognize something like 1000 characters. I’m permanently talking with native chines speakers and use dictionary when I can’t recognize a character. Also I’m able to choose the correct characters while using pinyin to type.
I’m learning Chinese as a hobby, and not interested in writing in Chinese, but mostly interested in listening, speaking and reading.
So, why should I learn how to write? just to avoid recognition mistakes? or to make myself more certain about the different fonts of the characters? I don’t know if it’s worth it. would be blessed to hear your thoughts about it.

I would say one of the main advantages is that your skill of characters in general will increase fairly a bit. Learning to recognise characters is good, but there’s a lot more to know about a character than that. Also, you might know much less about the character than you think, only being able to recognise it in specific words and so on. Naturally, if you ever determine to live or work in China, it will be fairly awkward to not be able to write. Still, if you learn Chinese as a hobby and don’t think not knowing how to write by palm is a problem, I seen no serious problems with not learning it. I wrote more about this here: http://www.hackingchinese.com/is-it-necessary-to-learn-to-write-chinese-characters-by-hand/

OK, thanks for your input.
I hope that I can join the pronunciation challenge with the next group soon, because pronunciation is significant to me. Already mailed you before about it.
Thanks for having the Blog!

Yes, don’t worry, you’re on my list! ??

I’ve given up on handwriting characters. When I commenced my studies I was super excited about being able to write in Chinese and spent a lot of time just handwriting characters over and over. Several years down the road when I was studying Chinese in grad school it commenced to indeed frustrate me that the instructors put so much emphasis on handwriting. It has to be the least practical language skill and yet I found myself dedicating many hours to it each week in order to pass the tests. Now I live in Beijing and gladfully use a computer for all my writing needs!

That being said, I can’t imagine how I would have learned to read all these characters if I hadn’t gotten used to the way they were formed. So, like you, I agree that it is significant to at least commence out learning to write by arm.

I never had success with any other method than just writing them out repeatedly.

I use methods 1 and Two. Method Three is I think a precursor to either 1 or Two, but I don’t usually *just* draw characters in my mind. I think kinetic engagement is an significant facet of my learning style, so I will almost always write with pen or finger.

Most likely the greatest aid to my learning to write characters is one you don’t specifically mention Olle – I endeavour not to use pinyin input on my brainy phone, my default is to use the writing keyboard. If I can’t recall how to write a character, but I can reminisce the sound, I will roll the keyboard to pinyin input where I will lightly recognise the character I want. I’ll just glance at it to refresh my memory, then roll back to the writing input to inject it. I think this is a excellent method of consolidating my writing.

A duo of other points on learning methods and styles:

I love writing characters and have a graph lined notepad and fancy pens that help me make satisfyingly brush-stroke like characters. I’m certain that taking pleasure in the beauty and form of the characters is central to my learning.

My visual memory is much quicker and more solid than my auditory memory, so I use the strong picture I have of a character to lead the learning of the rest: I say the sound and exaggerated tone over and over in my mind as I write, striving to learn these aspects that I find more difficult whilst I love the writing.

As I very first encounter characters I make an actual flash card. By now I have a few thousand little flash cards that I’ve made – I write the character or word large on one side (lovely Japanese Zebra brand felt peak pen) with pinyin and translation on the other side. That way I can drill writing, translating into or out of Mandarin, or tones as I choose. I store the flash cards grouped by topic or part of speech.

I work through the flash cards in a sort of contextually driven spaced repetition method of my own devising – eg, «oh, I’ll no doubt need to discuss pregnancy troubles with a friend so I’ll review parts of the figure, illness symptoms and emotions before I see her». Flash cards of words I know least well go into a little travel box for review on the train (finger writing), waiting in queues etc.

As I’m a self-directed learner I have the luxury of designing my own syllabus to suit my learning style, but I expect a consideration of learning styles would be useful even for learners who do have to cram lists of words for exams. For example, contextual learning is significant for me, so I learn characters by using them in words and sentences. My vocabulary lists (flash cards) amass from conversations that are significant to me at work and with friends. This experiential and emotional connection as I learn is part of my learning style, as is my quick visual memory, and my aesthetic enjoyment mentioned earlier. Even my manual «spaced-repetition» method is context driven, so I review frequently used words more often.

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7 ways of learning to write Chinese characters

I think that anyone who is serious about learning Chinese should learn to write characters. This isn’t necessarily because you will be required to write a lot by forearm (that almost never happens to me), but because it will train you a lot about how characters work. This will help you recognise characters as well, which is truly essential once you get beyond everyday conversations.

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