Learning to write Chinese characters is one of the most daunting parts of learning Chinese. This blog has a couple earlier posts about learning how to write in Chinese. They are here and here. Last night, in one of my adult classes, several questions about writing Chinese characters came up. Below is an edited version of the Q & A I had with my students.
Do I have to learn how to write Chinese Characters?
Nope! You do not have to learn how to write Chinese characters by hand, if you are an adult. If you are serious about learning Chinese, even just a little, you should learn how to write in Chinese. For most purposes, however, it is fine to use computer assisted methods for writing Chinese. This basically means learning how to type in Chinese. This article has more information about how to input Chinese on a computer or a smartphone. I do, however, teach all of my kids the basics os Chinese writing and expect them to practice.
Do I have to learn calligraphy?
Well, no. You do not have to learn Chinese calligraphy. That is, you do not have to learn all the different type of dots and strokes that make up Chinese characters. Students can only really capture those with an ink brush. For my kids, I focus on making sure than they can handwrite characters with the correct stroke order. We go over the rules during class and then all the practice that they do is as homework. It really does take a great deal of repetition to learn how to right fluently. We just don’t have enough class time to spend on it.
Are Chinese Characters Basically Random?
No! While they may seem just like a collection of squiggles to new students, Chinese characters really do have rhyme and reason. A small percentage of Chinese characters are pictographic. This means that they come from picture representations of the words that they mean. The vast majority of Chinese characters are formed through the combination of one part that gives the meaning, and another than suggests the sound. There are some characters that are meaning-meaning compounds, and a couple other categories of character that only include a small number of characters.
Don’t quite get how most Chinese characters work? Let’s take a look at an example. If we look at the character 情 qing2（feeling, love), the radical on the left hand side 忄suggests the meaning as it means heart. The right hand side hints at the sound: 情，请，清，晴 & 青 are all pronounced “qing” with different tones.
Interested in learning more about Chinese characters? This book is a personal favorite.
Handwriting is Different than Listening, Speaking and Reading
Learning to write Chinese characters is a different endeavor than learning to read or speak. Some students want to study Mandarin Chinese without learning how to read Chinese characters. I do not recommend this approach as it is nearly impossible to progress past a certain level without knowing how to read Chinese. Handwriting is a different story however. Students can “write” in Chinese via a smartphone or computer without ever really knowing how to handwrite Chinese characters. While handwriting Chinese characters is a beautiful thing, in the 21st century it is not necessary to have this skill in order to communicate.
First graders in China learn to write Chinese characters by writing on paper called tian zi ge. The paper has a grid pattern for students to practice writing their characters. The grid pattern looks like the character 田 （pronounced “tian”) hence the name of the paper. There are plenty of options for students who want to buy practice notebooks like the ones that kids use in China. Or you can just print off a free version from the internet.
Learning Stroke Order
Before students start to practice writing Chinese characters, they need to understand stroke order. Each unit of a Chinese character is called a stroke (think brushstrokes). Each character has a prescribed order with which to write each stroke (generally speaking we go top to bottom, left to right.) There are many websites that feature little videos that show stroke order. I like this one. Look up a character or word and you will be able to see a video that shows how to write the character.
Start with the Most Frequently Used Characters
The process for learning how to write Chinese characters is not that different from how kids in China learn how to write. Students need to write the characters over and over in order to build up the muscle memory of writing each character. Often practice books for writing Chinese characters start with the simple, pictographic characters, like 木 （wood, tree). I suggest that if adult students want to learn how to write Chinese characters, that they instead focus on the most frequently used Chinese characters. These include 我，想，是，有，在 etc, to start with. This poster can be a useful guide to the most commonly used Chinese characters. Adults who are interested in handwriting Chinese characters often enjoy the process of learning how to write them.
Handwriting for Kids
Kids are a different story to adults. While adults have the intrinsic motivation that they need in order to sit down and practice writing, young children generally do not. In order to teach young children how to write Chinese characters, I borrow from the Montessori method. Little kids like the tactile sensation of using the sandpaper characters pictured below. They practice with these until they are old enough to be able to concentrate on writing using a pencil and paper.
Older children, especially if they have chosen to learn Mandarin Chinese, often have the motivation to practice writing Chinese characters on their own. For these students, it is important to keep encouraging them in their writing so they don’t get frustrated. Learning to write Chinese characters takes time. It is okay for students to write the pinyin while writing a longer passage in Chinese. They should keep up their momentum so they don’t get frustrated.
There are two types of Chinese characters because the Chinese government started a project in the 1950s to simplify the written form of Chinese characters. The aim of this project was to increase literacy rates. As a result, people in mainland China use simplified Characters, while folks in Taiwan and Hong Kong still use the traditional characters. Mandarin Chinese is also an official language of Singapore, where they use simplified characters as well. Wikipedia actually has a good explanation of how simplified characters came to be, for those interested in reading it.
Which type of characters should my child (or I) learn?
If you have a strong preference for either traditional or simplified characters, you should stick with that. Learn traditional characters if you think that is the best choice for you. If you think that simplified characters are the wave of the future and that your child should learn simplified instead of traditional characters, then do that!
You can also decide by not deciding. If you send your child to a local Mandarin immersion program, odds are he or she will learn simplified characters. According to this list (from the Mandarin Immersion Parents Council), the vast majority of Mandarin immersion programs in the US teach simplified characters. There are however, many schools that use traditional characters.
Okay, so I don’t have strong opinions, but what are the pros and cons of each system?
There are lots of pros for both traditional characters and simplified characters. In the spirit of a lively debate I will present both. Traditional characters are more connected with Chinese culture and history. If you are interested in reading the inscriptions on ancients steles, or practicing Chinese calligraphy, then traditional characters might be the best fit. Learning traditional characters is also a bit like learning to drive a stick shift first. If you can drive a car with a manual transmission, you can drive an automatic easily. But the reverse is not true. People who learn traditional characters first have an easier time with both systems than folks who learn simplified characters first.
Simplified characters on the other hand, win the numbers game. There are 1.3 billion people in China (maybe you’ve heard that before 🙂 ). They use simplified characters. While Taiwan, with the traditional characters, only has a population of about 23 million. Simplified characters might also be easier to learn. After all, the Chinese government created this system with the goal of improving literacy rates.
No matter which you choose, it will be fine
In some sense it does not matter which system students learn to read and write in Chinese. One of the tasks of learning a language like Mandarin Chinese, is learning to deal with the issues that come with the regional variations. That includes a wide variety of accents, and it also includes the writing system.
This is an imperfect analogy, but say you were on vacation in some exotic locale. A person comes up to you on the street and asks you for directions. You start telling her where to go, but she suddenly turns on her heel. She explains over the back of her shoulder as she walks away, “Sorry, I only speak British English.” If this happened to you, you’d probably think that this person is a pretentious clown. Also, most people don’t like to give rude strangers helpful directions.
So often, language learners do try to limit their scope to only one part of a language. Some students don’t want to learn how to read and write Chinese at all. Some students want to only learn Mexican Spanish or Spanish from Spain. Teachers can be weirdly selective, too. In the one Spanish class I have ever taken, our teacher didn’t use tu, just usted. We completely skipped the informal you! It was a strange thing to leave out!
Once a person knows one system or the other, it actually is not that difficult to move between one system and the other. I once worked with a Taiwanese lady who wrote all her stuff in traditional characters and then ran it through Google translate to get the simplified character version. Sure, it was a couple minutes extra work, but no big deal! I’ve spent more than a decade using and learning simplified characters. Yet, when I am in Japan (where the kanji are almost identical to traditional characters), I can read* their characters just fine. My friends from mainland China all insist they can read traditional characters with relative ease.
Learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint. My advice to parents and students is to not get so worked up about choosing traditional or simplified that you stumble at the starting line. As long as you stick with it, it will be fine.
*I can read in the sense of knowing the meaning, but I don’t know the Japanese pronunciation. I don’t speak Japanese.
Further reading and information
For a lengthier discussion on traditional vs simplified, and a handy flow chart , check out the Mandarin Mama blog.
People in Western Countries Love Chinese Characters
Walk into any home décor store and you are sure to find a throw pillow or some wall art with Chinese characters on it. Usually there is an English translation somewhere too. While it is nice that people are interested in Chinese culture, this is not really how written Chinese works. It is very common to see a character like 爱 on its own and then the translation “love” written in smaller font.
… But They Usually Don’t Understand How They Work
This is misleading to anyone who does not speak or read Chinese because Chinese words are usually the combination of two characters. So while 爱 does in fact mean love, we have many words that are love-related that use the character 爱. For example, the word for romantic love is 爱情. The word for patriotism is 爱国. Just translating 爱 as love on a piece of wall art misses a great deal of the richness of Mandarin Chinese.
There are also cases in which the translations written on a candle holder is wrong or misleading. It took me .000235 seconds of Googling (okay, maybe a little bit longer) to find the below image. It is a pillow with the character 牙 on it and the English translation is “fang.” The word for fang in Chinese is actually 獠牙 (like a monster’s fang). On its own, 牙 can mean tooth, a tooth-like thing, or even ivory. Without the addition of the character 獠 in order to clarify the meaning, 牙 does not translate to “fang” at all.
Don’t Trust a Pillow to Tell You What a Character Means
It is great that people appreciate the beauty of Chinese characters. I would not, however, trust anything that you can buy at Target. Just like any other language, Mandarin Chinese is complex. A piece of wall art with the character 静 on it and the word “tranquility” below does not give the full picture of how the character is used in context. It may look cool, but there is a lot more to it.
For a laugh, the blog Hanzi Smatter is devoted to “the misuse of Chinese characters in Western culture.” There are lots of embarrassing tattoos! (Some content is adults-only).
Learning to read in Chinese is not an exercise in memorizing 3,000-5,000 different characters. Surprisingly to some, learning to read in Chinese is not that different from learning to read in English. In both languages, readers are mapping sounds that they already know to the written word (or character).
But wait! Many adult students say, isn’t it far easier for young children to start reading in Chinese than adults? Not really, children and adults tend to learn Chinese characters the same way. Since children often have more time to spend on Chinese learning, they have an advantage there. It is not a cognitive advantage, however.
So what is going on inside of people’s heads when they start to learn Chinese characters? First impressions of a Chinese character follow a global prior to part principle.* Readers notice the contour of a character and its edges. Many people believe that Chinese is a completely opaque language, and that there is not phonological component to written Chinese. This simply is not true. Eighty to ninety percent (linguists disagree in the exact percentage) of Chinese characters have a phonological component. Phonological awareness is implicated in reading Chinese, just as it is for reading English. There is evidence that the orthography of Chinese characters becomes more important in later reading, but at the beginning, readers are forming more holistic impressions of characters. I am glossing over many details for the sake of brevity, but the takeaway is that speech and sound have a great deal to do with learning to read in Chinese. Chinese reading is not just a visual exercise.
A Proven Approach to Reading in Chinese
In teaching students how to read Chinese, I have borrowed a great deal from Terry Waltz’s cold character reading. Her method involves introducing characters after students have learned the word orally and using lots of repetition. I have been laughed at (in a good-natured sort of way) by adult students who think that I am pulling their leg when I say that they will be reading sentences by the end of their first two-hour class. Without fail, they are reading at the end of the class. We are only reading words that we already know, and there is a great deal of repetition, but students read with a very high level of comprehension and there is no tedious memorizing of Chinese characters. There is much more to cold character reading than what I can cover in a paragraph. If you would like more information, please click around Terry Waltz’s blog, linked to above.
There is some evidence that it is easier to learn Chinese characters which have fewer than six strokes. I think it is more important to focus on learning the most frequently used characters first, rather than just introducing characters based on the number of strokes. For example, 我 (I/me) is a fairly complicated character, but it is one of the most frequently used Chinese characters so students can and will learn it quickly.
Using Text with Pinyin in Chinese Reading
There are many different types of reading resources available for students learning how to read in Chinese. I favor resources that provide pinyin to help students look up unfamiliar words and a glossary. I am reviewing this version of the story of the monkey king below for my intermediate students. This version is great because it has the pinyin on the opposite page and a full glossary in the back. Students can easily check the opposite page for pinyin if they are unsure of how to pronounce a character and easily look up unfamiliar words. They can also read just the characters without referring to the pinyin if they do not need it.
The below image is actually of a text meant for Chinese children. I do not prefer texts that have the pinyin above the characters. Yes, it does provide the same function as having the pinyin on the opposite page which is to provide pronunciation help. With language students, there is a tendency to ignore characters in favor of pinyin if it is right there. Students will generally just read pinyin and ignore characters if they are included together like this. I would rather have students fluently reading characters from the start of their journey learning to read in Chinese (i.e. through cold character reading) than to limp along with mostly pinyin reading.
What about Writing in Chinese?
Like reading, writing Chinese characters does not need to include memorization of thousands of characters. Read more about approaches to writing Chinese in another blog post here.
*I am using the research of Hui Li (2015) here, contact me for a full citation.
What are your experiences in learning to read in Chinese or another language? Share in the comments!