Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese

Note: There is now a new character challenge! It will run from March 22nd to June 30th, 2014. Click here to read more about the challenge!

Learning to write thousands of Chinese characters is a daunting task, but fortunately, character writing is also one of the most hackable parts of the Chinese language. This means that if you use the wrong method, it will take forever and be quite boring (see last week’s post), but if you use the right method, it’s neither impossible nor boring.

This article is a challenge which is meant to make students use more sensible strategies to learn characters and take you out of the boring, monotonous loop that helps you pass your tests, but isn’t very good in the long run. Before we go into details about the challenge itself, let’s look at the contents of this article to make it easier for you to find what you want.


  1. About the challenge
  2. The problem
  3. The solution
  4. What sensible character learning looks like
  5. Everybody can participate
  6. What tools you need to participate
  7. Skritter extended trial and discount
  8. The rules of the challenge
  9. How to join the challenge
  10. List of brave participants
  11. Possible problems and how to cope with them
  12. Mnemonic month on Twitter, discussion group on Facebook
  13. Spread the word

Articles published about sensible character learning

  1. Chinese character challenge: Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese
  2. You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote
  3. Remembering is a skill you can learn
  4. Sensible character learning: Progress, reminders and reflections
  5. How to create mnemonics for general or abstract character components
  6. Don’t use mnemonics for everything

The problem

The problem with how most students approach character learning has already been addressed; the following is a summary for those who haven’t read that article, but I still recommend that you read the full article here. There are many problems of course, but the most serious one is undoubtedly that many rely on rote learning, i.e. repeating a character until it sticks without actually understanding what they’re learning or deepening their knowledge of the language. This is almost useless if you lack a systematic approach, but if you use spaced repetition programs, it actually works to a certain point.

This is problematic, because when you reach that point, you’ll find that you need something more than mere repetition. Native speakers can rely on repetition because they spend more than ten years in school mastering their own language. They write characters every day for many, many years. Thinking that this will work for you is naive. Most native speakers also combine a fairly well-developed knowledge of components with massive repetition.

Symptoms of bad character learning:

  • When you’ve forgotten a word, you just keep repeating it until it sticks
  • You tend to forget the difference between similar characters
  • You’re reading ability is okay even though your handwriting sucks
  • You need to rely heavily on context to understand characters
  • You have no idea how to write characters like 尴尬 (T: 尷尬)

 The solution

Even though I think SRS is part of the problem (people tend to misuse it), I also think it’s part of the solution. The problem is that when we review something mechanically (i.e. just looking at something without really processing the information actively), we’re not really learning anything new, we’re not expanding our knowledge of Chinese. Apart from this, it’s also quite boring and leads to poor results in the long run.

Still, using SRS, especially if the program is geared specifically towards character learning (see my introduction to Skritter below) is the most efficient way of learning, you just have to pay attention to what you’re doing, which is the point of this challenge.

The alternative to rote learning is to work actively with the characters we forget and make sure that we’re learning something instead of blindly repeating the same mistakes over and over. It’s notoriously difficult to learn things that don’t mean anything to us, so the first thing we should do is really understand the characters we’re learning. If it takes more time, then so be it, it will definitely pay off in the long run. Most native speakers have pretty good grasp of character components, but many foreigners don’t.

These things you can learn from a competent teacher. The next key to more sensible character learning is something I have never heard mentioned in a classroom, probably because it requires that the teacher has actually used the method to be able to teach it. Everybody will tell you to create stories (mnemonics) to remember characters, but few are able to or can be bothered to explain what kind of mnemonics work and why. I can and I have. See this article about learning character components (and the following articles in the same series).

What sensible character learning looks like

  1. Understand what you/re learning (learn the components)
  2. Combine the meaningful parts in a clever way (mnemonics)
  3. Use SRS to reinforce your knowledge and identify weak links
  4. Avoid rote learning at all costs (and make learning fun again)

Who can participate in the challenge

Students at any level can participate and it doesn’t matter if you study Chinese two hours or week or twenty hours a day. The challenge will remain open as long as I feel it’s relevant, which is likely to be indefinitely. The Skritter discounts mentioned below will only be valid for a limited amount of time, however.

What you need to participate

The following challenge is for anyone with an interest in learning characters (that should be most visitors to Hacking Chinese, I think), regardless if you’re a beginner, intermediate or advanced learner. I’m going to join the challenge as well and follow the same rules as everybody else. A list of participants is included below.

Before you join, you need to choose software. I’m going to use Skritter and I recommend that you do too, mostly because it’s specifically geared towards handwriting and that it has excellent resources attached if you need to expand your knowledge about characters and components).

Participants receive an extended free trial of Skritter and 33% off subscriptions

If you register and join the challenge, use the coupon code SENSIBLE, which will double the length of the free trial as well as give you 33% off the price if you like the software and keep using it. If you register and later go for a paid subscription, I will receive a small commission, so please use the links included here if you want to help me out a bit, too. You have to use the coupon code when you register! Click “alternative payment methods” and enter the coupon code.

If you don’t know what Skritter is, you can check this brief demonstration on YouTube:

However, it doesn’t really matter what program you use and the challenge doesn’t rely on your using any specific kind of software. I won’t include information about exactly how to use any program, but most of them are good enough for this challenge. If you don’t like Skritter, I suggest you use Anki) instead. Other alternatives include Pleco and Memrise.

The rules of the challenge

  • If you fail a review, you’re not allowed to review that card again until you’ve dealt with it actively. You have two options: either you stop reviewing and deal with the failed card immediately or you remove the card from the review card and deal with it later (ban the card in Skritter, suspend in Anki.
  • If you ban or suspend cards you fail, you have to go through the list of banned or suspended cards often. You don’t know these characters and you need to relearn them before you enter them into the review queue again. Do not allow the number of banned cards to accumulate.
  • Characters you already know well and don’t fail aren’t part of the challenge. In other words, you don’t need to relearn characters you already know, regardless how you learnt to write those characters. However, if you fail any card, you still have to follow the rules of the challenge.
  • If you have an important exam coming up, you’re allowed to sidestep the above rules, but not using your normal review software. You have to rely on conventional non-digital study methods to cram for an exam, you’re not allowed to break the above rules when using SRS under any condition whatsoever.
  • Share your progress with me and your friends (Skritter has a function for this). If you join the challenge I will also check on you by sending you an e-mail later this months. I’m serious about this and shall be disappointed if you commit but fail to follow these rules!

This is what Skritter’s look-up interface looks like.

When you fail a card, here are some suggestions of what you can do. Don’t feel limited by these, though, there are more ways to learn characters. The important thing is that you deepen you knowledge and understanding of the character rather than just repeating it.

  1. Do you know the component parts? If not, look them up. Skritter has a built-in feature that allows you to check a character and its components in a number of online dictionaries (see picture). Regardless of how you access the dictionaries, I like HanziCraft and (better for traditional, but works for both).
  2. If you know the parts already, create a mnemonic or use someone else’s. Part of the goal with this challenge is to make students more aware of mnemonics and to make those already aware of it apply them more often and master how to create them. If you’re not already good at this, you should check my article about it here, including the other articles it links to in the beginning. If you can’t come up with anything, Skritter has a neat function where you can see other people’s mnemonics. I suggest that you adapt them to your own needs, but they serve as excellent inspiration.
  3. If you have a mnemonic (but still fail), make it better or start over. It isn’t easy to figure out how to create good mnemonics and I fail now and then, too. I think this is highly individual and thus hard to write about in general, but reviewing the principles mentioned above is a good first step.
  4. Next time you review a failed character, review whatever information you added to the card. If you created a mnemonic with a story, quickly review the story and see how it makes the components fit together.
  5. To each his own. The goal here isn’t to dictate exactly what you should do, but rather that you should do something other than simply repeating the characters many times over without really understanding what you’re doing. Try different approaches, if it works, it’s good.

Other things you can do that will help

  • Teach the character to an (imaginary) friend
  • Do a search on Google for related pictures (giving you visual input)
  • Look up similar characters that are confusing you and sort out differences
  • Anything else that forces you to actively process the character components

How to join the challenge

  1. Post a comment and say you’re in (please use a valid e-mail address so I can reach you). By doing this, you also agree to me sending you an occasional e-mail about the challenge and that I will give your e-mail address to the other participants for mutual help and support.
  2. Commit to the challenge publicly on Facebook, Twitter and/or other social media or in real life to friends or family. Make yourself accountable, ask people to check up on you a week from now and see how you’re doing. Once I have confirmed that you want to join, I will put you in the list below.
  3. Define a goal and share it with fellow participants (see list below). This challenge is about the method, the goal itself isn’t specified. Personally, I’m going to make sure I can write the 5000 most common characters by hand. This is of course a long term goal and I will spend 20-30 minutes per day, 5 days a week. I suggest you set a goal which is reachable in a month or two. but this is really up to you.
  4. Send a brief introduction about yourself and your goals to the participants directly above and directly below you on the list of participants below. I will provide you with the e-mail addresses manually.
  5. Learn some Chinese, for real this time, with the intent of actually understanding the characters and putting the fun back into character learning. Be creative, be crazy, stay committed!

List of students who have accepted the challenge

These people have join the challenge so far. To get on the list, you need to give me your e-mail address so I can connect you with the participants next to you on the list for support and accountability. Thus, I’m accountable to Jake, Jake is accountable to me and Nick, Nick is accountable to Jake and whoever becomes the fourth participant. And so on. If you want a link to your own blog, website or whatever, include that as well, but I will only accept personal websites or Chinese-related sites.

Click here to skip the list and go to the next part (the list is getting fairly long).

  1. Olle Linge
  2. Jacob Gill
  3. Nick Winter
  4. Claudia
  5. Niel de la Rouviere
  6. Kevin Tynan
  7. Russel Sancto
  8. Gary Saville
  9. Matthew Ho
  10. Dianne Rennack
  11. Bill Glover
  12. Bob Clark
  13. Joy
  14. Douglas Drumond
  15. Lechuan
  16. Caitlin Goldston
  17. Alex
  18. Samanta
  19. Michel
  20. Robert Vose
  21. Gareth
  22. Sonja
  23. Jeff
  24. Jake
  25. Maikeximu
  26. Sascha
  27. Jaki
  28. Jeff Lau
  29. Mathias
  30. Christian
  31. Marcus
  32. Rachel M.
  33. Mark Jarvis
  34. Michael
  35. Dave
  36. Matt Raleigh
  37. Eddie
  38. Kevin Sciarillo
  39. Marc
  40. Victoria
  41. Martin
  42. Michael Knight
  43. Leon White
  44. Maozhou
  45. Ted Reed
  46. Catherine Pacey
  47. Jim Long
  48. Christopher Burroughs
  49. Ruben
  50. Scott
  51. Mai Laoshi
  52. Erik
  53. Jeriko Jak
  54. Georges
  55. Lei Laoshi
  56. Jan
  57. Liz Valachovic
  58. Matt Sikora
  59. Cooper Nagengast
  60. Matt Lawrence
  61. GBoomer
  62. Matt Arkell
  63. Matthew A
  64. Stoney
  65. Tom
  66. Wendy Purdie
  67. Rich O
  68. Kai Carver
  69. Ian Sinnot
  70. Brad Wright
  71. Muhammed Zubair
  72. Bjørn Schwartz
  73. Antonella
  74. Stumoke
  75. Vito
  76. Petar
  77. Liven
  78. James Carman
  79. Victor
  80. Shannon
  81. Teng Fang Yih
  82. Vito FJ
  83. Steph FS
  84. Charlie Southwell
  85. Julien Leyre
  86. Furio
  87. Gwilym James
  88. Manu
  89. Jakub
  90. Will Taylor
  91. Pia N-H
  92. Ashia
  93. Gisèle
  94. Michael
  95. Meg
  96. Milon
  97. Adam Dawkins
  98. Jan Willem Stil
  99. Gerlinde
  100. Amanda Viljoen
  101. Trung Hieu
  102. Wendy MC
  103. Daniel
  104. Chris P
  105. Anthony Pantekoek
  106. Nathan
  107. John Highan
  108. You?

Some problems you might encounter and how to cope with them

Different people will encounter different problems with this challenge. If you’re an avid SRS user already, you will notice that it takes much more time to review, mostly because you stop cheating and actually study the things you forget. This means that you won’t forget them very easily, so that it takes more time is both natural and necessary.

Students who aren’t used to mnemonics will find that it takes a while before you find a style or method that suits you. Remembering things is a skill that you have to learn, so don’t feed disappointed if you forget things even with mnemonics or if you find them difficult to come up with in the first place. You will learn.

Mnemonic month on Twitter, discussion group on Facebook

To help you with mnemonics memory tricks, I hereby declare January to be #mnemonicmonth on Twitter. I intend to share all sorts of links, tips and tricks, starting today. I encourage you to do the same! Tweet your best mnemonics or inspiring videos/stories/links. I also intend to spend more time on Facebook this month, discussing mnemonics and Chinese, helping students out in case you run into problems. Join the discussion here. I hope more advanced learners will help me with this so that we can create a good discussion environment. Share your thoughts, ideas and questions with the rest of us, we’re in this challenge together.

Spread the word about this challenge

The goal with this challenge is to change the way people learn characters. The principles are easy to understand, but still many people, including me sometimes, fail to follow them. Everybody knows that smoking is bad for your health, but it’s not easy to quit. Rote learning is equally bad, let’s quit together. In order to start this revolution, we need more people. Spread the word, agree with one friend to check on each other, make yourself accountable.

More about spaced repetition software on Hacking Chinese

[add_posts tag=spaced-repetition-software show=100]

258 thoughts on “Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese”

    1. @Claudia: I need your e-mail address in that case! Please reply to this comment and include your e-mail address and I’ll put you on the list.

        1. I couldn’t for some reason, I don’t know why, because I can see it now. I’ve added you to the list now, sorry!

  1. would love to participate, have exams in Feb and March so would love to kick start 2013 off in a positive mindset.

  2. I’m in. I’ve studied Mandarin for several years, reading and speaking daily, but when I try to write characters I easily recognize, I often cannot. Let’s see if this method helps!

  3. Count me in, please. My accountability community just imploded, so I could use a new approach. You have my email, I think. Thanks, Olle! And though I usually work with Pleco, perhaps change-up to Skritter for this is a good idea, too.

    1. I’ve split my reviews between Anki and Pleco, doing all single-character work (handwriting) with Skritter and everything else with Anki. Seems to work fairly well so far! I’ve added you to the list, welcome on board!

  4. I’m in. My Chinese studies have stalled of late but I’m keen to get started again. Will make myself accountable just as soon as I can publish a blog post.

  5. Sign Me Up! agsgeneral(at)hotmail(dot)com

    I’m already using Skritter, and the method you suggest, but I got derailed last September, let the reviews pile up, and haven’t been able to get bakc on track. I recently banned the characters I had most recently learned (as I’ll need to relearne them) and trying to cacth-up with the back-log.

  6. Count me in! What a great idea :)
    I’m so slack with my own learning, I’m always looking at ways to inspire my students while my knowledge stagnates!

    1. I think this challenge is even better for teachers. I mean, when teaching Chinese, you really, really need to understand the characters. Being able to write them isn’t enough. You’re now on the list!

  7. I’m in! Rote memorization isn’t working for me.


  8. I’m not ready to jump in because I want a little more time to think about my goals.

    However, I have a question: are Japanese learners also welcome to join the challenge? I want to know if I should mention this to certain people.

    1. Why not? I suppose the exact same principles should be relevant for learning Japanese. It might even be more true for Japanese if the Kanji are used more seldom. Also, you’re more than welcome to join as soon as you have a goal set. No hurry, I’m not going to close this any time soon.

  9. I’d like to join in. I already have an account with Skritter and this sounds like a great way to learn. Rote learning hasn’t really worked for me.

    robert dot vose at gmail dot com

    1. Having a Skritter account already makes things a lot easier, I think. If you have any cool ideas of how to use Skritter in the challenge, let me know!

  10. This is awesome Olle, great way to bring people to actually act! Thank you :)

  11. Count me in! I will be using this for Japanese and adding some of the characters I come across while reading. Either ones that I’m unfamiliar with or that I’d like to be able to write from memory.

    As of right now I think I’ll keep this pretty low key and try to do 5 kanji per day. Great idea and I’m excited to see how it goes!

    1. Cool, first Japanese student! Should work very well for low intensity as well, perhaps even better than for intensive use because you probably won’t risk accumulating large numbers of banned cards. :) You’re now on the list!

  12. Olle, Im in.
    Great idea.
    Ive been using Pleco for my phone, considering Anki for my laptop given your other blog posts. However do you recommend I simply start off with Skritter (better software, free tutorial, etc…)?

    1. If you value handwriting, I definitely think Skritter is better than any alternative. If you don’t, I think you should stick with Pleco. Not that Skritter is bad, but it doesn’t make sense to change if you’re not valuing the main feature of the new product. I’ve used Skritter for a few weeks now and I’m very happy so far. You’re on the list now, btw!

  13. Great idea Olle :) Count me in, it’s been a while since i didn’t do any handwriting and the problems you mentionned are quite true for my situation : i can read anything with context but I often got stuck when it’s standalone character. My goal would be to reach “real” HSK 6 within the next 6 months (5000 words).

    1. Cool! Don’t hesitate to ask questions if you have any (preferably on Facebook). I can’t possible write instructions that suit all levels, but I think you will figure most things out as you go along. Welcome!

      1. Hi Olle
        Just liked the Facebook page, I can guarantee there will be lots of questions :-)
        Thanks for starting this challenge, needed something to make me not rote learn like I did at school.

  14. I’m in Olle. Just a question – does Skritter have the ability to view a list of banned cards on the iPhone app? Otherwise I’ll have to review them and unban them when i get home. It’s pretty painful trying to look for banned cards in the normal lists.

    1. I don’t use the iPhone app, so I don’t really know. However, I’m not sure I understand your second sentence. Can’t you just ban the cards and then unban them when you get home? Why do you need to “look for banned cards in the normal lists”?

      I’ve added you to the list!

      1. As in ‘review banned words at home then unban them’, but not on the app. Because I want to for instance review for 20 minutes and I ban 10 words that i don’t know. Maybe i’m still out and about and want to come up with some mnemonics it because extremely difficult to review banned words because you can’t access them as a list.

        1. Okay, I see. Would it work for you to handle the failed cards immediately, i.e. stop reviewing and study the failed card with whatever resources you have available? I’m not in a position to offer you technical solutions, but if you have questions about Skritter, I’m sure the guys over there will be happy to help you. Also, let me know if you solve this problem, other people might have similar worries.

  15. Count me in! I recently nuked my chinese on Skritter and started over with a new routine:

    1. I’m going to follow the Heisig books religiously, and not do any reading or writing until I have gone through both tomes. Whenever I fail a character, I go back to the book and review the mnemonic for it, whereas I used to just wait until it came back up on Skritter and hope that repetition would rub it in.

    2. I listen to ChinesePod on my commute, but have now set up my playlists so that half the time I’m listening to Chinese. Listening was always a weak spot for me, so I’m hoping to address it with lots of practice.

    1. Sounds like a good plan, I’ve added you to the list. I have several ideas for how to keep people on track, will send out more info about this later!

  16. Count me in! I hope to conquer the 2000 most common characters as I can already recognize them but struggle to write them.

  17. Email: @

    Please sign me up! I’m also studying Japanese, like Jeff. Recently, I’ve felt kanji has been a huge barrier in improving my literacy skills, so I need to overcome it before I can move any further. I’ve never been consistent with an SRS, so I need the accountability.

    I started using RTK two days ago, but am just using it as a list of kanji and creating my own mnemonics and researching each kanji through Japanese-Japanese dictionaries to make it more personalized and to improve my Japanese at the level it’s at, since I’m past the Japanese-English stage.

    This challenge couldn’t have come at a better time!

    1. Glad the timing was good, you’re now on the list. I’m looking forward to hear what Japanese students think about this (and my site in general, most things I write are relevant for you as well).

  18. In! Goal is to hit 2,000 characters readable by april(!). At 860 now… Anyone know of any comics with simplified Chinese to practice reading on?

  19. I am in. I am a long time skritter user and it this SRS has helped me a lot. However during he last year I find that I am more or less stuck at 2300 characters. I find that I spend too much time using skritter as compared to the time that I spend reading and studying Chinese. Too many leeches too and I find it very hard to get a grip on those. Learning by rote has its limitations, that is obvious. But on the other hand, I have always had difficulties using mnemonics because I tend to forget them. (haha) Maybe it just means that I have to spend more time with the failed characters, just like you suggested.

    1. Spending more time with actual Chinese and less time with SRS is generally a good idea. SRS is really cool because it’s efficient, you can review quite a lot in just a few minutes you have to spare during the day, but you’d hardly haul up a textbook (or even less carry it with you) just to study five minutes. Don’t let this challenge stop you from focusing on “real” Chinese! I’ll add you to the list, though, I daily dose of SRS is good for most people, it just shouldn’t be the only thing we do.

  20. Really need something to push me to systematic learning, so I’m in!

  21. I’m in! There are a few leeches I have been meaning to deal with for ages, this is just the right opportunity.

  22. I’m in! My goal is to memorize how to read *and* write through HSK3 including traditional variants. (I can already kinda read most of HSK1/2 simplified.)

  23. I signed up on the group on skritter (as CC) – do I also need to sign up here to be officially signed up?

    1. To be a part of the challenge, yes! I assume that since you ask this, you want to join the challenge, so I’ve added your name to the list! Will send out an e-mail later.

  24. You might be a native speaker if… “You have no idea how to write characters like 尴尬 (T: 尷尬)” :)

  25. I’m in! Going to China for the first time this summer, have been studying Chinese for nearly four years, it’s about time!
    I guess my goal would be to spend more time on individual components for failed characters. Using SRS makes it easy to just skip them and work on the next one.

  26. Count me in! I’ve been in need of something to stop my procrastination. Great idea!

  27. OK I’m in. I’ve been having trouble thinking about a goal, but I’ll work it out later.

    1. A goal is good to have, but not essential in the short run as long as you’re actively using SRS. You could try to set up a short term goal, like how many characters you should get through in January. I’d aim somewhat low and then increase next month if everything works out alright.

    1. I think it’s really cool that people sign up to learn Japanese. You’re the first to sign up for both languages, though. :)

  28. Hi Olle,

    You have already an impressive list.
    How can we miss out on such an opportunity, to increase and
    boost our learning.
    So you can count me in.
    It’s a great idea to get us all going, and it’ll payoff in the end.
    All will certainly benefit from it.


  29. I’m a (laowai) Chinese language teacher and I’m considering joining your excellent challenge. A question: I already have a Skritter account that has been expired for quite awhile. Will the discount still apply if I pay to continue with my old account and user name?

    1. Hi! Cool to have more teachers on the challenge! I’m quite sure that the discount is only available if you register a new account, sorry. :(

  30. Hi Olle, I’m in also. I have found many useful tips and info on your website, and this is the best so far. I have been using most of these techniques already, but in a haphazard manner. I can recognize characters if I’m reading a dialog previously studied but not nearly as well in a different context and it is very frustrating. I’m looking forward to increasing my vocab and memory. :)

    1. I interpret this as a statement that you’re in rather than just a general comment to say that you agree with what I say. :) You’re now on the list!

  31. Sign me up.

    I am a (non-Chinese) Chinese teacher in the US. In the past I have worked hard on writing, but not so much in recent years. I am planning to attend a Chinese MA program starting soon in which I will be using Chinese most of the time. Thus, this challenge is timely for me.

  32. Count me in! Forgetting how to write frequently used characters (that I really shouldn’t be forgetting!) is one of my biggest challenges with Chinese, so I’m keen to give this a try. Thanks Olle.

  33. You can count me in as well. I’ve been looking for a way to reduce my cheating rate in Anki, and I think this might do it.

    In the short term, I’ve got a bunch of hanzi that I supposedly “know”, but I’ve started being ruthless and it’s not a pretty sight. In the medium and long term, I want to seriously expand my vocabulary, and this should form a better system for locking down vocabulary.

    1. I’m using Anki and I cheated too much on the handwriting as well, which is partly why I’m now using Skritter for this (I’m still using Anki for everything else). Welcome to the challenge!

  34. Count me in :) I have already benefited greatly from your articles and memrise. I learned to recall 600 simplified characters at about a 75% to 85% accuracy after about two to three months of study. I currently use the vocabulary to learn sentences more easily with Assimil Chinese with ease books and Fluentu curated videos. I want to be able to read Manghua ( which is mostly written using traditional characters ). Writing is more challenging to me because I have a slight tremor. It is necessary for me to press harder and to write more slowly. Note taking in my native American english has always been more challenging for me. Also, it is necessary for me to spend much time studying other things for my work. Olle, I want to thank you so much for spending the time to think critically about how to learn Chinese language and then graciously and articulately sharing your wisdom with us :)

    1. You’re on the list, welcome tot he challenge! It takes much more time to manage this challenge than I thought, but I think it’s worth it.

  35. Count me in too! And thanks for the absolutely great blog. By way of intro, I have been learning for years (more than 12!) but have never fully got the writing down properly although I can recognize thousands of characters. It has always bugged me.

    It case it helps anyone taking the challenge (even with sensible use of mnemonics learning characters is still hard work – but worth it!) I think learning to write properly longhand is currently massively undervalued by almost all foreign learners who think they are experienced in Chinese as a second language, who think writing free hand (no computer) is not really important anymore.

    After years of study and thought, I am now sure that the conventional wisdom is just plain wrong, unless you are going to be happy forever with only a high intermediate/low advanced level (depending on how you define it). I know because that is the level I am trying so dismally to fully break out from. I probably know about 20,000 words in terms of recognition. BUT I think the only way to thoroughly know the language comes from being able to write long hand.

    I can tackle most texts without that much problem, however a more complete understanding makes a significant difference to detailed comprehension and, crucially, reading speed. Unless very fluid reading is developed of reasonably challenging material (not just the typical day to day low level boring stuff), much of the more interesting information and knowledge we may want to get our hands on is effectively denied to us, because otherwise it is just too slow! This is my present challenge. I am sure that writing free hand is key to soldering the language deep into the brain and fully delivering this skill.

    Also, I think the writing skill is more than just about knowing characters and improving reading of just words. The second key thing for me is that the only practical way for a foreign learner to fully consolidate use of grammar and the do’s and don’ts of Chinese accurately is by writing frequently. This is because writing can be easily discussed/checked with friend’s/tutors etc. It is the only effective way to properly learn sentence structures as an adult foreigner, because Chinese people do not correct for most errors we make when we speak – it is far too boring for them! Lets be honest, even our teachers get bored of our mistakes when we speak! On paper everyone is forced to focus on why what we said was not quite right. Normally we don’t realise where we have gone wrong.

    If there is one trend about learning Chinese that I am sure is true it is that foreign speakers typically massively overate their own ability after the intermediate stage (even people with many years experience). This is ok up to a point – it is part of learning, but the problem is when frequent errors are not eventually realised and corrected. Writing things down is the way to get this done, and if you are going to bother at all long hand is the way to go.

    Finally, being able to write in Chinese properly is very cool ;-).

    On a personal note, if I don’t crack the writing this time it might mean I never do, because other drains on my time are so intense, and they only get worse with each passing year! So any help to keep me motivated(and I’m more than happy offer mutual support!) will be much appreciated.

    1. Well, it certainly looks like you need to try something new. Have you tried Skritter? One thing I think is valuable with Skritter is that it’s actually quite fun. Perhaps that’s because I still think writing pads and touch screens are cool, but I don’t really care as long as it makes me more motivated. I have spent more time writing characters recently mainly because of Skritter and chis challenge. Good luck!

    2. “I can tackle most texts without that much problem, however a more complete understanding makes a significant difference to detailed comprehension and, crucially, reading speed. Unless very fluid reading is developed of reasonably challenging material (not just the typical day to day low level boring stuff), much of the more interesting information and knowledge we may want to get our hands on is effectively denied to us, because otherwise it is just too slow!”

      What you do mean by “reasonably challenging material” and “day to day low level boring stuff”?

      I’m a lot like you in that I recognize thousands of characters, but my hand-writing skills are utterly pathetic. However, I feel that I can read the stuff that is of greatest interest to me (mostly wuxia novels, though also manhua and other fiction) at a reasonable speed, let’s say about 90% of the speed I could read the equivalent text in English – and boosting my reading speed that last 10%, in my opinion, would not make much difference. Of course, you may consider manhua and wuxia novels to be ‘day to day boring stuff’ and you might be most interested in treatises on Chinese traditional medicine or something.

      1. By “typical day to day” stuff I simply meant ordinary day to day communications with other people, email ,text, reading menus, instructions etc. It is very important, and of most practical use, but only in an immediate utilitarian sense.

        When it comes to getting the most out of the language obviously everything depends on what we learnt it for and this will vary from person to person. Reading novels, or any fiction written in modern baihua, is not generally too hard (at least if I’m used to the author). I’m however most interested in reading non-fiction, such as biographies, history etc, where huge amounts of material are simply not available in English at all and often subjects or people are dealt with where even fairly well read westerners generally do not have much knowledge. These kind of books are often written in a much denser way than fiction and understanding in detail is usually much more of a challenge. Of course this depends what material you are used to, but this is at least what I have found.

        1. I have also found that to be true about fiction vs. non-fiction, at least in many cases. For example, anybody who thinks that Jin Yong’s fiction is super-hard to read has not encountered his non-fiction (I’m excluding stuff he wrote in a less-formal style).

  36. Hi, my name is Kai, and I’m a roteoholic. I’d like to join! I fell off the Skritter wagon a year ago and have been trying to get back on, but keep getting stuck at one or two thousand items to review. Haven’t learned new characters in ages.

    Sometimes I think Skritter has enabled me to try to apply some of the dumbest ideas for learning characters: frequency lists, classical poems, learning obscure components… I’m left with a grab bag of characters and words, many of which seem pretty useless and hard to learn except by rote or mnemonic tricks. Also I’ve been using the iPad, which is so convenient, but means I have lost a lot of the nice context information I was using on the Skritter web site with a PC: example sentences, detailed component breakdowns, other words using same character, … and tabs open on, MDBG, Chinese Etymology, etc.

    So maybe this challenge can help me progress, thank you for setting it up!

    1. Welcome to the challenge! I’ve actually only used the browser version and I really love the fact that it displays components automatically on the side because it makes it so natural to review them as well. That gives context, along with example sentences and mnemonics.

  37. I’m in too! Thank you for providing this. They don’t offer Chinese at my college, but I’ve been studying it for a few months. I’m looking forward to seeing this! Please include me on the list.

  38. Im in, great with a collective effort, and the idea of quiting rote learning seems sound to me. Thats Bjørn Schwartz at my goal is to Hsk 3 this year, and in the long run to be able to read and write in chinese at university level.
    Im already using Skritter, can I still get the 33 procent discount?
    All the best
    Bjørn aka 黑 熊

  39. Sign me up boiiii!!!! Thanks Yangyang for posting this on yoyo Chinese Facebook page!!! Thank you Ollie for kick starting this, I have signed up to skritter and added the discount code 😉

  40. Count me in, please. Guess you can see my address without me posting it?
    Kudos for this, btw

  41. Hi, you can remove me from the list. I don’t feel really involved in this challenge. I think it’s because I’m not on Skritter, but Skritter is not the kind of program I’m looking to get involved with long term, so I’m not going to switch just for this challenge. I think I’ll do this one solo. I’ll email my accountability partners and hopefully you can set them up with new partners, though they are still free to email me throughout the challenge, as it’s nice to share learning experiences.

    I’m still planning to go at full pace with RTK as I have been. I just don’t feel the need to be listed in this challenge and follow what’s going on with the challenge.

    加油! Add oil, everyone! Still wishing everyone the best in their studies!

    1. Hi! In fact, most participants are not using Skritter, so I don’t really see why that should be a problem. However, I will still remove you if you want to be removed, of course.

  42. Hey Ollie,

    Studying to Teach Chinese as a Foreign Language in 上大, super interested in your approach, have actually been researching Western students’ acquisition of characters for my thesis :)

    Count me in-zo!


    1. You’re in! Please tell me more about your research. I’m most likely to do my thesis in phonology/pronunciation, but I’m (obviously) interested in characters as well. :)

  43. Hey Ollie,

    Saw that one pass on twitter, and then again on Ilearn Mandarin. Is it too late to join?

    I’ve been doing lots of reading and translating on Marco Polo Project, but my character knowledge is still just a (growing) fuzzy cloud – this should really help me build up a solid base.

    Good initiative – I look forward to joining (hoping it’s not too late :-))!

    1. Hi Julien,

      I just talked to Jake and he mentioned you! The challenge will remain open as long as people are interested (which probably means forever). As long as it doesn’t take too much time to manage, which it doesn’t at the moment. I’ve put you on the list, welcome!


  44. Hey Olle,

    great idea! I started to use Skritter about a month ago but

    1) I was going pretty random with the decks of characters

    2) I was in Italy and wasn’t pay too much attention to Chinese

    Now I’m thinking to go through the HSK decks in order to have a clear goal.

    Anyway, since you kept the challenge opened I would like to join it. I hope it can gives me some additional motivation : )

    Let me know when I’m in so that I can figure out how to share my progresses on Skritter!


    p.s. I used your affiliate link to subscribe but, since I already had an account, I’m not sure whether it worked or not.

    Actually I don’t think so because I paid the full price.

    1. Hi Furio, great to have you with us in the challenge! I have added you to the list. If you write something about it on your blog, don’t forget to tell me and I will retweet. Regarding the affiliate link, you need to use the code when you sign up, I’m afraid.

      1. Hey,

        I will write a post as soon as I understand which are the main benefits of the method for me. Will let you know ; )

  45. I’m coming to Shi Da in March and have never really tried writting before although am fairly confidant with HSk3 reading lists on Anki. This will force me to begin writting and skritter is a fun introduction to this. Count me in. P.s, it’s amazing how many characters I can read but when it comes to writting it I can’t even get one stroke correct. This shall change. It highlights the difference between the different memory systems involved in learning. I love mnemonics and this will hopefully rekindle my use of them (I used them to learn every country and capital although my memory palace is crumbling and now a ruin. Sorry for the discourse. I look forward to your email.

        1. Great! I’m planning some kind of meet-up fairly soon. I’m not sure if you’ll get here in time, but we can always arrange more than one. :)

  46. Hi Olle,

    I’ve been lurking on your blog for a while now, and have found a lot of value in your posts. Failing a review and not bothering to deal with it actively is certainly something I’m guilty of sometimes! Please count me in to the challenge.


  47. I’m interested in joining the challenge. Looking forward to see how it works…

    1. Hi and welcome to the challenge! Most of the information is already present in the article, but I will send an extra e-mail soon.

  48. Just discovered this website today! I’d like to join the challenge if it’s still open.

  49. A friend’s been helping me learn the language, and I’ve been tryin to get more into learning the characters on my own. I just saw the challenge today I’ve decided to do it.

  50. Count me in please! I’ve just taken the HSK 2 and plan to attend level 3 in December. I guess I have already been creating my own mnemonics instinctively, by looking up the parts of a Hanzi that I find difficult, and creating a picture or little story that links the parts to the whole. But I have never done it systematically with difficult Hanzi, only when I had the time/felt like it.

  51. Olle,

    In concept this writing challenge is a fantastic idea. A great way at getting students motivated to become literate.

    Above you mention: “However, it doesn’t really matter what program you use and the challenge doesn’t rely on your using any specific kind of software. I won’t include information about exactly how to use any program, but most of them are good enough for this challenge. If you don’t like Skritter, I suggest you use Anki) instead. Other alternatives include Pleco and Memrise.”

    In addition to the ones mentioned here, perhaps students will find nommoc ( useful.

    1) It is an excellent app for learning to write Chinese characters
    2) It is very economically priced

    In the future we would love to be more involved in writing activities like this one. Please let us know how we can join in.

    All the best.

  52. Olle,

    1) I’m in.
    2) Commit Publicly: Done, tweeted.
    3) Goal: write 100 Chinese characters every day
    4) Introduction: I have studied Chinese formally by attending Chinese classes and informally by many means such as watching TV, making Chinese friends, etc. Now working hard at learning how to write Chinese and help raise awareness on “expat illiteracy” in China.


  53. I’m in. I want learn 500 new characters, words and phrases (esp. chengyu) by the end of June.

  54. Hi, can I still join the character challenge? I don’t really need to learn characters for school or work, but I do live in China and would like to improve my Chinese reading and writing ability, so if it’s not too late, I guess I’d like to try!

  55. Great, thanks! One question, though: I looked at the Skritter link, but there was nowhere to enter the code to get the longer free trial. Is that offer still open also?

    1. Did you follow the instructions?

      “You have to use the coupon code when you register! Click “alternative payment methods” and enter the coupon code.”

  56. I did see the instructions, but I didn’t know to click “alternative payment methods.” I’ll try it, thanks.

  57. Is this any good for beginners. I speak a ittle but am keem to learn more!

    1. The challenge is now officially closed. You are of course free to follow the principles of the challenge on your own and this is something I think is very useful for beginners as well!

  58. Can I get in on the challenge?? Please, please, pretty please???!!!

    1. The challenge is unfortunately closed and will remain closed for the foreseeable future. Of course, you can still follow the principles of the challenge on your own!

  59. Let me know if you open the membership opportunity again. I would love to join!! Happy Christmas…Sheng dan kuai le (Ye dan kuai le!!) Jim Gu Jin Mu (Ancient Gold Tree) is my Chinese name given a few years ago by a colleague that was impressed that I was trying to learn (on my own) Hangzi characters.

    1. There will probably be something new fairly soon, most likely in February. Just subscribe in some way (here, Twitter, Facebook etc.) and you will receive the information!

      1. I missed out on the last one (my bad) but now I’m taking Chinese in school and I think trying out this character challenge would be an awesome complement. Can’t wait for the next set of sign-ups.

  60. 我也想要将来有一天我能用手写出5000个字。请你有新的challenge,就告诉我吧!



  61. My own focus over the last few months has been memorizing the “thousand character essay.”

    All one thousand characters are unique so it has one thousand characters.

    For me the most interesting part of learning Chinese is the characters, and it’s part of the reason I moved to Taiwan, because I love doing calligraphy.

    I’ve found that so far memorization is easier if I break the poem into elements (each stanza is 8 characters.) and I’ve taken a tip from tim Ferris, and memorized a series of routes, with sixteen locations in each route. I use some sort of mnemonic to associated the first or second character in a stanza to a location on the route.

    When I practice writing the poem, (I’m focusing on grass style characters right now, but I’ll also be going back to the block style and also the seal style) I use four colors, changing the color for each stanza. This is to help me remember where I am in the poem.

    I’ve made a version of the poem for my kindle, and I’ve also included indexes with the characters sorted alphabetically by sound. I often use this index to see if I can remember the context for the character, and also to see if I can remember the caoshu form of the character out of context.

    Also I’ve created several indexes. One divides the poem into quarters with each part of the index containing 250 characters (or there abouts), another contains the first 250, then the first 500, then the first 750 etc.

    Also, I’ve been using Lean pub to made pdfs (and mobi’s and epub files) so for anyone looking for an alternative way to print out files, it may be a useful resource.

  62. In case anyone is still subscribing to the comments of this post, I would just like to let you know that there is a new challenge approaching. It will start on March 22nd, but the first post is already out. You can read it here!

  63. I would like to join the challenge! I just started learning Chinese last week, so I am starting right at the beginning!

  64. I would love to join the challenge. I have just started learning Chinese. Please sign me up.

  65. This article is a total breath of fresh air to someone who hit the wall with SRS and needed motivation. I want to hit 2,000 readable characters over the next three months, and will be enlisting Skritter in making that happen. Sign me up! :)

    1. This challenge is over a year old and the current one is almost over (just eight days left)! However, you can of course run your own challenge, keep ups updated. :) There will be more challenges coming up soon, but since I just ran a character challenge, there probably won’t be more character-related challenges this year.

Comments are closed.