How focusing on intent can help you learn Chinese characters

When learning to write Chinese characters, we need to remember that what we have in mind and what we actually write aren’t necessarily the same thing. In other words, what we intend to write isn’t always what comes out. The difference is important. The goal of learning to write is mostly concerned with intent; you want to create a mental model of the language that resembles that of a native speaker. You might not be able to write a character perfectly every time, but that matters little if your intent is correct. With enough practice, you’ll be fine.

Posted ImageThis idea of focusing on intent has been mentioned on Hacking Chinese earlier, in a guest article by Harvey Dam (Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements). He adds another valuable observation that shows how important intent is. If you want to write the character 月, it will come out slightly different every time, even with a perfect mental image of the character. Some strokes will be too long, others too short and so on. This is natural. However, if you have the correct mental representation, you will never write the character shown on the right.

More about intent, result, mistakes and errors

The difference between intent and result can cause problems, though, because other people can’t look into your head and know what you intended to write, they can only inspect the final result. This includes teachers. If they see the incorrect 月 above, they can be pretty sure you don’t know how to write the character, but if you accidentally forget to hook the last stroke, that’s not necessarily because you didn’t know it was supposed to be hooked. To be on the safe side, teachers will treat all mistakes as errors and correct them the same way.

What’s the difference between a mistake and an error?

I have discussed mistakes and errors before (Four different kinds of mistakes: Problem analysis), but let’s look at the basic difference again:

  • A mistakes is an unintentional slip. You know the right way of saying or writing something, but for some reason  you failed to get it right this time. You would very likely be able to correct yourself if you got the opportunity, such as if you listen to yourself or read something you have written. Typos and slips of the tongue are typical mistakes. Native speakers make mistakes all the time. For some reason, second language learners feel much worse about slips than native speakers do.
  • An error is caused by a problem in the mental model of the language you’re speaking. You think something is correct, you intend to say or write it that way, but it turns out that you’re wrong. This is much more serious, because it means you will keep on getting this wrong every time until you correct your mental model. Native speakers have very few errors. Improving your speaking and writing for second language learners is mostly about finding and correcting errors.

thoughtHow does this relate to intent? It’s very straightforward: intent is directly related to your mental model (that’s what it’s based on). If your intent is correct, you might still make a mistake, but there will be no errors in your output.With practice, the number of mistakes will drop. If your intent in incorrect, you will only be able to get it right in cases where your faulty model overlaps the real one. The larger the overlap, the harder the error is to spot.

How not to learn to write Chinese characters

One of the most obvious areas of application is character writing. The first lesson and most important lesson is that you have to know what you intend to write before you write. Here are a couple of very common ways of practising characters that don’t allow you to monitor your intent properly:

  • Copying characters on paper stroke by stroke – This is very bad. If you don’t have a mental model, it will take ages for it to form because you never actively rely on it to write, you just copy mechanically. You never check if you actually know the character or not, the representation of the character blocks your mental model. This method is also bad because it’s been shown that actively probing memory is much more effective than just exposing yourself to the information. Flashcards are good, in other words.
  • Typing characters rather than writing them by hand – Most input methods are phonetic, meaning that you type the pronunciation of the character or word you want to write. This means that you don’t even need to think about what the character looks like and how it’s structured before it pops up as an alternative on your screen. Typing is therefore a poor way of learning to write characters (but still very practical, of course). Since most input methods help you choose not only characters but entire words or phrases, you need to know even less about small but significant differences between characters.
  • Receiving too much help – Any program or method that offers hints to the user also makes it harder to monitor your intent. If you use a program like Skritter, make sure you have raw squigs turned on, which allows you to write the entire character before you get any corrective feedback. In other programs, turn off any character tracing functions and only check your result once you have finished writing the entire character.

Below, I’m going to provide a solution to the problem, but in case you want to read more about different ways of learning to write characters, I have written two articles you will find interesting:

How focusing on intent can help you learn Chinese characters

The main goal of this article is to highlight the importance of what you intend to write before you receive any kind of feedback. Since this problem is purely in the mental domain and not directly related to what tools you use, you can take care of the problem literally without lifting a finger.

Simply visualise the whole character, component by component (or stroke by stroke) before you start writing it. If you can’t do this, you probably don’t know the character. If you tried to write it down on a piece of paper, you’ll probably get stuck. Naturally, you should be aware of the risk of cheating (intentionally or otherwise). If you want to make really sure you know a character, you have to actually write it down on a blank paper with no corrective feedback at all. You don’t need to do this all the time, but occasionally writing by hand is a good reality-check, regardless of what other tools you’re using.

Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements

This article about handwriting Chinese characters is written by Harvey Dam, currently enrolled in the World Language master’s degree program at the University of Utah. He’s a prolific poster on Chinese Forums (user name Hofmann), which is where this text was originally published as a series of blog posts. It is published here with permission of the author. I wanted to publish this article here on Hacking Chinese because I think it contains unique and useful material. I find it particularly useful because it focuses on actual handwriting and contains lots of real examples with scanned handwriting samples rather than typed characters. The “minimum requirements” in the title doesn’t mean that all students of Chinese need to know everything here, but if you care about handwriting, you probably should.


Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements – Part 1

This post is meant to provide a clear-cut standard for beginners regarding Chinese handwriting using common hard-tipped writing instruments like pencils and pens, focusing on regular script (楷書). This is necessary because commonly available materials provide inaccurate information or stray too far into aesthetics too early, while neglecting the basics. My goal here is not to get you to write well, but to write correctly. The examples I show are made with a pencil, only caring to ensure that things are correct where they should be, with no attention paid to aesthetics.

First, some axioms.

  • Writing is a form of communication through symbols. Recognition of these symbols without distraction requires them to adhere to certain rules. These rules are called 書法, “writing rules.”
  • Characters in regular script are recognized based on the length, direction, and placement of strokes. Stroke thickness is not essential. Therefore, regular script can be written correctly with a monoline writing instrument. However, an atypical scheme of line thickness variation that becomes distracting is still wrong.

With that, your goal when writing (regardless of writing instrument) should be to communicate without distraction. The most common potential distraction when writing is producing wrong characters. In general, writing something that has not been commonly employed in exemplary pieces of writing for that particular morpheme will probably result in a wrong character. More concretely, the difference between a right and wrong character can depend on:

Substitution of one character for another, e.g.

Posted Image …instead of… Posted Image

Substitution of one component for another, e.g.

Posted Image …for… Posted Image

Absence of a required stroke (which may result in a substitution), e.g.

Posted Image …for… Posted Image.

An extra stroke, e.g.

Posted Image …for… Posted Image.

Stroke placement is incorrect, e.g.

Posted Image …for… Posted Image.

Substitution of one type of stroke for another, e.g.

Posted Image …for… Posted Image.

Width relationship of certain strokes are incorrect, e.g.

Posted Image …for… Posted Image

Height relationship of certain strokes are incorrect, e.g.

Posted Image …for… Posted Image

Width relationship of certain components are incorrect, e.g.

Posted Image  …for… Posted Image

An opening where there should be none, e.g.

Posted Image …for… Posted Image

Lack of an opening where there should be one, e.g.

Posted Image …for… Posted Image

Visibly incorrect stroke order, e.g.

Posted Image …for… Posted Image

I think that about covers it. The first piece of homework you have to do, then, is to learn to recognize and reproduce the basic strokes of regular script. They are most reliably recognized by their orientation and curvature. The number of different strokes varies depending on how you count. I only include those which I think differ significantly in technique.

A horizontal stroke, commonly called 橫, is written from left to right. It can be truly horizontal or tilted up at the right a bit. It rare cases it can be tilted down, but not doing so in such a case will not make the difference between a right and wrong character. It may bow up (most commonly) or down in the middle, but not extremely. If you vary the thickness, it must be thick on both ends.

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A vertical stroke, commonly called 豎, is written from top to bottom. It must not curve. In most cases it should be ideally truly vertical. In some cases such as in the second stroke of 五 it can slant and still be a vertical stroke as long as it does not curve. When written with line width variation, both ends are usually thick, although in some cases it can end in a point, and sometimes it must end in a point.

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A positive-sloped stroke, commonly called 撇, is written from the upper right to the lower left. Lengths and curvatures of these strokes vary greatly. It usually bows down in the middle. In rare cases it must either be completely straight or bow up, such as the second stroke of 為 (examples). If you vary thickness, in most cases it must start thick and end thin. In some cases, such as in the third stroke of 鹿, it may start with a point, however not doing so will not result in a wrong character.

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Dots, commonly called 點, are short strokes going in some downward direction, written from the top. When writing with varying line thickness, start with a point and increase thickness until the end.

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The dot to the right can be lengthened using the same technique, resulting in a straight or upwards-bowing negative slope stroke, called 長點 or 反捺.

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A negative slope stroke that bows down in the middle is called 捺. At the top, if it is closer to horizontal, there is initially a rightward motion. If it is steeper, it starts directly in the downward bow. If it starts in the middle of another stroke, it starts with a point. If not, it likely must start thick, as in the last stroke of 之 (examples).

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A stroke that is written from the bottom left to the upper right, and tilts up more than a horizontal stroke, is called 提. These are never the last stroke of a character. They start thick and end thin.

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A round curve of about 90 degrees is called 彎. They are usually a transition between a vertical and horizontal stroke.

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Hooks, called 鉤, are short attachments to major strokes. Most of them are very straightforward. On horizontal strokes, hooks can only go down. On vertical strokes, hooks can only go left.

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One stroke only occurs with a hook. I don’t know what it’s called, but it occurs in the last stroke of 子 and the second stroke of 狗. It is rather vertical but bows to the right, starting thin and ending thick (where the hook starts, which ends thin again).

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Hooks attached to rather steep 捺 are likely called 斜鉤. However, there are steep 捺 where you must not hook, as in the 4th to last stroke of 國 (example). The hook should point straight up or slightly to the right, even if the next stroke occurs left of it, except in 心 and 必, where it should point left.

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Corners are the end of one stroke and the beginning of another. Corners can be correctly made by lifting your writing instrument up and starting a stroke that covers the end of the previous stroke. However, if at the end of one stroke you feel that you are prepared to start another, then go ahead and connect them. Note that stroke counts for dictionary classification are made assuming cornered strokes are connected into one where possible. Therefore, while I would write 幺 in 5 separate strokes, a dictionary would say it has 3 strokes.

Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements – Part 2

Now that you can identify and reproduce all strokes in regular script, it’s time to learn to use them correctly. When looking at an example character, observe the writer’s intent regarding:

  • What kind of stroke is employed.
  • In relation to other strokes and components,
    • Where it starts
    • What it passes through
    • Where it ends
  • In what order it’s written

A note about stroke order: the tl;dr about it is to memorize this list and use Japanese standard stroke order references like this in order to produce correct stroke orders. For more details, read this.

Now I will elaborate a bit about intent. When you try to write 10 of the same character the same way, they will all be different because of human imprecision, although you have the same target character in your mind. The character in your mind is a grapheme (underlying form), and what is written is the surface form. By observing multiple surface forms, you will get a better idea of what the grapheme must be. For example, observe the 1st and 2nd strokes of the many examples of 月 here. In most examples, both of them touch to form a corner. In some examples, they don’t touch or almost touch. In even fewer examples, they pass through each other. By observing these examples, one should conclude that they should be ideally touching to form a corner, although if you write 10 of them, and 2 of them look like this:

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…and one of them looks like this:

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that’s OK. However, no amount of technical deficiency would produce something like this:

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Therefore, when writing Chinese characters, it is necessary for your intent to be correct, even if your rendition in some instances is not.

Now let’s practice our observational techniques on another character. Look at 大 here. Only look at regular script examples. Here is what I see stroke by stroke:

  • In all examples, the first stroke is a 一. I conclude this is the rule.
  • In all examples, the second stroke is a 丿 that begins somewhere obviously above the first stroke, centered on it, and passes through it, ending either under the beginning of the first stroke or obviously to the left. In most examples it is obviously to the left. I conclude that ideally it is obviously to the left, although not quite getting there is OK.
  • In all examples, the third stroke is a ㇏ beginning at the intersection of the first and second strokes, end extends well past the end of the first stroke, at around the same height as the second stroke. I conclude this is the rule.

Now I try to reproduce it.

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  • The first stroke is a 一.
  • The second stroke is a 丿 that begins somewhere obviously above the first stroke, centered on it, and passes through it, ending either under the beginning of the first stroke or obviously to the left.
  • The third stroke is a ㇏ beginning at the intersection of the first and second strokes, end extends well past the end of the first stroke, at around the same height as the second stroke.

If I break the last rule one way or another:

Posted ImagePosted Image
…I will produce wrong characters. On the left I wrote the first stroke too long and/or the last stroke too short. On the right I replaced the last stroke with a 丶, which was in none of the regular script examples.

Now that you know how to write 大, you can use it to learn other characters that contain it, like 天 or 太. Let’s look at 太 here.

  • The majority is written like 大. Since you know that already, there is no need to relearn.
  • There is a 丶 placed between the 2nd and 3rd strokes. Most examples place it directly under the intersection (and not halfway between the 2nd and 3rd strokes).

More on that last point, observe this. The dot is placed under the intersection. If it were halfway between the 2nd and 3rd strokes, it would be to the right of the intersection. Technical imprecision can produce a dot that goes anywhere in the area between the 2nd and 3rd strokes, but most examples seem to aim directly under the intersection. Also, some learners who are used to looking at modern typefaces will likely have a grapheme in their heads with the dot attached to the 2nd stroke, even if it ends up left of the intersection. This is because modern Chinese regular script typefaces render it so. Here is DFKai-SB:

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Compare with a Japanese typeface Epson 正楷書体M:

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Although technical imprecision could cause someone meaning to put it under the intersection to attach it to the 2nd stroke, an intent to do so is inaccurate. One can avoid this by always using good examples. Unfortunately, the best examples are rarely presented to beginners. The tl;dr about good examples is go to a 書法字典 like 9610.com, search for what you want (in Simplified Chinese), and prioritize 歐陽詢, 顏真卿, and 柳公權, being careful not to learn a wrong character because they are misclassified. This might seem like a lot of work, but if you do it, you will find that you will only need to look up simple characters, as complex characters are made of simple components. Furthermore, it isn’t much additional work if you are learning characters, as observing example characters in detail only strengthens your character memory.

Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements – Part 3

In part 2 I introduced to you some things you should look for when observing example characters. To review, they are

  • What kind of stroke is employed.
  • In relation to other strokes and components,
    • Where it starts
    • What it passes through
    • Where it ends
  • In what order it’s written

Now we will do some further exercises in observing examples such that good graphemes make it into you head.

First, let’s do one exercise regarding length of horizontal strokes. Do you know how to write 三? If you’re like most people you probably think the first stroke is longer than the second. Look at these. You should see that they are actually pretty much the same length. If there is any significant difference, then the second stroke is longer. But most importantly, the third stroke is still much longer than the first two. And so here I give you a rule about regular script: In any one character there can be no more than one thing that extends far to the right, and if it’s a horizontal stroke, it likely starts on the far left, spanning the whole character. Everything else should usually be much narrower. Therefore, when a character has many uncontained horizontal strokes (i.e. not in 目 or something), pay attention to which one is longest. It will be much longer than the others. Let’s examine this in a few more characters.

A close call is not acceptable:
Posted ImagePosted Image

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The difference between the longest horizontal stroke and the others must be obvious:
Posted ImagePosted Image

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(Verify on 9610.com: , , , .)

And remember, use good examples to make sure the long horizontal stroke is the right one.
華 ←What does that look like to you? Does it look like any of these? Or is it more like this?

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If that looks wrong to you, then you’re in good shape, because it should be like this:

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Now, remember that the rule says “in any one character there can be no more than one thing that extends far to the right.” This thing doesn’t have to be a horizontal stroke. It can be a ㇏ or any hook to the upper right, like ㇂ (or 乚). In any character there will be at most one of ㇏ or ㇂ or 乚 or long horizontal strokes. This rule has a name in Chinese: 一字不二捺. You should remember from before that 捺 refers to ㇏, but in this context, it refers to all of ㇏, ㇂, 乚, and long horizontal strokes. If you find yourself writing ㇏ or ㇂ or 乚 and it isn’t the rightmost thing in a character, you’re probably doing something wrong.

Observe the following wrong characters:

Posted ImagePosted ImagePosted Image

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林 contains two 木. You know that 木 ends with a ㇏ but if you write 林, the first one has to change to 丶. If not, two problems will arise: (1) there are more than one ㇏ and (2) there is a ㇏ that is not the rightmost thing of the character. In 疑 there is the ㇏ at the end, but many people like to write a hook on 匕, and if you don’t kill it in 疑, you’ll end up with both a 乚 and a ㇏. Remember that there can be at most one of these. 輝 has 光 on the left. 光 ends with 乚 when written alone, but because it isn’t the rightmost thing in the character, the hook must come off, which results in a bare horizontal end, and because there is more stuff to write to the upper right, this bare horizontal end becomes a ㇀. In 七 there are both a long horizontal stroke and a 乚. Furthermore, 乚 isn’t the rightmost thing. And you should remember 大 from Part 2. The problem in this context is that there are both a long horizontal stroke and a ㇏. Observe these characters corrected:

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Next, I will show you more rightward-extending things that can’t contend for rightwardness with anything else: components like 宀 and 皿.

Posted ImagePosted Image

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…the key word being “contend.” Notice 宀 being most rightward in 寶, but giving it up in 安 to the 一 in 女. In 孟, there is 子 and 皿, both having long horizontal strokes when written alone, but when written together 皿 dominates. In 盡 we have 聿+火+皿. 聿 and 皿 have long horizontal strokes when written alone, but in 盡, 聿 dominates.

Below I have written the 266 most common characters in Mandarin as further demonstration of this rule. I have circled the rightmost extender in each character if there is one. Sometimes the character doesn’t have one, such as when the rightmost thing is a vertical stroke, as in 個. There will be no ㇏, ㇂, 乚, or long horizontal strokes that do not have a red circle (except in 心), unless I have written incorrectly. A blue asterisk means that there are other correct ways of writing the character where a different stroke or component is extended to the right.

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Finally, I will show you some characters straight out of my computer that break this rule:

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This is DFKai-SB, or 標楷體, which exhibits the standard character forms of the Republic of China.

Quiz question: Do you know how to correct them?

Answer:

Posted ImagePosted Image
Posted ImagePosted Image


Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements – Part 4

Let’s start with a…

Warm up:
Kenny asks Eric how to write 春. Eric says “Write 三, then write 人 centered on that, then write 日 under that.” If Kenny follows Eric’s instructions exactly, will he write 春 correctly?

Answer:

Perhaps you have heard that mnemonic before, and while it might produce something that people can recognize, it will not be without distraction. Take a look:
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There you go. A 三 squished vertically but preserving the long 一, and then a 人 written directly onto that, and then 日 under that. And yes, 人 does start with a rather straight 丿 (source). I hope you see the problem here. There are both a long 一 and a ㇏. There is no problem with the 5th stroke starting above the 3rd stroke (source) although it is better if it doesn’t touch the 4th stroke. Now see this character corrected:
 
The major problem has been corrected. The 5th stroke ends far to the right of the 3rd stroke, as in all examples. It is more tempting than one might think to write that 3rd stroke long. Also, although not critical, the 4th stroke should start more steeply and curve more. I also start the 5th stroke from the 3rd stroke, as is more common.

Moving on. In this post I want to go over gut feeling. I hope over this series you’ve developed some. Here are some more weird things you might encounter that, like wrong width-relationships, should make you feel like something’s off.
One thing is the ㇀ (提) stroke, or rather misuse thereof. This stroke usually comes into being as a modification of some other stroke, usually to ease transition into starting the next stroke. Think of all the ㇀ in the characters you know. Likely there is something following it to the upper right. This is also why ㇀ is never the last stroke of a character. If you find yourself writing ㇀ as the last stroke of a character, then there are two possibilities:

  • It should actually be some other stroke, this stroke being what became ㇀.
  • You have written in the wrong stroke order.

As an illustration of number 1, here are a few characters in DFKai-SB:
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In 羽, there should only be one ㇀: the 3rd stroke. This is only a ㇀ to ease transition to the next stroke that begins to the upper right. The last stroke should be a 丶 just like the 5th stroke. To make it ㇀ would point it at nothing. In 將, the 8th stroke should also be 丶 because the next stroke starts below it. There is nothing right of it to write. Observe these characters written correctly in Epson 正楷書体M:
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This is also the case with the ice radical 冫 as in 冷. The underlying form should just be two 丶, one on top of the other. However, because it is often followed by something to the upper right, the bottom 丶 becomes ㇀. This leads to such hypercorrections as:
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That would be Adobe 明體 Std L. Observe this corrected:

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As for number 2, let’s say you think the stroke order of 耳 is 一 丨 丨 一 一 一, and let’s say you look through examples of 聞 because you can’t find any 耳 in regular script, and it seems to end with ㇀. You feel like something’s wrong here. Actually 2 things: (1) the stroke order is wrong and (2) you probably extended the wrong horizontal stroke. Here I give you Epson 正楷書体M:
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…and here is 耳 correctly written with stroke order from black to red:
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And as you can see, the last stroke is actually 丨. Enough about ㇀.

Next, a bit about 又. This is very a common character building block. In many typefaces you’ll see the 2nd stroke starting where the 1st stroke started, forming a corner:
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If your gut feeling has developed sufficiently, you’ll find it quite awkward to do so, i.e. to write such a long 一 before turning a corner into a 丿. That is because all of these instances are short, e.g. in 夕, or it’s actually a ㇀ like in 水, and so 又 written in this way is wrong. Let’s look at the etymology. You should see that this was a picture of a right hand, and likely the original character for 右. Look at the etymology for 右 and you should also see that it’s just 又 with 口 under it (which should also explain the stroke order of 丿一 for the tops of 右, 有, and 布), and finally look at examples of 又, and you should see that in all examples, even that first one that’s usually wrong, there is an opening in the upper left. And you should also notice that in anything that looks like 又, such as 攵 or 夂 or 夊, the last stroke doesn’t start at the beginning of the 一.
Next, I will talk about variants. The Chinese call these 異體字, although this term implies something nonstandard or unorthodox. I consider two characters variants if they differ in stroke type or placement. That means 太 with the dot attached to the 2nd stroke and 太 with the dot centered under the intersection are different variants. The ROC’s MOE variant dictionary doesn’t even differentiate them. And of course, not all variants are correct.

So, here you are, probably not too experienced with writing Chinese, faced with so many variants and big bad me, who can pick wrong characters out of computer fonts. What do you do? The short answer is: pick one way to write your entire vocabulary and stick with it. As for which variant to pick, pick the most popular among the best examples of regular script. Again, these are 歐陽詢, 顏真卿, 柳公權. Avoid obscure variants. They hinder communication among those who are not well read, or are distracting to those who are. Furthermore, if I see an obscure variant in your writing, and I also see wrong characters, that will not leave a good impression. And remember, only wrong learning and/or carelessness can produce wrong characters; technical deficiencies cannot produce wrong characters, as I illustrated in Part 2 using 月. Also, if you feel like there is a character that is just too awkward to write in its orthodox form, there is likely a common variant that is easier. Examples I can think of are 骨, 斷, 節, 乘, 夷, 皆, 鬼, 策..

However, if/when you get a feel for what is legal and what is not legal, you will find that there is quite a bit of freedom in Chinese writing, and it will feel easier than ever before.

Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements – Part 5

This is both a review and a quiz. There are no new ideas here.

1. What is 語, with 忄 in place of 言?

a. 誤
b. 吾
c. 情
d. 悟

2. Observe the characters and . Choose the incorrect character.

a. Posted Image b. Posted Image c. Posted Image

3. Observe the characters and . Choose the incorrect character.

a. Posted Image b. Posted Image

c. Posted Image d. Posted Image

4. Observe the characters , , and . Choose the incorrect character.

a. Posted Image b. Posted Image

c. Posted Image d. Posted Image

5. Choose the correct character.

a. Posted Image b. Posted Image

c. Posted Image d. Posted Image

6. Choose the correct character.

a. Posted Image b. Posted Image

c. Posted Image d. Posted Image

7. Observe the character . Choose the correct stroke order, from black to red.

a. Posted Image b. Posted Image c. Posted Image

Answer key:

1. d
2. c
3. a
4. a
5. a
6. b
7. a
 
If you want to discuss the contents of this article with the author or ask questions about the review questions, please do so in the thread created on Chinese Forums!

How to learn Chinese characters as a beginner

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Image source: ow.ly/r2sOf

I’ve been responsible for teaching the introduction part of the Chinese course at Linköping university for several years now and one of the most frequent questions asked by absolute beginners is how to study characters. Not what characters to study, what they mean or how they are used, but how to actually learn them. If you need to learn X number of characters by tomorrow, how do you do it?

Since this questions pops up so often, I will try to summarise my answer in this article. Hopefully it will be useful for beginners out there (and perhaps some intermediate learners as well). If intermediate or advanced learners have other useful tips, please leave a comment!

From drawing to writing

Before I go through the advice I have to offer one by one, I want to say a few words of encouragement. Learning Chinese characters is really hard in the beginning, simply because you have nothing to link the new information to.

After a while, your web of Chinese knowledge will expand and adding further to it will become easier and easier. Thus, if you feel that it’s difficult and frustrating at the moment, don’t worry, it will become easier soon. It might feel like you’re drawing pictures, but as your understanding of Chinese characters increases, you will be writing soon enough.

Learning Chinese characters as a beginner

Here are eight crucial lessons about learning to write Chinese characters, gained both through learning to write Chinese myself and through teaching beginners:

  • Study the character closely, including stroke order – Before you start to write, study the character you’re going to write carefully. How is it written? What does it look like? If your textbook or teacher didn’t provide you with information about stroke order,  you can check this website. If you haven’t installed Chinese input on your computer yet, you can write the character here, but it will be hard if you have no idea about how to write it.
  • Write it until you get the feel for the character – Once you know(in theory) how to write the character, write it until you can write the entire character without thinking too much. This is just to familiarise yourself with the hand motions involved and will help  improve your handwriting in general. This is very good for beginners, but not strictly speaking necessary for intermediate students. The number of times you need to write a character varies greatly depending on the complexity of the character.
  • Don’t copy characters stroke by stroke – Whenever you write characters, don’t copy them stroke by stroke. If you can remember the whole character at once, that’s very good, but if you can’t, break it down into its component parts and peek at the stroke order only between writing each component. Copying stroke by stroke is almost useless, because you’re not even trying to remember anything. Also, write the characters on a paper with squares of suitable size (a few centimetres). You can generate your own practice sheets with Hanzi Grids.
  • Once you know the character, don’t mass your repetitions – Even if you have learnt a character, you will obviously need to review it if you want to remember it later. Some people (including most native speakers) write the same character again and again, hoping that they can etch them into their minds. This works, but it’s very inefficient. Instead, you should space your repetitions and write other characters or do something else between repetitions. This is several times more efficient than writing the same character over and over. There are programs called spaced repetition software that help you space the reviews optimally and you can read more about them here. You don’t need to use a computer program, though, simply avoiding massing your repetitions is a good first step.
  • Practice pronunciation and meaning at the same time – If you’re writing characters, you might as well throw pronunciation and meaning in there as well. Write the pronunciation and meaning of the character next to it. If you’re sure how it’s supposed to be read, say it aloud. Otherwise, mimic the pronunciation here. Do not guess the pronunciation based on the letters used to spell it. Pinyin has several traps and pitfalls you need to be aware of as a beginner!
  • If you see a character component reappearing in different characters, look it up – It’s much more interesting to learn characters if you learn a little bit about them. You can use HanziCraft to break down characters for you. If you don’t know which components are important to learn, you can check this article: Kickstart your character learning with the 100 most common radicals. A general rule of thumb is that if you see a component three times in different contexts, you should probably learn what it means.
  • Diversify your character learning – You can do this in many different ways, but downloading a flashcard program for your phone, creating paper flashcards, pasting the characters all over your apartment and writing them on your hands are all good places to start. Studying isn’t only done in front of your desk. Diversifying your learning will vastly increase the time you can spend learning characters. Read more here: Diversified learning is smart learning.
  • Creating a powerful toolkit – I have written quite a lot about character learning here on Hacking Chinese. Some of the advice will be over the heads of absolute beginners, but if you want to read more, I suggest you start with my toolkit-series, where I introduce the concepts necessary to hack Chinese characters properly. The first article can be found here.

Further advice

The above advice should get you pretty far. If you want more resources for looking up characters (or anything else related to Chinese), I suggest that you read my article about suggested dictionaries (most of them online and free). However, don’t obsess about details and don’t try to look everything up. You will enter into a maze with no exit except the one you came in through. Realise that perfectionism can be an obstacle to progress.

Learning to write and read in Chinese takes quite a lot of time and effort, but it’s not as hard as it might seem at first. Sticking to the advice in this article will prevent you from making some of the more egregious mistakes. Learning thousands of characters will still take a long time, but hopefully this article will make the journey a bit easier. Good luck!