For people who aren’t learning Chinese, the question of how to improve handwriting doesn’t come up very often. Some people are interested in penmanship and calligraphy, but that’s beyond writing merely to communicate, more art than language.
For people who are learning Chinese, there are a lot of things to say about handwriting. In this article, I will cover most of them, albeit briefly in some cases. Some questions that will be answered in this article include:
- Do I need to learn to write by hand?
- What skills does handwriting in Chinese require?
- How do I improve my handwriting?
- What resources are there to help me learn?
Is it necessary to learn to write Chinese characters by hand?
First things first, do you have to learn to write by hand? Since the most popular input systems on phones and computers rely on how the characters are pronounced, can’t you just skip handwriting altogether? This depends on your goals. If your goal is to learn only spoken language, then skipping handwriting, or indeed writing altogether, is fine.
However, most students want to learn to read and write too, although to a more limited degree. That means that you would know how to say more things than you could write, for example, which seems to be the most natural way to me.
It also seems natural to be able to write by hand fewer characters than you can type, but this doesn’t mean that you can skip handwriting altogether. I think all students who want to learn to read and write Chinese characters should also learn to write by hand, not because it is practically useful (it usually isn’t, even if you live in a Chinese-speaking environment), but because it helps you understand Chinese characters.
What you need to write a Chinese character by hand
Okay, let’s continue by looking at what writing a Chinese character means. Success depends on being able to:
- …recall which character to write out of several possible options, e.g. recalling that it should be 工作and not 工做. It could be argued that this is one of the more challenging aspects of learning Chinese characters, which I have done here: The real challenge with learning Chinese characters.
- ...recall the components the character is made up of, e.g. recalling the character that 相 (木 + 目) and 心 makes up 想. This is best solved by knowing the meaning of commonly recurring components and using mnemonics to connect them.
- …recall the relative placement of the components, e.g. recalling that it’s 能够 and not 能夠. This can be very tricky! Both the examples are actually correct, but the former is correct in simplified Chinese and the latter in traditional Chinese. I wrote an article about characters that share the same components but are still different.
- …recall what strokes each component is composed of, e.g. recalling the difference between 千 and 干. Naturally, most incorrect strokes don’t turn the character into another character, they are just wrong.
- …recall the properties of the strokes, including their length, placement, order and direction. Numerous examples of correct writing and errors arising from incorrect length, placement and direction can be found in this article: Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements. Also, don’t forget about stroke order!
- …form a mental image of the character combining all these things and commit it to paper by using a writing instrument such as a pencil. This is the actual writing, the penmanship. With some practice, all students can do this well enough to be able to communicate in writing, but whether you do it neatly or beautifully is another question and not something I intend to discuss in this article.
As you can see, this is more complex than writing by hand in other languages, where handwriting is mostly a slower and, at least for some, more frustrating way of typing. If I can type a word in English, I know how to write it by hand. This is not true in Chinese, where typing merely requires you to recognise a character, whereas handwriting requires much more, as I have just shown.
Intent, then execution
When it comes to improving handwriting, it helps to separate intent and execution. The first refers to what you want to write; it is your mental image of the character. The second refers to the actual character you write on paper. These will almost never be the same.
To illustrate with an example, I know very well how to write the character 想 and you probably do too. But does the character come out the way you intend it to every time? Probably not, unless you are already good at writing by hand. Immediately after writing it, if not while you’re writing it, you’ll be able to spot things you didn’t intend to write. Perhaps the 木 takes up too much space, or the bottom of 目 extends to far down, or the dots in 心 accidentally touch the hook. You didn’t intend that to happen, yet it did. If you write the character again, you might or might not get the same result.
The point is that intent is much more important than execution. The former requires learning things about Chinese characters, the second merely requires more practice, i.e. more writing by hand. Unlike for speaking, where it can be hard to know if an incorrect initial is a just a slip of the tongue or represents a systematic error, this is usually clearer for writing.
For example, if you intend to write 木, you will never write 未 by accident, or if you intend to write 目, you won’t write 日very often. If you do, I would take that as a clear sign that you probably don’t know the characters very well.
As a counter example, if you write 已 instead of 己, that could very well be sloppy writing. I can’t know by looking at your handwriting whether you just accidentally put the pencil down too early, or if you actually don’t know that 己 (as in 自己) is different from 已 (as in 已经).
If you intend to write the wrong character, it will turn out wrong every time you try to write it, no matter what. If you intend to write the right character, but execute it incorrectly, simply practising will solve your problem.
This article is not meant to be about memorising characters, so let’s leave that for now. If you that’s actually what you want to read about, then check the article series that starts with this post. Below, I assume that you know what the components are and how they are arranged.
Target models for Chinese characters
When you start learning Chinese, it’s important that you have models to mimic that are actually correct, or at least models that adhere to the standard in whatever region you’re focusing on. Your teacher and textbook probably make an okay job of this, although there will always be minor inconsistencies.
However, most people nowadays study Chinese using their phones and computers. When you do that, make sure you have proper fonts installed. This will avoid a lot of confusion later and is well worth spending some time on as you start out. I didn’t do this and soon realised that I had actually learnt Japanese standard for many characters, because that was what my computer used by default!
I have written two articles to help you sort out font issues:
These are computer fonts, though, and aren’t ideal for handwriting practice. In a guest article, Harvey Dam introduces the correct way of thinking about handwriting. The article is full of actual examples with read handwriting (not computer fonts) and should be studied by anyone who cares about handwriting.
How to practice execution
Assuming that you know what the correct character looks like, how can you improve your execution, or your ability to transfer your mental image to paper using a pencil? The answer of course depends on your current level, but I’ll give some general advice:
- Use grid paper – This is particularly useful for beginners since it gives you clear guidelines for how big the character is supposed to be, and it’s much easier to compare the proportions of different components. There are many tools to generate grid paper for Chinese characters, but here’s one.
- Get feedback – As is usually the case when learning languages, getting feedback is essential. While you will be able to spot some mistakes yourself, there will be things you’re doing wrong that you’re not even aware of.
- Mimic a target model – This is only good advice if you want to improve the way you write, not whether you remember the characters or not. Find someone who writes neatly (preferably approved by a native speaker so you don’t pick anything too far out) and mimic the way they write. I’ve pasted an example (right) from 李纯博’s 雨天.
- Practise, practise, practise – If you want to improve your Chinese handwriting, you need to practise. You need to care about the way it looks, you need to spend the time writing the characters, not just with the aim of getting them down on paper as quickly as possible, but to do so more neatly than last time.
- Spread it out – As is the case with most forms of learning, including motor skills such as penmanship, it’s more beneficial to space your practice than to mass it. That means that practising a little bit every day is better than doing one long session every month.
Resources for learning or improving handwriting
There are many apps, websites and books about handwriting and Chinese characters. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of all resources I am aware of, but is rather meant to include a few helpful resources of each kind. For more, check Hacking Chinese Resources.
Standard references for stroke order
- Simplified characters (Mainland): 现代汉语通用字笔顺规范 (there is no online, searchable edition)
- Traditional characters (Taiwan): 常用國字標準字體筆順學習網 or 國語辭典 (both online and searchable)
- Traditional characters (Hong Kong): 香港標準字形及筆順 (also online and searchable)
Information about characters (i.e. dictionaries, see separate post)
- Pleco – Mobile app (free and paid)
- Hanping – Mobile app (free and paid)
- Outlier Linguistics – Character etymology and more (paid)
- Wenlin – Character information (paid)
- 漢典 – Online dictionary (free)
- YellowBridge – Character breakdowns (free)
- Hanzi Grids – Generates printable worksheets (free and paid)
- Incompetech – Various tools for generating worksheets (free)
- 书法字典 – Search calligraphy for specific characters (free)
Apps for practising handwriting on-screen
* Please. note that I work for Skritter, but that I’ve recommended the app long before I started doing that.
The place of handwriting in your overall strategy for learning Chinese
As a beginner, you probably don’t need to think too much about how handwriting fits in the larger scheme of things, but as you progress, you need to ask yourself what you want handwriting for and then devise a method that suits your needs.
For example, I teach Chinese and think I should be able to write most commonly used characters for that reason. I hardly ever write by hand for other reasons, so if it weren’t for the teaching bit, I would spend less time on handwriting. I devised a rather simple method to achieve my goals, yet spend as little time as possible with handwriting.
The method is described in detail here, but in summary, it consists of four components
- Reading gives me passive recognition of frequently used characters. Reading a lot is good for many other reasons, of course.
- Typing forces me to more actively select the correct character among alternatives, doubly so because my input method in Linux is pretty bad and often chooses the wrong characters.
- Skritter helps me withe active recall for less commonly used characters by way of spaced repetition, which is by far the most time-efficient way of reviewing rare characters.
- Handwriting input on my phone replaces typing occasionally and embeds handwriting in real-life communication. I also get immediate feedback, albeit a bit crude.
This method works for me, but it might be overly ambitious for you! Or it could be that you care much more about handwriting than I do, in which case my approach is inadequate. For example, I don’t write much on paper at all.
What does your approach look like? How important is handwriting to you? Leave a comment!
This month’s Hacking Chinese Challenge will be about improving handwriting. You can sign up for it now if you want, but the challenge starts on November 12th (Monday). I will also publish a follow-up article to Learning to read handwritten Chinese, where I will show samples of how different people write Chinese by hand, so stay tuned!
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