Chinese characters can be magically beautiful and mysterious. I still remember what it feels like to look at them and be attracted by them without understanding what they meant. Indeed, many students start learning Chinese because of the characters!
Chinese characters can also be frustratingly difficult and, compared with any other major language, extremely time-consuming to learn. This is particularly true for writing characters by hand, which takes many times longer than learning to read.
Considering how much time it takes to learn to write characters by hand, it’s only natural to ask if it’s worth it: Do you have to learn to write Chinese characters by hand? Or to make it a bit more interesting: Should you learn to write Chinese characters by hand?
That’s what this article is about. I will look at these questions from different angles, with the goal of helping you find an approach that works for you, or if you’re a teacher, an approach that works for your students. I have divided the content into six parts. If you already have basic knowledge of the Chinese writing system (i.e. you understand the problem I’m addressing here), you might want to skip the first part, which I’ve included for those new to the subject.
- Writing by hand in Chinese is a separate skill
- The practical argument: Do you need to be able to write by hand?
- The interest argument: Do you like to write by hand?
- The education argument: Are you required to be able to write by hand?
- The processing argument: Do you learn more if you write by hand?
- Conclusion: Learning Chinese without learning to write by hand?
1. Writing by hand in Chinese is a separate skill
In most other languages, having learnt basic spelling and then relying on reading and typing is enough to maintain the ability to write by hand. This is because remembering how to write the letters of an alphabet is not hard, while remembering how to write thousands of characters is hard.
For example, I have not written much by hand in English in my life, and almost nothing since graduating from university. Still, I’m sure I could write the article you’re now reading by hand if I wanted to, even though it would make my hand hurt. If the article had been in Chinese and I hadn’t practised handwriting for a decade, I would certainly not be able to write much at all by hand.
The main reason is that typing and writing by hand are cognitively very different processes in Chinese. In English, each letter is associated with a key or combination of keys on the keyboard, so each time you type a word like “accommodate”, you need to know how many times to hit c and m, and each time you type “receive”, you need to make sure to hit the e and i in the right order. Every time you type these words, you reinforce your ability to spell them. If you blindly rely on auto correct 100% of the time, this might not be enough, of course!
In Chinese, the most common way to input characters is via phonetic input, which means that you type how something is pronounced, and a program called an IME (Input Method Editor) then picks the characters it thinks you want to use based on character and word frequencies, as well as prior typing habits and sophisticated machine learning.
Modern input methods are very good at picking the right characters given context, at least if you stick to standard and common language. This means that typing in Chinese requires you to know the pronunciation of the character and sometimes the difference between characters with the same pronunciation. Clearly, typing does not reinforce the knowledge required to write by hand, which includes structure, components, stroke details, as well as the ability to keep similar characters apart.
I should mention that here are input methods that aren’t phonetic, but these are rare. Those that are built on what the characters look like and how they are structured are also very difficult to learn for partly the same reasons handwriting is difficult to learn. If you want to know more about input methods in general, I suggest you check out this article and podcast episode: Chinese input methods: A guide for second language learners
This brings us to reading, which is a comparatively passive way of processing written characters. In English, there are less than a hundred commonly used letters and symbols, so learning them once and then seeing them over and over every time you read a text is usually enough.
In case of rarer characters, this might not always work. For example, I remember as a teenager having to think a bit before writing an ampersand (&) and occasionally flipping capital Greek sigma (Σ) horizontally. Obviously, I knew what these symbols meant and could read them much earlier than I could write them. I bet it’s not uncommon to be at least a little bit unsure of how they are written by hand!
This is what writing Chinese by hand is like, except you don’t have a handful of these symbols, but thousands, and they can have everything from just a few strokes up to dozens of strokes, making the average character far more complex than an ampersand or a sigma. Reading and typing alone is clearly not enough to either acquire or maintain the ability to write most Chinese characters by hand. Recognition is always much easier than recall.
2. The practical argument: Do you need to be able to write by hand?
Now that we know what the problem is, let’s continue by looking at it from a practical point of view: Do you actually need to be able to write Chinese characters by hand? If sticking to reading and typing will save so much hassle, can you just skip handwriting?
Naturally, the answer to this question will vary from person to person because we need different things, but to establish a foundation, let’s ask an easier question: When was the last time you needed to write something in your native language by hand?
Some people, including myself, don’t write much by hand in their native language at all. These days, my handwriting is limited to:
- Notes when reading printed articles
- Brainstorming when I want to be free of digital distractions
- Small notes written to family, neighbours and the like
- Addresses on envelopes on the off chance I need to send something by mail
- Writing on a whiteboard when teaching on campus (which I rarely do)
Your list might be shorter or longer than mine, but if we stick to things you need to do by hand, most lists can be shrunk to almost nothing. I could take notes digitally, brainstorm with a computer, print addresses and so on, it’s just that I prefer not to or that it’s more convenient to write by hand sometimes. I could probably get away with not writing on the white board either and use a projector instead.
But Olle, you live in Sweden, of course you don’t need to write Chinese by hand very often!
Yes, that’s true, but even when I lived in Taiwan (which I’ve done for four years), I rarely had to write by hand outside the confines of language schools and universities (a perspective I will return to later in this article). I occasionally encountered some of the situations mentioned above (notes, small messages, addresses, and the occasional form), but in all these situations, I could have used my phone to look up how to write the characters if need be.
I didn’t, because I had to sit long, handwritten exams in linguistics and pedagogy in grad school, so I had to know how to write by hand well, but I could have managed without, at least outside my education. If you talk with other advanced learners, including those who live in China, this experience is rather common; handwriting is almost always optional, and when you do need it, you can usually “cheat”.
So, in short, the answer to the question if you need to be able to write by hand from a practical standpoint is almost always “no”. While there could be scenarios, such as specific lines of work, where you really need to write by hand, it seems far fetched to study with the assumption that you will end up with such a job, especially since you can always learn to write by hand later.
3. The interest argument: Do you like to write by hand?
Before we continue the discussion about whether or not you should learn to write by hand, let’s acknowledge that some learners love characters, and like I said in the introduction, some even start learning Chinese because of characters. For you, learning characters is a pleasure. Maybe you like the intricate history behind each character, maybe you like calligraphy, maybe it’s something else, but you are interested in characters, just like other people might be interesting in football, bird watching or knitting.
If this description fits you, you can take most of what I say in this article with a pinch of salt; I’m not trying to convince you to stop doing something you love! However, that doesn’t mean that everything I bring up here is irrelevant, because even if you love characters, it doesn’t automatically follow that pouring all your available time into learning them is a wise strategy. There are other areas of learning that might be even more important to reach your goals!
Still, most of what I talk about here is for those who don’t love learning characters and would rather spend that time improving other areas of the language, or on football, bird watching or knitting.
Personally, I’d place myself somewhere in the middle: I don’t love characters, but I’m certainly interested in them and enjoy learning more about how they are structured and where they come from. This interest is not strong enough to make me write characters for fun, but it’s enough to make me enjoy building a character course over at Skritter and work with Chinese language standards and corrections. I have also learnt at least 6,000 characters and mostly don’t regret doing that (although maybe I do for the rarest 1,000 or so that really aren’t that useful).
4. The education argument: Are you required to be able to write by hand?
If you ask advanced students about when they were last required to write Chinese characters by hand, most of them, including myself, will answer “in school”, including language schools, university courses and everything in between. If they answer something else, it’s usually because they have very specific jobs that require them to write Chinese by hand, but that’s exceedingly rare. I have worked with Chinese language education full time for about a decade and have never been required to write characters by hand, even if I often do so when teaching because it’s more convenient than typing, especially when teaching on campus.
While curricula vary across the world, handwriting is often a compulsory component in many educational settings. This, however, is a very weak argument for handwriting. If you don’t need to write by hand, and many advanced students say that they hardly ever do, why should it be a required part of the curriculum?
This question is much too big for this article, but the answer is probably more related to tradition than students’ needs. While there is a case for learning to write some characters by hand (more about this later), it’s certainly a bad idea to learn to write all characters by hand. This is an area where I think the curriculum for teaching Chinese in Swedish schools is spot on: Students are required to be able to read and type texts about certain topics at a certain level, but they are only required to write a smaller subset by hand.
This is also reflected in the new standard for the dominant proficiency test for Chinese learners, HSK, which comes with a separate list of characters for handwriting. This list is considerably shorter than the general vocabulary list for a given level, indicating that in many cases, reading and typing is enough. I wrote more about the new HSK 3.0 standard here:
5. The processing argument: Do you learn more if you write by hand?
As I pointed out earlier, writing a character requires you to process it more deeply than if you just read it. In general, deeper processing leads to better learning, so one argument for learning to write by hand is that you will then learn and remember more characters.
This is probably true, but it’s important to not forget to take opportunity cost into account. If your teacher gives you twenty characters to learn by next Friday, it takes much longer if you’re meant to be able to write them by hand compared to if you just need to recognise them. That’s time you could have spent reading and listening. Thus, while deeper processing is certainly better, it also takes much longer, so is it worth it?
It’s impossible to answer to answer this question, because there are so many situational factors to take into account, so instead, I’ll give you a summary of my take on the issue of handwriting characters in language classrooms. This is mainly for adult second-language learners, but it’s applicable in senior high-schools too.
I think the sequence ought to be something like this:
- Acquire a solid foundation in the spoken language
- Learn to read things you can already understand in the spoken language
- Learn the basics of how characters work and some handwriting
I’ve argued the case of delaying characters before, so I won’t elaborate here, but check out Should you learn to speak Chinese before you learn Chinese characters? if you’re interested.
People who argue that characters should be introduced from day one are usually the same people who argue that you have to learn to write characters by hand, otherwise you’re not really learning Chinese. This is, in my opinion, a bit silly, because nobody learns Chinese like that outside foreign-language classrooms. Native speakers certainly don’t; they have many years exposure to the spoken language and can use it fluently when they start learning to read and write.
Once you have a foundation in the spoken language, the question then becomes how many characters you should learn to write by hand , assuming that your goal is to understand characters to boost your reading ability further down the line. Handwriting is useful here, because recalling how to write characters from memory is an active process that requires you to really know the characters. You can’t just say “it’s that character with a tree on the left and then a shape that looks vaguely like this on the right”, you have to really know the components.
Exactly how many characters you need to learn to write before you get a good feel for the writing system is hard to tell. If you just mindlessly copy them, you can learn 10,000 characters and still have no clue how they work, but if you take the course I built with Skritter, learning the 150 or so characters that are included might be enough. If you’re not interested in the Skritter course and want a free, written alternative, I suggest this series of articles that start with The building blocks of Chinese, part 1: Chinese characters and words in a nutshell
I’ve already mentioned HSK 3.0 above, but I want to repeat that the standard there makes a lot of sense. If you’re about to leave the beginner stage (having reached new HSK 3), knowing 300 characters by hand is not unreasonable. If you’re about to complete the intermediate phase (new HSK 6), knowing another 400 characters isn’t too much to ask. And if you’ve already reached an advanced level (new HSK 7-9), adding another 500 for a total of 1,200 seems reasonable.
Can you get away with less than this? Of course you can, but I would still suggest that learning these characters and then letting the rarer or more difficult of them go over time if you don’t need them is better than not learning them in the first place.
6. Conclusion: Learning Chinese without learning to write by hand?
If you say that you’re learning Chinese, but that you don’t know any characters, most people will say that you’re only learning half the language. And rightfully so: Learning Chinese without characters is very limiting and it’s impossible to be fully functional in a Chinese-speaking social or professional context without being able to at least read and type.
Still, for some people, ignoring characters is the right choice, because being fully functional is not part of their goal for learning the language. If you just want to be able to talk to your in-laws or chat with Chinese tourists, knowledge of characters is not required. Useful, yes, but not required, and it’s not worth the huge effort needed to learn them.
If you say that you’re learning Chinese, but that you don’t care about writing by hand specifically, fewer people will be horrified, and most of those who would be horrified are traditionally-minded teachers you can safely ignore. In addition, not being able to write everything by hand is a problem even educated native speakers can relate to. They also forget how to write characters on a regular basis.
A infamous example of this is to ask native speakers if they can write dǎ pēntì de tì (打喷嚏的嚏, i.e. 嚏) by hand. Students usually can, but adults with a decade or more between now and graduation often can not. There’s even an idiom for this: 提笔忘字, literally “lift brush/pen [as if to write], forget character”. It’s not a new phenomenon either, even though it has of course become much worse with an increased reliance on the phonetic input methods mentioned earlier.
In the end, how you choose to approach Chinese characters and how much you focus on handwriting is up to you. If you’re unlucky, it might also be determined at least partly by your environment, especially if you’re enrolled in formal courses.
My goal in this article was to discuss the question from different angles to provide you with a basis to form your own opinion. And remember, if you change your mind later, you can always pick up handwriting again if you actually need it, or the reverse, realise that being able to write 6,000 characters by hand is overkill and lower the bar. You’re the one learning the language, you know best what you need!
I’ve written a lot about learning characters here on Hacking Chinese, apart from the articles I’ve already linked to. Here are a few that I think are particularly relevant and that I recommend as further reading:
Editor’s note: This article, originally published in 2012, was rewritten from scratch in June, 2022.
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