Chinese Handwriting Is Hard. This Is How I Improved Quickly.

During my study of Chinese language, I’ve encountered a problem with my handwriting skill. The five years I am trying to learn, I’ve got reasonably skilled in reading, listening and speaking, but writing only using a regular computer keyboard. In modern Chinese society, this is not a problem, as practically all written communication is done by a smartphone or computer. I can enter the pronunciation of a character in pinyin, phrases in regular English alphabet, and the computer presents me a list of possible characters to choose from. I can enter entire phrases of pinyin and let my phone make a good guess of what I mean to write, even if I leave out some letters.

However, as soon as I am required to write using pencil and paper, I suddenly seem not to remember how some characters are written. Studying higher levels of Chinese language requires me to write articles, and my school teachers do not accept homework articles written on a computer. This becomes especially painful as I am now able to recognize around 1,000 characters, but helpless when I try handwrite sentences from an elementary course.

Example of typing pinyin in a chat app: the character suggestions for chi above the keyboard

According to my teachers and peers, handwriting is part of the Chinese culture, but it appears to be deteriorating fast. An article from 2010 already talked about the issue, and Wikipedia has a topic on it called ‘Character Amnesia’, or in Chinese《提笔忘字》, “pick up the pen, and forget the character”. Apparently I am not the first to run into this problem.

As I learn more characters, my eyes get trained on recognizing whole characters, to be able to read sentences quickly. This is not helpful when writing characters on paper, where you need to know what strokes in which order you need to put. The solution, according to my teachers, is to “write more”, drawing sentences again and again until my hand-eye coordination gets good enough to automatically replicate some useful characters. Although visually I’ve improved over a 4-year old Chinese school kid’s ability, it does not really help when I draft sentences on my computer and write it down on paper, lest it be when I write something I’ve made up myself.

A solution to this problem apparently exists, which is in Chinese《字帖》, a Copybook or Calligraphy sheet; which is a sheet of paper with Chinese characters, which you trace stroke-by-stroke until you’ve made the full character, then repeating it some times again to practice. This forces you to focus on character details, as many characters in Chinese are a compound of two or more basic shapes. Taking apart complex characters to basic ones really helped me to remember and reproduce them.

Example of a Copybook, with the pinyin above the character

To illustrate, consider the character 福, which is composed of four other, distinct characters which are written in a clockwise pattern. The leftmost character is 礻, a simplified version of 示 when put on the left side of another compound of characters. On the right, top to bottom are 一,口 and 田. Each of these individual characters are very frequently used in Chinese language. Hence, writing these in a combination improves my skill in remembering five characters.

Four components of fu, meaning blessing, fortune or prosperity

While I’ve asked my Chinese bookshop for these copybooks, I was asked if I were to gift them to a child, as they only have copybooks with elementary characters targeted at small school children. I am not to use them by myself, was I? There are no copybook for advanced learners, I’ve should have been proficient already.

In my desire to write characters in a copybook suitable for myself, I’ve made my own app to print out copybook sheets with characters I want to write. Thanks to the internet, around 9000 characters are available with the correct stroke order to learn from, which probably contains all the characters I’ll ever need to learn. You can check it out here: calligraphy.remcohendriks.nl. Please let me know what kind of features you would like to see.

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Remco Hendriks

Javascript Web Developer, DevOps Engineer, Mandarin Chinese Learner