How not to learn Chinese

« previous post | next post »

In "Sinological suffering" (3/31/17), "Aphantasia — absence of the mind's eye" (3/24/17), and other recent posts, we examined the difficulty, for some the near impossibility, of mastering how to write hundreds and thousands of Chinese characters.  Yet, if one wishes to become literate in Chinese, one simply must do it.  Until the 21st century, there was basically only one way:  rote copying of the characters to engrave them in the neuromuscular pathways of the learner.

The following photographs are from the WeChat account of a Chinese teacher in Shenzhen and were forwarded to me by Alex Wang, who knows her and has made them available for this post.  They show the practice writing of a Russian expat student in China.  The characters which he has written hundreds of times each are:

mù 木 ("wood"), mén 门 ("door"), wǔ 五 ("five"), rù 入 ("enter"), lì 力 ("strength; force; power" — note the abortive start on the first character), tā 她 ("she"), tā 他 ("he"), mǎ 马 ("horse"), and ma 吗 (question particle)

Bear in mind that this brute repetition goes on day after day after day.  What you see here is not enough to master just these nine characters.  You have to keep practicing them over and over and over; if you don't do so, you'll lose command of them.

The teacher praises her expat charge, a Russian, thus:  “Such a diligent student!”

Alex says that he sees parents and teachers in Shenzhen praising their children in the same manner.

It immediately struck Alex that Paul Newman could be praised in the same way in the movie "Cool Hand Luke" digging a ditch and then filling it in with the dirt he just dug up.  Over and over again.

Boss Paul:
That ditch is Boss Kean's ditch. And I told him that dirt in it's your dirt. What's your dirt doin' in his ditch?

I don't know, Boss.

Boss Paul:
You better get in there and get it out, boy.

Comment by Alex:


They say a picture is worth a thousand words and the teacher's Weixin moments were worth literally tens of thousands of words!  It made me even more convinced I chose the right path for my sons.  They can read Chinese, they can type and select the characters they want.  Just say no to Ting Xie!  I think I might on a whim have some stylized t-shirts made for the sweltering summer here!

That (above) is how NOT to learn Chinese.

This is also how not to learn Chinese:

Here are a few positive suggestions for how to go about it:

Two basic rules:

  1. Emphasize spoken language (pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, etc.) during the initial stages.
  2. Utilize the best and most advanced electronic aids for reading and writing after you have acquired a solid foundation in the spoken language.

The sad, almost perverse, thing about traditional Chinese language pedagogy is that it begins with and continues throughout to emphasize the written language.  The fact that many teachers still regularly inflict tīngxiě 听写 ("dictation") on their students shows that they are still stuck in antediluvian teaching methods.  Given the intelligent, advanced electronic learning tools that are already available, with the prospect of continuous improvements ahead, tīngxiě 听写 ("dictation") and the copying of characters hundreds and hundreds of times no longer makes sense.  Do we require students in physics and mathematics to do all their calculations with a slide rule, much less by hand on paper?


  1. Christopher Coulouris said,

    April 16, 2017 @ 1:07 pm

    I studied Chinese in Qingdao for quite a few years and many times experienced the uselessness of 听写。 A good Austailan friend of my is in Qingdao studying Chinese and 听写 is alive and well. From my own experience I wholeheartedly agree with Professor Mair and David Moser that in the 21st century writing Chinese characters by hand is no longer a necessary skill. For most of my teachers 汉字=Chinese. I once wrote my teacher an email in pinyin. She told me that I didn't make any mistakes but pinyin is not Chinese and next I should use characters. Telling that poor Russia student he is diligent is like telling Sisyphus he is diligent.

  2. flow said,

    April 16, 2017 @ 8:15 pm

    Sooo… antediluvian is the new bad? Handwriting is bad because people have done it for thousands of years? Using smartphones day in day out then is, presumably, good b/c it's… postdiluvian?

    "Given the intelligent, advanced electronic learning tools that are already available, with the prospect of continuous improvements ahead, tīngxiě 听写 ("dictation") and the copying of characters hundreds and hundreds of times no longer makes sense. Do we require students in physics and mathematics to do all their calculations with a slide rule, much less by hand on paper?"

    Maybe that's because a self-driving car, advanced as it is, won't help you learn driving. If all what you want is to cause a four-wheeled conveyance speed down congested highways then, sure, how convenient when you can lean back all the while and read a book. Like people used to do in, say, streetcars (before those got abolished because cars in many places)?

    I've been using computers since 1978, and am still using them; part of my job is actually to program. Today I did in fact used my smartphone (which I normally only use as a WiFi hotspot). Can't say I've used a slide rule much, except I found it tremendously interesting to try and do calculations with it and find out how it works. I used to cover paper surface by the square meter with formulas and scribbles and texts back in school and in university cause that's how you did things back then. I have no problem with people being excited about the newest advances in computers and so on; I myself am quite happy that the machine I'm writing this on has developed when compared to my first machine or, say, even any affordable box of 90s vintage. Sure. What worries me however is the fervor with which people throw out proven techniques and valuable skills out of the window.

    Like actually writing (writing-writing they'd presumably put it in Finnish) or even driving-driving cars. That 'intelligent' car won't help you learn driving; rather, it may help you become a good passive driver, and forget how to drive. Same goes with writing Chinese. As they say in English, do it or leave it. You don't have to learn how to read and write Chinese; but if you have to anyway or want to anyway, I'm afraid you should actually do it.

    With that out of the way, I see one very useful way for rather simple electronic tools in Maths and Chinese language education in the way that a calculator allows you to very quickly step through numeric/algorithmic scenarios; that in fact may help to gain insights and intuition about numbers. Likewise, having a usable, painless and hopefully reliable way to look up characters and words on your device just so by drawing squiggles on it may help you discover some of the many, many links between characters and, in that way, become a more independent user of the language.

    And I do know the feeling I used to have when facing a hard character, and, indeed, not too few dictionaries on the shelves. If I only had a full-text index, to all of those! (Turns out we now have that (or at least for enough data for it to be useful). The Kangxi dictionary did exactly that, minus electronics).

  3. Ellen Kozisek said,

    April 16, 2017 @ 10:01 pm

    It strikes me that with all written language forms it takes practice to be able to fluently write that writing system's characters. But alphabetic and similar systems have a lot less characters, and simpler characters, than the Chinese writing system.

  4. Michael Pratt said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 1:16 am

    I am a former Spanish professor now living in Shenzhen. My Chinese is currently at about HSK-4 level. From my own experience, I think that Professor Mair's earlier posts about the desirability of encouraging learners to avoid overemphasizing the study of characters during the early stages of learning, before one has acquired any sense of how Chinese sentences work, make obvious sense. Now that I AM attempting to make progress toward literacy, I am delighted to have access to the new learning tools that Professor Mair also mentioned earlier. I can't imagine that I would have had the patience to learn to more than a few dozen characters without the help of Skritter. The sad truth is that, while it takes only a few semesters of diligent study to get a solid foundation in any Romance language, the lovely but forbidding Chinese writing system does impose serious obstacles. The way to Shu is indeed hard!

  5. ryan Paltor said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 3:33 am


    "the fervor with which people throw out proven techniques and valuable skills out of the window"

    Are you a language instructor by any chance?

  6. flow said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 3:59 am

    Since I advocated the old-fashioned way of actually learning to write by actually writing, I should also add a few words about the results as presented in the above.

    While I did say that I think writing-writing is important and worthwhile, and I think that only repetition makes a master (notwithstanding the occasional natural-born 天才s), it's not necessarily repetition-repetition what the learner should be after. Rather, schooling the mind to seek for ease and clarity is important, to pay close attention to detail where called for and just let it flow (forgive me) and be generous where possible.

    To illustrate this, I'd submit the question to the learner, what character is it that was meant to be written in the top of their third picture: is it 人, 入, or 八?

    Judging from the forms presented, this is by no means clear (although we all agree here that it is 人). I believe the mistake comes from not studying suitable patterns, and this is a very frequent mistake. Often, the only models that learners get to see are Kaishu 楷書 *as printed type*, or even Songti 宋體 forms (which have been developed solely for printing, and are far from what is called for in handwriting). Consequently, their writing keeps looking stilty, stick-figurish, and not well-proportioned. I have often seen the same in Asian students writing Latin letters: fast, yes, but almost never like a true running hand. The remedy is to study better models, and in this electronic age, help is readily available:




    (There are many other sites out there, but this happens to be a rather comprehensive one. I encourage anyone with skills at their hands to turn that site with its many freely downloadable resources into a handy app).

    Now when we examine the painstakingly (!) assembled scans of written characters, we see that what looks so similar in the stiff printed form is actually quite outspokenly different in the written:

    人 is basically two rather straight strokes, first from top-right to bottom-left; then—importantly, *starting from a midpoint of that stroke*—a second one from left to bottom-right.

    入 has the same strokes, but here the top-right-to-bottom-left stroke is attached to the one from top-left to bottom-right. In the printed form, one is easily confused, but the difference in the written form is clear and pronounced.

    八 has the same strokes as 人 and 入; the crucial point is that they are separate at the top. One of the crucial points, I should say, since the other feature of 八 vs 人入 is that 八 is normally written much flatter than the other two; readers may want to click through on the linked sites to the collections of Xingshu 行書 that are even more pronounced in this respect.

    And now it becomes clear what the issue is with the forms we see on the practice sheets; they are (as they say in German) not fish not flesh, 模稜兩可, undecided. May I ask the poster whether they actually knew what they were writing? Whether they are not sometimes puzzled at an inscription where either would make sense? It is certainly easy to mix up 八人入! All the more important to work out and show what difference there is.

    The good news is that instead of writing a hundred or so instances of a shape that can't decide whether it wants to spell out 八, 人, or 入, you can just write out three lines with one of them each, and you're done! With the proper contrasts, that is. Next, may I suggest the learner put them right next to each other: 八人入. Not a likely sentence, but close: Ba1 ren2 ru4. Eight people enter. Perfect. Ba ren ru, ba ren ru. I'm not sure who came up with the idea that all characters should be drill-roted in isolation. Drill-rote them in groups, and group them by shape, by words, by sound, by confusion factor, ….

    This having become a long post, I won't go into the details that I find problematic with the student's renditions of 木, 马, 吗, 她, 门, 五; suffice it to say they're all suffering from a certain lack of attention to the right details (and adoption, then unchecked repetition of the wrong details to boot). Let me just point out that the Chinese idea of the general setting, or call it attitude, or fundamental gesture—'posture' maybe—of what underlies a pleasant written form is distinct enough from Western ideas of the same that it does merit some study, and necessitates a certain effort to un-learn (one's old habits) and re-learn (the new ways). This is no different from learning to speak and sound like a native; many obstacles are to be expected. At any rate, study good models and try to capture the 'gist', as it were, of each basic shape. Copy them, copy the hell out of the good models, forget yesterday's sorrows and tomorrow's troubles, copy, but don't copy mindlessly; it is a waste of time and works against your goals.

    (I hesitate to mention it in this context, but FWIW: the modern form of 入 appears to be a rather late development, and like a very few others, 本 among them, it *violates* certain calligraphic principles, to the point it becomes a little painful. 俞佩琳《中文字序學》 says "屬因襲筆順不按「附筆幹先」". The form of 入 shouldn't have happened, in way. Similarly, people devised ways like 夲 and 夵 to avoid 本, because the crossing bottom strokes otherwise come in the wrong order (first vertical, then horizontal; always think of 十: first 一, then 丨). The teacher probably wants to gloss over this ugly detail in a hand-waving fashion, but you must do something about these cases because the characters are so basic. 女 is another good example for a rule-breaking character. The teacher should maybe put these three together and demonstrate why they're special, which principles are violated, and why.)

  7. flow said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 4:20 am

    (Quick addendum: I congratulate the student for having discovered and corrected the wrong form of 马 where the two first strokes cross each other; sadly, that happened only after around 90 instances, maybe more, had been put to paper and (worse) motor memory. No matter whether you swear on or swear by drill-rote-drill, that proportion is (indicative of) a problem. Earlier fact-checking is necessary; otherwise you get 90 wrong forms and then only have saliva left for 45 correct ones (OK and many more of the same in 吗, but still). Let me tell you I find the 'short horse' 马 *quite* difficult to get 'just right', for all its apparent simplicity. The 'long horse' 馬 is also not easy but at least it's not so … empty … as the 'short' one.)

  8. Victor Mair said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 7:15 am

    The ambiguity of rén rù bā 人入八 was very much on my mind as I wrote the original post. It is both curious and telling, not so much about the student, but about the writing system and the way it is taught. Cf. jǐ yǐ sì 己已巳, which even many of my undergraduate and graduate students from East Asia get confused over and are frequently erroneously typeset. I have a special mnemonic device that I teach them for distinguishing these three characters.

    As I have often remarked, my wife was one of the best Chinese language teachers who ever walked the face of the earth, and one of the main reasons for that is that she strongly emphasized spoken language for the first two years and deemphasized writing until the third year. However, when she did teach the students how to write the characters, she did so with extraordinary conscientiousness. She carefully and clearly — and with infinite patience — corrected all the tiny details about character formation that most teachers ignore. So long as their charges copy the characters the obligatory hundreds of times, they are happy.

    It is very difficult to fit characters, whether they consist of few strokes or many strokes, into those little square boxes in a well-formed way, with all of their components in the proper proportions. For example, our diligent, hapless Russian pupil's tā 她 ("she") often looks like nǚ yě 女也 ("female also"; I'll forego a literary translation here), and similar problems exist for many of the other iterations of the characters that he has written. All students make such errors in shaping characters during the initial stages, and some of them never succeed in making the characters look right — even though they may be diligent for decades.

    Regressive teachers will continue to demand that their students practice writing characters hundreds of times, often without helping them make the characters they write over and over again have the proper stroke order, details, shapes, and proportions. Meanwhile, progressive teachers will not needlessly, meaninglessly torture their students to write ill-formed characters hundreds of times. They will let the electronic devices do the writing for them. In enlightened places like Singapore, that is already pretty much the norm.

  9. Alex said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 9:26 am

    "Since I advocated the old-fashioned way of actually learning to write by actually writing,"

    I guess it would depends on the definition of the word "writing"

    Writing is a medium of human communication that represents language and emotion with signs and symbols.

    I prefer that definition than the "old fashion" one.

    I think many kids really start to "write" papers via computer.
    some even now use voice recognition to "write"

  10. Eidolon said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 5:40 pm

    Technology has and will continue to both simplify and enrich written communication, but I believe flow's argument is that you don't actually know how to write Chinese characters unless you … actually know how to write Chinese characters. Knowing how to type Chinese characters with an electronics device is not the same as knowing how to write Chinese characters, and as soon as you are deprived of an electronics device, that difference becomes obvious. Of course, it can be argued that as a practical matter, in our day and age we will never be without our trusty electronics aides, and so learning how to write Chinese characters, like learning how to do long division by hand or how to navigate with a paper map, can be dispensed with.

    I happen to agree with this line of argument, mainly because I think we depend so much on technology these days that very few people can, in fact, claim to be completely self sufficient without them. And were all technology to stop working tomorrow, there'd be much bigger issues, such as how to get food without a grocery store, than not being able to write Chinese characters.

  11. Louis Lecailliez said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 7:03 pm

    The whole argument would be defendable if writing on an electronic device was the same as on paper but it is not. Spending a great deal of time on a computer I noticed something about writing natural language on it: it's actually impairing some cognitive ability. In a way it is comparable to being drunk or tired: not all mental resources are available.

    Of course this isn't a problem for small messages like this one but for a long piece of writing or a dense one it will matter. I personnally adopted the following workflow : writing on paper, typing on the computer, then multiples passes (1 to 5 depending on the document) of corrections that may have been done over a printed version. Correcting on paper have the additional benefits of keeping the short-term history of the document at hand.

    A person who can not write by hand a language couldn't use such a process and then probably wouldn't reach it's full potential.

    Anyway I think this is yet another instance of a false debate: old vs new where it has not sense; in the end it will be old AND new. Just like cars didn't completely replace bicycles nor TV caused the end of radio, new methods will replace old ones for the subset of functions it performs more efficiently. Computer assisted language learning tools will help students where it matters (efficient speed of search, linked data, etc.) but it shouldn't replace old methods when they are the best. And to learn the Chinese writing system, understand and become familiar with it handwriting will remains the only way to do it (until brain implants).

  12. Victor Mair said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 6:32 am

    "The whole argument would be defendable if writing on an electronic device was the same as on paper but it is not."

    Nobody has asserted that it is the same.

    "A person who can not write by hand a language couldn't use such a process and then probably wouldn't reach it's full potential."

    This sentence is grammatically and logically defective.

    "Anyway I think this is yet another instance of a false debate: old vs new where it has not sense; in the end it will be old AND new."

    It already is old and new. That's what we mean by emerging digraphia. It is already out there, as dozens of Language Log posts attest. And all those posts about character amnesia also speak to this issue.

    "Computer assisted language learning tools will help students where it matters (efficient speed of search, linked data, etc.) but it shouldn't replace old methods when they are the best."

    Best for what? Spending countless hours mindlessly writing the same characters over and over and over again, when, instead, one could be doing something creative or at least doing something useful and enjoyable? This is a very real debate, and it has vital implications for how people (especially young children at a formative stage) spend their lives and develop as human beings. Do we want them to grow up writing and thinking 可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可可…, 白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白…, 馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬馬…, 爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨爨…? At first I thought that strings like this were a sadistic abuse of Google Translate, but Google Translate outsmarted the people who asked it to translate them into English because it showed how mindless they are.

    "What a tangled web they weave" (4/15/17)

    "A long short-term memory of Gertrude Stein" (4/16/17)

    "Electric sheep" (4/18/17)

    "Writing Chinese characters as a form of punishment" (11/1/15)

    "The Awful Chinese Writing System" (Lingua Franca, 1/20/16)

    Outmoded technologies do wither away, and sometimes disappear altogether. As alluded to in the o.p., how many people are still using slide rules? Scripts are forms of the technology of writing. Is anybody still regularly writing in hieroglyphics and cuneiform?

  13. flow said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 8:28 am

    Learning how to play the violin or the piano, learning to climb, to paint or, indeed, to write are all a useless waste of time. Music can more efficiently performed with a radio or other audio device. Have you ever thought of those countless hours that are wasted in many children's youth with repetitive movements, all just in order to make that piece of wood squeak the right way? Climbing involves thousands of little mindless steps and it is downright sadistic to make children in their formative years perform this highly repetitive and archaic activity when you could have much more efficiently just taken them there with the car, hopefully an autonomous one so you don't have to do all the steering. Instead of walking or having to bother with the traffic you can now enjoy some quality time with your loved ones. Or else play Quake or Doom or other ego shooter on your mobile device, as the case may be.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 10:03 am

    Personal, artistic pursuits are one thing. Writing for efficient communication throughout society is quite another.

  15. David Moser said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 10:56 am

    Methinks you are now engaged in an attempt to simply win an argument, rather than to carefully think about the appropriateness of your analogies. Of course, any complex skill requires hours of practice to master. The question is to determine what kinds of repetitive tasks are essential to the goal of skill mastery (e.g. practicing scales on the piano or violin) vs. which skills can be dispensed with, if given a new set of tools or expediencies (e.g. using a piece of computer software to print out an orchestral score, instead of laboriously copying out every single note, rest and clef sign by hand, in ink.) So the real question is: What kind of task is memorizing how to write thousands of complex Chinese characters? Does the main purpose for the task involve the graphic beauty and complexity of those shapes, in and of themselves? Or is the main purpose to communicate expressive meanings in the language via the medium of the printed page? If the latter, then we are forced to compare the ratio of effort-to-effect with alphabetic scripts, vs. Chinese characters. If the use of Chinese characters seems to involve a vastly greater expenditure of time and cognitive resources than alphabetic scripts, then it's not at all unreasonable to ask questions like "Couldn't this system be replaced with another one, which will get the job done with much less expenditure of time and energy?" If you are convinced by rationales such as "It's too late/too difficult/too hopeless to replace the system now," or "Chinese characters have a mystical importance in and of themselves," or "God has mandated the use of Chinese characters for Chinese," then perhaps, yes, we are stuck with the mindless memorization process for learning Chinese characters. But if a miraculous tool comes along that allows us to circumvent or ameliorate this mindless memorization process, it seems to me entirely appropriate to weigh the pros and cons of mastering the skill of writing thousands of characters by hand. Recognizing the characters, yes; mastering a few hundred of the most basic forms, sure. But mastering the writing by hand of 5,000 characters? Surely not in this day and age. For me, just as the need for writing out complex orchestral scores in ink by hand is no longer a basic skill of the composer, the need for learning to reliably produce many thousands of Chinese characters by hand need no longer be a basic skill for the learner of Chinese, in this digital age. If we are going to continue using the characters as the printed representation of the language, then there is no reason not to take advantage of the new time-saving resources for storing, retrieving and processing the script. Since the age-old "rite of passage" involving writing each character thousands of times had as its ultimate goal the ability to render thoughts and ideas in written form — indeed, if not this, what would the point be? — then we should rejoice at the new digital tools that enable learners to reach this goal in a fraction of the time required by the old methods. Your analogies to practicing musical instruments and walking don't apply in this case.

  16. Ryan Paltor said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 11:03 am


    Your corrections and comments above show that you have a deep commitment to your students' success. But isn't there one case where you disagreeded with the textbook? Aren't there things as a teacher you'd do better if you had the power?

    I always think about guys like Lu Xun writing their most powerful stuff on language reform when they were my age. I'm not saying I'm perfect, but comparing computer assisted writing to Quake seems a tad bit old-fashioned…

  17. flow said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 12:26 pm

    I have to admit I may in fact just be complaining about something because I am having difficulties with too many things changing too fast. Maybe I am also shocked at the scale with which technology is being pushed into people's lives. I mean, the parallel thread about Google Translate's fantasies is not only funny or entertaining, it is also downright scary as more than one participant has remarked. Another aspect is that whatever machine we use, it turns out to be a computer. Huge numbers of people have jobs that consist more or less entirely of working in front of a computer display. People get their first computers as kids, top-notch schools proudly announce to the world that their classes are now all based on using iPads, students are taking notes with their laptops and after they graduate, many will get jobs where they will have to stare at a mouse, a keyboard and a back-lit screen for years to come. When they go home, many will stare at another screen for hours before going to bed.

    I cannot keep anyone from learning or generally using characters without a pen, sure. But from my perspective, doing an hour of penwork is one hour less spent interfacing with an electronic device, and I feel that should be encouraged.

  18. Ryan Paltor said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 1:00 pm


    I found this as an undergrad (I think Professor Mair translated it because it uses the term topolect. I know that Lu Xun had has flaws, but I really like this.

    "Thus, provided that one recognizes twenty-eight letters and learns a few rules for spelling and writing, then anyone but a lazybones or an imbecile can read and write. Moreover, Latinization has another advantage: one can write fast. The Americans say, "Time is money." But I think that time is life. To squander other people's time for no reason is, in fact, no different than robbing and murdering them. However, those like us who sit idly chatting in the cool [evening] breeze are exceptions!" – Lu Xun


  19. Ellen K. said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 5:43 pm


    I can think of much better ways to spend an hour not spending using an electronic device than copying a single character over repeatedly. I can understand calls to put down our electronic devices and live life. But yours is a call to put down our electronic devices and escape the world while also escaping from any sort of mental stimulation.

  20. Alex said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 7:26 pm


    There are many studies that do show that by handwriting notes versus typing notes as in during a lecture is much more effective for recalling ideas and remembering more deeply. The reasons why seem logical.

    That said its always a trade off. I can see doing that in English. The trade off in Chinese is the time it takes to learn how to write during the primary learning years.

    I encourage my son to practice Chinese calligraphy with brush and ink as its an art. I do believe its also part of our culture. I would have no issue at all if he practiced it for hours if he enjoyed it. I wouldn't even mind if it was a mandatory class at school like an art class.

    The time that my son doesn't spend learning how to write by hand all the characters, he spends playing his guitar, singing and dancing (lessons and practice) all which he enjoys. Most of all unlike many of the kids here he sleeps on average 10 hours a day, he is 8. I almost never have to wake him up in the morning at 7 am for school, whereas many of the parents here often complain how frustrating it is to have to coax their children out of bed during the school days.

  21. flow said,

    April 19, 2017 @ 1:23 pm

    Guess I have to understand these last few posts as encouragement, for which I'm grateful.

  22. Kai Carver said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 4:41 am

    > doing an hour of penwork is one hour less spent
    > interfacing with an electronic device, and I feel
    > that should be encouraged

    As a Chinese learner for years I have been using multiple marvelous electronic study aids. But I'd like to voice some sympathy for the point of view of flow and Louis Lecailliez, which I take to be orthogonal to the pinyin-vs-logograms debate, and far from mystical or aesthetic concerns.

    There's a general point that concerns our increasing reliance on computers: what we do with computers is contextless and ephemeral. That and the ability to instantly look up so many things seems to decrease our ability to remember things.

    Of course, this decrease in the role of memory began long ago, with the invention of writing itself! It was already lamented then, yet civilization somehow survived. But how far do we want to go? Do we want to outsource all our knowledge to external devices? Isn't it healthy to be at least a little skeptical of the recent tsunami of "miraculous" virtuality that is engulfing us?

    And then there's the Chinese-specific point: suppose you do want to learn to write Chinese (crazy, I know). Isn't it possible that repetitively practicing writing by hand, because it's in the physical domain, will help you learn better than practicing on our ubiquitous but evanescent flickering screens? Reality is far more multidimensional and persistent than our flat, treacherous screens. The manipulation and alteration over time of physical objects leaves us with numerous physical cues, for all of our senses, that aid memorization.

    For myself, I mostly learn using electronic devices. But on occasion I have practiced learning with handwriting, even going so far as to do those tedious-looking repetitions. And what I found is that I may remember the characters better when I study them the traditional way.

    However, I will confess: I do rather like handwriting, and I still find Chinese characters rather pretty… And I don't feel the time spent is wasted, nor is a it "rote", i.e. mindless or unthinking. To me it's been a rather mindful and stimulating experience. (But hey, I also occasionally try to meditate… Talk about nonsensical mystical wastes of time!)

  23. Victor Mair said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 6:30 am

    @Kai Carver

    I think that everybody agrees from the get-go: if you want to learn to write characters well by hand, you must write them over and over and over again.

  24. Ellen Kozisek said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 9:31 am

    It's perhaps worth noting, that even in English, with only 62 characters (counting numbers, not counting punctuation), some people don't right readably.

  25. Kayla said,

    April 24, 2017 @ 4:32 am

    How about the Chinese coming up with an alphabetical system instead of imposing bizarre characters on us all? They are the ones in the wrong.

    When my Mandarin professor told me it mattered in what order I drew (not wrote", since Manadarin does not have a real "writing system") the strokes for each character, that was the last straw for me. As long as your end picture is the same, who cares about the order? Anyway, I dropped the course, for this and other reasons, like her refusal to speak English in a beginning Manadarin course, combining the first and second-year students in one class (and actually have the second years grade our papers), and her inability how to teach us to use tones other than to listen to her speak each word. And then she had the gall to claim the PRC was superior to the ROC.

  26. Daniel said,

    April 24, 2017 @ 1:42 pm


    The reason for the stroke-order requirement is that when writing faster your strokes will naturally get a bit distorted. When everyone writes with the same stroke order, the distortions happen in the same way, so fast Chinese writing is still legible by others, even though it is pretty distorted from slow and deliberate writing. Thus, individual differences in stroke order cause problems with legibility especially when writing fast.

    English handwriting has the same aspect, except that there are fewer strokes per letter. For example, you always draw the vertical of a "T" or "t" first, then the horizontal. And you always draw the vertical stroke of "I" or "i" first before adding serifs or the dot. Chinese native writers often "draw" them differently, with the horizontal stroke before the vertical as done with Chinese characters. You can tell the order just by looking at it; it looks weird. Another example: you were probably taught to write "o" in a counterclockwise fashion. I actually write is clockwise (I was rebelling with the same logic that you had). I can tell my writing looks a bit strange especially with two in a row, "oo", though not enough to make me want to correct my handwriting.

    All this being said, the cursive Chinese handwriting style actually has slightly different stroke-order rules than what is taught for careful handwriting. I wish Chinese courses would teach handwriting so that one's writing is both efficient and looks adult, rather than childlike.

  27. Kayla said,

    April 24, 2017 @ 8:47 pm

    @Daniel: Thanks so much Daniel for your help and quick education!

    I guess I did not want to learn stoke order in Mandarin since it meant that it was one more thing I had to memorize.

    I never realized English had sort of a stroke order, although for the number "8", I used to write two small letter "o"'s on top of each other, making sure they connected in the middle, to look like a figure eight. I stopped doing that when my high school teacher remarked it looked like I was writing two letter "o"'s on top of each other. I did this when I wrote fast and became sloppy.

    I also used to write the number "4" with one stroke, like it appears on a keyboard. However, in high school it started to look like the number "9", so I decided to write the more sophisticated number "4" with two strokes, and the tops not connected. This is how most people wrote it anyway.

    I still notice most people, even professors, write the asterisk incorrectly, with a horizontal stroke instead of a vertical. I used to do it wrong too as a youth, making it four strokes instead of three, in order to have symmetry. I assumed that's how a real asterisk looked like, until I looked more closely at a keyboard in college and realized it was only three. strokes.

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment