Learning to write Chinese characters

« previous post | next post »

Following on yesterday's post ("The naturalness of emerging digraphia" [7/28/17]), Alex Wang tells me, "parents and supplementary educators often post photos like these on their WeChat moments".  Here's an example of one that he sent along:

This image was accompanied by the following comment:

Jiàqī fǔdǎo duō diǎn nàixīn duō diǎn xìnxīn, cóngxiǎo guīfàn hǎo xíguàn: ná bǐ zīshì, shūxiě bǐshùn dōu yào guīfàn hǎo! Xiǎopéngyǒu yào hǎo hào xuéxí tiāntiān xiàngshàng ya!


When being tutored during holidays, have a bit more patience and confidence.  From the time you are small, develop a standard of good habits.  From the posture of holding the pen to writing the order of the strokes, you should have the proper standard.  Little friends should 'Good good study; day day up!'" (1/14/14)

Mind you, this is what our little friends are supposed to do in their supplementary tutorials during vacation time.  You can imagine what it's like during the regular school year.  No rest for the weary.

Meanwhile everybody (except the Chinese language teachers) are pushing them to do better in English because that's what will really make or break their future.

Learning how to write Chinese isn't easy!

Here's some evidence for that:

Oh, what was the child trying to write in the picture above?

One of my graduate students from China declared:

I think this pupil (??) was writing four characters: qù 去 ("go"), chūn 春 ("spring"), chóng 虫 ("bug; insect"), and wǒ 我 ("I"). The characters were twisting in the squares, and toxic in a way that I even started to doubt the orthodoxy of writing.

Another said:

Six, which are qù 去 ("go"), kàn 看 ("see; look"; but I think it is wrongly written), chóng 虫 ("bug; insect"), jī 鸡 ("chicken"), chūn 春 ("spring"), and wǒ 我 ("I").

No matter how many characters the pupil was trying to write, these are simple and common ones.  Yet the pupil was struggling with them, including qù 去 ("go"), which has only five strokes and is of extremely high frequency.  Even such a quotidian, simple character as qù 去 ("go") must be copied hundreds of times to be mastered in its correct proportions.

As for a character like shǎ 傻 ("foolish, silly, stupid; imbecilic"), which was missed by the child in yesterday's post, it has 13 strokes (just above average for all characters), and that's how you'll feel when you try again and again to write it with all the strokes in their right order, correct shapes, and proper proportions.  And shǎ 傻 ("foolish, silly, stupid; imbecilic") is not among the more formidable characters one has to face every day.  Moreover, be prepared to master at least two thousand of these buggers if you want to be moderately literate.

[Thanks to Fangyi Cheng and Yixue Yang]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    July 29, 2017 @ 7:56 am

    Well, he's making a far better fist of it than I could ever manage, but I cannot help but feel that a ball-point pen (which is what he appears to be using) is not the ideal instrument with which to learn and practice calligraphy …

  2. Victor Mair said,

    July 29, 2017 @ 9:33 am

    He's not practicing calligraphy. He's just learning to write characters. A ball-point pen is "standard" for that in China nowadays.

  3. unekdoud said,

    July 29, 2017 @ 9:41 am

    Here are some mistakes shown in the image with regards to "mastering characters":

    Stroke errors: bad lengths and alignment in 去, crossing top strokes on 看, asymmetric diagonals in 春, loops in 我.
    Space management: asymmetric space around 去 and 春, some 看 characters too big, bad proportion in 鸡.

    Despite being "errors", these are nearly as harmless as typos and bad typesetting in English. It might make you read slower, but you still know what word was intended.

    Chinese students gradually learn to avoid these problems (through that boring torturous process) so they can copy a character without distorting it. It helps a little with character amnesia, but there's only so much practice can do against "two thousand of these buggers".

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    July 29, 2017 @ 9:42 am

    That is not the drift I gained from reading the recommendations : "From the time you are small, develop a standard of good habits. From the posture of holding the pen to writing the order of the strokes, you should have the proper standard". These seems to me to indicate that the child is learning calligraphy (at a level with which he/she can cope) rather than merely "learning to write characters". The latter can be accomplished (albeit badly) with any posture, and independently of stroke-order. This is the fundamental difference between "learning to write characters" and "learning to write characters correctly", is it not ? I would argue that "learning to write characters correctly" is simply another name for basic calligraphy.

  5. Bathrobe said,

    July 29, 2017 @ 10:40 am

    So when children in countries using the Latin alphabet sit down and do exercises to write the letter 'a', they are learning calligraphy?

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    July 29, 2017 @ 10:46 am

    Yes, of course. Calligraphy at the most basic level, but calligraphy nonetheless. People of my grandparent's generation were taught calligraphy (in the form of a fine italic or copperplate hand) as a matter of course; those of my generation were allowed to get away with anything that even basically resembled the letter in question. Fortunately China still places great value on calligraphy, whilst the United Kingdom as a whole places almost none (there are exceptions, of course).

  7. Victor Mair said,

    July 29, 2017 @ 11:04 am

    It's called handwriting or longhand.

  8. Rodger C said,

    July 29, 2017 @ 11:12 am

    Victor, in all the discussions of Western handwriting here and/or on LH, I think you're the only one besides me who uses the word "longhand." I've brought it up and been ignored. Wha?

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    July 29, 2017 @ 11:29 am

    OK, but once it ceases to be handwriting per se, and becomes someone's personal (i.e., a person's) handwriting, then it becomes calligraphy. See the OED, under "Calligraphy", second entry: " 2. A person's handwriting; a particular style or example of handwriting; = hand n. 16a."

  10. A. said,

    July 29, 2017 @ 1:33 pm

    Yes, but a ball-point pen is a perfectly good tool for practicing "your personal handwriting", isn't it?

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    July 29, 2017 @ 1:50 pm

    Not to my mind; a fountain pen, or at the worst a fine felt-tip pen, when practising one's personal handwriting — if you use an inferior tool, you will get inferior results. Ball-point pens may be acceptable once one's hand-writing is well developed (tho' I would personally never use one), but should never (IMHO) be permitted while the skill of hand-writing is still being developed.

  12. Ryan Paltor said,

    July 29, 2017 @ 4:02 pm

    @philip Taylor

    I knew the Cornish were peculiar folk…but Jesus, you're something else!

  13. Tom davidson said,

    July 29, 2017 @ 4:08 pm

    When studying basic Chinese at Yale Ifel in 1959 we made extensive
    use of flash cards. Character forms were pictures, we were taught. I picked up each character after writing it a few times at most and the form stuck. Like a painting or a picture , characters have components. Get the components down and you got it.
    Then the 80s came along and we got slammed with simplified characters, a whole other ballgame…..

  14. Stephen said,

    July 29, 2017 @ 4:35 pm

    I must say, as a veteran teacher, that teaching kids to write in "a fine italic or copperplate hand" seems like a colossal waste of time. There are dozens of other skills that we never have time for that certainly outrank the development (and practice) of beautiful handwriting. Teach that sort of thing iin art class if you must (and I don't even recommend it there, with all the creative stuff that art teachers do); but let's recognize that handwriting is fundamentally about communication. If it is reasonably efficient and can be read reasonably well by both reader and writer, we've accomplished what we need to do. (Which doesn't even get into the fact that we live in an era of keyboarding…)

  15. ~flow said,

    July 29, 2017 @ 6:26 pm

    Regarding the longhand / calligraphy / handwriting / East / West discussion, I must say that entering school in 1970 West Germany did mean we started with writing exercises not long after day one, and that was the prototypical experience back where and when first-graders were called ABC-Schützen or I-Dötzken, both words implying "beginners in writing". We were not allowed to use ball pens or anything else but fountain pens, which had to be brought along (but our books were all free, can you imagine? You borrowed them for the term and returned them afterwards). And we did have to write many, many letters many, many times until they started to look right. I remember being critiqued for my a's being too open on the top with the words "it's raining into them". To have a bearable, or, better still, a good or even beautiful handwriting was considered elementary; as an adult, you'd ideally grow your own (ideosyncratic maybe, but still) pleasant and 'mature' style of writing. People wrote letters and postcards by hand, quite frequently, so learning to decode the squiggles that were sent by aunts and grandmas was also seen as an essential (though admittedly not always easy) skill. Nobody except pharmacists was expected to be able to read what the doctor had scribbled on a prescription, though. Everybody back then admired their ancestors when old albums or letters got taken from the shelf and gone through, everyone marveled at the beauty of their forms and pitied themselves for not having learned / not being able to write that way any more. Presumably all the scraps with scribbles got thrown away before ending up in a collection, but still (I assume bad handwriting did exist in centuries past, at least that's what I picked up from reading a lot of reproduced materials).

  16. Tom davidson said,

    July 29, 2017 @ 7:26 pm

    Thank you, Stephen for bringing up keyboarding . With key boards, the whole idea of simplified characters becomes moot. Kids in hk and Taiwan still use traditional forms, and judging from recent news articles, these kids are no slouches academically. Which leads me to think maybe the PRC government thought their people are too stupid to learn traditional forms 愚民政策

  17. cameron said,

    July 29, 2017 @ 9:00 pm

    Is there a metaphor, or other standardized, or clichéd, description for poorly formed, hard to read, or just ugly handwriting? In English we can say that writing is "spidery", or "crabbed", but neither of those really directly implies ugliness or illegibility.

    Persian has a colorful expression "xar-chang qurbâqe", which literally means "crab frog" which is used to refer to bad handwriting. ("xar-chang" hyper-literally means "donkey claw". The word "xar", or donkey, is sometimes used to mean "large" – Persian"xar-magas" is perfectly analogous at the metaphoric level with its English equivalent, "horsefly".)

    Is there a comparable Chinese idiomatic metaphor for badly written characters?

  18. Dan Lufkin said,

    July 29, 2017 @ 10:58 pm

    I used to enjoy writing Aluminium in Sütterlin — basically A, l, 14 saw-teeth, an u-bogen and a dot.

  19. Dan Lufkin said,

    July 29, 2017 @ 11:00 pm

    Whoops! Add another u-bogen there.

  20. Jonathan Smith said,

    July 30, 2017 @ 12:29 am

    ugly characters might be called the product of chicken claws 鸡爪子 for instance, and the superstitious claim that eating chicken feet can lead to bad handwriting. interesting parallel to the Persian

  21. Harold said,

    July 30, 2017 @ 1:55 am

    In English, there's the term "chicken scratch", if that's what you're looking for.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    July 30, 2017 @ 6:37 am

    I confess that I (and my brother Denis) have terrible handwriting. My second grade teacher in elementary school, Mrs. Kiefer, loved everything else about me as a student (especially my lexicographical and etymological bent), but she almost cried when she begged me to develop better handwriting skills. My sister Sue, on the other hand, has beautiful handwriting, and sister Heidi's letters and words are well formed. My mother's handwriting was divine, while my father's longhand was quite legible, smooth, and well-proportioned (it might have something to do with the fact that he was born in Austria and learned to write there, even though he lived in a small and relatively remote Tyrolean village).

  23. Jichang Lulu said,

    July 30, 2017 @ 7:34 am

    "Pattes de mouche" 'fly legs' in French. (While a "pied-de-mouche" is a pilcrow ¶.)

  24. Barbara Stromschläger said,

    July 30, 2017 @ 8:10 am

    German has Sauklaue, composed of Sau "sow" + Klaue. I've never encountered the compound being used for anything other than ugly handwriting.

  25. Brian said,

    July 30, 2017 @ 8:48 am

    xar is commonly used in ways like that, always derogatory. The Arabic script is the ultimate cursive, and when it was adopted for New Persian, which was then used for administration throughout the eastern half of the Islamic world until printing was finally adopted well into the 20th century, several styles of handwriting were developed to maximize its cursiveness. Hence nasta'liq and shekasta. The fact that most handwriting was done by people in the relatively small professional class of munshis down to the middle of the last century meant that readability was less of a concern. If you were a munshi you could read it. If you weren't and couldn't, who cared. Calligraphy of course was also important, but had a very different history.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    July 30, 2017 @ 9:04 am

    From Jinyi Cai:

    Badly written Chinese characters can be described as héngqīshùbā 横七竖八 ("spreading every which way in confusion; at sixes and sevens; disordered"), wāiwāiniǔniǔ 歪歪扭扭 ("crooked; askew; shapeless and twisted"), tiānnǚ sàn huā 天女散花 ("heavenly maiden scattering flowers"), lóngfēifèngwǔ 龙飞凤舞 ("flying dragon and dancing phoenix"), xiàng jī zhuǎzi 像鸡爪子 ("like chicken claws"), pángxiè zǒulù 螃蟹走路 ("a crab walking on the road"), etc. I think badly written Chinese characters are described as jī zhuǎzi 鸡爪子 ("chicken claws") because of the resemblance between ugly characters and chicken claws (as if these characters were written by chicken claws instead of a person). I have never heard about the association between eating chicken claws and writing ugly Chinese characters.

  27. Paul said,

    July 30, 2017 @ 9:27 am

    @Philip Taylor

    My entire extended family were born and raised in China (but not my brother or me), so I hope I can offer some perspective on the issue with "calligraphy" vs "learning to write characters".

    For my family, at least, a huge amount of emphasis is placed on writing with good posture and in the correct order of strokes. As a child I would have to memorise rhymes about stroke order. I don't remember them anymore, but I do recall one that essentially says that you have to "close the door" last. This refers to characters like 因 and 园 where there's a 口 bordering the word (口字旁)inside (大 in the case of 因 and 元 in the case of 园). You're supposed to write the left, top and right of the 口 first, then the character inside, and lastly the stroke at the bottom of the 口 (hence "closing the door" when you leave).

    Regarding posture, I recall visiting my cousin in China and seeing him struggling with writing with a sort of stand under his chin. The purpose of the stand was apparently to ensure that he didn't slouch when writing by forcing his chin (and thus his head) higher. He didn't just use it for writing Chinese characters -he used it for ALL his homework, including Math and English. I don't know how common such a device is, but I did gather that it wasn't the rarest thing either.

    tl;dr My experience is that writing strokes in the correct order and good posture is a deeply ingrained part of Chinese culture, and not just this thing that is focussed on for calligraphy, unlike perhaps for English. Keep in mind that my experiences are from more than a decade ago so I don't know if things have changed now, but I'd wager that it hasn't (or at least not by much).

  28. Victor Mair said,

    July 30, 2017 @ 9:46 am

    From Jing Wen:

    As for badly written Chinese characters, people usually say zhūzhu pá de zì 蛛蛛爬的字 ("crawling spider characters") or guǐhuàfú 鬼画符 ("symbols / talismans drawn by ghosts"). Zhūzhu pá 蛛蛛爬 means characters that are written like creeping spiders. (I guess it is to say that the strokes look like the legs of creeping spiders, not sure how to say it in English, something like many spiders with many, many legs, luànqībāzāo 乱七八糟 ["muddled; messy; in wild disorder; chaotic"].)

    Guǐhuàfú 鬼画符 is a piece of paper full of magic figures or incantations for exorcism (such as Taoist charms). It means that the characters are written so carelessly as to be almost illegible.

    I don't remember whether I have heard anything about jī zhuǎzi 鸡爪子 ("chicken claws") and bad handwriting. Eating jī zhuǎzi 鸡爪子 ("chicken claws") is not related to bad handwriting either.

    For the Egyptians, scribes started to learn reading and writing when they were small. Archeologists have discovered students' copies of famous literary works such as stories on ostraca. The handwriting is not bad. In most cases, handwriting on papyri is good because papyri are too expensive to be used by students to practice writing. We can find very cursive ones, but not bad. Their handwriting is quite standard. I don't think I have read something like "practice writing" or "bad handwriting" in wisdom texts. I think the Egyptian scribes had to practice until their handwriting was good enough to be a scribe.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    July 30, 2017 @ 10:00 am

    My wife used to buy a big bag of chicken feet, dump them into a large kettle, add a choice selection of spices (I remember star anise and some things she put inside a little cloth bag that she tied at the top), scallions, etc.), then boil it all on low heat for hours. Afterwards she would savor every tiny morsel of flesh, cartilage, and skin that she could gnaw from the bones and claws. This (and all other gooey, gelatinous foods, such as fish cheeks, sea cucumbers, and other things I'd rather not mention) was a supreme gustatory delight for Li-ching. Usually after she went on such a binge, I would have nightmares in which disembodied chicken claws were coming after me.

    BTW, I've always suspected that there is a direct connection between saying in English that someone's writing looks like chicken scratches and saying in Chinese that someone's writing looks like jī zhuǎzi 鸡爪子 ("chicken claws"). As for the Chinese expression, I think that it refers to the crabbed, spidery appearance of the characters (like the chicken claws in my nightmares) rather than implying that chicken claws wrote them.

  30. Victor Mair said,

    July 30, 2017 @ 10:17 am

    From Yixue Yang:

    There indeed is a folk saying that eating jīzhuǎ 鸡爪 ("chicken claws") will lead to wretched handwriting, especially for children. However, jīzhuǎ 鸡爪 ("chicken claws") could also mean something good when they're on tables of family gatherings: eating the chicken claws will help to secure money for the family.

    I am not sure how the etymology of Chinese jīzhuǎ zì 鸡爪字 ("chicken claw characters") is related to that of the English "chicken scratches", although apparently they refer to the same meaning. It certainly would be very interesting if there is indeed a transmission of expression between the two ends!

  31. Victor Mair said,

    July 30, 2017 @ 11:02 am


    chī jīzhuǎ xiězì biàn chà 吃鸡爪写字变差 ("if you eat chicken claws it will make your writing inferior")

    chī yú zǐ bù shí shù 吃鱼籽不识数 ("those who eat fish eggs cannot count")

  32. Tom davidson said,

    July 30, 2017 @ 1:23 pm

    Funny I don't see a reference to狗爬的文字we used this all the time in Taiwan to describe poorly written Chinese

  33. Victor Mair said,

    July 30, 2017 @ 1:29 pm

    It's not funny.

    gǒu pá de wénzì 狗爬的文字 ("dog crawl writing")

  34. Jonathan Smith said,

    July 30, 2017 @ 2:42 pm

    Jizhua-type remarks on handwriting often take the form Tom davidson suggests, 像鸡爪写的/爬的/抓得 'as though written/'crawled'/scretched etc. by chicken claw', though the direct resemblance of bad characters to chicken feet is definitely also in play… and I suppose the use of crawl pa2 爬 to describe writing is also interesting in implying great exertion, 爬格子 etc.

  35. Linda Seebach said,

    July 30, 2017 @ 3:03 pm

    That child is writing right-handed, but has his paper turned the way (properly taught) left-handers do. My second-grade teacher did not understand this, and tried to force me into turning my paper the wrong way for left-handers. I rebelled, my father was called in, and ruled in my favor.

    There are Chinese teachers that stupid too?

  36. Philip Taylor said,

    July 30, 2017 @ 3:23 pm

    I am intrigued. I too am left-handed, but as far as I am aware I do not rotate the paper; rather, I write from above, mirroring (in an oblique vertical plane) the motions that a right-handed person might make from below. The objective, of course, is to prevent the left hand from smudging the ink of the word(s) or letter(s) that have just been formed.

  37. Viseguy said,

    July 30, 2017 @ 4:13 pm

    It's not clear to me that the writer in the photo is using a ballpoint. The pen barrel looks to contain something that could be liquid ink, and the writing on the page might have been made with a somewhat flexible fine or fine-medium nib.

  38. Victor Mair said,

    July 30, 2017 @ 4:35 pm

    From Xiuyuan Mi, who has a deep interest and long practice in Chinese calligraphy:

    I've never heard of jī zhuǎzi 雞爪子 ("chicken claws") standing for unappealing handwriting. Where did you see it?

    Guǐhuàfú 鬼畫符 ("symbols / talismans drawn by ghosts") was a pretty common expression for that as I grew up.

  39. Victor Mair said,

    July 30, 2017 @ 11:26 pm

    From Hill Gates, who inspired our earlier post on "Aphantasia — absence of the mind's eye" (3/24/17):


    It's funny; I'm an extraordinarily hard-nosed, down to earth person, not much given to refusing to believe in plain realities. But when it comes to characters, I suppose I will never get past my firm conviction that they are a huge conspiracy against me, not really a writing system.

    See also:

    "The miracle of reading and writing Chinese characters" (3/26/17)

  40. Victor Mair said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 7:17 am

    From Fangyi Cheng:

    Yes, there is a claim that eating chicken feet can lead to bad handwriting, at least I have heard about it when I was a kid. One Chinese idiomatic metaphor I know for badly written characters is "guihuafu 鬼画符 ('symbols / talismans drawn by ghosts')."

  41. Silas S. Brown said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 10:15 am

    Don't they practice handwriting using pencils?

  42. Victor Mair said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 11:44 am

    Yes, Silas, they use both pencils and ballpoint pens, but my experience is that more often they use the latter because you don't have to worry about keeping the tip sharp and there's no mess either (unless it leaks, which doesn't happen very often, and then you just throw it away and get a new one — Chinese ballpoint pens are cheap). I've been in the homes of many Chinese families and watched children practice their characters for hours, and they almost always do it with ballpoint pens or pencils. They only use brush and ink for calligraphy class (brush and ink are messier and more troublesome and time consuming than ballpoint pen — and more costly).

    The writing instrument in that child's hand is almost certainly a ballpoint pen. I've seen thousands of Chinese ballpoint pens and owned hundreds myself. Most of them look like the one in the photograph. Moreover, the nature of the strokes — uniform thickness and density — bespeaks a ballpoint pen. Finally, if I'm not careful when writing with a ballpoint pen, I'll get those unwanted curlicues like the ones on some of the 我 iterations on the paper in the photograph.

  43. Victor Mair said,

    August 4, 2017 @ 12:03 am

    From Hill Gates:

    It's funny; I'm an extraordinarily hard-nosed, down to earth person, not much given to refusing to believe in plain realities. But when it comes to characters, I suppose I will never get past my firm conviction that they are a huge conspiracy against me, not really a writing system.

RSS feed for comments on this post