The wrong way to write Chinese characters

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This is one of the best, general, brief introductions to the challenges of the Chinese writing system I know of:

Pay particular attention to the details of how to write the character tián 田 ("field").  If you consider East Asia as a whole, there is no single, correct way to write even such a seemingly simple, straightforward, five-stroke character as tián 田 ("field").  Multiply that by dozens of strokes and thousands of characters, and you'll see what you're up against if you set out to master the Sinographic writing system.  That's why I agree with the suggestion of one or more of the commenters to "An immodest proposal: 'Boycott the Chinese Language'" (11/18/18) to promote Pinyin for writing, especially abroad, where the vast majority of people really don't have time to learn the characters sufficiently well for the purposes of reading and writing.

Here's a comment by Karl Xiao from the original thread to the video at the top of this post:

In China, we emphasize the importance of stroke order only in the first 1 – 2 years in primary school education, and people often ignore it afterwards. In reality, this is not a big deal in daily life nowadays as long as you don't miss any strokes or put them at wrong position or, in some cases, make the length or angle of strokes incorrect. HOWEVER, this is only OK when you are writing Chinese characters in regular script. Strokes in regular script are straight and (mostly) not connecting one to the other, and even in those complex strokes (the ones that involve turns) parts that connected by turns are still straight or a single curve at most. It doesn't really matter if you write down the strokes in a wrong order under this circumstance, because you can only put the stroke down one by one separately. In (BIG) contrast, stroke order is critical when you trying to write Chinese characters in semi-cursive or cursive script. In this two scripts, the strokes that were separated in regular script are now connecting to each other, which means one stroke in semi-cursive or cursive (especially this one) script represents several strokes in regular script. The mistake you made in stroke order when you write in regular script will now make you connect the strokes together either in the wrong way or wrong order or, in some extreme case, wrong orientation. This will make the entire character looks messy, weird, or unrecognizable, especially considering we were using ink brush instead of pen or pencil in old days.

To sum up, stroke order use to be very important for writing Chinese characters correctly and neatly, but this importance has been fade out in modern days unless you are doing calligraphy.

Bottom line:  learning to write Chinese characters is not for the faint of heart or for those who are pressed for time (i.e., have many other more important things to tend to).

Reading

[h.t.:  John Rohsenow]



24 Comments »

  1. Philip Taylor said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 8:02 am

    Having watched a Chinese lady communicating with a Japanese shop-assistant in Kyoto by "writing" (with a finger-tip) each character in turn on the palm of her hand, it seems to me that correct understanding of the intended character by the reader of such palm-writing is at least partially dependent on a tacit mutual agreement as to stroke order, particularly for more complex characters. Would you (VMH) not agree with this ?

  2. David Moser said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 10:08 am

    I'm reminded of an anecdote one of my profs at University of Michigan told me. During the 70s he was in a Chinese language course in Taiwan. At one point a student asked the teacher what the correct stroke order was for the character gui1 龜, as in wu1gui1, "turtle". The teacher slammed his hand on the table and angrily replied "Ridiculous question! How could you expect anyone to be able to write this character?" Indeed.

  3. Alex said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 10:49 am

    Unfortunately stroke order as the article mentions is definitely tested in first grade. They provide a character and you list out each stroke. Furthermore educators and parents still scream bihua making kids rewrite until they get the stroke order correct.

    So far over 30 adults of which 2 are primary school teacher of Chinese couldn't hand write jianzi 毽子. A sport which almost all recognize.

    nor could the vast majority write the simple sentence. The fox wanted the grapes on the vine.

    I'd say "The writing is on the wall" for the handwriting of Chinese characters. Not if but when.

    Given how my spelling has suffered and my ability to remember phone numbers vs 35 years ago, i cant even imagine the true impact that technology has had on the handwriting of characters.

    I do hope Chinese immigrants lead the pinyin movement. Perhaps Chinese Schools around the world.

  4. Jayarava said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 12:08 pm

    @David Moser. Indeed, I cannot *read* the character in the font size dictated by the comments section on this blog. I don't see any individual strokes at all. Whereas I can read the Roman script perfectly well.

  5. Alex said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 12:49 pm

    @Jayarava

    Yes the ability or lack thereof for seniors to read things due to size is a huge issue here. Even with reading glasses its harder to read inserts and other materials.

  6. Ellen K. said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 1:19 pm

    Ability of seniors to read things due to size? This isn't an issue of age. It's an issue of a normal font size for English makes Chinese characters either hard to read or impossible to read, depending on the character. No amount of good eyesight can make up for the fact that the information is just not there on the computer screen. Not enough pixels (on some computer screens, at least) to show all the detail of the character in the normal font size.

  7. Belial Issimo said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 2:28 pm

    I have to admit that I was tickled to find that even now, 40 years after taking 1 year of college Chinese with essentially no occasion to write any characters in the intervening time, I still got stroke order correct for tián 田and many, though definitely not all, of the other examples in the video. I attribute it entirely to a very demanding teacher and hours of drills.

  8. AJJ said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 5:16 pm

    I think I've forgotten how difficult it was to learn stroke order after studying Japanese for four years.

    At this point, it seems like once you learn the order of most of the radicals, the stroke order for every character afterward becomes obvious.

  9. crilk said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 5:21 pm

    @Belial Issimo

    田 sticks in people's minds because it illustrates two principles of writing Chinese characters which Westerners find counterintuitive—the rule for boxes (top three sides, then whatever's inside the box, then the bottom side) and the rule for crosses (horizontal bar, then vertical).

  10. David Marjanović said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 7:09 pm

    and the rule for crosses (horizontal bar, then vertical)

    …in China, but not in Japan, as the video explains.

  11. Chris Partridge said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 4:16 am

    This question will display my ignorance, but I really would like to know…would using pinyin for all written Chinese outside China mean the ultimate triumph of Mandarin and doom the other Chinese languages? Or has that happened already?

  12. Ricardo said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 4:33 am

    @Alex

    Won't pinyinization have the effect of exterminating or at least sidelining all other dialects except 普通话? Isn't the beauty of the characters is that they make written communication possible across many of the language's variants? While handwritten language of all sorts seems destined to fade, in the case of Chinese languages it seems to me far better to promote non-phonetic typing systems such as 五笔。

  13. Michael Vnuk said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 7:48 am

    田 looks like 6 strokes to me – 3 vertical ones and 3 horizontal ones, not 5 strokes. I guessed that the traditional 5 strokes must include a stroke that continues round a corner, which is pointed out in the video (top and right side). If counting strokes is used sometimes as a way to find a character in a dictionary, how can you count strokes in tiny characters on screens or in poorly written characters?

  14. Alex said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 8:03 am

    @Ricardo

    I actually think the opposite. In the same way i feel pinyin will increase literacy and provide greater accuracy in pronunciation throughout China for mandarin, I feel all the dialects will have their own "spelling for words"
    so would actually preserve their language especially for those abroad like the Cantonese.

    I have several friends who live in Canada. I think if they Romanized Cantonese then their children would more readily preserve the language as they can look at the spelling and pronounce the words and read the definition or look at the image.

    I am not a scholar / academic and have never studied linguistics. This is purely a guess. So hopefully others can respond to your question as I am also curious.

  15. Alex said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 8:05 am

    @ ricardo

    Learning Mandarin or any dialect then would be like learning french or Vietnamese etc

  16. Victor Mair said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 8:46 am

    I really like what Alex said in his last two comments and was about to say the same thing (though I would have referred to "dialects" as "topolects").

  17. Dan said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 11:58 am

    David, I believe the rule of horizontal before vertical is even violated in Chinese once you switch to cursive.

    In cursive writing the stroke order for 田 would be down on the left side, right and down the top and right side, down the middle, right across the middle, and right across the bottom. The last two strokes are done without lifting the pen, looking like a little "z".

  18. Eidolon said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 8:33 pm

    "龜 … turtle. The teacher slammed his hand on the table and angrily replied "Ridiculous question! How could you expect anyone to be able to write this character?" Indeed."

    I would not have been able to resist answering, "teacher, it's simple … just draw a turtle."

  19. Alex said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 9:01 pm

    @Eidolon

    I'll remember that joke for next time!

  20. Eidolon said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 9:50 pm

    "Won't pinyinization have the effect of exterminating or at least sidelining all other dialects? Isn't the beauty of the characters is that they make written communication possible across many of the language's variants? "

    No, because what is side lining other varieties of Chinese is the Chinese government's decision to promote one national language, not the choice of orthography. You can't really write most Chinese varieties in characters anyway – not only is there a general lack of conventional standards, but there are enough differences in vocabulary and morphemes that mutual comprehension through characters writing would be difficult between major Chinese varieties. During dynastic times, the only Chinese varieties that were actually written down were Classical Chinese and the vernacular speech of the capital, either Nanjing Mandarin or Beijing Mandarin. Chinese characters were never used to make written communication possible across many of the language's variants; rather, communication was possible because everyone literate learned the Classical language and the capital vernacular.

    "While handwritten language of all sorts seems destined to fade, in the case of Chinese languages it seems to me far better to promote non-phonetic typing systems"

    The real benefit of a logographic writing system is that it allows for different pronunciations of the same characters – which is not the same as allowing for different varieties of Chinese, since they differ in more than just pronunciation. Thus, if the goal is to allow people to pronounce characters in as many eccentric ways as they want without destroying mutual comprehension in writing, then the Chinese writing system is certainly better at that than an alphabet. But this is not the goal: the Chinese government wants to have one national spoken standard, which is why Standard Mandarin is taught through immersion in all Chinese schools. An alphabet would achieve this goal better, since it'd constrain variations in pronunciation and more precisely capture the standard.

    Which brings us to the real reason why, despite this fact, the Chinese government continues to promote Chinese characters: cultural tradition. Because for every language reformer who cares more about efficiency and practicality, there is a language conservative who believes that China wouldn't be China, any more, without its characters. Most people in China take immense cultural pride in the writing system, and will come up with all sorts of reasons and excuses for why it must continue. It's almost like a religious argument, in this respect – it's part of their identity.

  21. Alex said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 11:29 pm

    @Ricardo

    An example from another post

    The word for "taste; flavor" in Mandarin is "wèidào 味道".

    In Cantonese that would be "mei6dou6".

    In Wu (Shanghainese) it would be "midau".

    In Hakka it's even better: mi-tho.

  22. Alex said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 11:59 pm

    @Eidolon

    yes on cultural identity however I think its more than that.

    An analogy is operating systems or programming languages.
    Once there is time vested and money invested people who are in power would rather not see it change.

    In many IT projects the language or application to be used is the one the manager (who is usually older) knows rather than what the staff would like to learn or is the future.

  23. maidhc said,

    November 30, 2018 @ 4:00 am

    In this forum a few years ago, people advised me to get a book called The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters. I got the book, which was helpful, so thank you people.

    I believe that normal Chinese dictionaries are based on this stroke order question. That book has a dictionary section that has its own methodology that does not require understanding stroke order. It is pretty easy to use. For the casual user, understanding this whole stroke order thing is a big commitment.

    I also have a Pinyin-English dictionary, so by drawing the characters into Google Translate, which does not worry much about stroke order, I can often get fairly close. But you will miss a lot of idiomatic usages, of course.

  24. Mark said,

    December 6, 2018 @ 3:39 am

    The most demoralizing thing about learning Japanese was that stroke order wasn’t the same as in Mandarin (well, at least part of the time, and not in an intuitive way). 田 being just one example. Although plenty of other demoralizing things followed.

    Alex, in Japan stroke order (and stroke count) are tested in the 漢字検定 / Kanji Kentei character testing system until at least 5th grade, which I’m revising now.

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