The esthetics of handwriting

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The following photograph of a page of Chinese characters comes from this BuzzFeed article:

"21 Pieces Of Handwriting So Perfect They’re Borderline Erotic" (5/4/16)

I took one look at the page and said to myself, "not 'perfect' or 'borderline erotic' at all; in fact, rather crude and clumsy".  Not fully trusting my own judgement, however, I sent the page around to a couple dozen graduate students and colleagues with this note:

Do you think this handwriting is particularly beautiful?  I personally do not.  I see a lot of imperfections and irregularities in it.

Just random characters for practice, right?

Could it be Japanese?

Here are the answers I received:

From an American professor who is a specialist on the history of Chinese calligraphy:

This looks like a practice sheet of a relative beginner, possibly a foreigner.

From a Chinese professor who is a specialist on the history of Chinese calligraphy:

Either a practice piece, or someone purposely made it a work of contemporary art (conceptual art). From traditional standard, it is not a good piece of calligraphy, childish, but some people like this kind of work.

From educated native speakers of Chinese:

Yes, I totally agree with you.

After a second consideration, I think these might be random Japanese (not Chinese) characters for practice. My Japanese is terrible, but I have asked a friend to confirm it.

I don't think this handwriting is written by a master. I agree with you that It seems like for practicing.

I also don't think this handwriting is beautiful. What amazes me is the person wrote so carefully. All these characters share the same style and all the copies look almost the same.

I tend to agree with you. I don't find the calligraphy good either. It's like a child practicing writing random characters….

That said, there are celebrated modern calligraphers who write in a similar childish way (some may see it as having the "pristine purity of expression"?)… I really don't know what to think about that though.

I spotted some well-done 赤s, and 早s are all very cute, like stretching figures in a play ground, and 使s are working hard to kick off something…. Did you write them?

No offense but it seems like a writing practice by a pupil. haha!

Practice work, carefully written down by inexperienced, not skilled writer.

I think it depends on the age of the writer. For a child under ten, it is good enough. Or if the writer is a foreigner, it is good enough too. In either case, however, I don't think the hand writing is beautiful.

Is it Japanese? The second one looks like Japanese to me.

I actually think this is very bad handwriting. I could do better than this when started elementary school…

From educated native speakers of Japanese:

Yes, this is Japanese, and it looks like Kanji practice writing done by a Japanese school kid or a Japanese learner. Not bad, but not particularly great.

In case you are wondering why I said this was Japanese, the first two kanji are read "mukashi, mukashi", and that is the Japanese equivalent of "once upon a time".  They have something else in Chinese, correct?

You are right.   "Just random characters for practice." It looks like the writing of a very young person or some foreigner practicing.  I don't see too much "irregularities."  This person is following the instructions conscientiously and seriously.  Imperfection is that of the style.  He/she just isn't trained enough yet.  Yes, I think this is an untrained grownup, rather than a child.

I do not think this handwriting is particularly beautiful, either.  I learned calligraphy for 9 years when I was a kid (I am not good, though)…. so my standard of beautiful writing might be higher, though.    I agree with you about irregularities and imperfection.   Some of them look good, but others are not.   Yes, they are all Japanese kanji, too.

From educated native speakers of Chinese who are also highly proficient in Japanese:

Yes, I agree. I cannot find anything particular with the writing. It is very likely to be characters for practice.

These are very common Japanese Kanjis. The handwriting seems like it's from a child or from a foreigner. That mark 々 is used whenever a kanji is repeated in modern Japanese writing; it makes sense in Chinese too but I rarely see it in modern Chinese writing.

Yes, I think it is not beautifully written. My first impression is this must be a Kanji practice book. To my knowledge, I don't see any meaning in the sentence. Given the characters 々, 働, and 別 (written differently from Chinese 别), I am sure this is Japanese.

I don't think the handwriting looks beautiful, either.

I think you're right. It could be just random characters for practice. The whole sentence doesn't make sense to me in both Chinese and Japanese.

Also, I'm pretty sure it is Japanese. First, the first two characters "昔々” mean "once upon a time" in Japanese, and the character "働” and "別” look like Chinese characters used in Japan.

Second, I think I have found the source of this handwriting's content. The pdf I have attached hereto is a file I found on the internet, in which you can find exactly the same characters that appear in the handwriting. This file comes from a website called "Usagi-Chan's Genki Resource Page". You can visit it from this link.

It seems to be a website that provides a textbook called "Genki", which is a textbook for Japanese learning. You can visit "Genki"'s website from this link or just google "Genki" for more information about them.

Maybe the person who wrote this handwriting copied the characters from the "Genki" textbook for Kanji practice.

BuzzFeed credits this Reddit post, which links to images on Imgur (the photo above is the second one on the Imgur page). The same images also appear on this site, which references the o.p. on Reddit and states that the photograph shows the practice writing of a foreign student before a kanji exam.

[h.t. Thorin Engeseth; thanks to Robert Harrist, Hiroko Sherry, Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Tomoko Takami, Xiuyuan Mi, Qianshen Bai, Rebecca Fu, Jiajia Wang, Jing Wen, Yixue Yang, Mengnan Zhang, Fangdan Li, Ashley Liu, Leqi Yu, Fangyi Cheng, Tianran Hang, Sijie Ren, Meng Qiao, and Ben Zimmer]


  1. Jason said,

    May 8, 2016 @ 11:25 am

    Let me get this straight: the purpose of this article (and the informal survey of educated informants) is to show that BuzzFeed has a ridiculous claim?

    If this were published in a book by a significant academic press, I could understand the curiosity. But we live in the country where people get 'butt pirate' tattooed in Chinese to their arm and tell you it means 'faith'…

  2. Ellen K. said,

    May 8, 2016 @ 11:39 am

    Given the context, and the label above the individual photo ("This is almost mathematical in its beauty.") I suspect the person who made this list and put this on there doesn't read any language that uses Chinese characters, and likes the repetitiveness of the text in the photo. It does give a first impression of each character being exactly the same each time, though closer inspection reveals that's not the case. Like it's more about the Chinese characters all in a repetitive list like that than about the particular handwriting, which I suspect the person who made the page, like me, has no way to judge.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    May 8, 2016 @ 12:17 pm


    No, you don't have it straight. Try again.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 8, 2016 @ 12:27 pm

    The most amazing thing about this handwriting sample is that the student did it without the aid of the ruled squares that are usual for practicing Chinese characters.

  5. Thorin said,

    May 8, 2016 @ 12:45 pm

    I asked Professor Mair about the image because I was simply curious about the fact that while it may look pretty to non-native readers like me, is it as attractive to native readers? It's not that "Buzzfeed is incorrect for putting this on the list," it's merely a matter of what non-natives would find attractive versus native readers. And I think it's fairly clear that's what this post is about.

  6. January First-of-May said,

    May 8, 2016 @ 1:04 pm

    A few years ago, when I was somewhere around 10th grade, I brought home (with permission) a book from the school library – can't recall the title now, but some kind of popular science book about elementary particles from the early 1950s. (I wanted to find out what people thought about elementary particles in the 1950s. Turned out, pretty much the same things as today, except for all the quarks and the bosons. And the large hadron colliders. And a good part of other terminology. But it still felt similar.)
    In any case, one of the old bookmarks in there was a yellowed piece of paper with several lines (unrelated to the book's topic) in the most perfect handwriting I've ever seen. I showed it, astonished, to some older people, who said it was actually normal for the period – it's just that schools don't put that much stress on good handwriting today. (Not that this is a bad thing – my own early handwriting was really ugly.)

  7. Victor Mair said,

    May 8, 2016 @ 1:43 pm

    @January First-of-May

    Thank you very much for bringing up the subject of good handwriting that was expected in earlier days.

    Here are some relevant posts:

    "Handwriting legibility" (10/19/15)

    "Cursive" (3/30/14)

    "Cursive and Characters: Dying Arts" (4/29/11)

    "The esthetics of East Asian writing" (4/7/12)

    "Copying characters" (2/11/13)

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

    "Japanese survey on forgetting how to write kanji" (9/24/12)

    "Character amnesia redux" (4/22/16) — with references to many earlier posts on the subject of character amnesia

  8. Jason said,

    May 8, 2016 @ 2:00 pm


    So you thought they're not beautiful and you asked around. Why is this news?

    I enjoy the posts on Character amnesia, etc, but this is a bad article from BuzzFeed. Nothing more.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 8, 2016 @ 2:09 pm


    It seems that you missed Thorin's comment, which explains everything clearly.

  10. John Rohsenow said,

    May 8, 2016 @ 2:38 pm

    "…That mark 々 is used whenever a kanji is repeated in modern Japanese writing; it makes sense in Chinese too but I rarely see it in modern Chinese writing."
    Is that last clause true? If so, does it refer to hand-writing, or printed text?

  11. Michael Watts said,

    May 8, 2016 @ 3:46 pm

    it's merely a matter of what non-natives would find attractive versus native readers. And I think it's fairly clear that's what this post is about.

    All I see is a series of up-or-down votes on whether it is attractive or not. What would make it conventionally attractive writing?

    It's very attractive as handwriting to me, because the character forms are clear and I can tell what they're meant to be. I can't read the handwriting of actual Chinese people at all. But I can understand why that's not something they worry about. What do they worry about?

  12. Victor Mair said,

    May 8, 2016 @ 4:35 pm

    "What would make it conventionally attractive writing?"

    "What do they worry about?"

    Those are legitimate questions for someone who "can't read the handwriting of actual Chinese people at all".

    Here are some answers:

    The title of this post

    "Christian Dior's 'Quiproquo' cocktail dress and the florid rhubarb prescription written on it" (6/5/15)

    Chinese Calligraphy: An Introduction to Its Aesthetic and Technique, Third Revised and Enlarged Edition, classic work by Chiang Yee, "The Silent Traveller"

    Chinese calligraphy

    Chinese calligraphy (click on "See works of art" on the right side just beneath the band of calligraphy at the top of this page; you'll be able to see about a dozen examples of fine calligraphy)

    Chinese Calligraphy

    Chinese Calligraphy

    Chinese Calligraphy

    Chinese Calligraphy

    Chinese Calligraphy (hundreds of examples)

  13. David Morris said,

    May 8, 2016 @ 5:12 pm

    I would be thrilled if I could write Japanese or Chinese characters like this. In fact, I would be thrilled if I could write any Japanese or Chinese characters at all.

  14. Thorin said,

    May 8, 2016 @ 5:26 pm

    @David Morris

    My thoughts exactly. I've been studying Arabic for a year, and a friend of mine from Jordan was showing me his handwriting. Apparently it's pretty chicken scratchy to most Arabic readers, but I'd think it was pretty high-quality if it were my own.

  15. r said,

    May 8, 2016 @ 6:34 pm

    I guess I know too much Chinese to think like a westerner about this, because my immediate reaction was "this is a kid copying lines" too. I don't think of myself as knowing much Chinese, but I do know some.

  16. JS said,

    May 8, 2016 @ 7:22 pm

    Superb (and much better than my writing); the student should be commended. But that it's horrendous as artful calligraphy/handwriting hardly needs to be said. Kinda in the family of the #9 English example but worse — obviously trying, thus hopeless.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    May 8, 2016 @ 8:44 pm

    I think that #9 English is divine. In a million years, I could never learn to write like that.

  18. mollymooly said,

    May 8, 2016 @ 8:57 pm

    It would be interesting to get various CJK calligraphy samples ranked by Chinese, Japanese, and Korean native,s and by, say, Latin and Arabic alphabet natives, and see if there is much correlation in the rankings.

    It would seem that, for this sample, Latin natives are more impressed than CJK natives, but without other samples that doesn't tell us whether Latins judge CJK calligraphy differently or are merely more easily impressed by any at all.

  19. Masa said,

    May 8, 2016 @ 9:59 pm

    I am Japanese. When I saw the handwriting, I thought it's a practice of Kanji writing by a student, and never an artwork of calligraphy because no Japanese/Chinese calligrapher writes down the same lines again and again on a notebook page by using a pen. They usually write a poem or something on a special paper by using a writing brush.

    And I also thought it's not so beautifully written, but I could see the student wrote it very carefully. He seems to be a diligent student. I think it would be better for him if he practiced by tracing a model handwriting, not by writing by himself. That would be more efficient to improve the shape and form of each Kanji character of his handwriting.

    One thing that I felt somewhat peculiar was the vocabulary levels of each of the Kanji characters were slightly different. For example, in Japanese compulsory education, 赤 and 青 are very basic vocabulary which we learn at the 1st grade in primary school (usually 6 year-olds), but 働 and 連 are a little higher level vocabulary for the 4th-grade student (9 year-olds). Since the vocabulary levels of each Kanji characters are strictly defined by the Japanese government ( and we Japanese learn Kanji in school along with the vocabulary levels, it is less common to see a student practicing the 1st-grade vocabulary Kanji and 4th-grade vocabulary Kanji at the same time. So I thought it should be a Kanji practice for non-Japanese speakers, not Japanese schoolchildren.

    Among the answers you received from your friends, I was impressed by the #3 and #4 of "From educated native speakers of Chinese who are also highly proficient in Japanese". Many Japanese who are learning Chinese (including me) very often make the mistake of writing the Japanese style 別 when writing Chinese (and vice versa, Chinese who are learning Japanese also often mistakenly write the Chinese style 别 in Japanese text). There are a lot of similar examples of a tiny discrepancy on the same character between Japanese and Chinese such as 対/对, and they are very troublesome traps for learners of the two languages. As a native Japanese speaker learning Chinese, I'm always struggling with them. I guess the two Chinese have had the similar experience with me since they could point the small differences.

    I am sorry if I wrote too much, but it was very interesting and fun to see how diversified the answers of your friends depending on their backgrounds even though they see the same one picture.

  20. JS said,

    May 9, 2016 @ 12:58 am

    Re: #9, for me a billion years wouldn't do. But if we're talking about really good penmanship, it doesn't qualify; same sort of general clumsiness as the Kanji page, if more subdued.

    Also, it seems to me that one encounters with some frequency among Japanese young-ish people the same sort of miserable chicken-scratch that has stricken me and my American brethren, and that this is for now still considerably less common among Chinese. Just to be ethnically divisive and all. Perhaps others will find this off base.

  21. RachelP said,

    May 9, 2016 @ 5:12 am

    It would be interesting to know if some writing systems tend to look beautiful/ugly to people who do not know them, or if positive/negative judgements are spread about much the same for all of them. I know this has to be utterly subjective but it would still be interesting.

    I corresponded at one point with a lady who wrote in Dari (via a charity – the letters arrived with a translation) and I always though it looked beautiful.

  22. David Morris said,

    May 9, 2016 @ 7:05 am

    Come to think of it, I would be thrilled if my English handwriting looked like the equivalent of that!

  23. Ray said,

    May 9, 2016 @ 7:34 am

    I think what’s operative here, in judging the visual “beauty” of the sample, is the perception of fluency (which connects with our perceptions of fluency in writing and speaking).

    I teach sculpture to beginner and advanced students, and this writing reminds me of a beginner’s efforts: a careful, labored assembly of rigid orderly parts, but with an overall awkwardness, or wobbly-ness, that the construction could fall down at the slightest touch. an advanced student, on the other hand, has a gestural sureness and fluidity of transition from part to part, creating a cohesive, balanced, organic whole that rests and bends gracefully and ineluctably on its own internal strength. between the beginner and the advanced, it’s all about the difference between “position” and “poise.” in a masterwork, the construction is so alive and breathing that it not only creates its own space, but activates the space around it.

    another way of putting it: these strokes are not bamboo looking. and the overall effect is wooden.

  24. Julian said,

    May 9, 2016 @ 8:22 am

    I cannot read any language written with Chinese-derived characters and this still, to me, doesn't look particularly beautiful or even that technically competent.

  25. Joseph Williams said,

    May 9, 2016 @ 8:43 am

    This handwriting is truly commendable!

    The Kanji here are from the 12th and last lesson of the beginners Japanese textbook Genki Vol. I, which would typically be finished in the 2nd semester of Japanese classes in an American college.

    This person who had no experience writing Chinese characters two semesters ago could easily have the best handwriting in his/her class, and they are so diligent too! (I can't determine the gender of the person whose hand is in the photograph but it seems to be the hand of a white person and unlikely a heritage writer of Chinese characters.)

    What is unfortunate is that, as has been discussed by Prof. Mair on this blog, is that the pedagogical method of learning to write Chinese characters from memory is not the best use of a beginning students time. Also, I found the beginning Japanese textbook Minna No Nihongo to be much better in teaching communicative Japanese than Genki.

  26. leoboiko said,

    May 9, 2016 @ 9:27 am

    The beauty they're seeing is the beauty in the design of Chinese characters themselves (of the writing system), not the beauty of execution (of calligraphy). Those who can read Chinese characters are used to the former, and sensitive to the latter. Non-readers don't have the criteria to judge execution, but they can intuit the visual balance in the abstract designs – an effect that's multiplied by novelty and exoticism.

    This is very common; no matter how clumsily I draw my kanji, non-readers have often praised my practice sheets as 'pretty' or 'impressive'. The Japanese, instead, will tactfully praise my 'effort' or 'dedication'…

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