How to write Chinese characters?

Now that you have learned a few Chinese words, perhaps you would like to try and write the corresponding characters. Some people talk about “drawing” the Chinese characters, and I don’t blame them. Each character does look like some kind of a symbol.

There are simple characters, like (yī one), (èr two), (sān three) and (rén person). And there are complicated ones, like (bí nose) and (dài a black pigment). By the way, one of the main characters in the famous classical Chinese novel, Dreams of the Red Mansion, is named 林黛玉 (Lín Dàiyù). (Lín) is a last name that means woods, (yù) is jade. 黛玉 (Dàiyù) means black jade.

When making a drawing, you can pretty much start wherever you please, although I would usually start with the head when I’m drawing a person. When doing a Chinese character, you will need to follow a given sequence, and that is for your own good. For one thing, if you start from a different point each time you write a character, it will be harder to remember that character than if you always execute the strokes in the same order. Compare that to typing on the QWERTY keyboard. You barely have to think when typing some English text. Your fingers “remember” the locations of the letters on the keyboard. In the same way, you can train your hand to “remember” the way to write a character by repeated execution of the same sequence. Secondly, many Chinese characters take on shared radicals. It will be wise to take advantage of the knowledge of these radicals rather than wield your pen haphazardly.

The book, “Reading & Writing Chinese” by William McNaughtan and Li Ying, shows you the definition and the sequence of the strokes for over 2000 commonly used Chinese characters. Both a Traditional Character edition and a Simplified Character edition are available. If you choose to learn the Traditional Characters, you could get the Traditional Character edition. Where a Simplified Character is available for a Traditional Character, this book also shows the corresponding Simplified Character on the side. Use the Alphabetical Index at the end of the book and your knowledge of pinyin to locate the group of characters with the same pinyin notation. Then look for the character that you are after.

There is a link to a nifty free Chinese character animation on Erik E. Peterson’s web site: From the home page, select “Learn Chinese”. Under “Tools for Learning Chinese”, select “Learn to Draw Chinese Characters”. Under “Links for Learning to Draw Chinese Characters”, select “Characters with Animation”. The direct link to Tim Xie’s page is:

You will notice that, in gneral, the strokes on the top get written before those at the bottom, and the strokes on the left side come before those on the right side of the character. Why not look up the following Chinese characters and practice writing them on paper? Yes, yes, you will need to write each character many, many times until you can do it with your eyes closed.

(nĭ you), (hǎo good), (zǎo early, morning), (wǎn late, eveneing)
(xīn new), (nián year), (kuài fast, quick, pleasurable), (lè happy)
(mǎ horse), (niǎo bird), (zài again), (jiàn see, look)

How many Chinese characters do you know?

Even if you’ve never studied Chinese, I’ll bet you can claim to know a few Chinese characters right after reading this post. Take a look at these three characters:  yī ,   èr ,  sān.

They stand for “one”, “two” and, “three”. No kidding. However, unlike the sticks and slashes tally system, this logic does not carry to the higher numerals in Chinese. For example, the number “four” is presented by:  四 sì . This still makes sense as you can count a total of 4 corners in this character. Doesn’t this character look like a window with the curtains gathered to the sides? Here is a video of kids showing you how to count to 10 in Chinese along with the hand gestures used in Taiwan. And here is blog post that shows you how to write the Chinese characters that represent the numbers from 1 to 10.

Now, look at this character: rén. Imagine the two slanted strokes being the legs of a walking human being. That’s right. This character stands for a “person” or a “human being”.

All right! Now you know 5 Chinese characters. But how many characters does one need to learn to be able to read a typical contemporary Chinese novel? There is not a consensus, but the answer lies somewhere between 3000 and 5000.

Please don’t let this large number overwhelm you. You will be able to work with many documents after you have learned the basic set of about 2000 Chinese characters. In fact, you should be able to compose a simple letter after learning just 1000 characters. How to get from 5 to 1000? My calculator tells me that if you pick up 3 new characters a day, you will reach this goal in 334 days, i.e. within one year. What’s more, the learning process will get easier and easier as you become more and more familiar with the Chinese characters. This is because many Chinese characters actually share some easily recognizable parts, which are referred to as the “radicals”. For example, do you see the in the following two words?

仁  rén means “kindness”, and  nĭ  means “you”.

The shared “人” radical is compressed somewhat to make room for the other part of the character. Yes, each Chinese character in a normal string of Chinese characters occupies roughly the same amount of space no matter how many strokes it contains. This adds to the challenge of writing those complex characters that contain more than, say, 16 strokes.

Of course, if your objective is to just learn how to speak Chinese, then you don’t need to worry about reading and writing the Chinese characters. A good audio instruction program plus classroom interaction will suffice. Still, it will be advisable for you to learn the pinyin system so that you may be able to sound out the words in other helpful printed instruction material that provide the pinyin phonetic aid.

For the rest of you, maybe you will add this to your 2011 New Year’s resolution: Learn 3 new Chinese characters every day.

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