Characters you should know how to handwrite

If we measure Mandarin handwriting literacy by this ratio:


I doubt there is any student of MSL (Mandarin as a Second Language) with a lower ratio than mine. Not that my denominator is large, but my numerator is nano scale. Partly, I’d have to lay the blame on sloth and lack of talent. But in my own half-hearted defense, I can do a lot of written communication in Chinese — as I do in English for that matter — without ever having to put finger to pen.

Partly it’s a problem of where to start. With thousands of characters lining up, just begging to be written 50 times each, I’m kind of at a loss. In fact I have started, at various points in the past, by writing my way up the word frequency list from Jun Da’s corpus. Trouble is, that list isn’t remotely representative of the words I actually have to handwrite in a given three month period, which usually consist of, in this order:

  1. My Chinese name (I’ve pretty much got that down)
  2. The 大写 (dàxiě) numerals used in banking to keep illiterate foreigners from sending money around the country


For those who haven’t experienced the pleasure, this is just like the US practice of writing out numerals longhand to prevent fraud, so my transfer for 27,970 is written at left, in translation, as twenty-seven thousand nine hundred and seventy.

Honestly, what corpus would have told me that I need to be able to write 贰万柒仟玖佰柒拾? If you use Jun Da’s corpus, it will tell you the frequencies are


So taking that approach, I’d only be on character 6786 by the time I learned to write “seven” with banking numerals. And I’d have covered 6774 characters I never need to write.

The first time the bank-transfer-fancy-numerals problem reared its head, I thought I’d buckle down and learn to write* the fancy numerals. But then it is always so long until the next time I need to send money, that of course I forget in the interim and end up having the teller write them in for me.

Maybe it’s just me. Does anyone handwrite on a regular basis anymore?


*Please don’t take my inability to write the numerals as in any way advocating not learning to read them. Even if the Jun Da frequencies are low, these numerals come up more often than you’d think, and in places where it matters, such as knowing how much money you’re actually wiring AND…

… signing up for Tianya!

Thanks to Confused Laowai’s comment on the hanzi captcha post the other day, I’m pleased to offer you a sublime fancy-numeral-captcha experience from the Tianya signup screen:


Get it? Just put in the numerals (0-9) that are written in dàxiě to the right. Note that, for the financially illiterate, they do make the task easier by giving a legend below the input field, telling you that fancy 1 is 壹, fancy 2 is 贰, etc.


18 responses to “Characters you should know how to handwrite”

  1. A says:

    Suggestion for practicing your ability to recognize and produce characters: give a try. It’s a spaced-repetition flashcard site based on a very slick draw-the-character UI.

  2. Zev Handel says:

    @A: I just did the demo over at It’s a beautiful, ingenious user-interface. I love the way it looks and works.

    But I’m not sure how much it would help me to develop handwriting skills. For one thing, the muscle memory involved in moving the mouse around seems quite different from that involved in moving pen on paper. For another, it seems like there is no way to learn how to make the characters balanced and attractive, since it’s hard to control the mouse with precision, and the program adjusts the positioning of the strokes for you.

    On the other hand, it looks the program might be quite effective in reinforcing characters you already know how to write.

    These are just superficial impressions based on a quick first look. What is your experience with the program?

  3. Chris Waugh says:

    I blame Pinyin input on phones and computers for my own poor handwriting. My sheer laziness, of course, has nothing to do with it. I don’t know about Skritter, but I have been thinking my next cellphone should have handwriting input so I can force myself to write more…

    As for the numerals, I have seen some banks with a key printed out and posted on the benches where you fill out your forms. I guess Chinese people forget how to write them, too.

  4. I’ve started using the 笔画 input mode to send out text messages with my cellphone. Sure, takes way out more time than with pinyin – for the moment -, and it occasionally turns infuriating when I fail to find which stroke on the keyboard corresponds to the stroke in my (sometimes fuzzy) memory — but I’ve utterly, completely and hopelessly fallen in love with this input system.

    OK, just as with Skritter, it’s not actual handwriting – but it’s a pretty good damn way to practice.

    Does anyone know if such a system can be installed on a normal computer?

  5. Max says:

    @Zev: AFAIK skritter suggests you invest into a graphics tablet if you’re serious about it. You’d use a mouse only until you’d have decided that something like skritter is the way to go for you character writing odyssey :)

  6. Katie says:

    Have you ever looked at the Heisig book? I think his recommendation for how to use it is utterly silly, but I find that it helps me retain writing much better than the endless repetition method–and that my reading is much better if I actually know how to write a character. (Your Chinese is obviously way better than mine is though. I can’t ever even remember how to write my own name. :)

  7. Jean says:

    I second writing short messages by hand on your phone, it is very good to consolidate common characters. It is not that slow when you do it often.

    I feel like doing the extra effort of learning how to write helps me to differentiate between similar characters and makes me decompose more seriously a character into its parts. I really retain them more precisely.

  8. Tezuk says:

    I am in the exact same boat. I think I can match you on your low ratio. It’s really annoying when you speak decent Chinese at a place and then they ask you to fill in a form! Must start working harder.

  9. Oh, that’s what those characters mean. I’ve never heard of daxie. Thanks for clearing that up. For a moment I thought those Captcha’s were completely random links with the numbers.

    Luckily, I’m studying Mandarin at University, so it is compulsory to learn how to write the characters by hand. I would say it actually takes up too much of our course work, because in tests where writing is concerned we have remember a hell of a lot characters and it sucks really that sometimes translating Eng -> Chi you know how to pronounce a word and you can recognise when it comes up in a text, but you learnt it a year ago and there’s no way you can remember how to write it. It’s strange how the recognition of Chinese characters differ so much from actually writing it. Probably some spatial thing.

    The thing is, it’s great how to learn how to write by hand, but is it really that important in the long run? I guess, it reinforces your recognition of hanzi, but you know when I’m not writing tests, I usually communicate online. So yeah, seems kinda superfluous to learn it by hand. Someday, I’ll be grateful, but for now, I feel like I learn too much how to write it, and would rather focus on other domains.

  10. Dave says:

    I have to be honest and say that for foreigners learning Chinese, time could be better spent elsewhere than doing drill after drill of writing practice.
    I think focus on reading and comprehension, and conversation/expression of ideas is infinitely more important than actually writing (with a pen). Plus the fact that apart from the banking example you give above, and other forms that need filling on now and again, there’s not a huge amount of circumstances when you actually need to hand write.
    I would say for the first year of learning Chinese that time should be divided equally between all the aspects (reading, writing, speaking, listening) to lay a solid foundation, but after that have less of a focus on drills and just pick them up as you go. You’ll probably find that the annoyance of having to look up a word to check how to write it a few times will have a stronger influence on your ability to remember it than wasting half an hour writing it out over and over again (and probably day dreaming while doing so).

  11. Julen says:

    If you are serious about Chinese, I think handwriting is essential. I would agree with Dave that you are almost never going to use it in itself, but it is very helpful to fix the hanzi properly in your head.

    I do a dictation once a week, and once in a while a 1000ch handwritten essay. This is the only thing I do anymore in class, for the rest -reading, etc- I can do it better alone. I came to the conclusion that dictation and essay review is the most effective use of my teacher time!

  12. Julen says:

    And BTW, I am not sure what is my ratio, but should not be so far from 1.

    Of course, in the denominator you should include only hanzi that you recognize reliably in isolation, not in the context of a word/sentence, which makes it much easier.

  13. Syz says:

    Skritter is definitely slick: I tried it way back when it first came out. Agree that you’d need a writing tablet to make it really useful.

    Writing chars on touch screen phone is a good memorization technique too.

    My struggle is not really with coming up with ways to memorize handwriting, it’s with deciding whether to bother. Handwriting certainly helps in memorizing characters so you REALLY get them. I went through a period when I thought maybe I’d have to do handwriting to be able to recognize characters in isolation. Then I experimented with flashcards (Anki) and can now recognize gazillions of characters (though still not enough :-/) in isolation. But I still can’t write them! And most of the time it really doesn’t matter. So maybe I’ll do it someday, but I don’t feel the push right now.

  14. My first thought to the first comment was pretty much a less clearly stated version of what Zev said. I do have a graphics tablet which I use often. But not for writing. It’s a different sort of muscle memory, in my opinion. I think it is good for drilling the strokes into your head, but not for making your writing more natural or fluent.

    My solution has been to only use the handwriting input on my iPod for dictionary lookups and the like. Bihua only does so much good before the added time it takes to send the message makes it not worth it. As such it’s been banished to being used only for words for which I don’t know the pinyin, e.g. things I learned in Wu first, things I learned a pronunciation for that doesn’t match the standard etc.

  15. Julen says:

    Bihua and Skritter do make a lot of sense, since what we are trying to learn most of us is not handwriting itself, but rather to know the characters actively.

    The only reason why I don’t use Skritter or any other internet method is because I am too much of a net addict to concentrate on anything while I am online. I have learnt my lesson long ago, and now whenever I want to do anything seriously I make sure I stay offline. Books and pens. That’s just me though/

  16. fremen says:

    My approach is just giving up on handwriting (besides the most common, everyday use characters), and I think it’s the best for laowai with not that much time/will to study.
    I learned a lot of characters in the school, but now, working full time, I don’t have the time to write as much. No writing means no learning new characters, and forgetting how to write many. The Chinese themselves forget lots of characters out of using computers everyday.. how could I even dream of catching up with them?
    It’s just being realistic; I can enjoy the Chinese culture more in this way, because I can use the time to read, or learn how to read. I can read many, many more characters than I can write.

  17. Julen says:

    @fremen – Of course, I understand your POV, what I said above only really applies to me. But I do want to add 2d points that most people might have overlooked, and they are important for those considering if they should do handwriting:

    1- Handwriting does not need to be boring, you don’t need to repeat character drills all the time, you can write stories and it is real fun. When you do it regularly you get a massive bump in speed very early on, and soon you find yourself concentrating more on the words and grammar than on the hanzi. You only have to stop and focus on the hanzi when you bump into one that you can’t remember, so it is VERY effective to identify where your gaps are.

    2- This helps a lot to learn words properly. For example, I only realized the differences between 接受 and 接收 when I started handwriting, and saw they are completely different words. This forces you also to listen carefully for the tone, while in typing on the IME you tend to ignore tone and just do a lazy “jieshou” and choose the first one that shows. There are many examples of homophones or semi-homophones that I got right thanks to handwriting.

  18. […] from Sinoglot: Characters you should know how to handwrite. My handwriting skills have deteriorated to the point where I almost have to pull out my cellphone […]

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