Is it harder than English spelling?

Compare the ability of native speakers, educated in their common scripts, to remember how to write words. Is it harder to remember Chinese characters, or English spelling?

Exhibit A:


Context: At the bank yesterday to do a wire transfer, I forgot, again, how to write the fancy numeral for four, so I had the front desk person write it for me.

Top: 肆 = 4

So far so good. But then one of the endearing features of banking security in China is that when you want to send someone money you must know not only full name, bank, and account number, you must also know the branch of the bank at which they opened their account. So I called my friend and he said it was 朝阳支行 Cháoyáng zhīháng, i.e. Chaoyang branch. Easy enough, except… damn, how do you write that Chao? As I’ve grumbled before, my ratio of characters I can write to characters recognized is abysmally low.

No problem, just ask the teller at the window. So he writes down the characters above.

At the time I think something looks funny, but who am I to doubt? So I faithfully reproduce the characters on the wire transfer slip and hand it back to him.

After a minute of paper-shuffling and discussion with his neighbor (none of which I could hear behind the seven inches of nuclear blast resistant glass that separated us) I see him start filling out a new wire transfer slip.

Jeez, I’m thinking, is my writing so bad it has to be redone? Well, no matter, I’ve borne greater ignominy. I watch him rewrite some key parts. Then he flips on the microphone, pushes the slip through to me and says sheepishly: “I wrote that character wrong.”

I finish filling it out in my pre-schooler’s script, hand it back to him, and that’s the end of it.


  1. Is that 朝 really written in error? What I mean is: I’m not familiar enough with handwriting to know if it would be considered acceptable to write the top part in the way that he did
  2. Even if it is, does it really justify rewriting the whole slip, or was he just so repulsed by my crude handwriting that he felt the need to rewrite? [BTW: usually bank tellers refuse to write anything on your actual official wire transfer slip, for fear of contributing to some kind of fraud]


So assuming it’s really an error as he said, it seems pretty surprising. First of all, 朝阳 is a major section of Beijing — it’s hard to go a day without seeing the characters somewhere. Second, I don’t think there’s any part of a character that would be written as he wrote the top, kind of a hanzismatter of 有 + 日 [but feel free to tell me I’m wrong — my character component intuition is pretty unreliable]

A while back I jotted down some

Facts unfavorable to Chinese characters (hanzi)

  1. It takes longer to learn to read hanzi than a phonemic script like Pinyin
  2. It takes much longer to learn to write hanzi than a phonemic script

Facts favorable to Chinese characters, that knowing modern hanzi

  1. Enables folks to read back through hundreds of years of written history
  2. Makes it easier to read back through many hundreds, even thousands, of years of written history. (Read: you still need significant education, far beyond just knowing modern characters, to be able to read classical works)

I think I would add to this list a #3 in the “unfavorable” category:

Native speakers are much more apt to forget how to write words with hanzi.

Exhibit A wouldn’t at all be conclusive evidence, of course, but there’s way more where that came from. Maybe we’ll organize a real test at some point.

Looking forward to comments, but please spare a moment for what I said before

Although my rhetoric is occasionally misunderstood as “anti” Chinese character, I will continue to say that this is not my position. I am no more “anti” character than one could be “anti” gravity. Characters are the writing system of China. Call it fatalism, but that’s how things are. I’m not interested in changing that.

I’ll append today: I have no illusions that anything I write would have any influence over the matter anyway.

18 responses to “Is it harder than English spelling?”

  1. Karan says:

    I think that he felt he wrote it wrong and that he should rewrite it not because it is all that far from the proper way of writing the character in reality (i.e. not a question of good or bad handwriting) but because he got a component wrong in his head. He thought it was

  2. Aaron says:

    Upon seeing the image I immediately thought there was something odd about the upper-left two strokes, but then assumed it was a Chinese thing (my knowledge is of Japanese). It sounds like this isn’t some special Chinese handwriting thing, so I would have to say yes, it is technically wrong, but not to a degree that makes it illegible. Whether or not that means a rewrite is in order is an exercise left to the reader (or the teller).

    And about Chinese vs. English orthography, I would say this is easily the analog of a misspelling. Would you have spelled “Poughkeepsie” correctly if told over the phone that the branch was located there? If you got a letter or two wrong, would it require a rewrite of the form?

  3. Syz says:

    @Karan: I think I get it — you’re saying he just thought he should get it right. That’s probably right.

    @Aaron: Sure, there are lots of difficult words in English, esp. place names. My personal enemy: ordervs. But in this case isn’t getting 朝阳 wrong more like misspelling “Manhattan” when you live in New York City? More generally, while I agree this is the analog of a spelling mistake, I think the “spelling” difficulties are waaay more pervasive in written Mandarin than they are in English. That said, I’d be the first to acknowledge this example hasn’t proven anything yet.

  4. Claw says:

    Favorable #3: It allows speakers of differing Sinitic languages to communicate. While it is true that non-Mandarin Sinitic speakers still have to learn Mandarin vocabulary and grammar in order to write in Standard Written Chinese, the differences are not big enough to make it burdensome (e.g., most Hong Kong residents know little to no Mandarin, yet are able to read and write just fine in order to communicate with Mandarin speakers).

    BTW, I actually write the top part of 朝 as

  5. Karan says:

    @Claw Now that you mention, that’s also how I write it. It’s quite natural because once you’re putting that stroke down, the next one starts off to the left and it’s natural to curve it just so you won’t have to lift the pen for the next stroke.

  6. Claw says:

    BTW, to help you visualize what I’m talking about, this site has an image illustrating it:

  7. Bruce says:

    The “chao” definitely looks weird to my eye, and my ability to write Chinese is quite limited, while I can easily read printed college-level and hi-tech text. As Claw says, it’s not the fact that the “+” isn’t “straight” enough that makes it wrong, it’s the fact that the top-down stroke carries on past the top of “zao.”

    An important factor that no-one has mentioned is that the de facto standard for correct stroke angle/look among most native speakers is not an antiquated dictionary in some library; it’s the printed character that one sees every day in newspapers and electronic media. They in turn are strongly influenced by how characters are “constructed” to appear clearly on a computer screen.

    I can tell you flat out that in my Japanese class a few years ago in Sapporo, your “chao” would have been found totally unacceptable by our teacher. I find that many Japanese can only read utterly correct renditions of hanzi without any cursive aspects to them, i.e., if it doesn’t look it was computer-generated, it’s wrong.

  8. Bryan says:

    Hanzi has two great advantages over phonetic script, exemplified by the English “ophthalmologist” and Japanese 「眼科医」:

    1. Hanzi is legible at far smaller subtend angles; it requires less surface area.
    2. Almost nobody can spell “ophthalmology” because its Greek root never appears in daily speech. 「眼」means “eye” in all contexts, and it is hard to imagine a native hanzi user who cannot spell 「眼科医」.

  9. matt says:

    I think your point 2 might count as an advantage, but, if so, it’s an advantage of the Mandarin language over the English one (or rather, of Chinese medical terminology over English medical terminology), not of hanzi over phonetic script. In German, for example, ophthalmology is Augenheilkunde – Augen ‘eyes’ + Heilkunde ‘surgery’ – completely transparent to any German speaker, I believe (I’m not a high-level German speaker).

  10. matt says:

    Sorry – Heilkunde is ‘medicine’, not ‘surgery’

  11. Sima says:


    Hanzi is legible at far smaller subtend angles; it requires less surface area.

    Could you expand on that a little? What exactly requires less surface area? A single word, a sentence, a certain kind of text?

    Would you say that if we have a given text, say a newspaper article, in both English and Chinese, the Chinese text will require a smaller area to convey the same information to a native speaker (reader) with the same degree of accuracy, ease and comfort?

    I seem to recall someone here suggesting that native Chinese readers also seem able to read a given Chinese text more quickly than an native English reader is able to read an English text. So, perhaps, we should add “in the same time” to the above statement.

    Almost nobody can spell “ophthalmology”…

    I’ve had the good fortune never to require the services of an ophthalmologist. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve ever met one. A quick search of my memory banks suggests that I may have never uttered the word “ophthalmology”, never heard it uttered and never written it. Yet I recognised it immediately and feel pretty sure that, if it was spoken slowly and clearly, I would be able to write it.

  12. Bryan says:


    German does have “Ophtalmologe” just as English has “eye doctor.” In America, “ophthalmologist” is preferred in signage because it indicates a specific kind of “eye doctor.”


    What exactly requires less surface area? A single word, a sentence, a certain kind of text?

    To be precise, hanzi requires a smaller subtend angle. That is to say that the largest fraction of your eye’s field of view occupied by a hanzi phrase is typically smaller than that for an equivalent alphabetic phrase with comparable legibility. If I were to render the words “ophthalmologist” and 「眼科医」 as images with the same number of pixels, and then progressively shrank the images, “ophthalmologist” would become illegible first.

    Yet I recognised (“ophthalmologist”) immediately and feel pretty sure that, if it was spoken slowly and clearly, I would be able to write it.

    This may be so, and the fact remains that「眼科医」requires no such intuition. This is in my opinion an advantage of hanzi.

  13. matt says:

    Bryan –

    The word Ophthalmiatrie does exist for ‘ophthalmology’ in German, but it gets 54,900 google hits compared to Augenheilkunde’s 1,900,000. I know that counting google hits isn’t very scientific, but the difference is pretty large.

    The words Ophthalmologe and Ophtalmologe ‘ophthalmologist’ also exist, with 93,800 and 15,000 hits, respectively, while Augenarzt ‘eye doctor’ gets 812,000. In English, “eye doctor” gets 1,130,000, while ophthalmologist (which I admit is hard for me to spell) gets 3,980,000.

    My point is that, generally speaking, English medical vocabulary is based on Latin roots, while German medical vocabulary is based on German roots. Here’s a (very) old article which compares English and German approaches to medical vocabulary: (the first page is free and should give you the general idea; you can tell how old it is from this sentence – “In German the basic scientific terminology rests upon native compounds which, however awkward, faithfully observe, for the most part, the Nazi doctrine of race purity” – but it’s the best I could find on short notice).

    I believe that English is exceptionally bad in this regard – for example, Italian medical terms (I think) are based on Latin, but Latin is much more transparent to an Italian speaker than to an English speaker. And scientific terms written in hanzi aren’t always transparent to native Mandarin speakers either. There’s 基因组 ‘genome’ – that’s based on an English root, jīyīn 基因 ‘gene’.

    I don’t intend to argue for or against hanzi – I just think that this particular issue is related to vocabulary, not writing system.

  14. konw says:

    i bet she didnt forget how to write 朝, but thought that she should write it “more correctly” so better for you, as a foreigner, not to misunderstand(not to mislead you,etc),,,so asked you to give her to write it again

  15. Syz says:

    konw: I agree I think that’s a possibility too — he felt the need to make the character look better just because I am a foreigner. Now that you mention it, I wish I had just asked him!

  16. Mei-Mei says:

    To come back to your inital question: definitely native speaker of Mandarin are more prone to forget the exact writing of a character these days, as has been shown by a recent mini-survey at the campi of Chinese top universities (sorry, can’t find the link anymore). But isn’t that also due to the fact that a lot of writing in our time is done at the computer or via mobiles, which is not that much different from handwriting when communicating in a Western language, but so much easier when writing characters?

  17. Syz says:

    Mei-mei: so you have a great study but no link?!!! 😀
    Well, let me know if you ever find it.

    Are you saying that the forgetting is due to computers? I guess I kind of get it. Computer usage in, say, English reinforces proper spelling to some extent. But in Chinese it just encourages you to recognize and not write. Yeah, probably true, although I’d guess that people still forgot more Chinese than English back before computers.

  18. Chris Waugh says:

    Syz, I definitely blame computer and cellphone usage for my Chinese handwriting being so poor. I’m not bad at recognising characters, but I constantly have to reach for the nearest dictionary, cellphone or computer to remind me how to write the bloody things. It’s exactly as you say: “But in Chinese it just encourages you to recognize and not write.”

    I have absolutely no argument with your last sentence, though. There are so many characters one would not often write that it’s easy to see how people would often have to reach for the dictionary.

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