How to Write Chinese Characters

How to Write Chinese Characters

Chinese characters are far more intricate than western letters of the alphabet; (It is worth noting however that each character contains meaning, whereas a western character is simply part of a word) and the complexity of the characters can be daunting at very first. Take heart that it is certainly not as difficult as it very first shows up – after just a few lessons everyone in our class was writing the simpler characters with ease!

The very first thing to learn is the correct stroke order, a common mistake is to attempt and draw the characters. This is a serious error for several reasons:

  • You are supposed to be writing not drawing. How quickly do you think you’d be able to write in English if you drew each letter, sometimes going right to left, up to down, clockwise or otherwise? If you analyse your handwriting you will see that you always write each letter the same way, without conscious thought; Chinese should be no different to this.
  • The characters have an aesthetic beauty of their own, very likely because they used to be scribed artistically with a brush. If you write them in the correct manner your calligraphy will look better, even using a biro.
  • There is no alphabet in Chinese so one of the methods of looking up characters in a dictionary is by the number of strokes. If you are not writing using the correct number of strokes you won’t have a hope of using such a dictionary.

Having said all this, I suppose I should explain the rules of writing!

  1. Horizontal strokes should always be written from left to right: 一
  2. Vertical strokes should be written from top to bottom: 川
  3. Boxes are written with three strokes. Embark with the left edge, then one continuous stroke for the top and right edge. Then close the box with the base: 口
  4. “Hook” strokes are made by doing a vertical stroke down and flicking up at the end to form the hook. eg the centre stroke in: 小
  • Top to bottom: 三
  • Left to right: 川
  • Upper left corner to lower right corner 石
  • Outside to inwards 月
  • When two or more strokes cross, horizontal strokes before vertical ones 十
  • Slanting stroke to the left before a slanting stroke to the right 人
  • Centre stroke before symmetrical wings 小
  • Boxes should only be closed once the strokes inwards them have been ended. So, 田 would be written: left edge, then top and right edges in one stroke, then 十 inwards the box and eventually the box is closed with the base line.
  • Stroke Order (advanced)

  • Attempt and draw the base line last. So in the case of 王, you would do the top horizontal stroke, then the middle horizontal, then the vertical and ultimately the base.
  • Vertical strokes which pass through other strokes but do not have strokes either at their top or base should end in a “needle” point. eg: The vertical stroke in 中 would end in a needle point. This effect can lightly be achieved with a normal biro by reducing the pressure of the pen on the page as the stroke completes.
    The centre vertical for 下 would end normally as it is not “piercing” any lines. Similarly, the centre vertical of 王 would not end in a needle point as it is bordered at both finishes by horizontal strokes.
  • There are always exceptions to these rules if you want to be fully correct! One example is 女. Evidently this should not be written with the horizontal stroke very first, it should be written. middle downwards stroke, right to left “gam” and ultimately the third horizontal stroke. Exceptions generally must be learned on a case by case basis but they are not common so don’t worry too much! (In the case of 女, most computer handwriting recognition systems would still work if you did the horizontal stroke very first).
  • There is a good website that used animated pictures to display how you can write characters correctly at http://www.csulb.edu/

    txie/azi/page1.htm. Another nice site is at http://www.ocrat.com/ albeit this one uses simplified characters only.

    Aesthetics and Proportions

  • Chinese characters are traditionally practised on squared paper, with each character being written in the centre of a square.
  • An example from a children’s learning book

  • Characters should be uniformly written with equal spacing inbetween each, again, squared paper can help enforce this.
  • Make sure that each component of a character is connected to the entire, it is a common mistake to let radicals drift away from each other so that a single character resembles two or even more individual ones!
  • Top to bottom, left to right?

    A common question is “do Chinese people read top to bottom, right to left or left to right?” The quick response is that if characters emerge horizontally, they will be read left to right, in exactly the same was as English. If they are printed vertically, they are read top to bottom, kicking off from the right-most column and moving left. This means that vertically printed books will begin from the “back”, from the point of view of a Westerner, and each column of text will be read until the book finishes at the “front”.

    Vertical text is common for shop signs and banners in general, and because each character is written inwards an imaginary square, it looks just as pleasing to the eye as if it is written horizontally.

    One slight exception for horizontal text, is that brief phrases will from time to time be written right to left for stylistic or historical effect. When watching period kung-fu films for example, the name on a temple is often written “rearwards”.

    Simplified or Traditional?

    For students who are attempting to learn Chinese, the instructing method is the same whether they are learning Mandarin or Cantonese. Modern Mandarin characters are simplified, whereas Cantonese people from Hong Kong will use traditional forms, but the component strokes of both types of characters are the same. The popular view is that learning Traditional forms very first, followed by Simplified ones is lighter in the long run than doing the switch roles. Simplified characters were not introduced until the mid twentieth century, so any Chinese art or literature before then will of course be written in Traditional script. Even in China today, designers or artists looking for a classical look will tend to use Traditional forms. By being aware of both, you increase your chances of being able to understand more Chinese.

    If you are getting put off by this talk of simplified and traditional characters, don’t worry too much! Many characters are identical in both systems. For example, take a look at the Level 1 character list on this site and you will see that simplified forms only embark appearing within the 8 stroke and above characters.

    Modern Chinese uses punctuation in much the same way as other languages. There are a few minor differences tho’:

  • The period, or fullstop, is not written as. but as 。(a puny circle, rather than a dot).
  • Commas are the same, but 、is often used when separating items in a list.
  • 《 》can used to denote titles or names, eg: 《 title 》for horizontal text. For vertical text, titles are underlined. It can be fairly helpful to have names punctuated in this manner, especially for beginners!
  • Quotation marks are the same, but sometimes 「」 or 『』 are used instead.
  • Question marks have been in use in Chinese writing for many years, albeit the reason isn’t downright clear, for Chinese already has special characters for indicating a question!
  • For more detail on punctuation, please see this interesting thread. There is also a thread about the question mark in Chinese .

    This is a work in progress, so if you have any suggestions, corrections or advice, please contact me or post in the Discussion Forum.  

    How to Write Chinese Characters

    Chinese characters are far more intricate than western letters of the alphabet; (It is worth noting however that each character contains meaning, whereas a western character is simply part of a word) and the complexity of the characters can be daunting at very first. Take heart that it is certainly not as difficult as it very first shows up – after just a few lessons everyone in our class was writing the simpler characters with ease!

    Related video: My Grandfather


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