Chinese Writing: Is it really worth all the hassle to learn?

Posted in Linguistics, Society at 4:03 am by Benjamin Ross

Earlier this month I spent two weeks in an interpreter training seminar for a new agency I am now working for.  As part of the seminar, each participant was required to complete a ten-page glossary of medical terminology in their respective language.  Adrenal glands, anthrax, congestive heart failure…the list went on.  To complete the course, all of the medical terminology from the glossary had to be looked up (if not already known) and written next to its corresponding English definition.

For most of the participants at the seminar, completing the glossary was an insurmountable chore.  For me however, it was a welcome opportunity to write Chinese characters, a skill I had devoted hundreds of hours toward acquiring.  Item by item, I worked my way through the glossary, and after three evenings during which I spent over an hour on the project, I finally came to the end.  When I was done, I couldn’t remember the last time I had written so many Chinese characters in such a short period of time.

Even in the US, I use my Chinese every day.  I work as an interpreter, I have Chinese friends in Chicago, I read Chinese websites, I hang out in Chinatown, I’m a compulsive QQ addict, I call my old barbershop buddies in Fuzhou late at night when I can’t sleep.  Rarely does a day pass where not a single sentence of Chinese passes through my consciousness.  But how often do I actually write Chinese?  Well, the answer is a resounding “hardly ever.”  The ten-page glossary was by leaps and bounds the most Chinese characters I had ever written at one time outside of my own Chinese studies.  This got me pondering.  How practical is it to learn how to write Chinese?

Chinese writing is arguably the most time consuming aspect of studying the Chinese language.  Look inside any coffee house in Wudaokou (Beijing’s main foreign student district) and you will see tables of foreign students, meticulously laboring away at Chinese characters, stroke by stroke, character by character, line by line, the process repeated ad nauseam over the course of several years.  This, of course, is the only way to become proficient at writing Chinese.  But what is the payoff?  How much will a student of Chinese use their writing once they have finally mastered it?  For a little insight, let’s take a look at my own personal Chinese character study path.

Before I stepped foot in the Middle Kingdom, I had never written a single Chinese character.  In high school and college I had made the (rather unwise) decision of studying French, and therefore came to China with a blank slate.  I was living in Fuqing, a small town in which there were no other foreigners, and thus no Chinese study programs nor classes.  I didn’t learn to write Chinese for academic purposes, nor out of necessity.  Rather, I learned it out of boredom.

As it would prove to be, boredom can be an priceless asset for someone attempting to become proficient at Chinese writing.  As an English teacher in Fuqing, I was pulling a ten-hour work week, and doing so in a city with no bars, no beaches, no museums, and no live music,  Other than karaoke centers and brothels, nothing was open past 11 pm.  I had gobs of free time, was grossly over-paid, and had little to occupy my endless hours of freedom.

During my first month in Fuqing, a Chinese colleague had given me a handwriting textbook written for Chinese kindergartners, and a grid-lined notepad, specifically designed for writing characters.  At the time, I was diligent in my Chinese studies, but had decided to focus my studying around pinyin (Chinese Romanization) rather than learning to write the characters.  I had been on a six-month contract, and figured it wasn’t worth taking a stab at Chinese writing with such a short time frame.

For several months, the textbook and notepad collected dust, along with the veritable museum of gifts which had been bestowed upon me from colleagues and students during those first few months.  That was until one week, when a typhoon had kept me trapped inside my dorm room for two days straight.  In a fit of boredom, I looked over to my bookshelf, grabbed the textbook and notepad, and meticulously began copying the cryptic symbols onto the paper.

The following week, a Chinese friend instructed me on the proper way to write characters (stroke order is vital for any beginner), and before long I was on my way to becoming a functioning member of literate Chinese society.  I would learn five or six characters per day, focusing on words which were already in my spoken vocabulary, and using every block of free time I had to copy them onto the notepad.  After nearly six months, my writing had progressed to the point where I could write just about anything I could speak.  From that point on, whenever I would learn new vocabulary, I would always learn how to write the characters, instead of just learning the pinyin.  After two and a half years of active self-study, I reached the point where I could consider myself literate.  Rather that merely copying characters on my notepad, I was now keeping a daily journal of my activities in Chinese, and relying on this as my primary method of improving my writing.

Around the same time, several of my students had finally succeeded in dragging me into the world of QQ, the dominant IM chat client in the Middle Kingdom.  Although I could already read and write Chinese, QQ provided the additional hurdle of having to type Chinese on a keyboard.  Over the course of several months, Using the MS-Pinyin IME, I was able to transfer my skills with a pen into skills on a keyboard.  The more I was sucked into QQ, the more my Chinese typing improved, eventually to the point where it was infinitely faster, and more accurate than my handwriting.  Around this time I was also introduced to Chinese text messaging.  Talk time in the Middle Kingdom is considerably more expensive than sending texts, and my Chinese friends were getting tired of having to call me every time we needed to communicate.  Like it or not, I was, in effect, forced to learn to type and text Chinese out of necessity, whereas I had learned to write purely out of interest and curiosity.

Now let’s fast forward to my three month trip back to the Middle Kingdom this past summer.  The research project I worked on was conducted entirely with Chinese locals, and with a few minor exceptions, all work-related engagements were conducted without the use of English.  Most of the traveling I did was done alone, and with the exception of a trip down South to visit friends, was done in complete Chinese immersion as well.  As for my social life, it would be nearly impossible for an American in Beijing to live completely separate from other English speakers.  However I would still estimate that at least half of my social encounters were conducted in Chinese.

All in all, I spent 3 months in China, during which easily 2/3 of my communication was conducted solely in Chinese.  In all of those encounters including professional, personal, and travel-related, how often did I write Chinese characters?…maybe 6 or 7.  At an absolute most, 8.  Of those, at least half occurred while repeatedly writing my address on forms during my fiasco with the bank.  How is it that I could spend so much time in the Middle Kingdom without hardly ever using my written Chinese?  Well, for every single character I hand wrote, I easily typed or texted several hundred, if not a thousand.  Between scheduling meetings via e-mail, conducting research interviews on QQ, planning weekends over text messages, and making new friends on Xiaonei.com, my fingertips, and not my right hand, were spewing out several hundred Chinese characters per day.

Learning a language is an investment in the future.  Few people would struggle several years learning a foreign language without the belief that they would be using it for years to come.  Thus, when studying a foreign language, one must decide which aspects of the language will be the most valuable in the future. Handwriting is an art will be around for many generations to come, but its practicality is rapidly waning.  Just as brush calligraphy has remained a popular cultural relic of China’s past, I do not foresee handwriting’s complete disappearance any time in the near future.  I do, however, see its usage to continue to be rapidly replaced by electronic media, and eventually, like brush calligraphy, being relegated solely to the realm of artistic expression.

For me, as a Chinese learner in the 21st Century, the ability to type and text Chinese has proven invaluable on both a personal and professional level.  These skills have made my existing ability to communicate in Chinese infinitely more valuable.  All the while, my ability to write continues to deteriorate due to lack of practical usage.  It leaves me with the question:  Were all of those hours spent laboring over Chinese characters in my notebook really worth it?  In terms of personal satisfaction, then the answer is definitely yes.  Writing Chinese is a hobby which has given me countless hours of contentment and a greater appreciation of the Chinese language.  Additionally, learning how to write Chinese has also helped my reading proficiency, and I’m left to question whether or not one can effectively learn to read while bypassing the writing process.  But in terms of learning to write purely for the sake of being able to write, the time commitment has yet to pay off.


  1. chriswaugh_bj China said,

    November 4, 2008 at 5:01 am

    “I had made the (rather unwise) decision of studying French,”

    ‘unwise’ 个屁! I did my BA in French and it was a very sound decision and that BA still helps me everyday.

    “Were all of those hours spent laboring over Chinese characters in my notebook really worth it?”

    Of course they bloody were! How else could you learn to read? And being able to text message is one thing, but when you have to write out you details on a bank or post office form, your cellphone suddenly looks like a worthless lump of plastic. And really, how often do you hand write in English? Could that be somewhat equivalent to the amount of time you spend handwriting Chinese? I would suspect so… I only write English by hand because that’s how I plan lessons- I’ve a very old fashioned language learner, and an equally old fashioned language teacher. But that certainly does not discount the value of learning to write a language by hand. You state that learning to write Chinese gave you a greater appreciation of the Chinese language. How? By giving you a deeper understanding of how characters are put together and how to put characters together- or so I assume.

  2. Jason China said,

    November 4, 2008 at 5:34 am

    I actually just mentioned this in a post about how I study Chinese and I was thinking of elaborating on the whole ‘not writing’ thing. However, you’ve said it all!
    To be fair, I think a very good understanding of how writing works and an ability to write at least a hundred or so characters is very, very valuable.
    I suppose you could get away with doing so without actually putting the pen to paper, but that would just be silly. I did my hard time in university when studying Japanese and it although it was…grueling, it was worth it.
    For academic reasons (and fun?…) I’ll probably get back into later, but for now I just can’t justify the time it takes.
    Think about those poor bastards 30 years ago…not a pinyin IME to be found! They were truly hardcore…

  3. Jason China said,

    November 4, 2008 at 5:39 am

    @ Chris
    The mighty cellphone is far from useless! I can’t count the times I’ve used my phone and pinyin to remind (sometime teach) myself how to write a character.
    I suppose if you’re in a hurry though…

  4. Josh China said,

    November 4, 2008 at 6:12 am

    I completely sympathize with the feeling you get when I think about how many hours I spent trying to learn to write compared with how many times I actually write Chinese characters. I remember my hand becoming numb after copying the same characters twenty times each.

    But I like to think of it this way: would it have been possible for me to learn how to read or type Chinese if I hadn’t first learned how to write it?

    Even now as I encounter new characters I must write it out on my palm or on a piece of paper before I can remember them. Without this foundation to turn to, how could I read and recognize these characters? I believe that as long as there are Chinese characters, even if everything goes digital, there will always be a need to first learn how to write.

  5. Turtlewind China said,

    November 4, 2008 at 6:47 am

    @Jason: you’re absolutely right; when I need to write Chinese characters on a form I almost always type at least some of them out on my phone first and copy them from there.

  6. maxiewawa China said,

    November 4, 2008 at 10:37 am

    And yet they insist on making the HSK a paper only exam.

    I can barely wield a pen in my own language, why would I bother with Chinese??? And if I need to write something, really need to write something, I can just look it up on my phone!

    (Oh yes, but what if you’re somewhere without a phone?)

    Well then, I’d look it up on a computer.

    (But what if you’re somewhere without a computer or a phone?)

    Now where on this earth would I find myself without a computer or a phone?!

  7. 尼克 China said,

    November 4, 2008 at 11:36 am

    For those interested,l you can get an English version of QQ for Windows, Linux or Mac OS X and even sign up for QQ in English via the instructions here: http://nstanosheck.blogspot.com/2008/04/how-to-get-qq-number-for-english.html.

  8. Tex China said,

    November 4, 2008 at 11:45 am

    I am at a point in my learning where I can type and read quite a bit…not to mention my speaking has increased quite a bit over the last 4 months. I haven’t learned how to write very much actually only writing a few characters in my life. I can write about 10 not including numbers. Should I learn to write 100 or so of the most used? I agree with the investment thing, I need to stay here and study for a long while so my investment can get to a place where it pays off.

  9. Jason China said,

    November 5, 2008 at 2:52 am

    @ Tex
    I’d say yeah. The reason I said about a 100 is because all characters are built out of the same ‘pieces’. Actually, there’s probably more like a few hundred pieces, but it’s still not so bad. If you know the most commonly used few hundred, your pretty close to knowing all the ‘pieces’ and a quick look at a character should be enough to write and remember it temporarily. (at least for me)

  10. Justin Korea Republic of said,

    November 5, 2008 at 7:07 am

    Very interesting…as that’s pretty much the exact opposite approach from the one I took when learning kanji for Japanese :)

    I started by studying formally at my university, and after a couple semesters, began to realize how unimportant it felt to be able to write characters when 99% of what I do in life can be performed by typing. So I consciously shifted my focus completely to reading and comprehension. Now I can read virtually anything I see in daily life, but can’t even write my own address (er, very well at least). And so far, it’s worked great. On the rare occasion when I do need to put something on paper I usually just type it on my cellphone and ask someone else – the clerk at the post office, for example – to perform the actual penmanship. I’m fairly certain that I’d know only a small portion of the kanji I know today had I tried to retain both reading and writing abilities for them all :)

  11. Jiang China said,

    November 6, 2008 at 2:03 am

    I am learning English. I think I have a good reading skill. But my writing skill is bad. Just like you, there are few occasions I need to write English by hand. I often misspell words so that I found out a good way that I use Microsoft’s Word when I write in English because it has a spell check function. Computers play a vital role in my language learning. I think someday we don’t need to learn any foreign languages at all because we will use the same language — computer.

  12. Nikolai Xander Japan said,

    November 8, 2008 at 8:52 pm

    I haven’t really read the comments above, but I have been wondering for some time now the exact same question…as I am still in college and looking to a major in Chinese, how much should I focus on writing? I’ve had the feeling for some time that it’s more important to TYPE chinese than hand-write…I’ve even been taking my laptop to class these days. But how do I get the teacher to go for it? Could you email me in private? I think it would be nice to start a dialogue with you :)

  13. chriswaugh_bj China said,

    November 11, 2008 at 8:07 am

    I read the comments above as a subconscious affirmation of the need to write properly, and a subconscious admission of the shame of not being able to write this language they are learning. Sure, a lot of stuff happens electronically these days, but as every commenter has admitted, a lot happens on good old fashioned pen and paper.

  14. F China said,

    November 11, 2008 at 12:21 pm

    i don’t think you could considerate yourself literate. there is still a long way to go from where you have imagined.
    The hardest and the most beautiful part of chinese is chinese idiom, which often being used on and off when literate chinese strick up a conversation.
    you think you are literate, that’s because you are a foreigner in china, we merely use some very simply words to explain things to you.
    if you only know how to read chinese word by word, when it comes to idiom, you become chingulish. that’s the mistake the english teacher always bring it up to the students.
    seriously, you could ask more chinese students, if they often seep in some idoms into their conversation which is more exact to put things into words at some point.

  15. justrecently Germany said,

    November 14, 2008 at 6:03 am

    It dawns on me that you possibly touched the key – people can learn Chinese when they have a lot of time. Like until recently, while spending two hours or so melting their steel pots in their backyards to speed up the revolution, the Chinese read Mao’s works and thus made themselves literate.
    Now there are more Chinese people who have a lot of work to do and a lot of money to earn. But then, maybe they are also less literate than their parents and grandparents.

  16. Daisy China said,

    December 19, 2008 at 12:37 am

    oh, i spend about half an hour reading your article. i learn much from you. you are a chinese language learner, and it takes you less than 2 years to master the speaking and writing. i admire you. i am an english language learner, and i beagan to learn english since my middle school. it means i have learned english for ten years. but my english level is much worse than your chinese level. it seems ten years ago i had known “-my name is.how are you?…fine, thank you, and you?” while after ten years, i still dare not chat with foreigner and i can’t talk with them fluently.
    like you said ” you learned to write purely out of interest and curiosity.” and you did very well at last.
    maybe i lack this interest and curiosity. maybe i lack the language immersion you have. i have no chance to go abroad to experience the real english immersion.
    whatever, thanks for your article, i learned a lot both on the english and on how to learn a language.

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