Can you be Literate Without Writing Chinese Characters by Hand?

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on

Recently one of my Tweets sparked a lively discussion among Mandarin learners, teachers and the wider language learning community. I recalled an encounter with a beginner Mandarin learner who told me he didn’t consider other learners ‘literate’ unless they could write characters out by hand.

The ensuing discussion raised several interesting questions about literacy and Mandarin learning. In this blog I will summarise three core questions which arose from the responses and expand on my thoughts.

  1. How do you define ‘literate’?   

The dictionary definition of ‘literacy’ is the ability to read and write. The specific method used to write isn’t mentioned, so an ability to communicate through typing is usually sufficient to be considered literate. In fact the rise of computers has played an important role in helping people around the world who are unable to write by hand achieve literacy.

Large numbers of people with neurological disorders and other disabilities which restrict the use of their hands are nevertheless able to write with the aid of a computer. Stephen Hawking, for example, wrote several books without the ability to use a pen yet nobody ever suggested he was illiterate.

Many advanced Chinese learners are able to read Chinese novels fluently yet cannot write characters by hand. In fact most serious learners I have met are in this category. Older learners who studied Mandarin more than 20 years ago had no choice but to memorise character strokes because typing wasn’t an option. But many of these learners (such as Steve Kaufmann) report they have long since lost this skill because the emergence of computers and keyboards has largely replaced the need to write by hand in everyday life.

Over the past two decades, new Mandarin learners who wish to become literate have for the first time in history been faced with the following choice: Should we learn to write characters by hand or not? Given how long it takes to master other aspects of Mandarin which are essential for communication – tones, spoken fluency, listening ability and reading – many of us opt to abandon handwriting characters in favour of typing them with the phonetic Pinyin keyboard system (seen below) which native speakers use to communicate in daily life. This system requires an ability to visually recognise characters and recall their phonetic spelling but, crucially, not their strokes.

2. Isn’t writing characters out by hand necessary in order to remember them? 

Whilst writing characters can be very useful as a beginner, my experience – and that of many others – shows that it is entirely possible to retain thousands of characters in our memory without writing them all out by hand.

I first made a serious effort to learn characters around a year into learning Chinese. I discovered a book which contained the top 1000 characters along with instructions for the stroke orders and began a daily process of copying each of them out repeatedly in an attempt to memorise them. However, I soon began to have doubts about this method. Basic literacy in Mandarin requires 2000-3000 characters and the rate of my progress was too slow for this to seem attainable. I got to about 100 before the size of the challenge began to feel overwhelming and I gave up.

An early attempt at writing characters out by hand from my first Chinese notebook

This experience caused me to avoid characters for a long time and almost led me to give up Chinese entirely. However, several months later I found a new tutor who introduced me to space repetition apps for the first time. I started using the app Quizlet to drill flashcards daily and learn the HSK 3 exam deck containing around 600 words. Alongside this, my teacher encouraged me to continue writing the characters out by hand as she insisted this would help them stick in my memory.   

However, using flashcards alongside regular reading practice I developed an ability to visually recall many characters in my deck even though I had never written them out by hand before. The more I used space repetition and flashcards, the more I realised writing by hand wasn’t necessary in order to recognise characters, read and type. After learning to write around 250 characters I abandoned my handwriting efforts, freeing up more time to focus on flashcards, reading, listening and speaking. At the time of writing I can recognise over 2000 characters allowing me to read books and articles in Mandarin.

3. Is Chinese handwriting a useless pursuit? 

None of what I have written here is intended to suggest that learning to write out Chinese characters is a pointless activity. In fact, I think it can be worthwhile for three reasons.

First, in language learning you should pursue what you enjoy doing and many people are primarily attracted to studying Chinese because of the beauty of characters. People who choose to learn to write thousands of characters out by hand should not be criticised for making that choice. On the contrary I admire anyone who follows their passion and makes this commitment because doing so involves considerable sacrifice and will slow their progress down in other areas of the language immensely.

Second, characters form a core part of the Chinese language and culture. There is a legitimate fear within China that a key aspect of this culture – handwriting – is gradually being lost due to the rise of technology. This problem was covered in a fascinating BBC documentary on the history of writing during which a group of young native Chinese speakers discussed how their reliance on keyboards caused them to forget the strokes for many characters they learned to write in school. There is a case to be made for preserving the tradition of writing characters by hand and foreign learners who do so are contributing to that mission.

Thirdly, writing characters is undoubtedly useful for all learners early on. I certainly don’t regret learning to write my first 250 characters out by hand. Like many beginners, I often found it hard to differentiate between characters which appear alike to the untrained eye. Learning about radicals, how characters are structured and practicing writing them out by hand were powerful tools for resolving these early problems. Regular handwriting practice will help you develop a keen instinct for acquiring new characters which will serve you well as you progress to intermediate and advanced levels.

What are your views? Does writing out characters form a core part of your study plan? Let me know in the comments below.

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3 Thoughts

  1. Clifford Garstang says:

    This is a really interesting subject and I do agree with you, despite a bit of a nagging doubt. My first exposure to characters was as a Korean learner, deepened by my study of calligraphy under a Korean calligraphy master. It was my love of the writing of the characters that led to my life-long interest in Chinese. However, using pinyin on a keyboard is now essential, and the ability to write characters far less important–though still something I enjoy doing. Again, I agree with you, and appreciate your observation that handwriting practice can aid learning new characters.

    1. Thanks for your comment Clifford. Very interesting to hear about your time learning Korean calligraphy, that must have been quite an experience! Yes, I’m keen to stress that I do see the value of learning to write out by hand and can understand the desire to preserve this. Ultimately though it is probably unrealistic for most learners who prioratise communication.

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