Do you need to use your hand to write Chinese characters?

Copying Chinese characters countless times by hand used to be an important way of learning Chinese. Things have changed. Nowadays, using pinyin to input Chinese characters is the most common practice among Chinese learners. 

The question is, writing Chinese by hand and using pinyin to input characters, which way is better for learning Chinese?

Computers and smart phones are handy tools. Over the years, I’ve found that I’m increasingly relying on using them to look up characters which I’ve forgotten how to write. Although forgetting how to write a character is nothing new, it is becoming more and more frequent nowadays than before. 

Long time ago, when handwriting was the only way of writing anything, it would occur once in quite a while that I suddenly forgot how to write a certain character. 提笔忘字 (tí bǐ wàng zì) was a fitting word invented exactly for this kind of situation. 

Right now, if I want to write anything by hand, it is no longer one character that I’ve forgotten, it is more like a string of characters. 提笔忘字 can no longer adequately describe this new experience. 

Fortunately, I don’t have to sit for written exams where writing Chinese by hand is required. On any other situations, I can always rely on my smartphone or computer to look up the correct characters. 

That’s what many Chinese learners are experiencing as well. As long as computers are allowed, the need to write Chinese by hand diminishes. Copying the same character or word a thousand times seems to be such a waste of time. Correspondingly, in the current practices, writing characters by hand is not a priority for many teachers and Chinese learners.

However, over the years, my observation have persuaded me that writing Chinese by hand should be at least encouraged among Chinese learners, if it is not to be reinstated to its previous glorious level.

During the class, given other things equal, students who write Chinese more frequently by hand enjoy better general reading comprehension, and pause less on characters, than those who lack this practice. Better reading ability is not a trivial achievement in learning Chinese. Slowly and gradually, it’ll show a far reaching and profound effect in very aspects.

This is my impression only. I did not do any serious research with A/B testing, or anything like that. It would be nice to hear from other teachers and students about their experiences.

It seems to me that writing Chinese by hand offers many benefits which go beyond the narrow scope of memorising Chinese characters or stroke orders. I see clear similarities between writing Chinese by hand and playing a music instrument. They are both highly neuromuscular activities.

Practice playing an instrument involves the whole body to function, the brain, arms, legs, feet, and fingers. Sometimes, musicians just play a chord or a bar for a thousand times. But playing a chord or a bar really well is not the goal. The goal is to play the whole song really well.

I’ve heard some musicians, professionals and amateurs, saying that they practice all the time. Often, they just practice in their heads and play an air instrument. One drummer told me that he sometimes woke up playing drums in his head, and then off he went to practice using real drums.

Writing Chinese by hand shares similarities with playing an instrument.

Writing a single Chinese character or a word is like playing a chord or a bar, copying a poem of Li Bai is like playing a sonata of Mozart. Writing a story of one’s own is like composing an original song. Hands have an important role in all these processes.

Working with hands is definitely not just about hands. 

Writing Chinese by hand seems to have a deeper and wider impact on us, not just engraving shapes and sequences of characters into the brain. The extreme form of practicing writing Chinese by hand should be Chinese brush calligraphy. The calligraphy lovers think about how to write Chinese characters all the time, down to each stroke. What they have achieved is way beyond writing. 

The current teaching methods of Chinese emphasise pronunciation and vocabulary. Using pinyin to input characters correlates well with the emphasis of pronunciation. Demonstrating how to write a Chinese character is usually just for the purpose of showing stroke orders. However, if students don’t write with their hands, learning stroke orders seems to be pointless.

I recommend students try to use their hands to write Chinese as often as they can. When copying a word a thousand times seems a waste of time, perhaps just copy three or four times. When working on written assignments, always write them out by hand. If there are forgotten Chinese characters, look them up using smartphones. 

As for myself, I try to use pen and paper to doodle whenever possible, with my computer ready to assist.


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April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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