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Write good Chinese

Chinese people have had a long tradition of admiring those who have mastered the skills of writing Chinese, including calligraphers, who write beautiful Chinese scrolls, and writers or poets, who write beautiful proses, poems or both. 

Let me give two examples from ancient China.

A famous calligrapher - Wang Xizhi

Perhaps THE most famous calligrapher in Chinese history is Wang Xizhi (王羲之, 303 - 361CE), who has been admired from his time until today. His calligraphy has been studied by people for nearly two thousand years.

There are many stories about Wang Xizhi. Let me share two of them.

The first story tells us how much effort Wang Xizhi put into his practice. It was said that, when he was young, after he practiced writing calligraphy, he would go to a pond to wash off his brush’s ink. And eventually, the pond turned black. The takeaway from this story is “practice makes perfect”.

The second story is about his masterpiece 《蘭亭集序》 (the Preface to the Poems Collected from the Orchid Pavilion). He wrote it on a special occasion when he was drunk. After he got sober, he tried to write it again many times. But none of them was satisfactory. For more about this story, read “2000 years of history imbedded in the Chinese Reading and Writing series”. 

Below is this masterpiece:

A famous writer - Zuo Si

One famous Chinese writer and poet in Chinese history is Zuo Si (左思, 250 - 305CE). 

Here is a good story about him.

It was said that it took Zuo Si ten year to finish writing his 《三都赋》(Rhapsodies on the Three Capitals), a highly renowned poem. 

People loved it so much that everyone wanted a copy. That caused the price of paper to go up. This story left us a popular Chinese idiom 洛阳纸贵, meaning paper is expensive in Luoyang. Today, this idiom is used to praise a literary work. 

But Zuo Si was not born a child prodigy. He was not a quick learner and he didn’t show any signs of greatness. His father was rather disappointed in him. 

In order to prove himself to his father, Zuo Si studied hard and worked hard. 

In the end, hard work paid off. His literary work will always have a place in Chinese history.

“Tian zi ge” (田字格) and “mi zi ge” (米字格) paper

I hope you’ll be inspired by these stories, even though they sound like cliches today. Because what made these two people successful thousands of years ago will also make you successful.

You, too, can write good Chinese. 

Many students use a special gridded paper to start practicing writing Chinese. These types of special paper are called  “tian zi ge” and “mi zi ge” paper.

“Tian zi ge” divides a square into four sections.

Tian zi ge

“Mi zi ge” divides a square into eight sections.

Mi zi ge

The idea of “tian zi ge” and “mi zi ge” is to regulate how Chinese characters are placed in squares. It is more of a help to children than to adults, because children generally do not perceive shapes and proportions as well as adults do. 

This is the reason that both types of paper are widely used in the primary school textbooks and workbooks, but not in secondary school books. 

For Chinese language learners, it is all right for them to use “tian zi ge” or “mi zi ge” paper to practice writing Chinese. It is also all right if they don’t.

The act of writing is more important than choosing which type of paper to use. As long as students keep writing with their hands, they can gradually regulate their characters in good proportion. 

I’ve seen many students who write very well. Their handwritings can not be distinguished from handwritings by native Chinese. 

And let me add that good handwriting is different from pre-designed computer fonts. 

Let me explain.

Good Chinese handwriting

In pre-designed computer fonts (here are examples of six common Chinese fonts), Chinese characters are in the shape of squares. Strokes are levelled, and components are placed properly within the square, that components with more strokes take a bigger space than the ones with fewer strokes. Symmetry is the goal. 

However, that is not what good handwriting is all about.

Good handwriting is an art with personalities imbedded in each and every Chinese character. Strokes and components may not be as levelled, or as symmetrical as computer fonts. And not all Chinese characters have to be at the same size. Good handwriting is a show of free spirit, not to be bounded within fixed and identical squares. 

One way to start cultivating one’s Chinese handwriting is to trace or copy the good ones. There are many books teach pen-calligraphy and provide worksheets for people to trace and to copy. 

We can also learn from observing those masters when they write. How they move their hands and time spent on each stroke say a lot.

On top of copying and tracing, practicing and thinking are also important to develop that unique style that you call it your own. 

Good Chinese writing

Have good Chinese handwriting and write something good are two different ways to show your expertise. 

For Chinese language learners, neither of them are easy.

The previous section is about how to develop good handwriting. This section is about how to write some good Chinese texts. 

The starting point is to write single sentences in Chinese, simple but meaningful. This exercise develops students’ overall Chinese comprehension and helps them understand how different pieces of Chinese language fit together.

The next step is to put sentences together in a meaningful way until you can write good pieces. 

It sounds simple but it’s really hard to achieve. It requires consistent practice. 

Similar to learning from good Chinese handwritings, good reading materials provide students good models for them to emulate. It is recommended for students to start with copying those Chinese texts character by character. Read more about this technique here: Your first step of writing good Chinese is to copy good writings of Chinese. 

For practice writing down their own ideas, the earlier students start, the better. 

If you’ve learned a few hundred of Chinese characters, enter our annual event Chinese Writing Contest. 

This is a free and open event. Hope it’ll be the first testing ground for your Chinese writing skills.