Write good Chinese

Chinese people have always admired those who have mastered the skills of writing Chinese, such as calligraphers, who have beautiful handwritings, or writers, who produce beautiful poems or proses. 

Let me give two examples.

A famous calligrapher - Wang Xizhi

One 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 briefly.

One 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.

Another story is about how much effort he 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. No wonder he became a calligraphy master.

A famous writer - Zuo Si

One famous Chinese writer in Chinese history, Zuo Si (左思, 250 - 305CE), exemplified how much people loved good poems.

It was said that it took Zuo Si ten year to finish writing his 《三都赋》. People loved so much that everyone wanted a copy. That caused the price of paper to go up. This story left us an idiom 洛阳纸贵. 

For students who start learning how to read and write Chinese, writing good Chinese is also something they can be aspired to.

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

It is quite common to see students use “tian zi ge” and “mi zi ge” paper to practice writing Chinese.

“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 learners who learn Chinese as a second language, 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 mor important than choosing papers. As long as students keep writing Chinese characters with their hands, they can regulate their characters very well. Many times, I can not distinguish between native Chinese speakers’ handwriting and non-native Chinese speakers’.

Good Chinese handwriting

In printed forms, 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 the printed forms. 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. 

There is only one way to have good handwriting, and that is “practice, practice and practice”. 

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, we must practice writing a lot and to think a lot about our handwriting to eventually have our very own style. An added benefit is that writing frequently helps students memorise Chinese characters.

Good Chinese writing

For Chinese language learners, write something meaningful in Chinese, such as a few sentences, has many advantages. 

The simplest writing exercise is 造句, that is to write sentences using some new words or structures. It helps students understand how different pieces of Chinese language fit together and develop their overall Chinese comprehension. 

Good Chinese writing skill is to put all the sentences in a coherent manner and to generate a deep impact on readers. It is an important language skill. 

Chinese writing skill is developed over time, and 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 because it is the first step of writing good Chinese.

For practice writing down their own ideas, the earlier students start, the better. At MSL Master, students use the Chinese Reading and Writing series and start writing meaningful texts from the beginning. 

After a few hundred of Chinese characters, there is a Chinese Writing Contest for them to test their writing skills. One requirement of this Chinese Writing Contest is that there are only 320 Chinese characters available for participants to use. It is actually a lot of fun. Read a sample story from the 2021 Contest or listen to the audios of the entire book here: Easy-to-Read Chinese Short Stories, Book 1. 

With sufficient practice, students will be able to achieve excellence in their Chinese writing. 

In 2016, I was invited to a student’s wedding, of which half of the attendees were Chinese. During the ceremony, my student delivered a speech in Chinese he wrote by himself and impressed everybody there, Chinese and non-Chinese.

Perhaps no one is able to push up the price of paper today, but they will win tons of admirations from their Chinese friends and colleagues.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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