I’ve been looking around for good references, textbooks, websites, etc. to save newbies from the “there’s so much out there, what’s good (what’s free) and where do I start?” kind of anxieties and I came across a great little book on writing Chinese characters (汉字). It’s “Learning to write Chinese Charcters” by Johan Björkstén and I have to say it is one of the most useful and clear books on learning to write Chinese characters* not just for newcomers, but anyone that wants to improve their handwriting. In case you don’t feel like reading it (I read it in about 2 hours), I jotted down some notes to share with you.
Important reasons to learn to write characters:
- Over time you get a feel for their logic.
- Most handwritten characters that you see on menus and shop signs (or probably also your chinese friends) are written in cursive. If you don’t even know how to write the characters you will not be able to decipher this kind of script.
- This is a quote “by practicing calligraphy you an achieve a glimpse into Chinese aesthetics and philosophy…”
The next section of the book goes over some brief history of characters. I recommend you just go ahead and read it*, it’s really interesting and short. I’m going to just share what he says about how the characters developed and evolved because it helps to understand character structure, there are 4 ways:
- Pictographs – originally pictures [水] (pretty self explanatory)
- Abstract concepts [上下]
- Phonetic – take an existing character with similar pronunciation and add a radical for meaning (95% of characters)
- Borrowed – old characters given new meaning [来]
(Images taken from book, pages 14 and 16, click for larger picture)
Reason 3 really shows you why learning radicals are important and not just to be able to look a character up in a dictionary.
There are three type of scripts used for handwriting
- Kǎishū – standard script
- Xíngshū – a kind of cursive script
- Cǎoshū – cursive script
As you can see, the cursive writing is much harder to read. When you first learn characters, like kids in elementary school, you learn the standard form and as you get more comfortable you start writing like the 2nd style. Actual Chinese adults write in a mix between síngshū and cǎoshū.
The last important thing about starting to learn Chinese Characters is that you have to choose what kind of script to write in, Traditional or Simplified. Back in 1956 the Chinese Communist regime reformed Chinese script in order to promote literacy and make writing faster. Neither Taiwan nor Hong Kong followed this reform and the traditional style is still used for shop and restaurant signs in mainland China.
Here’s my take on the whole Traditional vs. Simplified discussion:
In my First-year Chinese class back in college we could choose to write in either script. I chose traditional because, well, it seemed more “authentic”. The summer after, I spent almost all of my time practicing and learning Chinese on my own and that’s when I realized that it really was not for me, it was tedious, and I found that I couldn’t recognize a lot of the simplified equivalents. So, in my Second-year Chinese class I switched over to simplified. Things flowed much better and I found that the reverse process, recognizing the traditional equivalent, was much easier. Nonetheless, I think it helped me start with the traditional characters because it was so tedious. What I’m trying to say is, choose one, see if you like it, see if it gives you problems with trying to recognize the equivalent in the other script, but always try to make your handwriting as nice as possible. And like me, if you don’t like it just switch to the other one.
*I have a Dropbox folder with PDFs of reference books and textbooks, including this one. If you want access drop me a note at chinesewithmanu at gmail with your email and I’ll link it to you.