If I randomly asked you to write 梳 (shū) could you do it?
Without giving you the definition “to comb,” I’m afraid the odds are against you.
Several Chinese characters share the same pinyin (shū).
If it makes you feel better, know that a fluent speaker might also need several attempts before they get it right.
They’ll most likely write the character for book, 书 (shū) on their first try.
If I gave you the definition, do you think you could write it then?
As a beginner or even an intermediate Mandarin Chinese learner, probably not.
Now that doesn’t mean you don’t know the character. You might have come across it in texts during a previous lesson. But recognizing 梳 (shū) in context isn’t the same as being able to write it down—recognizing it is a receptive skill, while writing is a productive skill.
Get Productive: Why You Should Practice Your Chinese Writing Skills
It’s true that many have survived day-to-day life without needing to further their Chinese writing skills. However, if you really want to master the language, writing practice is a must.
Practice means writing characters to the point where you don’t have to think about how they’re written. As professor Victor Mair of the University of Pennsylvania says, “Writing Chinese characters is a highly neuro-muscular act. You have to etch the characters into your nerves and muscles.”
Don’t worry, you’re not always expected to practice “Bart Simpson style,” writing words repeatedly on the chalkboard until the strokes are permanently etched in your mind.
The internet is full of educational tools to keep your writing in check, and I’ve hand-picked a few tools that you should consider adding to your study routine.
Tips for Studying Chinese Characters
Before we get around to some useful tools, let’s talk about some ways you can approach Chinese characters that will benefit your writing practice.
Repeatedly writing out Chinese by hand is necessary to master the characters. So, you’ll need to go the Bart Simpson route to a certain extent.
But, as we all know, writing out the same words over and over again can be tiring and boring. So, it might not be the most effective learning strategy for everyone.
Even if you enjoy writing things out to practice, you might need a break—or develop other areas of your skills.
Luckily, there are a few other things you can do to ensure you know every stroke.
Study the evolution of characters
To native English speakers, the Chinese language looks like a series of strange symbols.
If you take a look at the character development, you’ll notice that there’s a story behind each one. Chinese characters are basically pictograms and ideograms. They started off as ancestral symbols that looked like the concepts they were representing.
For example, rain is 雨 (yǔ), but was originally depicted as an “E” facing down with a water droplet trailing on each horizontal stroke. By learning the origins, you’ll have better understanding of the structure of your characters. It also helps with creating mental pictures as you recall characters in your writing practice.
Learn the meaning of radicals and components
Chinese characters are composed of radicals and/or components, which all have their own meanings.
By learning these, you’ll get clues about what other characters mean.
When the oh-so-easy character 女 (nǚ) is used as a radical within a more complex character, the character is most likely describing something feminine. For example, 妈妈 (māmā) for mother or 孀 (shuāng) for widow. Thus, when you’re trying to remember those “female” characters, you’ll at least have one element of the character in your head.
Remember the rules for stroke order
How is it possible to memorize the order of strokes for each character?
It seems like a daunting task, but believe it or not, there’s a method to the madness. Once you learn the eight ground rules for the strokes, the writing motion will eventually become second nature to you.
Now, on to those tools for Chinese writing practice.
5 Awesome Resources for Chinese Writing Practice
In a traditional classroom setting, your teacher is responsible for creating character sheets based on your lesson.
If you’re teaching yourself Chinese, you’ll have to do this for yourself.
If you’re in a class, it never hurts to make your own too. After all, you know better than anyone else which characters you struggle with the most.
Hanzi Grids is a great online program that lets you customize every part of your typical character sheet, from the font of your chosen characters (either simplified or traditional) to spacing and guidelines. You can also add a header to label each sheet and change the color of the grids.
Once you’re done with the configurations, you can either print straight from the browser or save it as a PDF to print later.
Basic access to the site is free, but a small fee is required to change background guides and other features. Obviously, those extras aren’t 100 percent necessary for practicing characters.
However, you have to admit that they do make the practice sheets visually appealing.
Rated as one of the best apps for learning Chinese (writing in particular), Skritter is accessible on both desktop and mobile platforms, fulfilling the needs of students and expats alike.
Test yourself with the hundreds of thousands of words in their database, and receive instant feedback on your handwriting. With their spaced recognition system, the service takes the guesswork out of review scheduling. Instead of having to make your own calendar, Skritter schedules your writing sessions for improved retention.
Another advantage of the app is that it also works offline. Whatever progress you make while disconnected from the internet will automatically sync when you’re back online.
Skritter is free to use for one week and then requires a subscription, ranging from monthly to biannually.
Language learning doesn’t have to be limited to textbooks, PowerPoint presentations and whiteboards. If you’re looking for resource that’ll improve your writing while keeping you entertained, the Chinese Writer app might be what you’re looking for.
Recommended by both students and teachers, it’s a fun tool that tests your knowledge of stroke order of given characters. As characters fall from the top of the screen, you’ll need to write each one out before they reach the bottom. The app records the words you mess up on the most, prioritizing them in future games so that you can get all the practice you need.
For those new to writing Chinese, the app also offers diagrams for stroke order, definitions in English, audio pronunciations and an animated introduction for basic Chinese character writing.
You can either use the given character packs, which are categorized according to official HSK levels, or you can customize your own.
The app is free to download with in-app purchases for additional character packs.
Here’s another online resource that generates character worksheets. Using either simplified or traditional Chinese, non-members of Purple Culture can change the grid size, grid lines, font and number of traceable characters. Once you’re done, click the “Generate” button to download your free PDF.
If you’re willing to purchase a pro account, you can add a bunch of extras to your sheet, such as English definitions, stroke order, as well as character hints or radicals. The generator really goes above and beyond your average character sheet creator.
A premium account on Purple Culture grants you access to bonus features of their other generators, like their vocabulary list maker.
If you learn best with a book in your hand, consider grabbing a new or used copy of “Remembering Simplified Hanzi 1.”
Filled with a thousand of the most commonly written characters (plus 500 recommended characters) in simplified Chinese, the book uses a tried-and-true approach based on logical ordering, where each character serves as the building block for the next. It’s essentially a memory trick for students that offers background information as they attempt the more difficult characters.
The approach also encourages imaginative memorization, where every character is paired with a keyword that represents the concept. The keyword is then tied in with the components of the character, such as the strokes, in a “story” that helps makes sense of the character’s structure. This sort of creative imagination is said to shorten the time needed to memorize complicated characters.
Although it’s the first one in the series, the book might be a little intimidating for beginners. User reviews have indicated that this book is better suited for intermediate learners, or at least those with basic knowledge of writing Chinese characters. So if your writing skills aren’t at that level yet, it’s best to save this book for later stages or use it alongside other study materials geared towards beginners.
Everyone works at their own pace and has their preferred learning style. Because there isn’t one solution for all, give of few of these resources a shot and see which ones work best for you.
Remember, there’s no right or wrong way to go about your writing practice—as long as your chosen method gets you the results you need to move on to the next level.
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