The Half-hour Guide to Learning Basic Mandarin Writing
Real-world Mandarin writing is a beautiful mess.
Like with any written language, there are various styles.
There are tons of fonts.
There’s unfathomably bad handwriting.
It’s a lot to deal with.
But learning the basics will set you up to handle all of those things.
“Basic” is the most important word here.
You don’t have to become a Chinese calligraphy master to write Chinese well.
A few basic rules and a few more basic characters will get you on your way, and that’s what we’re going to achieve for you right now, in around half an hour.
So set aside 30 minutes, and prepare to begin your journey into the world of Chinese characters.
Studying Chinese is an investment. Whether your Mandarin is for travel, business, education, family or another reason, learning to write basic Chinese will make the language more valuable and easier to remember.
These basics will also help you learn actively, increasing what you’ll remember. The characters stick better while the words are still fresh, so if you’re just starting out, this is the place to be.
It’s generally accepted that the best time to learn to write Chinese is when you start learning Chinese. If you’ve already got a load of Chinese under your belt, though, don’t worry. The second-best time to start learning written Chinese is right now.
Ready? Set? Go!
Let’s Learn Basic Mandarin Writing in 30 Minutes!
First Things First: Simplified or Traditional?
The first thing to decide is whether you want to learn simplified or traditional Mandarin. Both character sets have value, so this can be a tough call. Here’s how to work this out.
The two questions to help you decide are:
- Where will you live that you’ll be using the language, or where will you be traveling to?
- If you won’t be traveling to or living in a country where Mandarin is spoken, where are the Chinese speakers you’ll be communicating with from?
These questions help because the two character sets are regionally used. Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau use traditional (繁体字 — fán tǐ zi). Mainland China and the Mandarin-speaking communities of Singapore and Malaysia use simplified (简体字 — jiǎn tǐ zi).
If those two questions didn’t help, go with simplified. Simplified wins the tiebreaker because there are more people who use simplified than traditional and it’s easier to learn.
How to Draw 8 Basic Strokes
There are a lot of ways to count Chinese strokes. Some systems have as few as seven while others have as many as 37. Here, you’ll get eight, including a couple that are used in compound strokes (which aren’t as hard as they might sound).
Each Chinese character is drawn within an imaginary square. When children learn to write, their writing paper has rows of squares so they can learn to properly fit the characters within them, regardless of how complicated a character may get. When you practice strokes or characters, you should also draw within an imaginary square. Although, if you’re just starting out, I would recommend actual squares.
Here are some basic strokes. As you learn each stroke, write each one five times, and say the name of the stroke out loud each time you write it:
Diǎn (点), which means “dot.” The stroke starts at the middle of the square and goes down diagonally to the right. Keep the stroke very, very short. After all, it’s called “dot.” Here’s a video from eChineseLearning that demonstrates this stroke.
Héng (橫) is the horizontal stroke. Start at the left middle of the square and draw a straight line across to the right middle.
(Side point: You just unknowingly wrote your first Chinese word. The single straight horizontal line is the character for the number one. Good job.)
Shù (竖) is the vertical stroke. Start at the top middle of the square and draw a straight line down to the bottom middle.
Piě (撇) is referred to as a “left falling stroke.” 撇 literally means “fling.” Start at the top middle and “fling” your stroke down to the bottom left.
Gōu (钩), which means “hook.” This is used in compound strokes. It’s rarely used by itself. The hook can stroke in any direction (see below). For example, the stroke xié gōu (斜钩) is a common stroke using the hook for which you would start from the top left, pull the stroke down to the bottom right, then flick your pen straight upwards to finish.
Tí (提), which means “raise.” Start at the left middle and swipe a short but deliberate upwards stroke, going to the right.
Nà (捺), which means “pressing forcefully.” Start at the top left. As you bring your stroke down to the bottom right, gradually add pressure.
We’ll now use what we know to write the character for “horse,” which is 马 (mǎ). In doing this, we’ll also introduce to you the last stroke of this article, called zhé (折), which means “bend” or “turn.” 折 seems like more of an instruction, but it’s an actual stroke.
How many strokes does the character 马 look like it has? It might look like six strokes, but there are only three. The first and second strokes are compound strokes. See how they work in this Chinese Characters video:
First stroke — Héng zhé (橫折). This is a compound stroke that starts with a straight horizontal line going to the right (橫 — héng), followed by a bend downwards (折 — zhé).
Second stroke — Shù zhé zhé gōu (竖折折钩). This compound stroke starts with a straight vertical line going down (竖 — shù), followed by a bend (折 — zhé), then another bend (折 — zhé), and finishes with a hook (钩 – gōu).
Third stroke — Héng (橫).
That probably seemed a little complicated, but consider this: An English learner will have to remember “three-quarter circle” and “short post” to write the letter “G,” but that’s only when initially learning to write it. When you write the letter “G,” do you think “three-quarter circle, then a short post,” or do you just think of the letter “G”? The goal is to know how to draw the character, not to memorize every detail about it. Knowing these strokes will give you a good grasp of how to learn Chinese characters.
This isn’t to say that the rest of the possible 37 strokes aren’t necessary, but these will get you started. The goal here is to help you learn to see the details of characters. Remember, this is about basics.
4 Rules for Stroke Order
Try writing that “G” by writing the short post first, then the three-quarter circle. Now, write it how you usually do and compare.
Stroke order matters.
Well-drawn strokes lead to well-drawn components, which lead to well-drawn characters, which lead to well-drawn words. If you’re good at the small stuff, your writing will look good, be well respected and show respect for the culture.
The first step is to figure out the character’s orientation before trying to write. It sounds simple, but it’s an important step. Some characters have components on the left and the right. Others are top to bottom. The really crazy ones are top to bottom with some left and right mixed in, but we’ll save that for the “Learn to Write Insane Chinese Characters” article.
Here are some examples to help you see the top-bottom and left-right concept in characters:
Character: 你 (nǐ — you, second person singular)
Left component:亻(rén — person)
Right component: 尔 (ěr — you, second person singular; this is a literary character, so the English equivalent is more like “thou”)
Character: 样 (yàng — appearance, form)
Left component: 木 (mù — wood)
Right component: 羊 (yáng — sheep)
Character: 意 (yī — meaning)
Top component: 音 (yīn — sound)
Bottom component: 心 (xīn — heart)
Character: 思 (sī — think)
Top component: 田 (tián — field)
Bottom component: 心 (xīn — heart)
Let’s use four basic rules to write a couple of these characters.
(Note: A lot of Chinese people can’t remember the characters for the stroke names, and we’ve introduced the basic strokes above, so now for the sake of simplicity, we’ll use pinyin for the stroke names instead of the characters. You’re welcome.)
Rule 1: The Drawing Order Rule
Remember PEMDAS from math class? That’s the order of operations for a math equation. Sorry if that brought back bad memories.
Chinese characters also have an order of operations: top to bottom, left to right.
Let’s take 你 as our example.
The top left has a piě. The bottom left has a shù.
The top right has another, smaller piě, followed by a héng gōu.
The bottom right has a compound shù gōu, then a piě to its left, then a diǎn to its right.
Rule 2: The Symmetry Rule
You’ll notice the bottom part of 尔 was not written left to right. That’s because symmetry is important. The bottom part of 尔 is actually the character 小 (xiǎo — small; little). Let’s practice this character so you get the idea.
First, you draw your shù gōu to create a center point for the character.
Then comes the symmetry, with the piě and the diǎn being equally distanced from the shù gōu.
Rule 3: The Enclosure Rule
Let’s take 思 as our example. Again, we start at the top. Since the character has no left-to-right structure, we’ll write it from the top down.
The enclosure starts with a shù on the left, followed by a héng zhé to its right. Note: The héng zhé is one stroke, so these two strokes are considered left-to-right. That’s why we didn’t start with a héng at the top.
Now that we have the outline of our enclosure drawn, let’s fill it. Within the enclosure, draw a héng, then a shù.
Now that the enclosure is filled, let’s close it by drawing a héng.
We’ll finish by drawing the 心 at the bottom. Note: A lot of characters use 心 as part of their structure, so this is a good one to learn.
The left has a diǎn.
The next stroke is a variation of the xié gōu called biǎn xié gōu (扁斜钩). Biǎn means “flattened,” so you want to write the xié gōu but without so much height.
Then you finish with two more diǎn.
Rule 4: The Overlap Rule
When we filled in the enclosure in Rule 3, we drew the héng first, then the shù. That may seem a bit strange since the top of shù is higher than héng. That’s because they overlap. When strokes overlap, the longer one is written last. It’s not common for strokes to overlap, but héng and shù often do. These two characters actually combine to make the character for the number ten (十 — shí).
Now, using these four rules, practice writing the other two characters mentioned earlier, 样 and 意.
Tips for Continuing to Learn and Practice Your Chinese Writing
Tips for Getting Started
- As you start, keep it simple. Doing too much too fast will weaken your understanding as well as frustrate you. A great way to start practicing what we’ve seen in this article is writing the characters for the numbers 1-10.
- When you practice characters, pronounce the stroke names, the component names and the character pronunciations out loud. This will help you remember the strokes and pay attention to components. Character components are keys to learning meaning and pronunciation.
- Learn characters that have similar components. Once you get used to recognizing a component, you can unlock a lot of characters that you haven’t seen yet. For example, look at these characters and pick out the common component:
认 (rèn — to recognize)
训 (xùn — to instruct)
访 (fǎng — to visit)
讲 (jiǎng — to speak)
让 (ràng — to yield; to allow)
The 讠means “speak,” so most characters with this component have something to do with speaking.
- Draw the components of a character on different flashcards, then reassemble the character. After reassembling it, write the character three times.
- Gradually use all of the characters you’ve learned to make sentences. Don’t be afraid to use caveman grammar. It doesn’t even matter if the sentences make any sense. Think “The cat is red” from Spanish class… useless sentence, but you know it.
As You Progress
- Put sticky notes on things in your home and office, only in characters. If you have co-workers who are experienced with Chinese, communicate with them about non-essentials only using sticky notes.
- Scribble out a very brief thank-you note to go along with your tip at a Chinese restaurant, something like 谢谢你的款待 (xiè xie nǐ de kuǎn dài — thank you for your hospitality).
- Keep a journal of the day’s events, especially the non-essentials. Use words like 吃 (chī — eat), 喝 (hē — drink), 写 (xǐe — write), 看 (kàn — watch/read/see), 做 (zuò — do).
- Use common characters. Go Google a list of the most used characters. Better yet, just use ours!
So You Don’t Plateau
- Once you start to get the hang of writing, send text messages and emails in Chinese using the drawing input instead of the pinyin input. This will help you recall characters faster.
- Learn characters by category (fruits, sports, banking terms, etc.) to broaden your vocabulary. Characters in certain categories may also have similar components.
- Traditional Chinese still has value although it’s not as widely used. For example, many characters have pronunciation keys embedded in them, and those keys only exist in traditional writing.
Take the simplified character for country 国 (guó), which is made up of two components: 囗 (wéi — enclosure, in this case referring to a country’s border) with 玉 (yù — jade) in the middle. The traditional character is 國, made up of 囗 (wéi) with 或 (huò) in the middle. 或 (huò) is a pronunciation key, helping you remember the character has a similar sound. Both components play a part in the traditional version. Although the traditional character is harder to write and may be less used, it still helps to understand what was going on when that character was created, even if there’s no real reason to learn to write it.
- Write to communicate. The more you read a character, the easier it will be to remember how to write. The more you see the character in context, the more you’ll want to remember it.
- Don’t overuse repetition. Once you feel like repetition has served its purpose (even if it didn’t help), move on to another form of study. Monotony is not the mother of retention.
- Don’t think in strokes. Remember that the goal of strokes is to draw the character, not learn the character. Focus on the meaning and pronunciation. If your focus is mainly on the strokes, you’ll be working at remembering nothing in particular.
- Don’t hold back. Any chance you get to practice your characters and put them into real-life use, especially with native Chinese speakers, go for it. Make all the mistakes you need to make so you’ll learn well. Perfection is the enemy of success.
- Don’t confuse characters with words. Characters often contribute to the meaning of a word but are not necessarily a word in themselves. Most often, character combinations and placement create words and ideas.
The foundation is the most important part of any learning endeavor. If you know how to learn something, you’ll learn it a lot faster.
After this article, you’re now equipped to face the challenge of Chinese writing head on.
Focus on the basics and learn them well, and you’ll be writing fabulous Chinese in no time!