What does bad Chinese handwriting look like

The Scriptures of the World: The Chinese Script


by Christine Tettenhammer

Today we continue our series on the scriptures of this world and take you on a journey to distant China.

The oldest script in the world?

The oldest known written documents found in China are around 3,000 years old. At the time, this type of written communication consisted essentially of pictorial signs. Oracle bones have been found from the time of the Shang dynasty (1500 to 950 BC) into which symbols and characters were carved.
Over time, these pictorial symbols have been abstracted, changed and developed into what you will learn about in this article as the Chinese writing.

A Chinese character consists of several radicals

If you take a closer look at a Chinese character, you will notice that each character is made up of several (single) lines. These single lines are called radical.
The individual radicals of a character are always put together in a certain order to form an overall character. When you start to learn Chinese, you shouldn't fall into the mistake of saying that you only need to “recreate” the characters in order to be able to write Chinese.

How do you write Chinese characters?

In general, a character should always be imagined within an imaginary square. In this way, the lengths and positions of the radicals can be learned much better.
To begin with, there are three simple rules for writing the Chinese characters:
  • Horizontal radicals are written from left to right.
    Practice symbols: 一, 二, 三, 手
  • Vertical radicals are written from top to bottom.
    Practice symbols: 血, 刀
  • Characters that have the shape of a "box" are written in three approaches:
    1. First you put a line from top left to bottom left.
    2. Then write the next horizontal radical from top left to top right and continue to write (without removing the pen from the paper) the next line from top right to bottom right.
    3. Finally, you close the box with your "bottom plate". This cord is also written from the bottom left to the bottom right, since it is again a horizontal radical. And the first rule is that you always have to write horizontal radicals from left to right.
    Practice symbols: 中, 国, 面, 回, 电
You have now learned the three basic rules. Other important rules are:
  • Complex characters are written from top left to bottom right.
    Practice symbols: 尽, 女, 汽
  • Complex signs are written from the outside in.
    Practice symbols: 国, 百, 回
  • When two radicals cross, the horizontal radical is written first and then the vertical radical.
    Practice symbols: 十, 来, 牛
  • In the case of symmetrical characters, the radical is first written in the middle, then the "wings" are placed on the left and right.
    Practice symbols: 火, 个, 出
  • In the case of radical radicals that “turn out”, you first write the side that turns to the left and then the side that turns to the right.
    Practice symbols: 人, 天, 大, 父
  • A “box” is only closed at the bottom (with a line from left to right) when its inside is filled.
    Practice symbols: 回, 西, 四
Here you will find an exercise sheet for learning the Chinese characters for printing as a PDF. The exercise squares indicated above can be found here for all beginners. Print out this exercise sheet several times. You can enter the exercise signs presented here again and again and practice writing the signs.

Reform of the characters in the 1950s

In the mid-1950s, a reform of the writing took place in the People's Republic of China.
Before the reform, many characters were very laborious and complicated to write. It is not without reason that these characters are called traditional characters.
In the course of the reform, they were simplified to the so-called short symbols. This simplification had the advantage that the abbreviations could now be written more easily (also with regard to their electronic processing). The disadvantage, however, was that the simplified characters could now be confused more easily and thus more difficult to read.
The second major innovation brought about by the reform was an adaptation of the writing direction to Western writing. Since then, people have often stopped writing from top to bottom, but from left to right.

Pinyin - Chinese in Latin letters

Every schoolchild in China not only learns to read and write characters; it also learns how to paraphrase the Chinese characters in the Latin alphabet. This description is called Pinyin.
Pinyin or 漢語拼音 方案 is the official description of Chinese and has been in use since 1957. As a rule, the five tones of Chinese in pinyin are also notated, so that pronunciation is easier. Here are some examples of characters and their romanization:

Examples of characters and their description in pinyin

男人nán rénman
女人n ǚ rénMrs
小孩xiǎo háichild

Learning with a Chinese Dictionary

There is no alphabet in Chinese that you can learn the way you are used to from other languages. But how do you then work with a Chinese dictionary?
In Chinese dictionaries, the characters are grouped and arranged according to radicals.
An average of 10,000 characters can be found in a dictionary. Each of these signs has one or more meanings. These individual signs are in turn put together to form words. However, Chinese also knows words that only consist of one character. Many words are made up of two characters.
In the recent past there has been a trend towards longer and longer words that are composed of more and more characters.

How many characters do I have to learn?

The most extensive dictionary in China lists around 56,000 characters. However, an average dictionary only contains 10,000 characters.
Don't worry, you don't have to be able to master 10,000 individual characters in order to be able to orient yourself and communicate in China.
In order to be able to read a newspaper or a book, you should know and be able to recognize around 3,000 characters.
With the knowledge of the 3,500 most frequently used characters, you will be able to understand over 90 percent of all written texts.

Have fun learning the Chinese characters
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