There are many things you can do to learn Chinese characters. From getting the right textbook to learning the correct stroke order, to pens and apps: here’s your ultimate guide!
Choose simplified or traditional first
There are two writing systems in Chinese – Simplified and Traditional. Before you learn how to write, you need to be familiar with the differences and know which one you want to learn. Check out this guide I wrote about Traditional vs Simplified.
Get a textbook specific to characters
This is a great starting point for beginners. When I started learning Chinese I really enjoyed using Collins Easy Learning Mandarin Chinese Characters. It goes through 250 common Chinese characters, shows the exact stroke order step by step and has ample space for you to practice writing a character over and over. The meaning of the character as well as examples of where it’s used is included too – very helpful! This book is for Simplified.
Start with radicals
Radicals are like puzzle pieces to build more complex characters. For example, 人 means person. It’s a radical and is used in lots of characters that have to do with people. When it is used as a radical it’s squashed to the side like 亻. You can see it to the left of this character: 他, which means “he/him”. Likewise, you’ll see the same thing happen in basic characters like mouth, tree, heart etc.
By learning radicals first, you learn to write a basic character by heart. When you see a complex Hanzi (Chinese character), you’ll be able to mentally break it down into smaller pieces and be able to rewrite it properly without learning the stroke order.
Correct stroke order from the start
It’s a great idea to start small learning radicals and their stroke order, because when you encounter more complex characters you’ll know where to start writing and reading. Knowing the correct stroke order helps you both write and recognize Chinese characters faster.
The importance of stroke order
Write and learn with Skritter
Specialized practice tools like Skritter helps teach the complex characters used in Chinese and Japanese writing in a fast and easy way.
Skritter teaches both Simplified and Traditional characters, and for those studying or living in Taiwan, you will be pleased to know there is now Zhuyin / bopomofo support too.
Writing Chinese characters are quite different from being able to recognize them. Skritter helps you by providing an easy way to learn 2000+ characters, showing you the stroke order, and allowing you to draw it yourself.
33% off 6 months of Skritter for my readers!
Take a demo. If you choose to sign up, the discount code is already applied. You get a 15 days free trial too!
Sign up here (the discount code is already applied)
Ignore frequency lists.
Apart from knowing what to study for an HSK exam, I’m not sure why people are so obsessed with “how many” characters they know. People tend to get bogged down by how many characters there are and want to learn hundreds at once, rather than starting small and mastering 3-5 characters a day.
It’s all good and well to have lists like ‘100 most common Chinese characters’ but rather use these to check your level and mark ones you want to learn instead of using it as a source of study.
Special tip: get a thin pen!
This sounds weird but the pen you use is so important in legibility! Traditional Chinese characters can become super complex at a small scale, and the thinner your pen is, the easier it is to write them, especially if you have small handwriting. Here are 3 of my cannot-live-without thin pens. The Pilot Juice-up 0.4 CHANGED MY LIFEEE.
Pilot JuiceUp 0.4
Uniball jetstream 0.38
Write it over and over
I’ve found this to be the most effective method for me. I use muscle memory to remember the stroke order. The more I write the character, the better I remember it in future. That being said, I remember it even better when it’s in the context of a word or a phrase, rather than a single character.
I also kept a diary in Chinese when I started learning and I found that a helpful way to force myself to use characters. There’s usually a big gap between what you can recognize and what you can actually write.
Learn in the context of phrases
By far the best way to learn a language is to learn it in phrases and sentences. That’s why phrasebooks still remain popular – you remember the phrase “where is the bathroom” easier than you do “bathroom” and “where” as single words.
You can find lots of resources that will help you come up with Chinese sentences and copy these down, and then learn the characters from there. You could even find a podcast that has a transcript, listen to the audio, and then copy down a sentence and break it up into smaller pieces. It’s important to use sentences that you can see yourself using in your daily life.
But they all look the same!?
If you’re struggling remembering how they look despite how simple radicals may be, perhaps an approach like Chineasy which visualizes the characters as pictographs may be helpful!
Look at a lot of native handwriting
I improved my handwriting a lot by looking at examples of written Chinese and calligraphy on YouTube and Instagram. Just do a search for Chinese writing and you’ll find tons of inspiration and tutorials.
Soon enough, you’ll find your own style and way of writing unique to you. Wishing you all the best!