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About Chinese Characters

To be reasonably literate in Chinese requires learning at least 3,000 characters. The challenge of learning to read Chinese is far less formidable than it sounds, however, since of these 3,000 characters, 300 are in such frequent use as to constitute nearly 2/3 of all printed materials A concentrated study of these 300 characters will therefore provide beginning students of Chinese a major head start in their quest towards literacy.

The complete version of WRITE CHINESE focuses on this basic core of 300 characters; this demo version has 75 characters.

Learning to write Chinese characters is much aided by paying careful attention to the precise order in which the strokes are written. Although Chinese calligraphers occasionally disagree about minor details, centuries of experience has led to a basic set of principles which in about 90 percent of cases results in an unambiguous determination of the stroke-order. The main principles are:

Top before bottom images/topbeforebottom.gif
Left before right
Horizontal lines before a line
crossing them:
(exceptions exist)
A left-slanting line before an
intersecting right-slanting line:
Central part before symmetrical wings: images/centerbeforewings.gif
Outside before inside. The bottom
stroke of a four-sided enclosure is
not written until the internal strokes
are completed.

A few well-known exceptions to the above principles exist. Also, there will be occasional instances where two rules seem to be in conflict. In such instances, there often exists a conventional stroke-order which is best learned by rote. The most effective way to learn the rules is to learn by doing. It is for this reason that we developed this program.

More than thirty different types of strokes are recognized in Chinese characters, of which six are generally considered as basic:

Compound strokes are made using various combinations of the six basic strokes, often modified with a hook:
In printed script (which is the writing style presented in this program), the angles between the basic strokes making up a compound stroke should be clear and distinct. Until you become experienced, it is recommended that you BRIEFLY PAUSE between each sub-stroke of a compound stroke. This program checks for distinct angles in your compound strokes at positions such as are indicated by the red arrows.

If your angles are indistinct, this program will not recognize your strokes.

When writing WITH A BRUSH, a calligrapher will embellish certain specific parts of a stroke, as indicated by the red arrows, and will leave thin, sharp points in other parts, as indicated by the blue arrows:

It is NOT RECOMMENDED that the student attempt to imitate the embellishments possible with a brush when writing with ball-point pen or (in this program) the mouse cursor. The products of students' attempts to emulate brush-work with a pen are sometimes quite grotesque. Until you obtain actual experience with a brush and understand a brush's requirements, you should keep your pen or mouse strokes simple, free of unnecessary ornamentation.

Nevertheless, you should make sure that the strokes of your characters have the right proportions. This can be achieved only by repeated efforts and by careful comparison with characters written by expert calligraphers. Always remember that throughout the history of China, writing has been considered an art rather than a mere skill.

In an attempt to expand literacy, the mainland government in 1956 mandated a sweeping reform of the Chinese writing system, replacing many of the ancient traditional characters with characters of decreased stroke-count. Most materials currently published on the mainland make use of the short form characters. However, I would recommend beginning your studies with the traditional characters, for a variety of reasons: (1) the traditional characters are universally recognized both on the mainland as well as in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and among the world-wide Chinese emigrant population, while the short form characters have not yet reached universal acceptance; (2) students who learn only the short form characters will find themselves cut off from understanding all Chinese literary and historical material written before the 1950s. To quote Professor McNaughton, the author of READING & WRITING CHINESE: 'Students who can read only short forms will be able to read what Mao Tse-tung wrote, but they will be unable to read what Mao himself read---and that certainly is essential to any effort to understand modern China.'

The calligraphy, character definitions, and Mandarin Pinyin and Cantonese Yale Romanizations of traditional characters presented in this program are mainly based on those in READ AND WRITE CHINESE, by Rita Mei-Wah Choy. This is an excellent book for pure character study, and I heartily recommend its purchase as well as the purchase of UNDERSTANDING CHINESE, by the same author. Both texts are published by China West Books. The simplified characters are modeled after characters presented in various publications of the Foreign Languages Press, Beijing.

Additional definitions and clarifications came from READING & WRITING CHINESE, by William McNaughton, MATHEWS' CHINESE-ENGLISH DICTIONARY (REVISED) by R.H. Mathews, HOW TO STUDY AND WRITE CHINESE CHARACTERS, by W. Simon, and CHARACTER TEXT FOR BEGINNING CHINESE, by John DeFrancis. A careful reader will note that for a number of characters, the stroke order presented in this program differs from that presented in Ms. Choy's text. Wherever I have chosen to present an alternate stroke-order, I have always double-checked that one or another of the above sources agreed with my preference. My ultimate resource, when authorities disagreed, was to remember how my grandmother used to write the characters!

Copyright 2007 by Thomas Yee.
Last revised: September 30, 2007.


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