Stump the Chinese: Hard Hanzi

This is part xià 下 of a two-part series about common things that are uncommonly difficult for the Chinese in their own language. In part one, we talked about talking. Now on to writing.

The following is inspired by (read: directly stolen from) David Moser’s article “The ‘Invisible’ Writing on the Wall.”

How Do You Write the Hanzi for “guànzi” (tin can)?

The correct answer is 罐子. Oh believe me, I can’t write that. But the goal isn’t to stump me (that would be way to easy). The point Moser makes is many Chinese don’t know how to write that first character.

I know, there are commonly misspelled words in English too. I’m not ranting against the Chinese language (this time).

Just for fun, here’s Moser’s list of common hanzi characters that he found Chinese adults with advanced degrees often had trouble writing (not meant to be complete or conclusive):

  1. guànzi 罐子 (tin can)
  2. yàoshi 钥匙 (key)
  3. (paint)
  4. dǎ pēntì 打喷嚔 (sneeze)
  5. lǎoshǔ 老鼠 (mouse)
  6. sàozhou 扫帚 (broom)
  7. gēbozhǒu 胳膊肘 (elbow)
  8. zhòuwén 皱纹 (wrinkle)
  9. áizhèng 癌症 (cancer)
  10. ménkǎn 门槛 (threshold)
  11. (fin)
  12. chǐrǔ 耻辱 (shame)
  13. xǐdícáo 洗涤槽 (kitchen sink)
  14. Lúndūn 伦敦 (London)

How many out of 14 did you know how to write?

How many did your Chinese friend’s get correct?

Tell us some scores in the comments. I’ll start.


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  1. 13 Responses to “Stump the Chinese: Hard Hanzi”

  2. Albert CHINA said:

    0/14

    I hadn’t even heard of 10-13.

    Comment date: Jan 30, 2009

  3. Randy Alexander CHINA said:

    I just started looking through David Moser’s article, and I just noticed something very interesting. When Victor Mair posted on Language Log about the ti4 in da3pen1ti4 (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004457.html), I asked my students at the time (grad students at Jilin University) and found no one could write it, and then quickly memorized it myself so I could further taunt the natives about their crazy writing system. I wrote it on my bathroom wall with a dry erase marker, and it is there to this day so I will never forget.

    But it’s not the same character in David Moser’s article. And I didn’t make a mistake.

    The article has:

    And my bathroom wall (and the dictionary I copied it from) has:

    Incidentally, that’s what comes up in the Google IME I’m using too.

    For , google gives 125k hits.
    For , google gives 440k hits.

    Maybe it seems the latter is more “common”, but that’s not the most important bit of insight we can gain from this. That would have to be reserved for the surreal fact that there are two of these beasts. Is there no fairness in life?

    Comment date: Jan 30, 2009

  4. Randy Alexander CHINA said:

    Oh, and the only one in the list that I can write is 老鼠, which I’m surprised to find on the list in the first place. I’ve never seen that give anyone a problem. I remember it being particularly easy for me to learn because there is a distinctive “rhythm” it () makes when you write it.

    Comment date: Jan 30, 2009

  5. Zhongguoist UNITED KINGDOM said:

    I managed to get a few of those right, but quite a few of those I’d never heard before like wrinkle….

    I remember last year two of my friends arguing over which qi was in qizi(as in bottle opener). We never found out which one it was.

    Comment date: Jan 30, 2009

  6. Carl CHINA said:

    My nv pengyou scored 13, she didnt know how to write the character in dǎ pēntì 打喷嚔 (sneeze).

    Pretty good eh! ;) so much for advanced degree’s, she has a bachelors.

    Comment date: Jan 30, 2009

  7. Amber CHINA said:

    Hi, I’m native Chinese with an bachelor degree in English. For me, the most difficult character would be . Others are okay, I can write them down correctly.

    Comment date: Feb 1, 2009

  8. Amber CHINA said:

    but I guess it’s all just a matter of practice. From my own experience of learning languages, I listen to english talk and write down english words almost everyday while I have less time to write chinese characters, which let me have trouble with chinese characters. if I don’t write chinese in a long time and once I try writing some characters I’ll get myself in very awkward situation,finding myself blank with a even very simple common character. Same thing is for Japanese characters, some of my chinese friends who major in japanese have a tendency to write down japanese kanji( which based on chinese characters) to substitute for the same meaning simplified chinese character.

    Comment date: Feb 1, 2009

  9. 大羽 CHINA said:

    As a Chinese I felt shame for forgetting many many Chinese characters. The main reason is nowadays I seldom write with pen or pencile. Computer PinYin spelling software will make this worse and worse….

    Comment date: Mar 1, 2009

  10. Bryce CANADA said:

    Very interesting~~~
    It’s funny, because I think I remember a lot of these characters coming up before when asking Chinese friends what the 汉字 are. I guess they are examples of characters you don’t write down often (a lot of which would be used all the time in conversation)..

    Comment date: May 30, 2009

  11. Mike CHINA said:

    yeah, my wife only missed from sneeze and from cancer. In my experience the best way to make a student be quiet in my class is to write 饨, as in 馄饨 (hun2tun2, or wonton in English), and then wait as they pronounce it as dun4 instead of tun2.

    Comment date: Jun 10, 2009

  12. Jeannie UNITED STATES said:

    13/14 in traditional form. ^_^

    Comment date: Dec 13, 2009

  13. Eternuer CANADA said:

    @Randy:

    (with at the corner) is indeed the more common, and nowadays the standard form taught at most schools.

    (with ⼛ instead of the right-hooked stroke on top of ) is the more ancient form but now variant character.

    Comment date: Aug 23, 2010

  14. Wentao NIGERIA said:

    14/14.

    Comment date: May 8, 2011

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