The 5th Skill: Handwriting

WARNING: This article is an explanation of the footnote in my conceptual breakdown of foreign language teaching. It’s really written more for language teachers and testers than learners.

Language instruction is typically divided into four skills:

4 Skills for Most Foreign Languages

Aural Visual
Reception Listening Reading
Production Speaking Writing

But for learning Chinese, the visual skills involved are so special, I recommend breaking writing down into two separate skills: typing and handwriting.

5 Skills for Chinese (and any language that uses Chinese characters)

Aural Visual
Reception Listening Reading
Production Speaking Typing

Allow me to oversimplify the state of all world languages before I explain why this is a good idea.

(clip source)

World Writing Systems

There are basically only two major categories of writing systems in the world. The most common type (phonograms) is when you write something that shows the sound of the word. For example, “c” + “a” + “t” gives you all the information you need to to put together the sounds for the English word that means this animal:

With his highness’ permission, I’ll explain the other type of writing system (logograms): writing something that stands for the word itself or the meaning of the word without having as direct a connection to the sounds. For example, the Chinese word for the pictured animal is . But various dialects of Chinese might pronounce that character in different ways. Additionally, although there may be clues about the pronunciation of a character built in, it is not the primary purpose of the character to show the sounds required to produce the word. The 3 pieces that make up the character are + + but they are not representing 3 sounds like the English letters “c” + “a” + “t” are.

So that’s the general state of world writing systems. Of course, there are overlaps, and it seems that no writing system stays completely in the category of sound-based or meaning-based symbols. But it’s a useful rule of thumb to keep in mind.

The Place of Chinese Characters in the World

As far as I know, Chinese is the only major world language that has only logograms in common use. Other languages may use some logograms, but they also use phonograms. For example:

  • Japanese uses some Chinese characters (which they call kanji), but they’ve also got their hirigana and katakana syllabaries, which are phonograms and are in common use by native speakers.
  • Korean uses the hangul alphabet to build syllables.
  • English uses the logograms {0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9} and a few others like @ and %, but basically everything else is written with a Latin-based alphabet (like many other world languages).
  • Other major world languages like Arabic, Russian, Thai, etc. use non-Latin alphabets.

But with Chinese, even though pinyin exists, it is never used by Chinese people to represent their language in written form after they’ve learned to write hanzi. It appears on road signs and maps for the benefit of foreigners only. This fact came up the other day in my Chinese class after I’d written on the board:

Happy Birthday = shēng rì kuài lè

A learner asked if we should capitalize the pinyin when writing a note to Chinese friends. I said it didn’t matter because they’re really not used to seeing pinyin at all. It would be like writing a note to an English speaker that looked like this:

ˈhæpi ˈbɪrθdeɪ

That IPA shows merely the pronunciation for “happy birthday” in English just as “shēng rì kuài lè” is the pronunciation for 生日快乐. But English native speakers would always write “happy birthday” and Chinese native speakers would always write 生日快乐. In that sense, pinyin is to hanzi what IPA is to English. They are both “pronunciation helpers” to reveal exactly how the written word should be said, but are not used by native speakers.

Here’s a table to summarize the analogy (using the word “cat” as an example)

Writing System (Example) Pronunciation Helper (Example)
Chinese Hanzi () Pinyin (māo)
English English (cat) IPA (kæt)

Of course, we could also transcribe hanzi with IPA if we wanted to. I also know that most native speakers of English don’t use the IPA for pronunciation help (for example, gives “[burth-dey]” as the pronunciation of “birthday” with an option to “show IPA”). But English speakers can learn IPA with very little difficulty.

The fact that we need the IPA to show us how certain things in English are pronounced proves that the pronunciation and the writing are not a “perfect fit” (one sound per symbol and one symbol per sound) but that’s not really important.

Here’s the point: hanzi characters are the only writing system currently in use today (that I’m aware of) that have basically nothing to do with the pronunciation helper system. In English, the phonograms used for writing are not a perfect fit, but there are many words you can immediately guess the pronunciation of just from seeing the written word, and there are many words where the IPA and the written word are virtually the same (like “wad,” or “pig”).

Handwriting vs. Typing

I’ve always encouraged learners to focus on pinyin and neglect hanzi at the start of their Mandarin studies. But if you only learn pinyin for Chinese, it’s like only learning IPA for English. It’s the same as being functionally illiterate (which might be just fine with you as it was for me in the beginning). The problem is the huge amount of time and work it takes to handwrite characters.

Handwriting the character “wǒ” (I / me / me)


Total pen strokes = 7

Typing the the character “wǒ” (I / me / me)


Total keystrokes = 2 + 1 (“w” + “o” + “1” to choose the first item on the menu)

It’s Not All About “Strokes”

The biggest difference between handwriting and typing Chinese isn’t just the number of “strokes” required (whether by pen or keyboard), it’s about the relationship of those actions to the spoken word. Handwriting the character “wǒ” means memorizing and reproducing all those complex lines in the right relationship to each other. Typing it just means remembering the sounds your mouth makes when you say it and then recognizing it from a list of choices that are pronounced like that.

If we had something similar for English it might look like this:


See how the words all start with the same sound even though they’re all written differently? But it’s not necessary to have a system like this for English because we can just learn the 26 letters and use them in the right combination to make any word we need. Of course we have to memorize some spelling rules, but the basic “building blocks,” the letters, are so limited in number it’s just a matter of remembering their arrangement. And there are only two places letters can go in relationship to each other: in front or behind (e.g. “ab” or “ba”).

In Chinese, handwriting is not like that at all. The “building blocks” are still limited in number (even if you just think of one line / stroke as one building block) but the number of possible arrangements of them is astronomical. Think of all the ways you could arrange just those same 7 strokes required to write the character above. Handwriting Chinese requires a huge repertoire of knowledge and practice that handwriting other languages does not.

And typing Chinese does not require that huge repertoire of knowledge either. Typing in Chinese is equivalent to SPEAKING + READING. You need to speak so you can input the correct pinyin (e.g. “w” + “o”) but then you need to be able to read to recognize which character in the list is the one you’re looking for (which is why you type number “1” and not number “2” or “3”).

Personally, I can read and type computer or cell phone messages that contain hundreds and hundreds more characters than I can handwrite. I really can’t handwrite very many characters at all because I’ve never spent a single moment practicing that skill. But my typing skills aren’t too bad.

We Need a Double Standard

Let’s look at the ILR scale for writing that the US government uses for assessing foreign language proficiency across various agencies. There is no mention of typing anywhere, so we can assume they’re talking about handwriting or don’t care about the difference. The requirement for level “0+” (just above nothing) does, to their credit, make allowances for character-based systems and asks you to write “50 of the most common characters.”

But then look at the next level (level 1). They’ve forgotten to keep making allowances for non-alphabetic languages and assume “continual errors in spelling.” It’s not really “spelling” to get the strokes wrong with hanzi, but we’ll let that slide. But look, you’ll be expected to write “simple phone messages, excuses, notes to service people and simple notes to friends” at this level.

First of all, there are very few Chinese names I could write by hand in their entirety (吴安平 might be one). But I could type a bunch. Now let’s look at how difficult it is just to write the two extremely common characters that introduce that you’re about to make an excuse for not going to class or work: qǐng jià 请假 = to request leave / time off


Total pen strokes = 10 + 11 = 21

Total keystrokes = 9 (max) but as few as 3 (depending on your IME)

It’s time to take the difference between handwriting and typing hanzi into account when creating language standards.

The CEFR’s writing standards (PDF) for the lowest level (A1) also ignore the distinction between typing and handwriting that Chinese demands:

“I can write a short, simple postcard, for example sending holiday greetings. I can fill in forms with personal details, for example entering my name, nationality and address on a hotel registration form.” (page 26)

Those things may be easy to write in other languages, or even to type in Chinese to achieve the lowest level of proficiency, but handwriting them in hanzi is far more difficult.

The ACTFL’s proficiency guidelines (PDF) at least recognize that “instant messaging, e-mail communication, texting” (page 10) may be used, but they still don’t give the typing / handwriting distinction for Chinese the special treatment it deserves. As with other organizations’ standards, a hat tip is made to meaning-based writing systems at the lowest level (Novice Low). They say learners should be able to “copy and produce isolated, basic strokes in languages that use syllabaries or characters” (page 14).

But then, by the time they talk about Novice High, the same oversight has been made. “Due to inadequate vocabulary and/or grammar, writing at this level may only partially communicate the intentions of the writer.” Not with hanzi. It’s possible to have all the vocabulary and grammar you need, and STILL not be able to handwrite at this level. But by allowing typing, you can start to mitigate the problem.

The Solution

To their undying credit, the HSK now offers a choice for the writing section: handwriting or typing. As Laokang said when he took the test, “Not a single person took the paper version (which requires writing characters by hand).” Of course not!

But that’s only half of the solution. The HSK could offer a special certification for handwriting. If handwriting and typing hanzi were officially considered two separate skills, then two separate sets of standards and tools for assessment could be created. This not only applies to HSK, but to the IRL, CEFR, ACTFL, and every other organization that sets standards.

As nice as it would be to have just one set of standards for all languages, the special place of handwriting hanzi in this world makes that unreasonable. The technology exists now to test typing as a skill, not necessarily to the exclusion of handwriting, but in addition to it.

Theresa Jen & Ping Xu foresaw this change in March, 2000 in their article entitled “Penless Chinese Character Reproduction” (PDF):

“[N]ow for the first time, it becomes possible that a person who cannot write a Chinese character by hand can “write” it on the computer screen, without having to go through the extremely painful process of learning to hand-write the characters. Also for the first time in history, the writing of Chinese characters has something to do with their phonetic characteristics, as one has to enter romanized letters on the keyboard in order to bring Chinese characters onto the computer screen…To the language of such a long history, computer technology has brought along with it a real revolution, of which the Penless approach is both an outcome and a precondition” (page 9).

The HSK has taken the first step towards officially embracing that revolution. I’m anxious to see other organizations do the same.

6 Replies to “The 5th Skill: Handwriting”

  1. Wow! What an insightful article. I never thought of “6” as a logogram.

    It seems that the Chinese, or at least HSK, are moving communication into the 21st Century with assistance from the computer.

    I wonder if anyone is concerned about losing the artistry of those beautiful, painstaking, and tedious hanzi characters?

    • @Edward,

      Yes, I’m sure lots of people are concerned. I think of hanzi as the number one cultural “artifact” for Chinese civilization, so it would be a shame to loose the artistry and tediousness of the handwriting completely. The good news is: these changes (typing rather than handwriting) mostly apply to foreigners learning Chinese as a foreign language. Chinese school children are still practicing writing the characters by hand. And they’ve got us laowai SLIGHTLY outnumbered 🙂

  2. @Edward

    This is also a problem in other language as well, although probably not to the same extent. For example, in America, children were always taught cursive in grade school and I believe it has pretty much been eliminated from most school’s curriculum in favor of a heavier focus on key-boarding. There are also huge issues with spelling and the use of slang these days. I can hardly read some of the emails my friends send me when they’ve written them from their smartphones–they can’t be bothered to write out full words, capitalize, or use punctuation!

  3. This is a great introduction to this concept: I think that it is pretty apparent to any modern student of Chinese, yet still not fully acknowledged by a lot of teachers, and entirely foreign to anyone who hasn’t studied Chinese.

    I would personally advise most people who want to learn Chinese against entirely forgoing practicing handwriting if they’re going to be studying to any intermediate level or higher / living in a Chinese-speaking country. Firstly, I think writing by hand helps me mentally sort out some of the characters that are fairly similar (eg. and …well I guess simplified doesn’t have that one. and 广 then…). But that said, I really don’t stress about handwriting characters, which brings me to my second point. If you live in a Chinese speaking country, you still might need to occasionally handwrite “simple phone messages, excuses, notes to service people and simple notes to friends” and in that sense, being able to at least copy characters adeptly is useful. I say this from plenty of experiences typing messages on my phone before writing them out by hand.

  4. It reminds me my Chinese learning at primary school. On our text book, above each character, there’s a pinyin, and we write character each day by doing our homework.
    Sometime I’m just glad my mother tongue is Chinese, and learning English as a second language is not that hard.
    In 1900, some scholar in China thought that the character is barrel for China’s modernization, so they want translate all character into Latin.
    You are right. English is represent sound while Chinese is logogram which represent meaning, e.g. the traditional Chinese for “love” written as 愛,with a 心(heart in the center. Although it has its own sound system that we call 形声字:
    We are now use handwriting less and less. I just sign my name when paying by credit card. So sometimes WE(Chinese pelple) don’t remember how to write a particular characters! Maybe someday, it wouldn’t be a daily useful skill. Instead, it might become some kind of art, like the calligraphy written by writing brush.

  5. I think that Japanese students should be made to take the paper test version that requires handwriting because they have an unfair advantage over all other foreigners. I’ve seen them handcopy lesson materials using hanzi from day one. If I was taking Mandarin for college credit and had to compete with native Japanese speakers, you would be left behind in the dust.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.