If there is one thing that everyone has in common, it’s that “No!” is not an answer that they want to hear. Even so, I had gotten so used to hearing “no” whenever I asked a new student about learning characters that I was actually shocked when I finally got my first “yes.” I remember that day like it was yesterday. She was the first student who told me that the reason she wanted to learn Chinese Mandarin was because of the characters!
This was great because characters are extremely important if you want to advance your Chinese Mandarin. However, being that my main focus is often speaking, many of my students chose to hold off on characters. This is of course understandable since speaking is one of the most exciting parts of learning a new language!
In fact, I often wonder why anyone would want to learn characters at all. It is one of the most tedious parts of learning Chinese Mandarin. Back in my elementary school days in China, we were taught through endless repetition. Rewriting characters over fifty times or more was a typical method of penalizing students for not completing their homework or for making mistakes on their tests.
Nevertheless, while I was genuinely in shock when I heard my first “yes,” for the most part, I was excited. However, I wasn’t exactly sure why since I was so used to focusing students’ speaking skills. Recently, I discovered why.
The other day, I asked one of my young students who is very interested in characters, “Why do you like Chinese characters so much?”
He replied without hesitation, “Because they are different. They are different from English letters, and they are mysterious and fun.”
Now, do you remember that shovel from Getting Started with Mandarin? I bring this shovel up now because I seriously felt like I needed to dig a big, fat hole and hide in it when he said that. The reason was that at that moment, I realized that I had been taking characters for granted. The truth is, characters are a beautiful (and fun) system. This conversation also made me realize that I truly have a lot to learn from kids! So, you know what? In this article we are going to visit our inner child and learn characters in a fun and interesting way!
However, let’s first talk about Legos.
I actually bought my first set of Legos not too long ago. After buying them, I realized that learning Chinese characters is a lot like playing with Legos. We start with the basic blocks and then we put them together to build something bigger.
The Basics: Strokes
When dealing with characters, we should start with their most basic component (or building block): strokes. These are the individual elements that make up a character. You can differentiate between each stroke by paying attention to the position of your pen when you write them. When you lift up your pen from the paper, you are done with that stroke. As soon as you put the pen down again, you start a new one.
Now, please grab a piece of paper and a pen or pencil.
Step 1: Draw a horizontal line. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be an artist. A simple line from point A to point B will be sufficient.
Step 2: Well, there’s no step 2! You’re done!
Give yourself a pat on the shoulder, you have officially written your first Chinese character! What you have just “written” is one of the most basic strokes. It is called 横 héng. It means a horizontal line.
Out of the many different types of Chinese characters, my favorites are the pictographic ones. These are the ones that you can tell the meaning of just by looking at them. The character that you just “drew” is a simple pictographic character and it is formed by using a single stroke. Can you guess what it means? I can give you a hint: this character is a number.
Question One: What number do you think it is? The answer is at the end of the article.
Now, would you be surprised if I told you that with just the knowledge of 横 héng, you already know how to write three Chinese characters? Well, it’s true, and I’ll show you how in the sections below!
Note to Visual Learners: If you also want to watch a video demonstration, check this one out. It goes a bit more into the details and uses repetition to really practice writing the characters.
Now, let’s take our first character and draw another line below it. This time, I want you to make the bottom line a little bit longer than the first line on both ends. Now we have two lines. This represents another number. Can you guess what number it is?
Yup! It’s “two.”
Tip: When writing a character, it is important to know the stroke order. The basic stroke order is top to bottom and left to right.
Notice how I asked you to make the bottom line a little longer than the top one? The reason is because characters should have certain proportions so that they don’t look too ridiculous. But please, don’t be worried! It is not like you have to make sure that the top line is 23.56708914% shorter than the one below. No math here. I can’t do math.
Now, let’s learn how to write our third character. Again, we will start by using our trusty 横 héng line.
Step 1: Draw a horizontal line.
Step 2: Draw another horizontal line below the one you just drew. But this time, make sure both ends are slightly shorter than the one above.
Step 3: Draw yet another horizontal line below the one you just drew in Step 2. This time, make sure it is slightly longer than the horizontal line from Step 1.
Now, guess what number this is.
Yes, it’s the number “three”! Each line you have drawn is one stroke, and the same stroke is repeated three times with differing lengths.
These three are the basic pictographic characters. They are not even as interesting as some of my favorite characters! And what about “four”? Oh, “four” is a different story. We are not going to cover “four” here, because unfortunately, we don’t just add another line to it. But “four” has its own interesting story. Stay tuned!
Answer to question one: It’s the number “one,” written with just ONE stroke.
- Hero Image by Alan Turkus (CC BY 2.0)
- All other images by the author