I have noticed that a lot of my friends that study Chinese at university spend a lot of their time learning to write Chinese. I would estimate more than 50% of their Chinese study time is spent on memorizing how to write Chinese characters.

I'm considering studying Chinese at university, but I'm unsure because I would have to learn to write, which I feel would be a big investment of my time which could be spent practicing reading, listening and speaking.

Even with English, I feel I hardly ever write anything with a pen. Everything is done on cell phones, computers, etc. now and I feel this trend is only going to continue.

So, is there a value in learning to write characters by hand, if I know how to write them via pinyin input? Or should I continue to focus my time on learning to read, speak and listen instead?

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    I would also like to make the point: You won't be able to avoid learning to write by hand at university; there are written parts in every exam you will have to do and any assignments / homework required.
    – going
    Commented Jan 9, 2012 at 2:58
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    I feel English is a reading language, if you are reading an English book, you watch the word and make sound in your brain. But Chinese can be a watching language, take a Chinese book, I can watch over a paragraph and get the meaning of most part. Well, you may not believe, but it's true. Compare Yahoo.com and Sina.com for example, you can see that Yahoo.com is simple and clear, but Sina.com like a mess. You maybe surprise how can Chinese find the information in this mess. Well, native Chinese will get the most part easy by scrolling down and take a glance.
    – Lenik
    Commented Apr 4, 2012 at 9:45
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    "Value" is subjective, but I'm interested in learning to write chinese characters because it's a very beautiful written language, and I think it improves reading to really carefully consider how each word is written. That's "value" to me. But if you're interested in Chinese say, as a business man, then you are correct. You'll probably save lots of time by not practicing writing. Commented May 17, 2012 at 3:45
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    @XièJìléi, you might think that everybody goes through the cognitive process text->sound->meaning when reading English, but that is far from the whole truth. The brains of people who read often will learn to shortcut the process, skipping the sound step, thereby making the reader able to read by skimming. Whether the fact that English orthography is more phonetic than Chinese orthography makes this process rarer or less efficient, I don't know. I just wanted to highlight that the process you describe takes place in English as well.
    – dainichi
    Commented Feb 8, 2013 at 0:58
  • It depends on the purpose that you learn Chinese. Most people learn a language for communication, but the others learn it for cultural interests. If you think that's enough then that's enough. You can learn to write some Chinese characters on demand if you find it necessary in the future. Commented Oct 7, 2013 at 18:52

11 Answers 11


You're right that most of the time, you use a computer or cell phone when "writing" Chinese characters. In fact, many Chinese will tell you that - beside their own name (used as a signature) - they almost never write any Chinese characters by hand.

Today, writing Chinese characters is more for memorization than for practical purposes. You might know a few characters and you might know how to type them in your computer, but the only way to really keep them in your mind, and being able to read them fluently, is to write them. It is however rather tedious so it works better if you have some interest in Chinese characters to begin with, otherwise it might get boring.

The best way might be to just try. Write a few characters every day and you might find yourself interested in all the subtleties of Chinese characters.

Edit: There's a related question about the relation between writing and memorizing on the Cognitive Sciences Stack Exchange - https://cogsci.stackexchange.com/q/68/63

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    +1 I liked your last sentence. :) Sometimes "thinking about it" is not enough, but as soon as you try writing it's a whole new experience. :P Or maybe I'm just talking like this because I like it eheh :P I wish I had 12 extra hours just for languages.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Jan 8, 2012 at 13:58
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    The gist is that people (starting from their time as children) write them to either increase muscle memory or character memory. It is still good for a short note or a greeting card.
    – prusswan
    Commented Jan 9, 2012 at 3:45
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    I think you're confusing memorization (learning how to reproduce something) and recognition. The question is not whether writing will help you memorize. It seems pretty obvious that it will. It's not even whether writing (compared to doing nothing) will help you recognize. It seems pretty obvious that it will too. The question is: Given that your main goal is NOT writing (by hand), is your time better spent writing or doing something else?
    – dainichi
    Commented Feb 8, 2013 at 1:18

I think you are right in your desire to put as much time as possible into the speaking and listening aspects of Chinese. But there are various reasons why it's important to put in the effort to learn Chinese characters, even though the initial investment of time is quite large.

  1. As others have explained, passive recognition is no substitute for active production. Having a vague sense of the general look of a character is no match for knowing how to write it down correctly.

  2. Given the large number of homophones among Chinese morphemes, characters give you an important leg-up in learning vocabulary, especially more difficult vocabulary. Again, it's important to have more than just a vague impression of the character.

  3. China is a literate culture that accords great respect to the written word. Chinese people will be very impressed if you can speak Chinese, but their respect will be doubled if they know you can read and write it, too (conversely, you will be regarded as a light-weight if you can't). Good knowledge of the writing system will be (correctly) interpreted as a real commitment to the language and culture.

Of course, it all depends what you want the language for, but if you are in it for the long term, I would strongly urge you not to think of taking the 'easy way out' (tempting as it may be) and put in the necessary effort to learn all aspects of the language. In fact, the characters are fascinating in their own right and you may find them more interesting than you thought. (On the other hand, I might mention that getting too hooked on Chinese characters has its own perils, since they form such a vast and interesting field that you could easily become distracted from learning the actual language :))

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    In point 1: "no match" for what purpose?
    – minseong
    Commented Jan 30, 2022 at 23:31

There is nothing in the linguistic research that proves that writing the characters physically improves one's ability to recognize them in context (as in reading). If that were true, physically handicapped people who cannot write or speak would not be able to read or comprehend language, and clearly that is not the case.

Virtually all of the "evidence" presented in support of "you must write to remember the characters" is based on the personal experience of individuals. Most individuals who have been successful in learning Chinese to date are analytical thinkers who do not mind repetition, because the methods used to teach Chinese are largely based on memorization and analysis. If, however, we look at the broad mass of all students who begin first-year Chinese, the picture changes, and clearly the methods being used are not succeeding with every student who embarks on the study of Chinese, so we should be examining these assertions more closely and separating what is generally good for most from what works for a small minority of the "talented". Language is not something that should be limited to "the talented" or "the hard workers"; it's a natural human ability.

If a student enjoys writing by hand, likes calligraphy, or otherwise derives pleasure from the mechanical reproduction of Chinese characters, that has value. If, on the other hand, the student is being asked to spend many hours memorizing the mechanical reproduction of characters solely for the reason that "he will have to write them in school" but will never have a practical use for that skill in the real world, it is time to re-evaluate what school is teaching and how Chinese programs are preparing people for real life.

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    Hmm... this is an interesting answer though not sure I agree with it. I know nothing about linguistic research but the fact that physically handicapped people can comprehend a language doesn't mean that writing doesn't help (or that it's not more difficult for them to learn). I've asked a question on Cognitive Sciences about this. There's an interesting answer although it doesn't include direct references to linguistic research articles - cogsci.stackexchange.com/q/68/63
    – laurent
    Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 14:18
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    The first paragraph is a logical fallacy. Handicapped people with amputated legs can learn to run, but having full legs probably makes the process easier. Neither statement proves or disproves the other, and you've provided no more evidence/sources/citations for your argument than you claim is absent for the opposing argument (e.g. you assert that of first year Chinese students who are failing, it is the teaching method that is to blame, but you offer no source to back this claim).
    – JBentley
    Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 13:04

Some reasons I'm surprised weren't mentioned above:

1) Written stroke order is still the primary system for looking up characters in a dictionary! Yes, you can break them down by radicals & composition, but if you don't know stroke count/order (because you've never written them yourself) you'll likely fail to find what you're looking for.

2) If you live in China/Taiwan, you will fill out paperwork by hand (bank forms, visa applications, rental agreements, post office, hospital forms, school papers). Even if it's just your name & address you need to know how to write it properly. If you live there and have never done this, it's probably because somebody else did it for you.

3) If you always write in pinyin, you probably think in pinyin, which isn't 100% accurate for pronunciation and isn't helpful for differentiating new homophone vocabulary. Using Taiwan's Zhuyin phonetic system (BoPoMoFo), you see that "wen" and "lun" actually use the exact same vowel sound, not different ones as shown in pinyin. Do you think seeing 'e' vs. 'u' might subtly affect your pronunciation?

4) If you always use computers, you'll rely on computers. This is tough to avoid as apps like Pleco make real-time look-ups almost effortless, and phones/laptops show a convenient array of options to jog your memory. Convenient, but this also means you're not really literate - you're just good at looking things up (see #1 above); also you're screwed without your gadgets.

5) Lastly, as has been said, writing by hand has been shown to help with recall. It adds a kinetic component that your brain can hook into for added context. It also forces you to more deeply process the information than you do when merely transcribing. Research has shown recall and conceptual understanding isn't as strong with keyboard typing alone.

All that said, you can always learn to read/write on your own. If you want to focus on speaking & listening, focus on that - those are much harder to do w/o partners & teachers anyway.

...After typing all this, I see the OP was from 2012 :\ Zombie thread necromanc'd to the top of the pile today. Meh, I stand by my opinions - Yes, there's necessity & value learning to write Chinese :)


I would like to answer this question with an analogy to English. In English,

  1. You may not learn how to spell the word, and you could only rememeber the pronunciation and the meanings for every word, so you can "speak" English,but you can't write them down or read them. I believe in old times, when few people could get well educated, this might happen (in China, it really happened.)
  2. You may only remember the pronunciation and meanings and get a blur impression of how to spell a word, so you may read texts (by guessing the words) and when you write down the words with a pen, there may be a lot of spelling errors.

This could also happen in Chinese. Furthermore, there is another disadvantage. You can get suggestion from the phone when you try to input a word in English, but in Chinese, in most cases, One pinyin (especially without the tones) could map to several characters or words, so you need to decide which word should be selected.

Every language consists of four aspects: listening,writing,reading, and speaking, I believe. It's worthy of you spending some time on writing Chinese characters. I suggest.

  • Being able to write chinese characters is not really the same as being able to spell. You can read and write chinese without needing to ever write the characters because you have plenty of electronic methods to assist and these days, that's what most people do.
    – Chits
    Commented Jan 8, 2012 at 22:21
  • The disadvantage you describe doesn't really apply here. If you can read Chinese characters well, then you will be able to select the correct mapping from Pinyin, because that only involves reading. Adding ability to write characters doesn't offer any further help.
    – JBentley
    Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 13:10

One advantage of learning how to handwrite characters is that it makes it easier to distinguish similar-looking characters in unfamiliar contexts. If you can't handwrite you might still be able to correctly read known words like 快乐 and 决定, but if you encounter a new word such as 决心 it's sometimes hard to tell whether the first character is kuài or jué (especially if both of them would be plausible).

On the other hand, if you can handwrite both characters there's a much stronger link in your mind between the character and its component radicals, so you'll instantly know which one it is.


You are right, from a practical standpoint, spending 50% of your time (as you say, I haven't measured it) might seem a little too much.

Although as it was said, practicing writing not only improves your writing but also your reading as you record the characters' forms in your subconscious (so to speak)

In my case, writing is what I like most of Chinese, as it's an art in its won right, I feel every character is a drawing, and I enjoy drawing a lot, so to me writing is the most important part of my study.

  • That's funny, I frequently the word "draw" instead of "write" when referring to Chinese characters. Commented May 17, 2012 at 3:47

If you actually write out Chinese characters, you will get a better feel for the "structure" of the language. That's because they can be grouped in "families."

For instance, this word 妈 means "mother," and is pronounced ma (first tone).

Take away the woman radical to the left, and you get ma (third tone), which means "horse," which is the phonetic, or "root" word.

Place the mouth radical to the left of the phonetic and you get ma (unaccented), which is a word that makes a sentence a question (equivalent to the French n'est pas?)

Other variations of this word, take the meanings "to scold," "docks," "agate," etc.

Most other Chinese words are members of "families" (of varying sizes) of this sort.


Definitely. Imagine if someone could speak and read English, but not write it. They'd be almost illiterate. Also, slight differences in characters could definitely affect how well you type in characters. For example, if one pinyin has two similar characters, if you can't write them, you probably will mix them up at some point.

  1. Chinese characters is the most beautiful calligraphy. It would be awesome if you could write it using a Chinese brush.

  2. Being able to write them helps you remember them better. Many Chinese characters have the same pronunciation (in pinyin).


I have an Italian brother in law who is dyslexic. He can read fine but can't write even the simplest thing without mistakes because for instance he can't remember the difference between p and b. That is the condition of many of us learning Chinese, even quite advanced speakers. We constantly make mistakes that even small children wouldn't make. I don't think there is any real answer: we will just have to learn to live with our disability.

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