Learning how to write beautiful Chinese characters

character shapesAfter teaching Thumper the different character shape, I gave her our first writing lesson about 2 days later.  I’m definitely on a high because the results were really surprising to me, in a good way.

I only had formal Chinese instructions up to 4th grade, and as an adult, I find my writing pretty atrocious.  It just looks like half way between a child’s and adult writing.  It’s missing a lot of the components that make writing characters more akin to writing beautiful handwriting or beautiful calligraphy.

Background Info

As I talked about in the previous post about character shapes, there are a gazillion of them.  Yes, I exaggerate a bit.  Before our lesson I’ve actually done some random reading while researching stroke order and read about WHY we write Chinese character a particular way.  It’s all about Chinese calligraphy, because calligraphy is an art.  So good pretty writing is about making it look beautiful.

Unfortunately, with the advent of typesetting, many teachers lament that this skill is getting lost.  The typesetting character isn’t necessarily how you would write a character.  So it is very important to use 標楷體 when you’re using fonts for lesson plans.  Because they tell you how the brush starts and stops.  And if you know about strokes then when you see a character, you can look at it for clues on how to actually write the character.

I did not use to like this font because I did find that often they are not how we actually write characters though.  But now I do use it knowing it’s mimicking brush strokes.  However, I don’t think it is good as a way to copy how characters are written.  This is why the character practice sheets from the major textbook publishing companies now have a 鋼筆字 component.  One big reason is that the left right stroke (橫) is actually written at a 7 degree angle.  Don’t ask me why it’s exactly 7 degrees.  But I read about it on this website.  I actually then went and drew a character grid and mapped my 標楷體 onto it.  And it is indeed 7 degrees for all the 標楷體 characters.

I’ve been searching and searching online over 3 years for a font that mimics 鋼筆字 and really none are exactly right for young children, because they do add a beautiful writing component to it and this means that the strokes are sometimes not very clear, they kind of start mimicking brushes.  However, I’m now using the 華康雅風體 in my dictionary since it’s going to be used for writing.  You can find bootlegged copies online all over the place.

Because writing Chinese characters is all about fitting into a square.  So another thing I learned about strokes is that sometimes strokes change in order for the character to fit properly into one square.  For example, for the character 林, which is made up of two 木’s.   木’s stroke order is 一橫,一豎,一瞥,一捺.  When it’s written on the left side, it’s 一橫,一豎,一瞥,一點.  So the left to right diagonal (\) is shortened in order to allow room for the right 木 to fit in there.  There are many cases like that.

Apparently if you look at the character practice sheets from New Taipei Government, you can kind of see this.  When they teach characters, they do point out these little gotchas.  I really really wanted to use these character practice sheets.  But alas, we’re following Sagebook, so instead I’m making more work for me by doing it myself through using the 華康雅風體 font.

How I presented

IMG_5211Tonight, we started our lesson with the character 林.  First we looked at the character structure reference I made for Thumper and we talked about its character structure.  Then we talked about the character shapes of the character and decided that they were two same long rectangles.  I then gave Thumper a few example of what long rectangles mean.  The left/right stroke is proportional to the diagonal strokes, this is how you can make that rectangle.  It isn’t too long nor too short.  I also talked about how the point of writing character is it’s in the center of the square.  It isn’t hiding on the top left corner or bottom right corner.  Finally I talked about how when we actually write Chinese, the left to right stroke goes slightly up.  (I read about the 7 degrees only after the presentation).

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After practicing different ways to NOT write 林, I finally got down to work showing her how to write it.  I wrote it on the character practice booklet I made 6 months ago for her.  (Finally!)  And wow, if I may say so myself, my writing actually is not bad looking for once.  These workbooks have 7 characters total in one column only, with the top to be written by the teacher.  From the character component paper and other things I’ve read, they say that practicing and practicing and practicing writing is not going to make the child actually remember how to write it.  This is one reason why I’m limiting it only to 6 characters.  I’m hoping that with other writing practice it’ll stick better.  However, I do see how beautiful writing characters is both a muscle memory and mindful writing thing so I need to figure out what to do about that.

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3 months ago

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after studying

Anyways, borrowing an idea from the English handwriting workbook I purchased, I asked Thumper to write two characters in her book, make little circles in the character of where she thinks she needs improvement and where she’s writing well.  Then she tries again with the next two, and finally with the last two she writes them w/ no critique for me to see.
Since the practice sheet does have a crosshair in it to guide you, it helped her see where to start the writing when she’s copying my character.  Her character writing turned out very well for 林.  She wanted to try it with 凱, but we had a tough time deciding what type of character shape & structure it has.  We analyzed it to death.  It did turn out pretty good too compared with before.  And definitely I’m amazed at how much better I write.  But I can see she does just need more practice writing in general because she can’t quite make her lines too straight or her curves curvy enough yet.

I’m not sure how long we can make this interest in writing beautify characters last.   I will have to figure out how to make it more interesting as we go along.

Addendums

In regards to writing in general, I’m glad we’re finally starting at age 7.5.  It is a bit old and it isn’t like she was not writing before now.  But for 3 years I was super frustrated that she was holding her pencil incorrectly but her school work makes her write.  It’s mostly her choice to write of course but we weren’t going to a play-based school.  Finally this year she’s got enough strength in her hand to hold her pencil right.  And I can see how an older age makes a bigger difference in how well she can manipulate that pencil.  She was just one of those kids who did not develop her pincer grip early enough.slanted character

Lastly, after reading that article about 7 degrees, I’m going to be changing all of our practice sheets to that format instead.  I am a lazy person and I don’t like to nag.  I hate for her to develop the habit of writing a specific way, having her muscles remember it, and then having to correct it when she gets older.  It seems just so much easier that the guides for writing slanted is IN the practice sheets.

I’m going to be making my reference guide for these character shapes next.

 

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Learning Chinese Character Shapes

This week I introduced the second part of Chinese character structure.  These are two different things but I don’t know how to translate them into English.  The first one was called 漢字基本結構, so more Chinese characters’ basic structure.  It’s really more about how the character components fit each other to form a character.  This second part is 字體結構, and it’s about how to write these character components so that it looks nice.

So this is part 3 of my lesson plan on teaching how to write.  One was stroke name, two was character structure, and three is character shapes.  Two and three are really inter-related.

Background

The easiest way to explain character form is to look at some characters.  For example, 山.  This character is triangular in shape when you write it.  Or, a character like 牙, which is long rectangular shape.  Or, the one character that Thumper tends to write funny, 天.  You can see it’s kind of triangular shape.  But Thumper likes to write it so that the first left-right stroke is as long as the second.  It was because of this that I thought it would be important to talk about character shapes with her.  The 8 shapes for simple characters are:

  • triangle  上
  • inverted triangle  下
  • rhombus  米
  • circle  小
  • square  凹
  • rectangle  牙
  • wide rectangle  丑
  • trapezoid  工

For characters with character components, you can break down the character shapes even more.  For example, one of a character’s basic structure is left/right, where the character components are left and right of each other, e.g. 朋.  Then you can break this down even more and say some characters have the left side bigger, some the right side bigger, some the left is long rectangle, right short rectangle, etc.  Here are the 6 basic ones for just the left right structure:

  • equal 朋
  • left wide, right narrow 割
  • left narrow, right wide 姐
  • left long, right short  私
  • left short, right long  喔
  • let tall, right low  胡

Crazy right?  I count 27 of these for the different character component, plus the 8 for simple for a total of 35!

How I Presented

As usual, to make sure I don’t spend 5000 days to actually create the material (which I’m doing now, hours and hours of work), I just printed out the relevant pages from the research paper as prep.  This was actually just a 5-10 minute lesson I squeezed in before cooking dinner.   I first showed Thumper the reference material I made for her the other day.

2. chinese structure

I then talked about how it’s not just these basic structures but the characters themselves have specific shapes.  For example, her 天 she often writes it with two equal lines.  (I know I know, I really should not be pointing out her mistakes.  sigh).  But really 天’s shape is a triangle.  (Here I draw a triangle around the character.  We then just went through and talked about the 8 basic character shapes.  I definitely stressed the long rectangle shape because that is seen the most often.  And then we went through some of the shapes for the left/right components.  By then she was getting tired so I just left it at that.

One technique I’m using from reaching Nurture Shock.  I tend to give many examples of what NOT to do.  Thumper really really found it funny to show me examples of how not to write the characters.  Looking back, I think I should have let her go with it.  But at the time, I stopped her after a few examples.

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BUT!  there is an epilogue.  Two days later, we finally talked about how to write Chinese characters, and we started practicing.   Wow, what a difference knowing character structure makes!

 

Learning about Chinese Character Structure

This week, I finally decided that I cannot wait until I make the material for learning about character structures. We’re not making headway in the writing department if I keep waiting and waiting. Last weekend I finally read through about half of the almost 300 page research paper on character components and how to teach character recognition. I was going to do some gianormous post about what I learned and how I’m thinking of teaching this. But, I had a lot of fun with my presentation so I’m going to write it piecemeal instead.

Some Background First
Teaching character structure is probably the second step after teaching stroke names. I will teach stroke order right before we start writing probably. Instead of some nomenclature cards, I just whipped out my little whiteboard and the two cheat sheets I printed from the research paper. There is about 12 basic Chinese character structure. The structures is a way for you to kind of “split” the character into different character components. Typically this is because of spacing or because you can split it into 2 separate components.

For example, most characters have a left right split like 好. You can naturally draw a line and split the character in half.  The character 香 has a top an bottom split because you can split that word into the components 禾 on top and 日 on the bottom.  Anyways, the 12 structures are:

character structures

If you look online you will see many list 14 or 16.  The research paper lists an additional 8.  It kind of sub-divides some of these “sections”.  Like, 彎, it’s a top/bottom character, but the top can be sub-divided into 3 sections.

There is also the issue of character shape.  Not sure how else I should describe it?   For example, for the word 土, though it is two left-right strokes, one is shorter than the other and it looks like a triangle.  Or for the character 三, again, 3 left-right strokes (一橫) if you just go by stroke name, but they’re of different lengths in order for it to look nice in a square.   I had read really quickly through a paper last week on why we do stroke order the way it is, and how strokes are changed in order for it to look pretty.  For example, the character 林 are made of two of the same character component 木.  But the stroke of the left 木 changes in order for the component to fit nicely next to the right 木.  I realized looking through Thumper’s writing this week that she does not know this.  Strokes are long where they should be short, etc.  Hopefully knowing all of these background info will allow her to be mindful when she writes.

Presentation

I kind of winged it as I go.  We started the second book of Pink Series this week so Thumper laid out all the cards from the first book plus 6 more from the second.  Astroboy wanted in on the fun so he also laid out his 20+- characters from his second book of the Blue Series.  Then I drew a square and  told her that when we write Chinese characters the goal is to write it centered in a square.   I drew a few where characters weren’t centered and we talked about how that didn’t look good.

Then I said that in order for these characters to be centered, we need to look at the parts of the character components that make up the character when we write, to make sure that they are centered overall.  For example, for the character 林, you would not want to squeeze it onto the left side of the square, or for half of the 林 to be on the far left and the other half far right.  I then drew a line down the square to show how the character is split.

Finding the character structures

Thumper was then asked to find all the characters laid out on the rug that had a left/right split.  We used a whiteboard marker and drew the splitting line on these flashcards.  Going through the various structures, we tried to find all the cards that fit and draw the splitting line.  Of course not all of them were on the mat, I had to pull a few of the super common characters off of other series flashcards instead (like 圓).  Astroboy got onto the action and drew on his with my directions.  I had to tell him that the split is where there is a space in the character or split along smaller words.  He could not see it really.  It’s not an exact science actually, that’s why there is a whole research paper on the subject of how to find character components.

The last thing I talked to Thumper about was that in order for the characters to look nice, it’s not an even split like my drawing.  Many times it’s more like a 30/70 split or 20/80 split.  For example, 他 is split in two but the left side is much smaller than the right.  Next week I’m also going to get into character shape and stroke changes as well..

All of this took about 30 minutes or so and by the the kids were tired.  So we erased the lines and played their new favorite game, “Find the Character”.  All in all it was a super good day.  The kids had fun looking