How important is writing, really? My decision not to learn to write Chinese characters

It wasn’t until I moved to China that I even considered I could ignore the writing side of Chinese.  My initial plan was just to learn Chinese, and that meant all four cores of the language – reading, writing, listening and speaking.  After all, that’s the way it is with most foreign languages.

But then I found out my classmate in Yangshuo wasn’t bothering to learn writing at all.  How can that be? I thought.  How can you learn a language without writing it? Turns out, you can still learn it more or less fine. When living in China, your most important skills by far are listening, speaking and reading.  And in this age in which we live, most people type Chinese (whether it be on the computer or on the phone), and to type Chinese all you need to know is pinyin and recognising the characters.  After all, how often do I even have to write English by hand these days?  Pretty rarely, and usually no more than a few words.  Writing Chinese is so difficult – even native Chinese people, including my Chinese teacher, frequently have to look up how to write some words.

Still, it helps to have very basic writing skills, by which I mean learning the basic mechanics of correct stroke order so that you can reproduce words that are not too ugly and so that Pleco’s handwriting recognition tool can recognise the characters you input if you don’t know how the character is pronounced.  And it helps to learn how to write characters that you commonly might need to fill out on a form, like your address (as I found out when I had to write my address once by looking up characters individually on Pleco and reproducing them – a rather slow and cumbersome process).

However, any more than that just seems like, well, not exactly a waste of time, but a less productive use of time than if concentrating on other aspects that you are more likely to use (personally, building vocabulary has long been one of my key concerns).

And for anyone planning to sit the HSK, it may be reassuring to know that a lot of test centers in China offer 网考, which is the online test where you can type in answers for the “writing” part.  网考 is less commonly available outside of China but it’s only a matter of time – HSK is planning to phase out the pen and paper version of the test and have all of it computerised.


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