Challenging Characters

A character-building challenge that teaches perseverance, is it worth it for us to spend time learning Chinese characters? How many do you know?

My mum told me I was reading fluently by the age of four. She might have been exaggerating but it would certainly explain why it has always felt natural and essential for me to be able to comprehend the written world around me: the signs on the shops and government buildings, the advertisements flashing by, the warnings and prohibitions… Before coming to China that is.

Upon arrival to the Middle Kingdom, the multitude of incomprehensible Chinese characters jumping at you from all directions is at first, just another reminder of what a truly exotic place you are lucky to have landed in. Pretty soon though your initial enthusiasm gives way to a slight frustration, an impatience to break the code so you can once again be able to read and understand the world around you. As time passes by and your confidence in holding a conversation grows, often so does the feeling of being defeated by this ancient system of beautiful and complex combinations of strokes and dots. Time and time again you find yourself having to explain that although you’ve studied Mandarin for a while and feel quite comfortable chatting to strangers, you still cannot decipher more than a handful of words on the local restaurant’s menu, let alone pick up a newspaper and read away.

Even on a good day I could whine about the impossibility of mastering written Chinese until your ears bleed. So, given the low probability of success, why even bother trying?

Altogether, there are over 80,000 Chinese characters, and it is said that to completely and wholly understand a newspaper, you will need to know around 2000-3000. “How many characters do you know?” is one of those frequently asked questions I dread; I am always at a loss as to how to answer it. I should know plenty by now, but the truth is that I learn a few new characters, yet I’ve already forgotten the ones I learned last week. And the more characters I learn, the more I discover how deceitfully similar many of them are. I promise you, even on a good day I could whine about the impossibility of mastering written Chinese until your ears bleed. So, given the low probability of success, why even bother trying? Below I’ll list a few of my personal reasons for not giving up.

  • I’ve come to think of learning Chinese characters as a character-building exercise. It certainly teaches you the meaning of perseverance, this most Chinese of virtues. I try to imagine all the hours that every single Chinese person has spent learning how to read and write, all the little kids patiently bent over their schoolbooks day after day… The very foundations of this nation’s greatness might possibly lay hidden in achieving this impressive feat of literacy.
  • Then there’s the sheer beauty of it! Even if I’d only dabbed at Chinese calligraphy and the characters that my own hand tentatively produces are far from aesthetically appealing, it’s easy to understand why these elegant pictograms, when skillfully executed, so often end up tattooed on various body parts of individuals from around the world. And why graphic designers are drooling over the endless possibilities of the austere brushstrokes, pregnant with meaning.
  • Finally, viewed as an intellectual challenge, trying to figure out a pattern behind the seemingly haphazard characters is up there together with the more advanced crosswords and puzzles. An endlessly repetitive sudoku pales in comparison. Neuropsychologists claim that this kind of exercise could be the key to keeping dementia at bay. And for me personally, the challenge of old age is more about how to keep my brain in shape than how to conceal the more obvious wrinkles and greying hair.

So, maybe you should make the effort and learn a few more characters. You might find it rewarding after all. I certainly intend to keep on learning (and whining).