A few days ago, I was sharing with my students the limited progress I had made in understanding Chinese characters. I had started my learning through observations (like all visual learners do); adverts, subway signs, product instructions, etc. I was progressively seeing recurring patterns.
I began exploring some of the few basic patterns I had seen: man (人), wood (木), day/heavens (天) and rice (米); mouth (口), sun/day (日), moon/month (月) and eye (目).
After drawing the above characters on the blackboard in front of the class, I had no response. I suspected the students were thinking on how best to respond to my efforts. I also noticed that I was not getting through in conveying the beginnings of my understanding of Chinese characters.
Source: Hao Xian Tang
After a brief exchange, a student from the front row said “Don’t draw. Write!” This said so much to me, in so few words.
What at first had appeared to me as a series of straight or curbed lines must not be drawn randomly. My hand movements were wrong. I needed to follow a series of sequential steps in generating the Chinese character.
In English writing, we all have our own ways of scribbling a letter. Yes, in school we might have learnt the proper ways of forming it, but this is generally abandoned over the years to reflect our ease or preference in tracing a letter or a word. And everyone is okay with that individual approach.
What I learnt that day, was that I needed to learn the proper way of writing a character, with each component drawn in the proper sequence, and in the proper direction. Then and only then, would I learn how to write Chinese. The free flow and creativity of English writing would have to disappear, and I would have to conform to a set of rules.
What I saw at that moment is the way the Chinese brain is formatted from an early age in their ways of thinking, particularly in their need to have order in the assembly of a complex system. I also read into the manner in which a Chinese character is written is the need for a system where the whole society conforms to a method of generating a character. One should NOT change the order in which a character is formed. Unlike English where we can deviate from the “suggested” way of writing.
No wonder it is far easier for me to mark handwritten exams in China than it ever has been in the West as Chinese students will write the English letters and words the same way. They are applying the method in generating a Chinese character to their English writing.
Will the way the brain has been formatted by learning to write Chinese characters impede their creative thinking? Good question for which I do not know the answer, but it is important if you relate it to the economic future of China.