kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
[personal profile] kake

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned a few searchable online dictionaries for looking characters up. This is all well and good when you know the pinyin for a character and so can type it in, or when the character is on a restaurant's website so you can copy and paste it, but it's less useful when you're looking at a paper menu and trying to puzzle out a character whose pinyin you have no idea of.

Fear not — there is a solution! But it does require an understanding of how Chinese characters are written.

Like letters in the Latin alphabet, Chinese characters are not drawn haphazardly, but written in a specific way — each time you write a character, you use the same strokes in the same order. The order isn't arbitrary, though; a small set of rules (with some exceptions and regional variations) determines the order in which the strokes should be written. Also, despite the complex appearance of many characters, there are only really eight basic strokes.

You don't need to learn to write characters in order to learn to read them. However, knowing the strokes and the stroke order rules is invaluable for looking things up via handwriting recognition programs! The one I use is the ChineseTools.com Mouse Input lookup. (Update, June 2012: the ChineseTools one isn't working for me any more, so I'm now using one by Mobilefish instead.)

I won't be posting my own guide to strokes and stroke order here, since there are already plenty of good ones on the interweb; two of these are at zhongwen.com and at CantoDict. Keeping these principles in mind, I find I get a pretty good hit rate when playing with the handwriting recognition tool above.

Furthermore... although as mentioned above you don't need to learn to write if your main aim is to learn to read, I have found that knowing how to write a character can help me remember it. If you also find this, then you can get free printable calligraphy paper for practising on at CantoDict and at Incompetech. To see some examples, there are a number of characters in animated GIF form on Tim Xie's website, and there's also an online version of the eStroke software which lets you enter any Chinese character and view the stroke order (I'm having trouble viewing it properly in Firefox with addons and Flashblock, but it's fine in Safari and Opera).

Update, July 2010: I've now discovered the YellowBridge stroke order widget, which I find a lot easier to use than the eStroke one mentioned in the previous version of this post.

As an aside for those interested, Wikipedia has an article on the history of and regional variations in stroke order.

If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See here for what these posts are all about.

Date: 2010-05-17 08:38 am (UTC)
pne: A picture of a plush toy, halfway between a duck and a platypus, with a green body and a yellow bill and feet. (Default)
From: [personal profile] pne
I really like Incompetech's free, uh, templates? as well.

First found them while looking up genkô yôshi (Japanese manuscript paper: one box per character in vertical lines), and have since used them for various other kinds of paper, too.

In other news, Jim Breen's WWWJDIC also includes animated stroke-order GIFs for many characters, e.g. http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/~jwb/cgi-bin/wwwjdic.cgi?160657_%B4%C1 and http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/~jwb/cgi-bin/wwwjdic.cgi?153441 for 漢.

Though since it's a Japanese dictionary, it'll use Japanese-simplified characters rather than Traditional or Chinese-simplified characters.

(Fortunately, Japanese simplification was rather more conservative, so most "Japanese-simplified" characters are identical in form to Traditional ones.)

Date: 2010-05-17 06:57 pm (UTC)
john: Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz (Glinda the Good Witch)
From: [personal profile] john
Writing things in order is also terribly useful if you, a Beijinghua speaker, are in Yichang, where they are not so used to illiterate foreigners mangling the language (and speak a different dialect regardless). You can at least draw characters on your hand and people will understand that you want wine and not baijiu.

Date: 2010-05-17 11:19 pm (UTC)
john: Various candles, in multicoloured jars, under trees in the evening (any port in a storm)
From: [personal profile] john
Or Cultural Experiences. *grin*

Date: 2010-05-17 10:39 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
For looking up characters I don't know, I like to use http://www.mandarintools.com/chardict_rs.html . It enables me to look up the radical (i.e. the part of the character on top or on the left) and search through a database to find the character.
-- Qiuyan

Date: 2010-05-18 10:48 am (UTC)
superpitching: (Default)
From: [personal profile] superpitching
I look up the main radical(s) and go cross-eyed squinting through the results trying to find the matching ones. This can take quite a long time! I have never tried searching by stroke order, because I get hand-wavey about it (lack of dedication here tho').

Hey get me, I logged into DW! Aren't you proud :)


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