National Fervor for Writing Chinese Characters


The second season of the Chinese Character Dictation Contest (also known as Character Hero) inspired great enthusiasm for Chinese characters last summer. The competition, in which middle school students write Chinese characters from dictation, became an instant hit after its debut on China Central Television (CCTV) in August 2013, and soon became one of the most watched TV shows in China.

Encouraged by the program, many Chinese are picking up pens to test their own writing proficiency and tweeting the results. To their dismay, many of them are unable to correctly write characters used in daily conversation. This has retriggered heated debates about handwriting amnesia and the decline of the written language.


The Chinese Character Dictation Contest debuted on China Central Television in August 2013 and featured participants from all over the country including Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. 

Handwriting Returns

In each episode of the Chinese Character Dictation Contest adult members of the audience were randomly selected to join the test. But they were easily outperformed by the student contestants.

The Chinese counterpart of the four-letter English word for “toad” consists of three characters 癞蛤蟆 with a total of 46 strokes. Seventy percent of the adult group failed to write the characters correctly. More embarrassingly, 90 percent of them were stumped by 蟾 (the first character of a toad’s scientific name).

These adults made lots of mistakes in writing commonly used words such as 貔貅 (a mythical animal that is a popular motif for arts and crafts), 攥拳头 (to clench one’s fist), 桀纣 (the names of two ancient tyrannical rulers) and 瓮中捉鳖 (to catch a turtle in a jar – or go after an easy target). Less than 50 percent wrote the correct characters for 间歇 (intermittent) and 黏稠 (sticky). Only 10 percent got the characters for 熨帖 (appropriate) correct.

Devoid of shock drama, sensationalist performances or odd-ball stories, this simple character-writing competition has outperformed the singing and dancing talent shows that have traditionally dominated ratings.

According to the program director Guan Zheng-wen, the show was inspired by the U.S.’ Scripps National Spelling Bee. He was particularly moved when watching one senior coaching his grandson 50 years after his own participation. “The U.S. is a diverse country. But in this game, people with different cultural backgrounds find common ground in spelling the same language,” Guan commented.

The Chinese Character Dictation Contest has fueled nationwide enthusiasm for Chinese calligraphy. Families gather to watch the game and write each character along with the contestants. Similar competitions are held in many places nationwide. Meanwhile, apps for character writing are springing up and their download numbers are skyrocketing. Some people are even changing the text input methods on their mobile phones from pinyin, an alphabetic system based on pronunciation, to a stroke-swiping function and realizing that they have been writing some characters incorrectly all along.

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