When Chinese people ask you about your Chinese skills, they use an incremental approach. First they chat with you to assess your oral Chinese. If you pass the test, they ask you whether you can read, and if yes, how much you read. If you say you read more than a decent number of characters, they ask you whether you write. It’s the ultimate frontier. Because if you did not learn to write and to read at the same time, there is a chance you can only write a fraction of the characters you read.
Writing Chinese requires knowing the language, knowing the characters, knowing the strokes (from where to where, they each have a name: left falling, horizontal, horizontal folded with a hook, etc.) and knowing the stroke order (Some strokes come before others). While such a rule on the stroke order when the stroke order should not be visible on the finished product? Well, the stroke order matters, because if Chinese people scribble fast, they link the strokes together through that secret order, and then, the invisible rule becomes visible. Worse, it’s actually the key to understand what is written or to write characters on your touch screen smart phone.
So the writing lessons are painful. Not only you need to know what you want to write, but you also need to write it right, and you need to write it in a way that is considered beautiful par by professor. In other word, this rapidly turns into an art class. And if you are lucky enough to have a professor who was studying calligraphy, then you will be taught how to improve the characters you write with just the amount of imperfection that makes them more perfect. As if it was not complex enough already.
The beginner uses the paper with the small squares: The 田格本, the exercise book with paddy field design. It’s actually great to be caught with these exercise books by colleagues (“Oh! Yes! I used those in first grade!”). Then in addition to all the other criteria mentioned above, one need to balance the character in the center of the square so that it does not occupy the entire space. In the end, once you have tried your best on the page, your professor will pick the best-looking character (or maybe the less ugly), circle it in green, and say: “That is the best one”. But if you are not good, the ultimate sanction comes quickly. The exercise book is taken away from your hand, it lands on the table in front of the professor, and soon a green character comes to life: The right strokes, the right order, the right imperfection and the good balance on the square, without taking too much space. It looks so simple when they do it. Well, I am told, it’s only the first 1,000 hours of writing characters that are difficult. After, it comes easy. Like the beautiful green character in the middle of the ugly ones.