5 apps that help you to understand and write Chinese characters

From the great number of apps that claim to boost your Mandarin skills only a few focus specifically on understanding and writing Chinese characters. I tested five of them and only one application really convinced me. Here’s my top 5 of apps for learning Hanzi.

Learning Chinese characters is relatively difficult. In my view, it’s not so much the ancient writing system itself that poses a problem, but primarily the teaching and study methods we use for Hanzi. Even in this decade of the 21st century, lots of people continue to “binch-write” Hanzi (for example write the character 爱 30 times) hoping that this somehow is enough for our brain. There’s nothing wrong with diligence, is this really the best method we got though?

Let’s imagine for one second that our best teaching methods and study practices can flow into an app that makes learning Hanzi easier, more efficient and fun, both for beginners and more experienced learners. Which apps can meet these straightforward qualifications?

5. Daily Mandarin

Daily Mandarin Hanzi practice for iOS
88.8 MB, iOS only

Daily Mandarin is a very basic app designed to practice writing all level HSK characters and uhm.. that’s about it. You simply open one of the six well-known HSK-vocabulary lists in the app, select a character you want to practice and the app will show the stroke order and play the audio. If you feel you’re getting the hang of it, hide the stroke order. Additionally, you can look up characters with the search function. The app is completely free.

Unlike Scripts, Daily Mandarin is not very practical in terms of daily use. Where to start with 5000 characters to learn? How to memorize them all? These questions need answering, but Daily Mandarin doesn’t give any clues, let alone any form of spaced repetition. It’s pretty much like being handed a dictionary. This reveals a lack of didactic considerations on the side of the developers. Besides, they could have made the character writing smoother.

Bottom line: Daily Mandarin is a potentially helpful app, but how to properly use it remains unclear.

4. Scripts

"Scripts by Drops": Learn Chinese characters, the Korean alphabet or the Japanese writing system with illustrations and mini games.
31 MB, Android and iOS

Scripts by Drops is a popular app for introducing you to new writing systems, Chinese Hanzi being one of them. It’s designed for a gamified learning experience, making the first steps into the world of Hanzi as amusing and colorful as possible.

The free version allows you to learn the most common radicals, including stroke order, visualized meaning and pronunciation, for five minutes. After this 5-minute session you have to wait for ten hours to have another go. Why? Well, to quote the app developers:

Limiting learning time may sound counter-intuitive but it makes Drops Scripts incredibly addictive. And that’s a good thing in terms of language learning. The obstacles standing in your way of finally starting to read and write in a new language are made obsolete. No excuses: you ALWAYS have 5 minutes!

Addiction in this particular case indeed isn’t a bad thing. Being limited to 5-minute sessions is though. The only solution – you guessed it – is to upgrade to the premium version which offers you:

  • Access to BOTH Scripts and Drops Premium
  • Unlimited practice session times
  • More topics
  • No ads and offline access

Which – to be honest – is not that spectacular – assuming we’re only interested in writing Hanzi (Scripts) and less in learning vocabulary (Drops). Browsing the free version of Scripts I merely noticed the usual list of Hanzi radicals which you can find almost anywhere. What’s more, study up all of them is not necessary for beginners – apart from being pretty dull – since most radicals are character components, not actual characters that you use on a daily basis! Moreover, you first have to know a substantial number of Chinese characters to grasp and appreciate the actual use of (all) radicals. So for me to purchase the premium version I’d definitely need to see a broader variety of content first.

Apart from this lack of vocabulary, the biggest downside is – as we now know – intended: the 5-minute session limit. This makes the free version almost useless for beginners, because 5 minutes simply isn’t enough. Going premium currently costs €5/month (yearly subscription) or € 8.49 (monthly subscription).

3. Kangxi

KangXi: learn characters by their radicals
Size 12,9 MB, free, iOS only

Kangxi is a fun app which focuses on radicals. Basically it’s a game in which you match characters with the same radical as quick as you can. There are five HSK levels to choose from, audio and traditional characters included. It’s a quick and painless method to boost your knowledge of radicals and certainly worth a try.

The only issue I have with the Kangxi app is that in some cases knowing the radical isn’t very advantageous. The developer arguably could have picked more ‘meaningful’ semantic components instead, but then the app wouldn’t be called Kangxi, I suppose.

2. Hanzi Study

Size 11 MB, Android only

This app should be called HSK Hanzi Study, since it ‘only’ contains the 2600 characters from the HSK-test (2.0). Hanzi study provides you with a self-paced learning structure that breaks down all that vocabulary into manageable bits, namely 6 grades with a X number of lessons.

HSK 1 consists of 9 lessons teaching you 20 words each for example. The characters in each lesson seem to be randomly put together, which in my opinion is just as good or bad as alphabetic order. You get a short “briefing” for each new character, showing:

  • Example sentences
  • Stroke order and stroke count
  • Radical of each character
  • Frequency

That’s nice! Here comes the ‘but’:

  • Upgrade needed for the test function (€2.09)
  • No audio in the free version
  • Example sentences are too difficult for beginners
  • Can’t remove Pinyin during test, no traditional characters

The app isn’t complete without the test / flashcard function. Without it, you’re only able to preview the lessons, but can’t track or indeed test your progress.

1. Skritter

Size 30 MB, for Android and iOS

Yes, yes. Skritter. For anybody serious about mastering writing Chinese characters Skritter is the best app I’ve used so far, but also one of the most expensive (monthly subscription $14.99, yearly subscription $99.99). But if you’re really invested in Mandarin and thinking long-term, Skritter probably is the number-one tool for writing Hanzi and vocabulary training.

I know this intro kind of sounds like affiliate marketing, but this how I feel about Skritter. It’s worth checking Skritter’s browser version and especially the app. The free version naturally only offers a small taste of Skritter’s functions, where as premium subscribers get the full deal:

  • Learn to write Chinese characters and deepen your understanding of Hanzi (radicals, semantic components, stroke order)
  • Lots of content (HSK, commonly used textbooks and decks created by users)
  • Learning history and progress tracking
  • Master characters in three steps: learn, test and review with spaced repetition (this order is actually pedagogically responsible which can’t be said for all learning tools)
  • Skritter’s little game ‘Time Attack’: test your writing skills in a race against time (lots of fun, even for natives who want to refresh their handwriting)

It’s the kind of language tool I wished I’d discovered earlier, because – let’s be honest here – I wasted insane amounts of time studying Hanzi with old-fashioned methods, writing, rewriting and then forgetting them again. I believe Skritter – when used properly – can ‘professionalize’ this whole process and make it more efficient and rewarding.

You not only save, but you also win time, since you can use Skritter to study anywhere and anytime you feel like it. Skritter’s SRS also makes it much harder to forget what you learned. SRS is never perfect, but it’s much better than studying at whim and more efficient in the long run. Furthermore, the app allows you to keep track of your progress, so you know exactly where you’re at and what you’ve been learning.

Does Skritter have to be so expensive? Well, I don’t know, but as far as I can tell it’s the only serious tool for writing Chinese characters on the market. Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself if Skritter works for you and whether or not is its money’s worth.

Of course this is list is far from complete. Which apps have been particularly helpful to your Hanzi adventure? Any apps that should be included in this list? Feel free to leave a comment below.

趙雷 – 三十岁的女人 (2014)

Some love this song, some absolutely hate it. Mainly because the singer Zhao Lei sings about “leftover women”, the so-called “剩女” which is a big issue in China. My opinion: the song is innocent, Chinese society is guilty. Let’s have a closer look.

三十岁的女人 – 30 year old woman

她是个三十岁 至今还没有结婚的女人
她笑脸中眼旁已有几道波纹
三十岁了光芒和激情已被岁月打磨
是不是一个人的生活 比两个人更快活

我喜欢 三十岁女人特有的温柔
我知道 深夜里的寂寞难以忍受
你说工作中忙的太久
不觉间已三十个年头
挑剔着 轮换着 你再三选择

她是个三十岁 身材还没有走形的女人
这样的女人可否留有当年的一丝清纯
可是这个世界有时候外表决定一切
可再灿烂的容貌都扛不住衰老

我听到 孤单的跟鞋声和你的笑
你可以 随便找个人依靠
那么寒冬后 炎夏前
谁会给你春一样的爱恋
日落后 最美的
时光已溜走

工作中 忙的太久
不觉间 已三十个年头
挑剔着 轮换着 你再三选择
那么寒冬后 炎夏前
谁会给你春一样的爱恋

日落后 最美的
时光已溜走
日落后 最美的 已溜走

She is a 30-year-old woman who is still unmarried
There are a few wrinkles in her smiling face beside her eyes
Thirty years old, light and passion have been polished by the years
Is the life of one person faster than two people

I like the gentleness of a thirty-year-old woman
I know the loneliness in the middle of the night is unbearable
You said you have been busy at work for too long
It’s been thirty years without realizing it
Picky, take turns, you choose again and again

She is a thirty-year-old woman who is still in shape
Can such a woman retain the purity of the year?
But in this world sometimes appearance decides everything
But no matter how splendid looks can’t hold back aging


I hear the sound of lonely heels and your smile
You can find someone to rely on
So after the cold winter, before the hot summer
Who will give you the same love as spring
The most beautiful after sunset
Time has slipped away

Busy at work for too long
Unconsciously, it’s been thirty years
Picky, take turns, you choose again and again
So after the cold winter, before the hot summer
Who will give you the same love as spring

The most beautiful after sunset
Time has slipped away
The most beautiful after sunset has slipped away

Zhao Lei’s “outdated views about women”

After Zhao Lei sang the song on Hunan Satellite TV’s music program “歌手” (singer), the lyrics of the song caused much controversy. The critics believe that the lyrics reflect the singer’s outdated and one-sided views about women. He has only two ways of judging women, one is appearance and the other is marriage. This is actually the most backward view of women. This gave Zhao Lei the reputation of a defender of “straight male chauvinism”. An entertainment marketing account issued an article from a female standpoint, accusing him of blatantly discriminating against older unmarried young women.

Source: Baidu Wiki

The leftover woman horror scenario

The melancholy song indeed deals with the “typical leftover woman scenario”: a 30-year-old woman, “still” unmarried, her youth is slowly passing away, becoming more and more lonely, since all her friends are gradually getting married and having children. Horrible, right?

The problem is not the song itself, but the societal phenomenon it tries to address. Reading the Chinese comments, I found that some people can’t stand the song and the singer, simply because they can’t stand the stigmatization of unmarried women (which I can’t stand neither). For them the song says “快点结婚吧” or “time to get married”. They didn’t ask for Zhao Lei’s pity for unmarried women and refuse to be put in the 剩女-box. They want to live their own lives, shape their own destinies.

As a 20-year-old single woman, I am not without a suitor. Zhao Lei’s song really voices my inner fears, I am very touched by it. The song is close to my heart. I really don’t feel discriminated against or pitied by at all. Instead, I feel that “三十岁的女人is just comforting us and giving us a bit of strength. I wonder if it’s because of his lyrics. I was so moved because of him singing “picky” [挑剔], but I think he uses the right word, we have been “picky”: waiting for the best love and the best marriage in our hearts. The lyrics “So after the cold winter, before the hot summer, who will give you love like spring” are really beautiful, I really feel that my heart is healed while listening.

Comment on YouTube

In the western world, most people indeed would ask why this situation (30+, woman, unmarried) poses a problem. After all, it’s not too late to find a suitable partner (if that’s what she wants to do). But unfortunately this seems to be a problem for the majority of people in China. From the age of 30, not being married, puts women under a lot of psychological pressure. As if soon it all will be too late for them, they failed and their whole life will have been in vain.

What do Chinese really thing about “leftover women”?

If you want to find out what young people in China think about “leftover women”, have a look at this video by Mandarin Corner. You may discover that their thinking is much more individualistic and less traditional than the older generation.

That’s my simplistic take on 三十岁的女人 by Zhao Lei. Let me know what you think. Like this post? Feel free to give it a thumbs up.