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Hidden Characters

Type:  Experience design

Material:  Wood stamp, Ink, Paper

Timeline:  March - May 2019

“Hidden Characters” is an educational design for creative Chinese learning. My methodological approach for looking into the cognitive experience of Chinese language learning outside of class. The intention was to renew Chinese beginners' understanding of Chinese handwriting, especially in our digital modern world.

The workshop is a step-by-step cognitive experience by giving a background lecture, playing with an interactive website with a brand new stroke keyboard, and using a block kit to create new characters. The workshop will be held in an informal environment for one hour. The teacher will lead the workshop process and stimulate students’ imagination and creativity.


Problems and Design Questions

· Background of Teaching Chinese as a Second Language

According to statistical data, over 2 000 universities in nearly 100 countries presently have Chinese courses. In addition, about 24 000 American students study Chinese and more than 2 500 American high schools and elementary schools plan to set up Chinese courses. In recent years, it is true that Chinese learning is highly valued in western countries, but the complex Chinese character system makes Chinese difficult to teach.

I interviewed Huang Wang, a Chinese teacher who has been teaching in the New Rochelle School District,​ New York, for 8 years. She said, “especially for primary Chinese education, it is difficult for teachers to find ways to help students keep on learning Chinese.” For her students, the fun of learning Chinese characters is often found in their own learning process. However, it takes more time to understand and digest for the students before they find an interest in learning Chinese.

I hope to stimulate students' interest in learning Chinese characters and handwriting by studying the special structures of Chinese characters. So what is the charming fact of Chinese characters?

1) Strokes

Chinese characters are broken down into the smallest structural units, which are the basic strokes. The basic strokes of Chinese characters can be divided into eight categories: dot “丶”, horizontal “一”, vertical “丨”, throw away “丿”, press down”乀”, break “乛”, hook “亅” and rise“扌”.

2) Radicals

From simple pictographic to the characters we used today, most Chinese characters inherit phonetic components and semantic identifiers. The semantic identifier in the Chinese language system we call it “Radical”. The radical is derived from a pictographic character that expresses a specific meaning.

3) Pictophonetic Characters

Pictophonetic characters are characters composed of two parts: a pictographic element, which is a “radical” indicating meaning of the character, and a phonetic one which is a “single character” indicating pronunciation.

· Cognitive Learning Difference between the West and the East



The visual differences between Chinese characters and western letters affect the cognitive process of their native speakers. Chinese characters, also known as block characters, are mainly ​pictophonetic characters[figure left], are two-dimensional planar structures.

In contrast, western letters, such as Roman letters and Greek letters are fully phonetic, with each word arranged in a single column. This makes it more difficult for westerners to learn complex Chinese characters and associate their meanings.

· The Feature and the Structure of Chinese Characters

For example, the word has a “water” “氵” radical is associated with water. [Figure right]This is the most unique feature of Chinese pictophonetic characters — seeing the radicals of these words, one can understand their meanings and guess the pronunciation at once. Moreover, for most radicals, their positions are fixed. Such as the radical “water” “氵” is always on the “left”

Design Concept

My goal is to help introduce a more in-depth perspective on the Chinese language and the special structure of Chinese characters for non-Chinese speakers who are students and just start to learn Chinese. I want to help TCSL (Teaching of Chinese as a Second Language) teachers give a creative teaching experience to their students. This teaching activity will be displayed outside of the formal class context as a creative workshop.

Design Process


· Interviewing TCSL Teachers

I invited two teachers Mingxue Gao(2 years working experience, Beijing) and Huan Wang (8 years of working experience, New York )engaged in teaching Chinese as a second language in China and USA for interviews to learn about their working conditions and the status of their students. I found that Chinese TCSL education is very different from western TCSL education in terms of environment, textbooks, and course settings. Classes in China pay more attention to the introduction of Chinese history and culture, while western classes focus on the study of textbook knowledge.

· Interviewing Students who Learn Chinese as a Second Language

I interviewed students who studied Chinese for different years to learn about their learning experiences and what interests them about Chinese. For students like Marcus and Alexey, who are just learning Chinese characters, they prefer to create new characters.  At the

same time, they can also learn how to write characters based on radicals. However, handwriting is still the most difficult part for them.

For Stephanie, who has been learning Chinese for 9 years, I asked her about her feeling of learning Chinese characters at different period. She said that “for writing Chinese characters, the overall memory through visual impact has helped me a lot. Also, with the further study of Chinese culture, I can better understand the formation reasons of many Chinese characters which help me remember them as well.”


After that, I made an emotional experience curve to show what students pay attention to in the process of learning Chinese characters. I found that they were very interested in the visual form of Chinese characters and the elements of “radicals”. Therefore, I hope to help students understand the form of Chinese characters by taking vision as the starting point.


· Infographic introduction

I made a series of infographic posters to help students understand the history and basic knowledge of Chinese characters. In the interview with Huan, I found that the concept of "radical" also the “classification of the radicals”was not highly mentioned in the Chinese learning textbooks for US students, and the students did not understand the history of China in a linear time (such as, when is the “Qing Dynasty”).


· Interactive Installation “Square Graphy”

“Square Graphy” is an interactive installation to create experimental Chinese characters with a stroke keyboard I made for my major studio 1 final.

With the popularity of smartphones, computers, and other electronic products, Chinese character writing has been replaced by various input methods, which leads to the reduction of writing opportunities of Chinese characters. Therefore, I hope that Chinese learners can truly understand the structure of Chinese characters through this process.

The students can both choose use their muscle memory to typing based on Roman letters or just see the stroke on the keyboard to create character with typing strokes.

· Wooden Block Kits of Chinese Radicals


Inspired by movable type printing, I made a set of wooden blocks which composed of radicals to allow students to learn the position of radicals through the process of stamping and created their brand new characters by combining a radical and a single character.

In the first prototype, although an introduction of each radical was provided, the testers were still unable to learn the structural position of the radicals. The characters they created were not based on the actual structure of the characters. Thus, to make it clear, the second prototype was designed with radical blocks with color classification on the top and a structural canvas to match the blocks[figure 12].


Workshop Testing

· Teacher:  Wanyue, Wang; Westchester, New York, US Public School Chinese Teacher

· Students:  six 10th-grade Students

· Environment setting:

During the initial site selection process, Wanyue prefers to conduct workshops in Chinese bookstores or museums related to Chinese culture to better help students bring the Chinese learning environment. However, considering the noise in the class environment, we decided to set this workshop in an activity classroom at Wanyue’s School.

· Workshop schedule:


1)Infographic introduction of character knowledge (10 mins)

First of all, Huan introduces the historical knowledge and elements of Chinese characters. Students will have 5 minutes to observe and discuss the content of the poster.

Theses poster introduces the evolution of Chinese characters and how they have influenced other Asian countries, such as Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam. Knowing that the Chinese teaching textbooks in the US don’t mention the classification of Chinese radicals, I made a poster of the classification of Chinese radicals to classify the radicals in a clearer and overall form.


2) Create Chinese characters with “Square Graphy”(10 mins)

Then, the students experienced the fun of creating Chinese characters. Websites can save their creations, and they can download and share their creations online. This step helps to stimulate the students' imagination, also to feel the beauty of Chinese characters, and to let them experience the importance of the radical again.

3) Learning structures of Chinese characters and playing with radicals(40 mins)

Following the previous step of learning the radical classification poster, Huan further introduced the position rule of each radical in Chinese characters. Students need to choose the up and down structure canvas (with blue color canvas and blue color block) or left and right structure canvas (with red color canvas and red color block) and use blocks to create new Chinese characters according to the rule of Chinese characters.



In the process of setting the schedule of this workshop, I assume the students will spend a lot of time playing with the block kit at first, but in fact, they are also very interested in the infographic information part and they spend more time playing with the websites. 

"I never knew what time the Qing dynasty was. The history information is really helpful." said one of the students. In the beginning, the students did not know the purpose of this workshop, so the aim of introducing the history and basic knowledge is trying to promote the atmosphere through some popular knowledge they did not know before.

In the part of the block, I found that the students began to classify the radicals of different structures, distinguish the difference between individual words and radicals, and ask the teacher if the word really existed. Therefore, in the workshop, the teacher directly asked the students to write by hand with an electronic dictionary. 

“Can I try the keyboard again?” This was the most feedback I get after class. This proves that when peers share and compete, their memories are more impressive.

I rearranged the schedule of the workshop. I was also thinking about whether to let students experience the structure of the radical first and then let the teacher give the lecture.

1. Infographic introduction of character knowledge (5 mins lecture and 5mins discussion)

2. Learning structures of Chinese characters and playing with radicals(30 mins)

1) Creating new characters with blocks and drawing the meaning ( 3-4 characters 10 mins)

2)Sharing and presenting the new characters(15 mins)

3)  Checking real characters in the dictionary and learning to write (5 mins)

3. Create Chinese characters with “Square Graphy”(20 mins)


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