On Character Amnesia

It’s ok to forget how to write characters sometimes.

It happens all the time, even among highly-educated native speakers. There’s a term for it: 提筆忘字/提笔忘字 (roughly, pick up a pen and forget how to write). With thousands of characters to memorize, it’s only natural to forget how to write them sometimes.

I don’t worry about it too much though, and here’s why.

Below is 寒食帖, a scroll with two poems, and one of the most famous works by one of the most famous calligraphers and poets in history, Su Shi (蘇軾/苏轼):

The four dots I’ve circled in red in two different places serve to tell the reader to ignore those characters, much like crossing out text in English. Now, he didn’t forget how to write the characters in question, he simply wrote the wrong character. The small character I’ve circled in red near the bottom was skipped and then added in later. It looks like he originally wrote 何殊少年子 and then perhaps realized that didn’t fit the rhyme scheme he wanted, or something, so he changed it to 何殊病少年. Whoops.

So the point is, Su Shi made these mistakes, and that scroll still went on to become one of the most famous works of calligraphy in the history of China. And if that’s the case, then as a non-native speaker, I (and you!) can certainly forget how to write a character occasionally without worrying too much about it.

Here are the poems for comparison. I’ve arranged them according to their meter rather than according to where it appears on the scroll. Simplified appears below, and an English translation below that.

自我來黃州 已過三寒食
年年欲惜春 春去不容惜
今年又苦雨 兩月秋蕭瑟
臥聞海棠花 泥汙燕支雪
闇中偷負去 夜半真有力
何殊病少年 病起鬚已白

春江欲入戶 雨勢來不已
小屋如漁舟 濛濛水雲裏
空庖煮寒菜 破竈燒溼葦
那知是寒食 但見烏銜帋
君門深九重 墳墓在万里
也擬哭塗窮 死灰吹不起

右黃州寒食二首

And in simplified:

自我来黄州 已过三寒食
年年欲惜春 春去不容惜
今年又苦雨 两月秋萧瑟
卧闻海棠花 泥污燕支雪
暗中偷负去 夜半真有力
何殊病少年 病起须已白

春江欲入户 雨势来不已
小屋如渔舟 蒙蒙水云里
空庖煮寒菜 破灶烧湿苇
那知是寒食 但见乌衔纸
君门深九重 坟墓在万里
也拟哭涂穷 死灰吹不起
右黄州寒食二首

English*:

I

Since I came to Huangzhou, I passed
Three Cold-food days devot’d to fast.
Each year I wish fair spring to stay,
But spring will go without delay.
This year again we suffer from rains,
For two months, dreary autumn reigns.
Lying in bed, I smell crab-apple flowers,
Upon whose rouge and snow mud showers.
The rouge has taken stealthy flight,
Borne away by the Strong at midnight.
The snow is like a sick youth’s head
Turning white when he’s up from his bed.

II

Spring flood is coming up to my gate,
    My small cot looks like a fishing boat.
The pouring rain will not abate,
    My cot on misty waves will float.
I cook food in a kitchen in decay,
    And burn wet reeds in a cracked stove.
Who can tell ’tis the Cold-food day,
    But for the money-paper burned above?
The royal palace has gate on gate;
    My household graves far away lie.
At the road’s end I’d lament my fate,
    But dead ashes blown up cannot fly.

 

* From Selected Poems of Su Shi, translated into English by Xu Yuanchong.

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