Bombing the Wall of Characters

Most Chinese learners have a goal of one day being able to read a Chinese newspaper, or a novel in Chinese. And thanks to better and better tools for learning Chinese, it’s getting easier to work towards that goal progressively. However, even learners who have studied for quite a while report that they still struggle with the “wall of characters” mental block. It’s that irrational, overwhelming feeling (perhaps even a slight sense of panic) we sometimes get when confronted with a whole page of Chinese text: the dreaded “Wall of Characters.”

Chinese: The Wall of Characters

No doubt, this fear is partly culturally rooted. From childhood, many of us have considered Chinese characters as roughly equivalent with the concept “inscrutable.” At times our brains seem to revert to that primitive, ignorant state where that wall of characters really seems impenetrable.

Nowadays, the “wall of characters” is often online, rather than printed on paper. We have all kinds of tools to help us chip away at the wall. Relative beginners, with the right training, can quickly start blowing holes in that wall, and with a little time and patience, the wall does come crumbling down at the feet of the motivated learner, leaving nothing but glorious meaning in its place. That’s a beautiful thing.

Today, however, I’d like to introduce a tool of a different sort. One that operates on the “primitive and ignorant” level of the “wall of characters.” It’s a “bomb” in a more literal (but digital) sense of the word, a toy called fontBomb.

I’ve found that applying fontBomb to the “wall of characters” is surprisingly satisfying, in the same way that smashing glass can be satisfying, and looks cool to boot. Here’s a video I made (sorry, YouTube only):

fontBombing Chinese Wikipedia

FontBomb is easy to use and apply to any page of text. Happy bombing!


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Stavros Says: July 30, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    Due to technology (ie, SRS programs, skritter) the days of character learning martyrdom are over. In my experience, it is best to learn all the high frequency characters while at the same time learning (and perfecting) the tones of Mandarin Chinese. In this way, you can read anything you pick up. But of course, the meaning will still be elusive.

    With an SRS program, the effort required to learn characters is approximately three to six months. I say this, thinking of the core 3,000 characters which are used 90% of the time. Without the aid of technology, this same achievement would have taken approximately three years. The time and effort saved is immeasurable. In my experience, any savings in effort adds to your learning enjoyment. Because I have learnt the necessary characters (and a bit more), I can pick up any book and read it. I cannot understand it all, but I can get the gist. Very rarely does a character pop up that I don’t know. In being able to read, I can pick and choose what I want to learn. Also I can expose myself to more input and do extensive reading.

    Having been reading sinoplice off and on for about eight years, I can hazard a guess that John learnt characters the old fashion way – lots of flashcards and repetitive (and ineffective) writing. (Well, I should speak only for myself – the hard way really drained me out and made learning Chinese really hard.) Perhaps Fontbomb is John’s vague attempt at getting his own back against the character learning martyrdom.

    • I think your observation is pretty accurate!

      I don’t think that technology completely solves the problem, though. I think that even when you can recognize every character on a page, you can still feel some of the “wall of characters” effect.

      Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone is affected by it… If you’re not, then by glad! 🙂

      • Stavros Says: July 30, 2012 at 7:16 pm

        Technology is only a crutch – a support. What’s most important is a mixture of patience, curiosity and confidence. Please do not misconstrue my comments – I also do get overwhelmed. When that happens, I put down the book or click to another web page. But there are times when I gain satisfaction in “working through” a text, especially when the grammar is regular.

        This concept of the wall is an interesting one however. A lot of self-motivated Westerners who learn Chinese are attracted to the language due to its writing system. However, even when characters start to stand up and have meaning, a text (or in this case, a “wall”) can still be overwhelming for them.

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