Wrongly written characters (cuo bie zi) in Chinese can cause problems. Recognizing this, some commentators have even likened them to a “disease,” one whose causes (carelessness, ignorance, memory issue, etc.) must be diagnosed before it can be “cured.” In Chinese there are two main categories of “wrongly written characters.” The first kind is the wrong character (cuo zi), in which a character’s structure is incorrectly organized. An example of this would be adding extra strokes to the character 武 (wu) and creating a non-existent one. The second kind is the misused character (bie zi or bai zi). Examples of this would be writing 急躁 (ji zao) meaning “impatient” as 急燥 (ji zao) “irritable”; 川流不息 (chuan liu bu xi) meaning “a steady or unceasing stream” as 穿流不息 (chuan liu bu xi) meaning “through an unceasing stream” and 形形色色 (xing xing se se) meaning “all kinds or diverse” as 形形式式 (xing xing shi shi), meaning “forms and manifestations.” Here the structure of a character or characters is accurate but it or they are incorrectly used making a phrase or word inappropriate or nonsensical and thus they are considered “wrongly written characters.”

In Chinese, characters are the transmission tools of language. Wrongly written characters elicit laughter if used in an inadvertently humorous manner but can also cause anger or create serious misunderstanding if they convey incorrect information and it is important to avoid utilizing them. This is not a problem known only today, but one which has a long history in China. In fact, a special term was coined for them—e hua zi (erroneous characters). It is important to keep in mind, however, that characters in accepted simplified or variant forms or ones derived from regional dialects are not considered erroneous.

The incidence of wrongly written characters in Chinese is quite high. If or when someone is not familiar with the structure, formation principles, pronunciation and meaning of a character, then that person may make a mistake without realizing it or may realize a mistake has been made, but not comprehend what it is. In such circumstances it is difficult to discern and correct mistakes. In Chinese there are many characters that look or sound similar and these may be wrongly written due to carelessness, ignorance or both. It is important to differentiate such characters so the intended meaning is correctly expressed. For example, 狙击 (ju ji), means “to snipe, that is shoot from a hiding place” while 阻击 (zu ji), means “to block or check an enemy,” two different actions; 告示 (gao shi), means “an announcement or bulletin” and is not quite the same as 告事 (gao shi), “a report on a situation.”

Mispronunciation of words can lead to the writing of wrong characters. For instance, many people in Hong Kong speak in the Cantonese dialect and commonly write 转折点 (zhuan zhe dian), meaning “a turning point” as 转泪点 (zhuan lei dian) meaning “the turning of a tear drop” because the character 捩 (lie) in standard Chinese (Mandarin) is read and pronounced as 泪 (lei) in Cantonese. Admittedly this usage is recognized as meaning a “tipping point” in some sources, but it is fundamentally incorrect, and not considered a case of an acceptable variant based on dialect, but a mistake arising out of mispronunciation. Unfortunately, incorrect pronunciation of words can spread quickly or “go viral.” This can lead to misunderstanding. For this reason, memorization of the proper pronunciation of characters is essential. 

The writing of wrong characters arises out of both subjective and objective factors, including in some instances, special circumstances such as the background of those who do this. To explain further, subjectively, many Chinese people do not take the issue seriously. This results in carelessness and mistakes. For example, instead of writing 膏肓 (gao huang), referring to a medicinal cream or ointment, with huang indicative of the body where it is to be applied, someone will write 膏盲 (gao mang) which has a puzzling meaning of cream or ointment blindness. The lower part of 肓 (huang) is the character 月 (yue, moon) and 月 is a standard deformation of the character 肉 (rou, flesh) when combined with other components and means this character 肓 (huang) has something to do with the human body. However, the character 盲 (mang) has the radical目 (mu, eye) in that position, indicating that this character is related to eyes—the difference between these lower components is subtle, and easily miswritten if done in a rush. And indeed subtle differences are common in the very large number of Chinese characters that exist, and the large number of characters is one of the most important objective reasons for writing characters incorrectly. Another contributing factor is their sometimes complicated structure. Memorizing and correctly writing Chinese characters is not easy even for those who exert themselves in their study and use. And this has long been acknowledged in China itself as shown by a story involving a Ming dynasty scholar where there was a mix-up between a fruit and a musical instrument summed up in the saying 枇杷不是此琵琶 (pipa bushi ci pipa meaning “a loquat is not a lute”)—with loquat and lute pronounced identically (even as to tones) as pipa, but written with entirely different characters. (That such lutes are sometimes described as loquat-shaped may have contributed to the confusion.) An example of a special situation which could cause people to write wrong characters would be the case of Hong Kong. Many of its inhabitants are unfamiliar with China’s official simplified characters, and they often incorrectly simplify characters according to their personal habit or conflate and confuse simplified Chinese characters with Japanese kanji, a type of simplification with which some may be familiar. However, these Japanese versions of Chinese characters are not all identical with what is considered correct in China. This situation in which a number of kinds of incorrectly written characters may be encountered is common throughout Hong Kong, including even within its schools.

The Chinese character is a key tool in the transmission of information and thought. Using characters correctly is everybody’s obligation and responsibility. Errors can be avoided through frequent consultation of dictionaries and other reliable reference sources. Fallacious ideas such as “writing inaccurately is no big deal” or “writing inaccurately is a minor personal issue” must be discarded as they are not only untrue, but can be harmful in causing confusion. 

In classical Chinese texts, some characters are wrongly written by modern standards but they were acceptable in ancient times. The three special categories of such “wrongly written characters” in ancient texts are interchangeable characters (borrowed, used for others with same sound etc.), taboo characters (used instead of personal names of emperors, parents, etc.), and certain forms seen in admired calligraphy (in rubbings or surviving examples on paper, silk or stone). Such usages are not acceptable today, however, not even when done in an artistic manner by a calligrapher .

Japan ranks second only to China in its use of Chinese characters, there known as kanji. These are not considered wrongly written characters but they are often different from traditional and simplified Chinese characters. It is a mistake to use then when writing in Chinese. For example, in the compound传说 (chuan shuo) meaning legend, one should always use the Chinese 传 and never the Japanese 伝 (den).