Strokes and Stroke Order of Chinese Characters

As I said before, I am not a big fan of insisting writing in the correct stroke order, unless you need to please your school teachers to get full credits of your homework assignment, or you are practicing Chinese calligraphy. On the other hand, it looks really bad to native writers if you try to show off your handwritten Chinese, but end up writing a horizontal stroke right to left, or writing the lower part of a character first before the upper part, they may even giggle when they see it, or at least confirm their belief that “foreigners do not understand Chinese language.” Therefore, before technology advances enough so that everyone types Chinese on a keyboard, you’d better pick up the basic rules of writing Chinese characters.

With the seemingly random composition of lines, how many different kind of strokes are there in Chinese characters? There are not a lot, namely, more than 20 different kinds of strokes in 4 main categories. When I say more than 20 but not an exact number, because you may ignore some of the subtle differences in different kinds of strokes in the official categorization by the ROC Ministry of Education. I couldn’t find an equivalent document from the PRC Ministry of Education, but the idea should be the same for writing either traditional or simplified Chinese characters. For the 4 main categories, they are dot (/), horizontal (/), vertical (/) and diagonal (). 2 basic rules apply for writing each stroke:

  1. From left to right
  2. From top to bottom

For each stroke, you almost always use the topmost point, and if there are more than one such point, find the leftmost of those points to start writing a stroke. The only exception is the diagonal stroke from bottom-left, such as the 3rd stroke of the radical (see below) for (shǒu: hand). Note that the little hook at the end of the 2nd vertical stroke, it is attached to the vertical line and considered one single stroke. The same applies to any “hooks” at the end of a stroke, as there is only separate single stroke for a dot, but not for a hook. Also the 1st horizontal stroke may look like a diagonal, maybe not in this case but in some other character/font combinations.

The 1st diagonal stroke of (: I, me) may demonstrate the frustration a bit better. If it is written more horizontally, you may get confused whether it’s a horizontal stroke or a diagonal one, or even if you know it’s a diagonal stroke, you are not sure whether it is the special kind of stroke to start writing from the bottom left. My general advice is, if you look at the character using the “standard” Chinese font comes with Windows or Mac, the horizontal stroke should be “very horizontal,” while the diagonal strokes are not. The diagonal stroke starting from the bottom left can not be a stroke on top of other strokes, so if you start writing a radical with a diagonal stroke, do not start writing from the bottom left.

We will talk about stroke order next.