The Fundamentals of Chinese Stroke Order
Many people are often fascinated and attracted by Chinese characters. At first glance, characters may look like bizarre pictograms, randomly drawn at will. But did you know that Chinese characters all consist of fixed stroke orders and follow a specific set of rules?
Table of Contents
- What is Chinese stroke order and why is it important?
- How many total possible strokes are there in Chinese?
- The proper way to write Chinese characters: the six main rules of Chinese stroke order
- How to practice stroke order
- Bonus fun fact: What Chinese character has the most strokes?
- Putting it all together
- Chinese stroke order vocabulary
What is Chinese stroke order and why is it important?
Chinese character stroke order, called 笔画顺序 (bǐhuà shùnxù) or 笔顺 (bǐshùn), refers to the order in which the separate strokes that make up Chinese characters are written.
First learn stroke order, then learn Chinese characters
The Chinese idiom 磨刀不误砍柴工 (módāo bù wù kǎnchái gōng) provides a dose of age-old wisdom: sharpening the axe does not delay cutting the wood.
What does this have to do with Chinese stroke order and learning Chinese characters, you may ask? Everything.
Knowing stroke order accelerates the memorization of characters and unlocks a deeper understanding of the structure of every Chinese character you encounter. Once you know stroke order, you can memorize Chinese characters more quickly.
First learning Chinese stroke order then moving on to character memorization accelerates the study of Chinese characters. For according to the wonderful Chinese dictionary app Pleco, a beard well lathered is half shaved!
Stroke order in a digital world
Many new learners often wonder whether stroke order is even important. After all, if you can successfully write a legible version of a Chinese character, then surely that's all that matters, right? Especially today, when Chinese characters are often digitized and most people rarely need to write anything by hand, learning stroke order may seem irrelevant.
Although these points are valid, stroke order is still critically important. Correct stroke order ensures good form and presentation of the character, and is deeply connected with the history of the Chinese language itself.
After all, Chinese characters are an art form, and the rules of stroke order are especially important when it comes to writing Chinese calligraphy.
Understanding Chinese stroke order rules is also incredibly useful when trying to find less commonly used characters in dictionaries or via text prediction on your keyboard.
Different strokes for different folks
It is important to note that stroke order can vary depending on the language in question. Multiple languages that use some Chinese characters and derivatives (also known as CJK characters). These include Japanese, Korean and classical Vietnamese.
When Chinese characters are used in these languages, they may be written using different stroke order rules. Our article, however, will focus on the standard stroke order rules used to write Chinese characters in China.
How many total possible strokes are there in Chinese?
There are 41 basic and compound Chinese strokes. However, they are generally categorized into eight types, also known as the 永字八法 (yǒngzìbāfǎ; Eight Principles of Yong). This name derives from the fact that the character 永 (yǒng) encompasses all eight of the main Chinese strokes.
The eight basic strokes used to write Chinese characters are as follows:
|横 héng||一||horizontal stroke|
|竖 shù||丨||vertical stroke|
|撇 piě||丿||left-slanting downward stroke|
|点 diǎn||丶||dot stroke|
|捺 nà||㇏||right-slanting downward stroke|
|提 tí||㇀||upward lifting stroke|
|折 zhé||𠃍||folding stroke|
|钩 gōu||亅||vertical hook to the left stroke|
To see the Eight Principles of Yong (永字八法 yǒngzì bāfǎ) in action, check out the following YouTube video:
The proper way to write Chinese characters: the six main rules of Chinese stroke order
Here are the essential stroke order rules for writing simplified Chinese characters:
Chinese: 从上到下 (cóng shàng dào xià)
Example characters: 言, 方, 茶
2. Left to right
Chinese: 从左到右 (cóng zuǒ dào yòu)
Example characters: 位, 林, 红
3. First horizontal, then vertical
Chinese: 先横后竖 (xiān héng hòu shù)
Example characters: 干, 丰
4. First right-to-left diagonals, then left-to-right diagonals
Chinese: 先撇后捺 (xiān piē hòu nà)
Example characters: 八, 人, 交
5. Center comes first in vertically symmetrical characters
Chinese: 先中间后两边 (xiān zhōngjiān hòu liǎngbiān)
Example characters: 水, 承, 小
6. Move from outside to inside and close frames last
Chinese: 从外到内 (cóng wài dào nèi)，先进后关 (xiān jìn hòu guān)
Example characters: 回, 田, 建
Although at first glance these rules may seem daunting, they are actually very intuitive once you get some practice!
How to practice stroke order
The best way to learn stroke order and to get a natural feel for the correct method is to practice, practice, practice! As you write a variety of different characters, you will naturally become exposed to the different strokes required and, over time, they will become second nature.
Many online Chinese dictionaries such as Pleco and MDBG allow searching for specific characters and provide stroke order animations. Using printable worksheets with stroke order exercises are another great way to practice.
Repeated practice is one of the most effective ways to internalize Chinese stroke order. Some students find that writing characters over and over by hand the old fashioned way works for them. Others prefer to receive a helping hand from technology.
If you’re in the latter group, be sure to check out the Chinese handwriting app Skritter. Using Skritter to practice stroke order is one of the fastest, most effective ways to learn to write Chinese characters.
Bonus fun fact: What Chinese character has the most strokes?
If taking into account Chinese characters and derivatives used in the Chinese, Japanese and Korean languages, then the character with the most strokes is the Japanese “Taito” Kanji, which consists of 84 strokes!
If we only consider Chinese characters within the Chinese language, however, the winner is the infamous biáng character. This character was invented for the Shaanxi-style Biang Biang noodles and consists of 58 strokes in its traditional form!
Putting it all together
Ready to take your Chinese to the next level? The best way to improve your Chinese is to incorporate all aspects of writing, reading, listening and speaking into one. Whether you want to learn to write traditional or simplified Chinese characters, CLI’s teachers are here to help.
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Stroke order provides Chinese characters with structure and good form, and can be very fun and satisfying to practice. Don’t be discouraged if stroke order seems confusing at first. After a little practice, many students find that Chinese stroke order actually starts to feel quite intuitive. 加油!
Chinese stroke order vocabulary
|笔画顺序||bǐhuà shùnxù||stroke order|
|笔顺||bǐshùn||stroke order (abbreviation)|
|永字八法||yǒngzìbāfǎ||Eight Principles of Yong|
|字形||zìxíng||form of a Chinese character|
|基本规则||jīběn guīzé||basic rules|
|书写速度||shūxiě sùdù||writing speed|