How to Master Chinese Stroke Order

By OptiLingo


Chinese writing is more of an art form than a medium of communication. Chinese characters are rooted in calligraphy, follow a stroke order, and serve a function. If this sounds complex that is because it is. Luckily, Chinese characters follow a set of rules just like any other written language. These rules are the general, “how to learn Chinese stroke order” guidebook. All one has to do to is follow these rules and stay within the lines. Here are the seven basic rules that can help anyone master Chinese characters.

1. Go From Top to Bottom

Many Chinese characters are stacked. This means the strokes stand atop one another vertically. In traditional Chinese writing people read from top to bottom. The characters were arranged in vertical columns and text began at the top right corner. Reading would run straight down and then move to the left. This has changed with modern Chinese.

At present, Chinese writing has gone the way of English and switched to right from left. Chinese characters, however, remain written from top to bottom. This does not apply to every character but the rule of thumb for vertical characters is start at the top and work your way to the bottom. A good example is the character (lì) or “to stand”.

2. Go From Left to Right

Chinese characters can be written either vertically or horizontally. This depends on whether the character in question has a radical or is stacked horizontally. Horizontal stacking is easy to understand but radicals are one of those funny rules that trip people up.

A Chinese radical accompanies another symbol and either contains its meaning or contains a phonetic component effecting the way the word is pronounced. They can be tougher to spot for people new to the Chinese language but the way to write them is simple. All you have to do is move left to right. You start with the leftmost stroke first and continue all the way until you reach the last stroke on the right. A good example of this “(chī)” which means “to eat”.

Radicals are a good example of where syntax, context, and grammar come into play when writing Chinese characters. Remember, the characters represent actual words and written languages follow rules as well. The place where these rules intersect with stroke order can only be mastered if you understand the language itself.

3. Pay Attention to Symmetry

Many Chinese characters are symmetrical in nature. When you encounter a symmetrical character start with the center stroke first. Once done move from left to right as you would writing a horizontal character. A good thing to observe is that symmetrical characters are very simple in nature with strokes spaced apart. A great example is “(xiǎo)” which means “small”.

4. Horizontal First and Vertical Second

Vertical strokes always take a back seat to horizontal strokes. So if you encounter a symbol like “(shí)” which means “ten” you start with the horizontal slash first and finish with the vertical. This does not stack with other rules, however, so if you are writing a vertical character you still go from top to bottom. It does not matter if the strokes are horizontal or vertical you start with the tippy top just the same. Rule 4 only applies to specific characters like “(shí)”.

5. Enclosures Precede Content

You first have to make the box before you fill it up. A character like (rì) which means “sun” has a frame that contains filling. When writing the character you start by making the frame first and then go for the filling.

6. Close Frames Last

(rì) and (huí) which means “to return” both utilize closed frames. The basic rule for closed frame characters is that the filling goes in before the closing stroke. You follow rule 5 and build the from first followed by the filling and then box the filling in last. In many cases, the order of strokes keep the character from becoming muddled. This allows the insides and the closing stroke to maintain space so they do not bleed together.

7. Character Spanning Strokes Go Last

Many symbols contain strokes that cross over other strokes. As with rule number 6 such crossing strokes are written last. This prevents the symbol from becoming muddled. The crossing strokes are always vertical so in the symbol (bàn), which means “half” the center vertical stroke would be written last.

Following rule 4 horizontal precedes vertical so the horizontal strokes will always be written first. This is why the crossing stroke is always considered to be vertical. There are exceptions to this rule and others. The English language is not the only written form to suffer confusing circumnavigation to rules like “i” before “e” except after “c”. As this is a basic guide such exceptions will be left for when you have a more firm grasp on the language.

Basic Tips

In addition to the seven rules Chinese characters can be mastered by following some general tips. First, remember that strokes will always be written from left to right. It does matter what order the strokes fall you will always start on the left of the stroke and move right. Secondly, stroke order is by design and following these rules ensure that characters will be written legibly. Writing a character in the wrong order risks muddling the symbol up to the point that it is ineligible.

The Final Step

Stroke order only teaches the logistics of writing Chinese characters but to truly understand them you have to understand the language. Learning Chinese vocabulary is paramount to mastering Chinese characters. If you do not understand the meaning behind the characters it makes application that much harder. Especially in regards to exceptions to the rule. So the final step in how to learn Chinese stroke order is s owning the language the characters speak.

Exceptions to general rules are made in the sake of syntax. Understanding Chinese vocabulary is also a study of context. If you know the context of the words you can understand their use in common speech. This allows you to understand why rules are bypassed and when exceptions need to be applied.