How to Write Chinese Characters

I. Stroke Types

Strokes are traditionally classified into eight basic forms, each appearing in the character "eternally" and listed below according to their contemporary names. Though somewhat arbitrary, this system has remained popular for nearly two millenia.

1. "Dian" - A simple dot.

2. "Heng" - Horizontal stroke, left to right.

3. "Shu" - Vertical stroke, top to bottom.

4. "Gou" - Hook appended to other strokes.

5. "Ti" - Diagonal stroke, rising from left to right.

6. "Pie" - Diagonal stroke, falling from right to left.

7. "DuanPie" - Short diagonal stroke, falling from right to left.

8. "Na" - Horizontal stroke, falling from left to right.

These basic strokes are sometimes combined without the pen leaving the paper. In the above example of "eternally", strokes 2-3-4 are written as one continuous stroke, as are strokes 5-6. Hence in dictionaries this character is indexed as having five separate strokes.

II. Stroke Order

Writing characters in the correct order is essential for the character to look correct. Two basic rules are followed:

 1. Top before bottom

2. Left before right

These rules conflict whenever one stroke is to the bottom and left of another. Several additional rules resolve many of these conflicts.

3. Left vertical stroke (usually) before top horizontal stroke

4. Bottom horizontal stroke last

5. Center stroke before wings

6. Horizontal strokes before intersecting vertical strokes

7. Left-falling strokes before right-falling srokes

A final rule can contradict the others:

8. Minor strokes (often) last

Despite these conflicts between rules most students quickly acquire a natural feel for the proper stroke order.

Component Order

Most Chinese characters are combinations of simpler, component characters. Usually the two parts are written at top and bottom

or left and right

so that the main two stroke order rules readily apply. Occasionally these rules also conflict with respect to components. When one component is at the bottom-left, and the other at the top-right, the top-right component is sometimes written first.

When there are several components, top components are written first.

These rules usually imply each component is written in its entirety before another component is written. Exceptions may arise when one component divides another,

encompasses another,

or the individual components are no longer discernible in modern writing.

For information on Chinese calligraphy please see China the Beautiful.

Chinese 101's Home
Li-Bu Larson
June 6, 2002