Why Chinese Stroke Order is Important and How to Master it

When it comes to writing Chinese stroke order is surprisingly important. The Chinese take great pride in their language, which includes the complex writing system.

I remember my Chinese teacher cringing every time I used the improper Chinese stroke order for a character and shrieking “倒插笔 (dào chā bǐ)” in my ear. The sole meaning of the phrase“倒插笔” is to criticize someone for using improper stroke order. Other phrases often heard in elementary classrooms are “乱写!(luàn xiě)” or “writing crazily” and “写错了! (xiě cuò le)” which is “You wrote it wrong!”

So, why is Chinese character stroke order so important?

First, let’s talk a little bit about strokes themselves. As you can see from the graph below, there are 11 basic strokes that comprise all Chinese characters.

chinese stroke

Using the wrong stroke order or direction would cause the ink to fall differently on the page. You can see that the “捺 (nà)” stroke has starts out thin, but thickens and thins out again in an elegant sweep. Should you write it backwards, you would not have the same effect. Don’t believe me? Try writing the letter “S” on a piece of paper. Now try recreating it, but start from the bottom instead. Do you see how you lose some of that natural flow?

The Chinese have always believed in balance and harmony. For example, when one fell ill, he or she was thought to have an imbalance of yin and yang in his or her body system. Traditional Chinese medicine was produced to restore balance.

Similarly, the Chinese stroke order system was designed to produce the most aesthetical, symmetrical, and balanced characters on a piece of paper. Furthermore, it was also designed to be efficient – creating the most strokes with the least amount of hand movement across the page. You may notice that all Chinese characters fit neatly into a square box. None of them skew dramatically to one direction or the other, which again reflects how much we value symmetry and balance.

“永(yǒng)” the character for eternity, is often the poster-child character for calligraphers. If you examine this character closely, you will notice that this one character has 8 of the most common stroke types that appear in the Chinese writing system. This is why calligraphers are often judged on skill by how well they write the character 永.

chinese stroke order yong

When children are learning to write at a young age, Chinese stroke order is often taught to them using the “Eight Principles of Yong,” which are the 8 different strokes combined in this one character. Frequent practice of this character can improve basic handwriting.

Even in today’s technological age, knowing the proper stroke order can go a long way to helping you master Chinese. A lot of Chinese input methods and dictionary apps have a handwriting feature that requires the proper stroke order to recognize the character. Knowing  Chinese stroke order will also help you understand “草书 (cǎo shū)” or “Chinese cursive writing.” My knowledge of stroke order has helped me decipher messy Chinese handwriting on more than one occasion.

Here are some tips on mastering stroke order.

1. Top to bottom

When a Chinese character is “stacked” vertically, like the character 立 (lì) or “to stand,” the rule is to write from top to bottom.

Chinese stroke order: top to bottom

2. Left to right

When a Chinese character has a radical, the character is written left to right. The same rule applies to characters that are stacked horizontally. Take a look at the “吃 (chī)” example below, which means “to eat.”

Chinese stroke order: left to right

3. Symmetry counts

When you are writing a character that is centered and more or less symmetrical (but not stacked from top to bottom) the general rule is to write the center stroke first. Check out the character “小(xiǎo)” which means “small.”

Chinese stroke order: symmetry count

4. Horizontal first, vertical second

Horizontal strokes are always written before vertical strokes. Check out how to write the character “十(shí)” or “ten.”

Chinese character stroke order: Horizontal first, vertical second

5. Enclosures before content

You want to create the frame of the character before you fill it in. Check out how to write the character 日(rì) or “sun.”

Stroke Order: Enclosures before content

6. Close frames last

My mom used to teach me this concept by saying “you want to fill the closet before you close the door.” After you write the middle strokes, close the frame, such as in the character “回(huí)” or “to return.”

Chinese stroke order: Close frames last

7. Character spanning strokes last

For strokes that cut across many other strokes, they are often written last. For example, the character 半 (bàn), which means “half.” The vertical line is written last.

Chinese stroke order: Character spanning strokes last

There are always small exceptions to the rule, and Chinese stroke order can vary slightly from region to region. However, these variations are very miniscule; so by following these general tips, you’ll have an astute grasp on stroke order!

Personal handwriting is also important in Chinese culture. In Chinese, we have a saying called “字如其人(zì rú qí rén),” which means “the handwriting reflects the person.” According to my harshest handwriting critic, (my mother) my handwriting says that I am “disorganized, daring, and a little out of the box.” Clearly, I need more practice. What do you think your Chinese handwriting says about you? Hopefully with these tips, you’ll be on your way to improving your handwriting!

Sara Lynn Hua

Sara Lynn Hua is a Chinese language researcher for TutorMing. She grew up in Beijing, before going to the University of Southern California (USC) to get her degree in Social Sciences and Psychology. She writes for TutorMing's blog. When she's not reading up on Chinese etymology, she enjoys crafting and painting.

  • Barbara Hallanger

    Very helpful and useful information. 谢谢

  • Jessica Wang

    Thanks for sharing! I will also share this in my online mandarin class.

  • Handwritten Chinese characters can be magically beautiful and mysterious. I still remember what it felt like looking at Chinese and not understanding anything of what it said and feeling a strong attraction. If anyone want to learn how to write Chinese characters, I can recommend Hanbridge Mandarin school.

  • Mike

    A great and very useful article (and humorous, which I for one appreciate :) )

    Of course, it helps to remind people that “stroke order” is extremely important in *every* writing system, not just those written in ideographic characters. Just imagine what a person’s handwriting would look like in languages written in alphabets if they tried to write their letters completely differently than the “accepted”, “conventional” manner – it looks just as “crazy” or “pen inserted down” as it does in character-based writing systems. 😉 Even “correct” handwriting is distinctive, when written by left-handed people, and is easy to recognize for what it is when one understands the fundamental differences between it and right-handed writing.

    In theory, stroke order would not matter in any language, if a person were capable of literally reproducing letters or characters as simple “pictures”, but of course very, very few people have that kind of skill and so for the rest of us, the specific order/manner in which we write them all makes an enormous difference in their final appearance!

  • Theophile Garnier

    Thank you so much :-)