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Why Chinese Stroke Order is Important and How to Master it

What is stroke order?

The Chinese stroke order system was designed to produce aesthetically pleasing, symmetrical, and balanced characters written with brush and ink on paper. It allows for the minimum amount of hand movements, meaning that the writing flows across the page – remember that scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, where Jen Yu and Yu Shulian compare the art of calligraphy with sword-strokes?

Luckily for Chinese learners, the rules aren’t too complicated, and they have a logic of their own when you apply them consistently. They also conserve energy, so your hand won’t be tired from writing.

chinese stroke

Why bother to learn stroke order?

It’ll give you much better Chinese handwriting, winning approval from your teachers and any other Chinese person who tries to read it.

Well-written Chinese characters are much easier to read, and knowing the correct stroke order helps you to memorize more characters, as your hand seems to retain a kind of muscle memory with practice.

Also, it’s much easier to understand the different patterns and elements that make up Chinese characters when you know how they’re supposed to be written.

Knowing the right Chinese character stroke order also improves your reading ability, because the structure of the characters will be more familiar to the eye.

When you want to input a character using Pleco’s handwriting option, the app will recognize the correct stroke order even if your handwriting isn’t the best.

chinese stroke order yong

How to master stroke order

First, the main rules of Hanzi stroke order:

1. Top to bottom

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

Chinese stroke order: top to bottom

Other examples:

三 (sān) three

主 (zhǔ) main, master

亏 (kuī) deficit

2. Left to right

When a Chinese character has elements standing next to each other, the character is written left to right. Take a look at the “吃 (chī)” example below, which means “to eat.” The “mouth” radical is written before the element on the right.

Chinese stroke order: left to right

Other examples:

从 (còng) from

林 (lín) forest
湖 (hú) lake
Many complex Chinese characters often confuse learners regarding their corresponding stroke orders. Just remember, they generally all follow Chinese basic stroke rules, such as going from top to bottom and from left to right.

3. Symmetry matters

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

Other examples:

永 (yǒng) forever

水 (shuǐ) water

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

Other examples:

王 (wáng) a surname

干 (gān) dry
丰 (fēng) enrich

5. Enclosures before content

Build your fences before you put the chickens inside.

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

Stroke Order: Enclosures before content

Other examples:

目 (mù) eye

四 (sì) four

6. Close frames last

Let the people into the house before you shut the door.

So, with the character “回(huí)” or “to return,” you write the outer enclosure first (see rule 5), then the little box, then the line at the bottom that “shuts the door.”

Chinese stroke order: Close frames last

Other examples:

国 (guó) country

园 (yuán) garden

7. Character-spanning strokes last

Strokes that cut across all the other strokes are often written last. For example, the character 半 (bàn), which means “half.” The long vertical line is written last because it cuts through the rest of the character across its whole length.

Chinese stroke order: Character spanning strokes last

Other examples:

中 (zhōng) center, middle

申 (shēn) apply

Other tips for learning stroke order

There are a number of Chinese learning apps, e.g. Skritter, that offer animated stroke-order diagrams, as well as a breakdown of the radicals, tones, and pronunciations associated with each character.

Personally, I prefer to use a good, old-fashioned pen and paper, because I feel more connected to the characters that way – it’s a very different experience than swiping on a screen with a finger or stylus.

In the beginning, I also had a set of flashcards that were held together with a keyring to help organize the characters I was practicing.

For all Chinese characters orders practice, you can download the sheet here.

Top tip: make sure before buying a set of flashcards that they include stroke order.

Another handy learning tool is grid paper, or 田字格纸 (tiánzìgézhǐ), which helps to keep your characters looking well-proportioned and your handwriting neat. There is even grid paper called 米字格纸 (mǐzìgézhǐ), which includes diagonal guidelines to make your characters even neater and clearer.

Hanzi Grids offers downloads of printable grids that you can practice on. Or you can seek out a Chinese stationery shop – always a favorite pastime of mine – and buy a big exercise book to practice with at home or in the library.

Whichever tools you use, I recommend doing a little bit of practice every day. Research has shown that “little and often” is the way to go. One of the benefits of digital Chinese learning apps is that they will record your daily practice time and keep you on track, as well as give you the most appropriate content for your level.

For more on how to get started learning Chinese characters have a look at this Dig Mandarin article: Chinese Characters: Are they worth learning? How do I get started?

To further enhance your understanding and mastery of Chinese characters, explore these valuable resources. Check out the comprehensive list of Chinese strokes and the list of Chinese characters. For a structured learning experience, consider Chinese character courses and utilize various resources for learning Chinese characters. To improve your writing skills, learn how to write Chinese characters and start practicing handwriting. Don’t forget to engage in regular Chinese handwriting practice to reinforce your learning. Happy studying!

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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.

This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. 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.

    1. I accepted with your opinion that Chinese characters is beautiful handwriting that look so beautiful and it meaning full.

  2. 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!

  3. Thank you for this! I recently started learning Chinese and while I was learning strokes, I was often confused on what order strokes came in. I knew order was important but didn’t know the rules to follow. This was extremely helpful!!

  4. Thanks for this short intro. To me, there are several inclarities in your text though, which I hope you can clarify for you audience.
    As you say: stroke order is important. I am looking for the coherence of the systems you have explained (and those you did not 😉
    I wonder what is the relationship between the 11 basic strokes,the “8 Yong principles” and the today’s available strokes (used for typing on a keyboard, for looking up characters by stroke order/number in dictionaries). Can you tell us more about it? A dictionary is neither build on the 11 basic strokes nor build on the Yong principles. What are the today’s “valid” strokes? When to use which system (11, 8, today’s reduced set)?
    2nd: What do you know about the different writing systems available in Mainland China and in H.K.. There must be some differences which nobody could explain to me until now. Consider the (fantizi) word 過 . Depending on the system, this character consists of a different number of strokes. The “upper box” of 過 is of the sequence (11 strokes system: shu, hengzhe, shu, heng [according to the above rule no. 4: heng, shu], …) There is also a writing around (which I cannot reproduce with the PC at the moment) where the contents of the “upper box” is written in opposite direction using: shu, hengzhe, hengzhe, … Therefore resulting in a smaller amount of strokes.
    In case I could express myself understandably, can you tell us more detailed about these differences as well?
    Finally, a bit off topic though: Can you explain how to use the 說文解字?
    Thanks a lot

    1. Hi! Firstly, the 11 basic strokes are the most commonly used strokes in every character. The 8 Yong Principle is a kind of method to help the learners master how to write the strokes very well. All the 8 strokes are basic strokes, thus some people learn to write calligraphy by practicing 永 as a start.
      The difference of writing system between Mainland China and H.K. is one is using simplified Chinese characters, the other is using traditional version. Quite a number of characters are written differently. Generally speaking, almost of the characters in both versions are written in this sequence: 从上到下,从左到右。
      说文解字 is not easy to use. You should first know the traditional Chinese characters and the classical style of writing. It shows you the origin and developing process of the characters and related researches.

      1. Thanks for the relationship between 8 and 11.
        I did not mean the two systems (simplified and complicated characters).
        I try another time: please give the order of the compliated character flower: 華
        What is the number of strokes (not counting the grass radical)
        My android keyboard needs seven. 一丨丨
        A H.K. based App for Chineae stroke orders tells me 8.一丨丨
        You see?
        And yes you are very right: 說文解子 is not easy to handle.
        That is why I was asking (Chinese people). I have never found how to use it in detail.
        That is what I am looking for.
        Hope, you can help me further

        1. As I mentioned, most of the Chinese characters order follow the rule: up to down, left to right. For the character 華, the right order is that H.K. based APP. Since the middle part is constructed by 十 十, not just 艹.
          Regarding 说文解字,you should first know the word-making radical, then base on it, search the character you want to check. For example, 元, its word-making radical is
          一, then you can turn to the 一 radical to find 元. There are 540 radicals there. 说文解字 only shows you the origin of each character. I can recommend you an online dictionary called 汉典, it`s easy to handle and very convenient.

  5. Really appreciated this post! I’ve been struggling with Chinese characters for a while now, but this article made me realize just how important stroke order is. I’ll definitely be putting your tips into practice and trying to improve my characters. Thanks for sharing your expertise!

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