Stroke order refers to the order in which the strokes of a Chinese character is written. For example, when you write the Chinese characters “上”, just how exactly do you write it. Which stroke goes first? Is it the vertical stroke or short horizontal stroke? And which stroke should then be written next? Exactly what is the correct order; so every now and then, people ask me, does the stroke order really matter? To answer this question, first let’s talk about.



Basic and compound strokes


Chinese characters (also called 汉字 hànzì) are composed of 8 basic strokes and 20 plus compound strokes, as you can see in the chart below.



Here is another chart which shows the direction of some strokes.



Please pay attention to the “Rise” stroke. The correct direction is from down to up, not from up to down. People often make this mistake when writing it.



Secondly, when we write Chinese characters, we just write in random stroke order; but instead, we write in a determined order. Why?


Because with the correct stroke order, you can:

  • Maximize the efficiency of your writing. In other words, you can write the most strokes possible with the least movement of your hand.
  • Minimize the error of your writing. If you write in random stroke order, you might easily miss one or two strokes here and there.
    • If ever there is a stroke missing, the character is wrong. With correct order, you reduce the chance to miss stroke.
  • As you progress in learning Chinese, you will learn more and more complex characters, and you will appreciate the concept of stroke order.
  • Write each character in a balanced and neat fashion. The Chinese stroke order system was designed to produce the most aesthetic, symmetrical, and balanced characters. With correct order, your handwriting will look far better.
  • Check Chinese characters in dictionaries when you don’t know the pronunciation because Chinese dictionaries are categorized by stroke order alongside the pronunciation.



For the reasons above, in 1988, the Chinese Language Commission published the official standard stroke order of 7,000 characters in the List of Commonly Used Characters in Modern Chinese. The list is an improved version from the one published in 1956. Both versions are based on a set of rules which has been developed over thousands of years and is generally agreed upon as best practices for writing Chinese.


So what are the general rules for stroke order then?


*The examples below show the complete character on the very left with the shown stroke order in sequential order to its right.


1. Write from top to bottom. For example:


2. Write from left to right. For example:



3. Horizontal stroke before vertical stroke. For example:


4. Left falling stroke before right falling stroke. For example:


5. “Outside” before “inside”. For example:



6. “Outside” before “inside”, and then close “the square”. For example:


7. The middle before both sides. For example:


Please note that the rules above are just general rules of stroke order. When it comes to writing each and every character, it can always get more complicated. Whenever you are unsure about a character’s stroke order, what do you do? You can check them on the List of Commonly Used Characters in Modern Chinese. You can also check on the Internet. Many websites offer the function of checking Chinese stroke order.


So now that you are familiar with stroke order, how do you build a good writing habit?



Here’s a little tip


You can use writing paper (like below) to practice. It shows you the stroke order and you can write over characters shaded in grey. After a while, you will get used to writing in the correct stroke order and also foster beautiful handwriting at the same time. This is a very classical and handy way of practicing how to write Chinese. If you constantly practice writing a character the same way, you will build a feeling for it and will sense if you have missed a stroke or if something else is wrong.




So now you know what stroke order is about, why it does matter, what its rules are and how to practice. Start to apply it in your daily learning of Chinese and improve your writing today!


Hero image by Niketh Vellanki (CC0 1.0