The Arts



Stroke Order


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Stroke order (B5: 筆順; Pinyin: bǐshn) refers to the way in which Chinese characters are written. The stroke order of a character gives the order and direction in which the brush strokes, or simply "strokes", are written.

Chinese characters are used in various forms in modern Chinese languages, Japanese, and, in South Korea, for Korean. They are known as hnz in Mandarin, kanji in Japanese, and hanja or hanmun in Korean.

Chinese characters are believed to have originally been brush-written on perishable materials such as bamboo or wood slats, which could then be bound together like Venetian blinds, and rolled for storage. Examples of such books have been found dating to the late Zhou dynasty. It is a common misconception that Chinese characters were originally carved; this stems from the fact that the earliest extant examples are in carved form on oracle bones, scapulomancy fortune-telling devices dating to the Shang dynasty. The oracle bones were animal bones, generally turtle shells and the scapulae of oxen and other animals, into which pits were dug. These pits were heated to produce cracks which were read by diviners, and the date, diviner's name, topics divined, and sometimes answers were then written on and carved into the bones (see image). However, these were merely one of several concurrent media to which characters were applied, and it is only the carved, harder materials which survived. The use of scapulomancy gradually gave way to other forms of divination. By the late Zhou dynasty, surviving examples of writing on bamboo, silk and finally paper appear.

Chinese calligrapher Sun Xinde writing in a semi-cursive style using ink and a writing brush.
Fig 1

Although it would take over a thousand years for uniform, defined forms for each character to appear, now, as then, characters comprise a number of strokes which must be written in a prescribed order. A stroke is a single movement of the writing instrument, in modern times most commonly a pen, pencil, or writing brush.

Stroke order can therefore refer to the numerical order in which strokes are written, or to the direction in which the writing instrument (brush, pen, or pencil) must move in writing a particular stroke.

The precise number of Chinese characters in existence is disputed. The Japanese "Daikanwa Jiten", a modern comprehensive dictionary of Chinese characters, includes fifty thousand, and more recently published Chinese dictionaries have included more than eighty thousand, although whether these are all unique characters or merely obscure variant forms is debated. Regardless of the total number, literacy in Chinese requires knowledge of three to five thousand characters, and Japanese two to three thousand characters.

The number of strokes per character for most characters is between one and thirty, but the number of strokes in some obscure characters can reach as much as seventy. In the twentieth century, drastic simplification of Chinese characters took place in mainland China, greatly reducing the number of strokes in each character, and a similar but more moderate simplification also took place in Japan. However, the basic rules of stroke order remained the same. Taiwan continues to use the unsimplified forms, often called traditional or regular forms.

Development of Stroke Order Rules

The rules for stroke order evolved to facilitate vertical writing, to maximize ease of writing and reading, to aid in producing uniform characters, and- since a person who has learned the rules can infer the stroke order of most characters- to ease the process of learning to write. They were also influenced by the highly stylized so-called grass script style, in which each Chinese character is written as a continuous brush stroke. In this style of writing, stroke order is all-important, since a variant of the stroke order creates a completely different visual representation. The present-day rules for stroke order were developed from those used for writing in this so-called "grass script".

While children must learn and use correct stroke order in school, adults may ignore or forget the normalized stroke order for certain characters, or develop idiosyncratic ways of writing. While this is rarely a problem in day-to-day writing, in calligraphy, stroke order is vital; incorrectly ordered or written strokes can produce a visually unappealing or, occasionally, an incorrect character. The Eight Principles of Yong (Chinese: 永字八法; Pinyin: yǒngz bā fǎ) uses the single character 永, meaning "eternity", to teach the eight most basic strokes.

Stroke Order Rules

1. Write from left to right, and from top to bottom.

Fig 2

Fig 3

As a general rule, characters are written from left to right, and from top to bottom. For example, among the first characters usually learned is the word "one," which is written with a single horizontal line: 一. This character has one stroke which is written from left to right.

The character for "two" has two strokes: 二. In this case, both are written from left to right, but the top stroke is written first. The character for "three" has three strokes: 三. Each stroke is written from left to right, starting with the uppermost stroke.

This rule applies also to more complex characters. For example, 校 can be divided into two. The entire left side (木) is written before the right side (交). There are some exceptions to this rule, mainly occurring when the right side of a character has a lower enclosure (see below), for example 誕 and 健. In this case, the left side is written first, followed by the right side, and finally the lower enclosure.

When there are upper and lower components, the upper components are written first, then the lower components, as in 品 and 襲.

2. Horizontal lines are written from left to right; vertical lines are written from top to bottom

3. Horizontal before vertical

When strokes cross, horizontal strokes are usually written before vertical strokes: the character for "ten," 十, has two strokes written as follows: 一 十.

4. There are some circumstances where the vertical stroke is written before a horizontal, such as when the character ends in a horizontal stroke at the bottom. E.g., 上 is written 一 then | then _.

The Chinese character meaning "person" (Chinese: rn). The character has two strokes, the first shown here in black, and the second in red. The darker area represents the starting position of the writing instrument.

5. Cutting strokes last

Vertical strokes that "cut" through a character are written after the horizontal strokes they cut through, as in 書 and 筆.

Horizontal strokes that cut through a character are written last, as in 母 and 海.

6. Diagonals right-to-left before left-to-right

Right-to-left diagonals (ノ) are written before left-to-right diagonals (乀): 文.

"Fire" (Pinyin: huǒ) is one of the first characters learned by children. It comprises of four different types of strokes, done in the order of which is shown.
Fig 4

Fig 4a

7. Center verticals before outside "wings"

Vertical center strokes are written before vertical or diagonal outside strokes; left outside strokes are written before right outside strokes: 小 and 水.

8. Outside before inside

Outside enclosing strokes are written before inside strokes; bottom strokes are written last: 日 and 口. This applies also to characters that have no bottom stroke, such as 同 and 月.

9. Left vertical before enclosing

Left vertical strokes are written before enclosing strokes. In the following two examples, the leftmost vertical stroke (|) is written first, followed by the uppermost and rightmost lines (┐) (which are written as one stroke): 日 and 口.

10. Bottom enclosing strokes last

Bottom enclosing strokes are always written last: 道, 週, 画.

11. Dots and minor strokes last

Minor strokes are usually written last, as the small "dot" in the following: 玉.

Types of Strokes

There are some thirty distinct types of strokes recognized in Chinese characters, some of them compound strokes. Many of these have no agreed-upon name.

A stroke is defined as everything you do until the rules of calligraphy say you have to lift the pen or brush for the next stroke. The table below contains the various elements that themselves can be a stroke, or can combine to form a compound stroke.

Table of Simple Strokes


Stroke Translation of
Chinese Name




Basic Strokes


diǎn Dot Tiny dash
hēng Horizontal Rightward stroke
sh Vertical Downward stroke
t   Rise Flick up and rightwards
n Press down Falling rightwards (fattening at the bottom)
piě Throw away Falling leftwards (with slight curve)

Combining Strokes


zh   Break Usually 90 turn
gōu   Hook Appended to other strokes
wān   Bend Usually concave on the left
xi   Slant Usually concave on the right

These basic strokes combine to produce all others. The dot, diǎn, is special in that it is rarely a real dot. Instead it is a small stroke pointing in one of several directions. It is often long enough for beginners to confuse it with the n or piě strokes. Indeed, one can say 长点 chng diǎn "long diǎn" for such strokes. Similarly, one can qualify the other names, e.g. 短横 duǎn hēng "short hēng", or 平捺 png n "flat n".

Zh and gōu, are particularly important in that they never occur alone, but always form combinations.

For example, a shzh goes down, then turns rightwards into a horizontal stroke. A hēngzh goes right, then turns downwards into a vertical stroke. In other words, in those examples a zh is a ninety-degree turn from a hēng into a sh or vice-versa.

A hēnggōu goes right, then hooks back down. A shgōu goes down, then hooks back to the left, thus: 亅.

The wān and xi strokes are usually found in combination with a hook. A xigōu goes down before slanting away to the right and ending with a hook. A wāngōu bends out before coming up with a hook towards the concave part to the left. However, a shwāngōu is a straight line down that bends into a flat line going rightwards before ending with a hook; this is also known 卧钩 wgōu "crouch then hook" or 平钩 pnggōu "flat then hook".



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