I remember learning to write Chinese characters for the first time. It was difficult to get the strokes in the right place, the components in the right proportions and so on.
The model characters looked very neat, but mine looked horribly disfigured. As if that wasn’t difficult enough, the teacher also had the nerve to insist that I should write all those strokes in a certain order and direction!
It felt like a cruel joke. Aren’t there enough things to memorise as a beginner? Is it really necessary to learn the proper stroke order for writing Chinese characters?
In this article, I will discuss this question, which is often asked by beginners. With a decade and half of experience with learning and teaching the language, the answer seems clear to me now, but since no one explained it to me properly when I was a beginner, I’m going to explain why learning stroke order really is necessary.
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The short answer: Yes, you need to learn stroke order
If you came here to find good arguments to convince your teacher to let you off the hook in terms of correct stroke order, I’m afraid I have to make you disappointed. However, instead of just forcing you to learn stroke order, which is what many teachers do, let’s see if I can convince you that learning stroke order is good, indeed necessary.
First, let’s compare with English. Even though we don’t use complex characters to write our alphabet, the writing process is largely the same. We’re all humans with the same anatomy, writing is a very specific task and there are certain principles that just make sense.
General principles for stroke order for Chinese characters
Some general principles include writing strokes from top to bottom and from left to right. The first one, from top to bottom, is easy to understand from a practical point of view; it’s simply much easier to accurately pull your hand towards you than it is to push it away. When it comes to stroke direction, this matters! You’ll rarely find vertical strokes written from bottom to top in any script, unless as part of a more complex character (such as the right leg of the letter “v”). Likewise, when it comes to stroke order, I don’t think I’ve seen anybody write capital “E” with a vertical stroke and then the three horizontal strokes starting from the bottom. Top to bottom makes more sense.
The second principle, from left to right, is maybe less universal, considering that many scripts are written from right to left. Chinese was originally written from top to bottom in columns rather than horizontally, but the strokes within each character are generally written from left to right. This is true when writing the Latin alphabet as well: few people write capital “H” from right to left.
In other words, other languages written with our alphabet have stroke order rules too, it’s just that you don’t think of them as such because you internalised them at a young age. If your native language doesn’t use the Latin alphabet, it probably has other rules that follow the same principles!
Writing, not drawing; Chinese characters are not pictures!
I think the reason many beginners feel that stroke order is not very important even though their teachers (including me) insist that it is, might be because they tend to think of Chinese characters as pictures rather than written symbols. I don’t mean pictures as in pictographs, I mean pictures as something you draw, as opposed to a written symbol, which you write. A picture is something that depicts something, maybe an object such as a tree. If you ask a hundred people to draw a simple picture of a tree, you’ll get a hundred different results. There is no correct way of drawing a tree and anything you fancy works. If If you ask a hundred Chinese people to write the character for tree (木, which started out as a picture of a tree), the results will be much more similar. Writing must follow certain standards, otherwise other people will find it hard to understand.
The faster you start thinking of characters as writing rather than drawing the better. Obviously, stroke order doesn’t matter when drawing, but when writing, it does matter because you want to write in a way that is both efficient for you as a writer and as a tool for communication.
More reasons for caring about stroke order for Chinese characters
If we disregard ease of writing for a moment, there are still additional reasons why learning proper stroke order is important.
- First, stroke order matters because if you internalise the wrong principles, your writing will be harder to read. Sure, if you write perfect characters, one stroke at a time in whatever order and direction you prefer, there will be no problem when it comes to communicating; everyone will be able to read what you write. But that will be very slow, and soon you’ll start taking shortcuts, perhaps even joining strokes together. With the right stroke order, people will still be able to read what you write with ease, because native speakers do that all the time, but if you join the wrong strokes, it can be difficult or impossible. Imagine if someone invented their own cursive writing in English and joined together the strokes of the letters in completely new ways!
- Second, the reverse is also true: when you read someone else’s handwriting, it will be hard to understand if you are clueless about stroke order. New shapes will pop up all over the place and you won’t know what they represent because joining strokes like that doesn’t make sense according to how you write. I wrote more about this in the article Learning to read handwritten Chinese.
- Finally, digital handwriting input requires correct stroke order. Most input systems aren’t based on pattern recognition performed on the final result, but includes information such as stroke order and direction to help pinpoint the right characters. If you mess up the stroke order, you will find that the software fails to identify the right character for you, or at least that you need to write very carefully to get it right.
When stroke order actually doesn’t matter
That being said, there are plenty of cases where stroke order doesn’t matter that much, especially when there are more than one common way among native speakers to write a specific character. If you think all native speakers write exactly the same way, you’re mistaken! That doesn’t mean you should invent your own stroke order, it just means that it doesn’t really matter which standard you follow.
For example, take the vertical squeezed version of 心, “heart” which is written like this 忄. Do you write the dots/wings first, or do you write it from left to right? It doesn’t really matter. The standard for traditional characters in Taiwan is to write this radical from left to right, so dot, vertical stroke, dot. The mainland standard is to write the dots first, then the vertical stroke. Both make sense.
A more obscure difference might be how the character 里 is written, including many compounds and similar-looking character parts. In mainland standard, the last three strokes are: vertical, horizontal, horizontal. In Taiwan, the standard prescribes horizontal, vertical, horizontal.
This kind of variation is common when several stroke order rules conflict with each other and which version you write doesn’t really matter. Similarly, if someone says your textbook/teacher is wrong and that you should write something in a different order, feel free to ignore their advice. If you really care about being correct according to official standards, you can look them up here:
All the resources you need to learn and teach Chinese stroke order
Finally, it’s more important that you get the stroke order within components right, and not so important which components you write first. For example, the correct way of writing characters with 辶 is to write the other component first, then finish with 辶. So if you want to write 这, you write 文, then 辶 underneath. However, while there’s no reason to disregard this, doing so wouldn’t cause as much trouble as ignore stroke order within components.
Conclusion: Stroke order for Chinese characters matters; learn it!
So, the conclusion is that you should learn proper stroke order from the start. If you do, you will quickly internalise the rules and you won’t need to think too much about it most of the time. Your handwriting will improve as you write more. If you write a lot and care about handwriting, you will be able to read and write characters smoothly and with good results.
If you ignore stroke order, you’re stuck in the “drawing pictures” phase and no matter how much you practise, it will be hard to achieve both smooth and legible handwriting. Invest a little bit of energy every time you learn a new character to check the proper stroke order and save yourself a ton of trouble later!
One of the best ways to internalise stroke order is to use a tool like Skritter, which makes sure you write every single character in the right order and even prompts you if you do it incorrectly. Doing this from the start makes sure you internalise the rules properly!
A related question: Do you really need to write by hand?
Something I haven’t covered in this article is if you really need to learn to write characters by hand at all. For most people enrolled in Chinese courses, handwriting is a requirement, but if your situation is more flexible, you should consider this question seriously. Read more about that here:
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“I think the reason many beginners feel that stroke order is not very important…might be because they tend to think of Chinese characters as pictures rather than written symbols.” My favorite part!
Someone once explained to me, also, that once you learn proper stroke order you can actually read sloppy-looking calligraphy, because with a sense of where the brush started and where it went and where it ended, you get more of a feel for what the word is, rather than just kind of trying to figure it out by looking at its shape.
I don’t think you’ve made a very good case for stroke order here — though that is admittedly a tough task.
Firstly, you mention that in English particular stroke orders are more comfortable perhaps but of course in English people can and do write characters in various stroke orders and it doesn’t matter.
The second argument is that it might lead to connecting the wrong strokes. I don’t see that that logically follows. That’s simply an error; you could use the right stroke order and connect the wrong strokes.
Finally you concede that sometimes stroke order doesn’t matter. Altogether, it’s not a strong justification for learning stroke order.
Perhaps I didn’t present the arguments very well! The first point was meant to show that there are lots of “rules” for how to write English too. I gave a few examples (writing “f” and “m”). While you could violate these if you want to, no-one does. Can you ignore them? Sure, but you’d end up with slower/worse handwriting.
Regarding your second argument, I didn’t claim that correct stroke order automatically leads to correct cursive/joined writing, I said that it makes it possible. With the wrong stroke order, it’s impossible.
Firstly, unless we’re talking cursive, here, I ALWAYS start my ”f”s from the bottom and work my way to the top, whether it’s a capital F, or a lower-case f, as that is simply easier and more natural for me, but then again, I’m Finnish, not English/American.
Secondly, maybe more importantly, while Stephen holtom WAS TECHNICALLY guilty of a ’Non Sequitur’ (trying to argue for the needlessness of the correct stroke order with the possibility of failure even WITH the correct stroke order: ”you could use the right stroke order and connect the wrong strokes.”), I still don’t see the logic behind the opposite being impossible; with Stephen holtom’s logic, you could as well use the WRONG stroke order and connect the RIGHT strokes.
Thirdly, I think you just barely missed the biggest point. At first, you were basically just arguing for, why you should deal with the stroke order the way you should, not so much for the necessity of the stroke order, itself, which obviously stems from history. Way back yee-haw, Chinese scribes used to wear garbs with really long, loose sleeves, and write with ink, and if there’s one thing we know about hand-writing, drawing, etc., it is that long, loose sleeves and ink don’t mix. The left-to-right and top-to-bottom stroke order was established (just like in Europe), so that the scribes could easily write without smudging the ink, since it’s much easier for right-handed people (~90% of people) to write from left to right, and for ALL people to write from top to bottom, without smudging the ink.
That being said, you certainly have a valid point for the necessity of the stroke order. Please, don’t take this as nagging by someone, who just wants to feel good about themselves by trying to humiliate others, but rather as honest tips and advice by someone, who did reasonably well at the University course for argumentation :-).
How about this as a reason – your phone will have major problems recognizing what you write, if the stroke order is off. And on a personal preference note, I can’t for the life of me understand, why people so often want to reinvent the wheel. Chinese characters have been around for a day or two, giving the Chinese plenty of time to improve the system. If stroke order is still around, it stands to reason that it’s not just there to inconvenience people. So even if I know not even one good reason for learning it, why would I insist on first learning it the wrong way, only so a year down the road I can relearn it the correct and sensible way? What an utter waste of energy.
That’s a good point, although I think most people type on phones using phonetic input. 🙂 For students, though, it’s nice to be able to handwrite a character in Pleco, which is much faster than taking a photo and using OCR (if you have that installed). It also makes it possible to look things up quickly in online dictionaries, even if you can’t pronounce the character in question.
I added a note to this effect in the article itself, since it’s something which might not be immediately apparent for beginners!
Your point about “reinventing the wheel” is perfectly valid, especially for a writing system honed through millennia. It’s just a pity that the bowdlerisers introducing the simplified Chinese character set didn’t think of that first. They ended up producing characters that are harder to memorise because they contain less information/fewer connections (quite apart from being uglier, too – which may also affect memory retention).
well anyway it’s too difficult for me, so I’ll just give up chinese writing.
Memorise signs is ok, but signs + order and strockes, nope, can’t do that.
I would like to add that when you are looking for a character in the dictionary, if you don’t know the pinyin, then you have to draw it in order to find it.
And when your stroke order is wrong, very often the dictionary won’t recognize what you wrote, and you’ll be stuck.
There are OCR solutions though, a free one comes with Google Translate app, but those are to use at the last resort 🙂
Another argument for learning stroke order is that it shows respect for the language that you supposedly want to learn. The Chinese take their characters very seriously, so writing the strokes in whatever order you want does not seem appropriate. Perhaps an expert in Confucian philosophy could opine on this.
I visited a museum in Springfield, Massachusetts (USA) two years ago, and the children’s section had an exhibit about the Chinese calendar cycle. They provided paper and crayons for children to draw the characters of the animals (rat, ox, tiger, etc.), but they said nothing about stroke order. A missed opportunity.
Really nice post. I am searching for webpage where I could download the Chinese characters stroke order for free and would be able to use it for Anki flashcards. Do you know any webpage where it would be possible to get the pictures of Chinese characters stroke order？
As for phones, good apps just require a scan, although I understand the problem with pleco.
Look, yes and no is the answer here…. sometimes when writing, following stroke order still looks as if a foreigner is writing… sometimes changing the stroke order to something more comfortable to your hand/mind co-operative will make it look as if a native wrote it.
Then again, some things will never look right unless you follow the order strictly.
Asian calligraphers have a never-told secret… sometimes they use an unofficial stroke order to make the brush and pen work come out more artistic and beautiful looking.
Personally, when I write か (ka) in Japanese Hiragana, I absolutely must reverse the first and second stroke order, or it looks like I wrote it blindfolded or drunk; probably both. It looks perfect when I do it my way, much to the chagrin of my teachers.
The takeaway is to do it whatever way it looks legible, if writing for someone to read. No use following stroke order if no-one can read what you wrote. The purpose of stroke order is to make it legible, and easier to achieve the correct balance and look. More than one way to skin a cat, as it were.
I would have to disagree with you on your post. When we all learn Chinese we’re taught that stroke order matters and that is true to some extent, however not to the point where every stroke matters. I have a friend who has a Masters in Interpretation and Translation from Monterrey Institute of International Studies, and her speciality is in Mandarin to English interpretation and translation and vice versa and she says that stroke order doesn’t matter, as long as people can read what you write. She herself has said that there’s no correct way to write the characters as every school in China teaches the characters differently (she’s from the mainland btw). She writes the characters differently than my Chinese tutor does and he even writes them differently than my Chinese teacher does at my college. They all agree that stroke order doesn’t matter and they’re all Chinese.
I think you might misunderstand what she means. I don’t claim that the officially sanctioned way of writing is the only correct one. There are indeed many variants among native speakers, particularly if you include different generations and regions. However, these variations are all fairly minor and follows the same basic rules, they are not made up by a foreigner knowing nothing about Chinese characters! You are comparing educated native speakers and saying that there are differences and that they are all fine, concluding that differences in stroke order does not matter. I don’t think you’d reach that conclusion if you watch beginners write Chinese characters without following any of even the most basic rules. It’s next to impossible to write correct characters smoothly and quickly with completely wrong stroke order. It also becomes impossible to write any kind of joined handwriting or indeed read it because the joined strokes make no sense unless you have roughly the right stroke order.
I understand what you’re saying but I also understand what she is saying too. She even reread my comment and confirmed what I had said is correct. She said as long as you start from the top then you can write the character however you want, but it MUST start from the top, unless there is the radical for water then you must start from the left THEN the top. She said in reality though it doesn’t matter as she writes the characters differently every time she writes, and people can still read it. She did say that a lot of Chinese people have trouble even reading their own handwriting due to the differences and I would trust what she says as she does have the MA in Interpretation and Translation AND is a native speaker. She also concluded that writing in Chinese doesn’t matter unless you’re living in China and that you should focus on speaking and reading rather than writing.
Note that this post is not about if you should learn handwriting or not (that’s covered elsewhere, and my general conclusion is that it’s probably good to learn a basic set of a few hundred (or perhaps a thousand) characters by hand, but that’s more about learning how characters work than practical usefulness, which is next to zero for most people.
When it comes to stroke order, though, I maintain that your friend is not talking about the same thing. What a native speaker does with handwriting has little or nothing to do with what we as second language learners do. I don’t believe that she writes characters differently every time. And again, it’s not pertinent to the question what variation is present in native handwriting because it’s not remotely the same as second language learner handwriting. As I’ve said, there are many variations between regions, generations and so on among native speakers, which is not a problem. As a non-native speaker, with little knowledge about characters, making up our own stroke order (or even changing it every time) IS a problem.
I, personally, write the vertical stroke first in 忄, as I see it as the backbone for the entire character, and the dots/wings as little modificants. The closest analogue in European scripts that I can think of, would be Ї, and I would never write the dots first there, either, I would always write the I first, and then add the dots.
I’m just honored to be the first person you’ve ever encountered who writes the letter “E” with a vertical stroke first.
I never realized how unique i was.
Both the conditions need to be met to be truly unique! I wrote:
I think the vertical stroke first makes sense and I assume many people do that, as it doesn’t violate any fundamental principles. Writing it from the bottom up or writing the three horizontal strokes from bottom up would be very unique though!