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. The answer should be obvious for anyone who has already learnt Chinese, but since no-one explained it to me properly when I started, I’m going to explain why learning stroke order really is necessary.
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 English, the writing process is largely the same. We’re all humans with the same anatomy, we write on the same kind of paper and use the same writing tools (I’m not talking about calligraphy here, obviously). Thus, the same rules apply.
General principles for stroke order
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. The second one, from left to right, makes sense if you know that words are also written from left to right.
For example, if you write the letter “f”, you’re not going to start from the bottom because that unnecessarily hard. If you write the letter “m”, you’re not going to start from the right. Why? Because doing so would significantly slow you down when you have to move the pencil to the start of the next letter, which is to the right. In other words, your native language has lots of stroke order rules, it’s just that you don’t think of them as such because you internalised them at a young age.
Writing, not drawing
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. There’s a big difference between drawing and writing, but for a beginner, Chinese characters might as well be pretty pictures.
The faster you can transition from this mind set, the better. Chinese characters are not pictures, even though a small fraction of them did come about this way. When you draw a pretty picture, stroke order doesn’t matter at all, but if your goal is to learn to write, then proper stroke order is a must.
More reasons for caring about stroke order
If we disregard ease of writing for a moment, there are still additional reasons why learning proper stroke order is important. First, it 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.
However, this is very unlikely to happen and will be very slow. 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, but if you join the wrong strokes, it can be quite difficult. Imagine if someone invented their own cursive writing in English and joined together the strokes of the letters in completely new ways! Naturally, you will also need to look at how native speakers write to get it right, but having the correct stroke order down is a necessary first step.
Second, the reverse is also true. When you read someone else’s handwriting, you will have a hard time deciphering it if you’re used to joining strokes in a way radically different from them. New shapes will pop up all over the place and you’ll have no clue what they represent because joining strokes like that doesn’t make sense according to how you write. For more about this, check the following article:
Finally, if you want to use any kind of digital handwriting input, you have to know proper stroke order. Most input systems aren’t based only on pattern recognition done 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.
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 way 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 radical 忄, “heart”. 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.
This kind of variation is common when several stroke order rules conflict with each other. Which one is used where is probably just a fluke and not something you should pay much attention to as a beginner. 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.
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. This makes sense because you then end up in the bottom right corner and it’s easier to get the proportions right.
However, doing the opposite won’t really cause any problems either with legibility or ease of writing. You must write the components themselves right, though!
Conclusion: Stroke order 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 result.
If you ignore stroke order, you’re stuck in the “drawing pictures” phase and no matter how much you practice, 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!