Chinese Calligraphy Technique and Learning: An Introduction to the Stroke Order

Writing Correctly, Writing Beautifully in Chinese Calligraphy

When beginning to write Chinese, it can be quite daunting to look at all the complex characters before you, especially if you have no idea where to even start putting pen (or brush!) to paper. Learning to recognize characters is hard enough, but how do we begin to understand how a character should be written, let alone if it is written well?

As we’ve already covered the types of strokes, let’s begin going over how to assemble these strokes into characters. These Rules are sometimes referred to as the “Golden Rules” of calligraphy.

First Brush Stroke Rule in Chinese Calligraphy: Top to Bottom Rule

The first thing to remember is that writing characters tends to go from top to bottom, and from left to right. In general, you should complete elements as they arise starting from the top (see chart A). When it comes to elements such as squares or rectangles, they should be begun with the left side, followed by a turning stroke for the top and side (see chart B).

Second Brush Stroke Rule in Chinese Calligraphy: Left to Right Rule

Secondly, as stated, writing should proceed from left to right (See chart C). The major exception to this is that hooks on the right side must be completed before their accompanying strokes. For instance, the fu or yi radical variant, which is quite common, should be written with the right hook first, followed by the descending vertical (See Chart D).

Third Brush Stroke Rule in Chinese Calligraphy: Horizontal Lines before Vertical Strokes

Next, remember to write horizontal lines before vertical strokes that meet or cross them (see Chart E). However, when a descending stroke meets but does not cross the bottom stroke, the bottom stroke should be executed last (See Chart F). This rule allows you to focus on the strokes themselves, without worrying or hesitating when trying to balance crossing strokes. It is much easier to use a descending stroke to divide horizontals than it is to cross a vertical so the horizontal is balanced on both sides. The exception is provided largely to avoid accidentally crossing the bottom stroke and disrupting the stability of the character.

Fourth Brush Stroke Rule in Chinese Calligraphy: Complete Enclosure First Rule

Although many characters are arranged with their radicals beside or above each other, Chinese has many characters whose elements contained in another radical or series of strokes. In these cases, the rule is to complete the enclosure, and then the contents (See Chart G). The exception to this occurs when the enclosure is a complete square (See Chart H). When this occurs, we always leave the bottom stroke until the very last. Once again, this is largely to avoid unintentionally crossing that bottom stroke.

Fifth Brush Stroke Rule in Chinese Calligraphy: Execute the Center First Rule

For radicals or characters that have a clear centre and symmetrical elements, the centre should be executed first, and then the two sides (See Chart I). This does make it easier to achieve symmetry.

For radicals or characters with secondary dots around a stroke, these dots should be executed last (See Chart J).

Tips and Resources

These rules are by no means exhaustive. When characters get very complex and the rules start to become muddled, it is even possible that there will be more than one “correct” stroke order. Indeed, some of the fun of calligraphy is simply gaining competence in stroke order seeing how the most complex characters come into being. If you are unsure of the proper stroke order of a given character, you can easily consult this online dictionary resource. You can type in the pinyin to find your character and the entry page will show the animated stroke order.