Writing Chinese Characters

and finding penstroke count

The aims of this page is to show some basics for writing Chinese characters. The order in which each penstroke is executed is quite important for composing characters. First, we shall see the types of penstrokes that are encountered. Then the rules and some points of interest are discussed.

Stroke Types

In the diagram below, the characters are outlined in white, whilst the type of penstroke to be drawn to attention is coloured in red. For ease of reference, numerals in black are included.

To make the penstroke, start where the green line begins, and follow the direction of the arrow, lifting the pentip off where the arrow ends. You will notice the characters have different widths along the penstroke. This is achieved by pushing the pen down for heavy thick lines, and withdrawing the pen-tip away from the paper where the line goes narrower. In calligraphy, the art lies in varying the pressure of the pen-tip against the paper together with proportionality of the character, achieving dynamic and aesthetic penstrokes.

You will notice that the character in 31 and 32 are the same. The dot can be written both ways, depending on the type of instrument used. Number 31 often occurs when using a brushpen, where the tip goes back slightly over the already made mark, lifting off the paper. For all intents and purposes, 32 is okay.

In calligraphy, the art lies in varying the pressure of the pen-tip against the paper, achieving dynamic and aesthetic.

Recognising these basic stroke types enables you to count how many strokes there are in each character since each and every character will be composed by a set of these. These are found across the Chinese-Japanese-Korean (so called CJK) spectrum.

Knowing how many strokes a character has enables one to lookup in character dictionaries according the one of many systems. Some dictionaries use stroke count and the initial stoke type. In the KangXi dictionary, a set of 214 index glyphs (sometimes known as "radicals") are used to categorise characters accordeing to one of these radicals and then by the remaining number of strokes. It enables the user to look up characters even though they do not know the pronunciation of the character. This is a very useful system, and has been adopted outside of China, with some modifications. Due to the fact that it is independent of the character's actual sound value or "reading", dialects of CJK languages can use stroke count with the radicals system very successfully.

Order of Strokes

The order of the strokes are defined by a handful of rules. They allow a uniform method for writers to reproduce characters, and this too is used across the CJK sphere. Note that these rules, or principles, are taken sequentially.

From top to bottom
From left to right
Horizontal before vertical
Backstroke before forewardstroke
First (three sided) enclosure, then filling
Square enclosure top first, next filling, last seal
Middle stroke, then left portion, then right portion

Given the above seven general principles, there are of course times when it is not clear which part of the character to write.

Points of interest

Because writing is an invented system, there are bound to be contradictions to note. Below, are examples showing characters which contradict the general rules above. This may sound odd, but it leads to the most natural way of writing characters. At each stage, the red portions of the characters are the areas where the author draws attention to.

Counting Strokes

The 30 basic stroke types found at the beginning of this page are all one stoke. When composing a character, or finding its stroke count, each mark made by the pen will be one of these stroke types. By breaking down a character using the order of strokes, one can find the number of strokes any character has.

Below, we have a few examples of characters and the stroke order for writing them.

The gradual composition of the characters also serve to show another aspect of writing CJK characters. That is, you have to have a mental image of what you are going to write first, and start at an appropriate place, so that the character when completed is level, roughly the same in size and proportion to the others on the same line.

The Square Grid

It is practical to think of a character centered within an imaginary square grid. This is so that scaling of the character's various components cumulate to achieve a well formed and esthetically pleasing glyph.

The grid can also be further subdivided, usually to 9 or 16 squares, and used as guides for learners of calligraphy.


Characters are composed of stroke types as shown at the start of this page. Each is one stroke. Many strokes make up a character, but for esthetic and practical reasons, an order in which characters are written is preferred. When writing characters, they should be contained in an imaginary box, and in proportion to other characters with which they appear. Forethought is needed to make a character look right, beginning with where one places the character's first penstroke, and the proportions of each stroke in relation to the rest of the character as a whole. When one understands the principles behind the writing process, one can count the number of strokes easily and use character dictionaries to look up unknown ones with ease.


In writing this page, some of the character examples are taken from the following books. All the images in this page are my own.

  • Zhong Guo Yu Wen Biao Jie Da Quan - Chen & Zhuang.
  • Elementary Chinese Readers 1 - BeiJing Yu Yan Xue Yuan
  • NTC New Japanese English Japanese Character Dictionary - Ed. Jack Halpern

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    This page was created on Friday 9th April 1999.
    It was recently updated on Sunday 21st April 2002

    © Dylan W.H.Sung 1996-onwards
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