I am a little amused that I am writing this but I realised that this is a serious question to a lot of people. So how do you actually write Chinese characters? Chinese characters can be very simple, like 一 (one) or very complicated. They are made up of a number of basic strokes. Generally, there is a set way of writing. For instance, the word mouth 口, is written in this sequence : 丨→ ⼌ → 口 . Any Chinese character that has this structure, e.g. 日 will follow the same sequence.
Stroke sequence* (笔顺) is very important in writing Chinese characters. If you write in the wrong sequence, the characters will look weird and basically wrong. So it is not a matter of copying a picture whichever way you fancy as long as you get it to look like what it is supposed to look like. (If you are a Chinese writing Chinese, you may sometimes take calligraphic liberties with your writing, similar to having different style of writing cursive. But in general, it is just good to stick to the straight and narrow.)
There are several rules of thumb for writing Chinese characters:
1. 先横后竖 – First Horizontal Then Vertical
The single horizontal stroke is 横 (héng) and a single vertical stroke is called 竖(shù ). So this means you should write the horizontal stroke first before the vertical stroke. E.g. for the character 十 (ten), you should write 一 then 丨.
2. 先撇后捺 – First 撇 (piě) then 捺(nà)
If the word has the two strokes as in the word 人 (man), the 丿 on the left is 撇 (piě) and the stroke on the right is 捺(nà), it is always first 撇 (piě) then 捺(nà).
Chinese characters generally follow the top-bottom structure or the left-right structure. For a word like 草 (grass), since the parts are arranged in a vertical line, you always write from top to bottom. So you will write 艹 followed by 曰, then 十.
4. 从左到右 – From Left to Right
If the character is of the left-right structure, e.g. 明 (bright), you will write from left to right. So for this character, you will write the 日 on the left first, followed by the 月on the right.
What if there are parts going from left to right and top to bottom? You start from the top left to the bottom left. Then you go to the top of the right, and finish at the bottom of the right.
5. 从外到内 – First the Outer Then the Inner
If the character has an outer structure that surrounds an inner structure, then you always go from the outer structure to the inner. E.g the character 月(moon), you will write the ⺆ before writing the two horizontal strokes inside. As for that two horizontal strokes, you will follow the Top to Bottom rule.
6. 先里头后封口 – Fill the inside before Closing the Box
Another rule of thumb is that whatever is inside the “box” should be filled in before ‘closing the box’. So for 日, you write 冂 first, then fill in the horizontal line in the middle before closing the ‘box’ with the final horizontal line at the bottom.
7. 先中间后两边 – First the middle Then the Two Sides
If the character is of a x|x kind of structure, you will write the middle first before the two sides. E.g. 水 (water), you will write亅 first before doing the two sides. For the two sides, you will follow the Left to Right rule.
Even though writing according to these rules sounds very complicated, once you get the hang of it, it comes naturally because there are only abut 30 basic strokes and for every character, you will write the strokes in the same manner, and after a while, you will realise that there are more similarities than differences. Several of the above rules will apply to one character at once.
Let’s use the character 明 (bright).
(1) You follow the Left to Right Rule. So you will start writing the 日 on the left first.
(2) For this 日 on the left, you will follow the Fill the Inside Then Close the Box Rule. So you write 冂 first, then fill in the horizontal line in the middle before closing the ‘box’ with the final horizontal line at the bottom. Even for the 冂, you go from left to right, which means | followed by .
(3) Now you have completed the left side of the character 明, you will move on to the Right side, which is the 月. For this part, you will follow the First the Outer Then the Inner rule. You will write the ⺆ before writing the two horizontal strokes inside.
For young children, I find that it helps a great deal to use tactile character cards, like the one I made for my #3. When I taught him the characters using the tactile cards, I let him trace the characters using his finger. Before he could actually write, he already learned the stroke sequence and like playing a familiar piece of music on the piano, or striking the a ball in some sports, there is muscle memory involved here. When he actually started writing, the correct way of writing came quite naturally for him. Not to mention multi-sensory learning helps too.
Even for people like me who actually know Chinese, sometimes, we need to check on the stroke sequence too, just to be sure. That is why you will find dictionaries and even Chinese websites that will give you the stroke sequence of characters. If you need to check the stroke sequence of a Chinese character, this website will give you the animation, the sequence, and the pronunciation.
This website allows you to generate writing sheets for practice. The writing sheet even comes with the stroke sequence for the characters you specify. You may enter maximum of four characters each time. Do not leave space between the characters. You can set how big you want the characters to be and how many rows to write. You need to be able to read Chinese to fiddle with the setting though. If you cannot read Chinese, this English website can do the same.
As I mentioned, Chinese characters are made up of around 30 basic strokes. Each stroke has a name and a specific way to write it. Children are taught to count the number of strokes each character is made up of. We call this 笔画 (bǐ huà). I mentioned in an earlier post that I do not agree with the conventional way of teaching young children how to write Chinese characters. Even though Chinese characters are made up of strokes, I find that this is meaningless to start off by teaching the kids how to write the strokes individually. Unlike English alphabets that actually make individual sounds and the sounds blended together make the sound of the word, this is not so for Chinese characters. I find it more efficient to teach whole character first, but in the correct stroke sequence and correct way of writing the strokes. You can read more about it here.
* Some people call Stroke sequence “stroke order”. They mean the same thing.