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© 2001 – 2004 Patrick Hassel Zein

This page was last updated 09.04.2006

Illustration © Microsoft Clipart

Chinese Calligraphy

Nice writing = Correct writing = Writing every stroke in correct order

Some Notes on the History of Chinese Writing

During the thousands of years old history of the Chinese language, you can clearly see how the tools and materials used for writing have affected the looks of the characters. The oldest traces of Chinese writing consist of pottery and bones with inscriptions where the characters are carved with sharp angles – almost like the Nordic runes.

When the Chinese first invented the book, it consisted of bamboo sticks sewn together side by side. Columns of characters were written on each stick with a brush, which worked quite well with the Chinese way of writing columns of characters from right to left. Writing with a brush also made some new freedom in the form of the characters – especially the day that paper was invented!

The oldest bamboo-books have not survived to current times, but there may be copies of some works – and also quite a lot of ancient metal objects with cast-in characters. Further more there are paintings, seals and many other types of objects with inscription that help us to give proves for the development of the Chinese system of writing.

Today Chinese is written with all sorts of pens and papers, but if you want to make something really nice, it's of course still most proper to use an ink brush and rice paper. For daily training, I personally like to write Chinese characters with jell-ink ballpoint pens, since it gives me the feeling of having a "swoop" similar to the result you'll get with brushes. Try finding what pen will suit you best. Do keep in mind that you may very well prefer one type of pens for writing in English, while a different choice may show more suitable for Chinese!

Avoid writing Chinese with red ink, since that may give an unwanted message to possible readers... Sure, I can agree that Chinese see red colour as a symbol for luck, and use red ink for their seals, but Chinese are also know to write with red ink when firing personnel or cancelling friendship!

Radicals - the Building Bricks of Characters

The first Chinese characters were created to depict objects like "human", "hand", "foot", "mountain", "sun", "moon" and "tree". The next step was to build logical combinations of the simple characters. Some of these simple characters and logical combinations still remain clear enough to allow you to see what they depict. Such simple and basic characters, when used to construct even more complex characters, are usually called "radicals".

Let me give you some examples to see how the looks of Chinese characters have changed during the last thousands of years. The oldest characters (at least 3000 or 4000 years old) are at the far left. The characters in the third column originate from the time around 200 B.C. The modern characters are at the far right:

"Light": Sun and moon together – two clearly visible radicals throughout the ages.

"Ear": A direct picture – a radical.

"Pull": A hand pulling an ear – two clearly distinguishable radicals.

"Expensive": Two hands lifting up (or digging down?) a valuable object – the bottom radical symbolizes something valuable and the 6:th character is a modern simplified form.

"Compare": Two persons stand side by side to compare their length – a relatively clear picture (the entire character occurs as a radical in a few more complicated characters).

"Rest": A person resting below a tree – two clearly visible radicals.

"Forest": Two trees – two clearly visible radicals (the combination "two trees" can sometimes be seen as a part of more complex characters).

"Mountain foot": Between two trees (i.e. in a forest) there is a deer – the trees are still there in the modern character, the deer still has a small horn and some vague legs (the deer is in this case also a hint regarding the pronunciation).

"Food": A simple picture of a bowl with a lid – the radicals are not very clear, but the lid is present in the entire development of the character.

"Wine": Droplets of liquid by a jar – two clearly visible radicals.

"Suddenly": When the rain suddenly falls, the birds fly away – the radicals are "rain" and "bird" (the number of birds is varying from time to time).

"Step": Two footsteps on the ground – the picture isn't clearly visible in modern Chinese (the origin of the radicals is not clear in the modern character).

Please note that only something like 10 or 20% of the Chinese characters consist of a single radical or a visibly logical combination of radicals. The remaining 80 to 90% are rather combinations of radicals that will give hints of the meaning of the characters in question, together with radicals that will hint the pronunciations – somewhat like the character "mountain foot" in the paragraph above!

Here are some examples of common radicals and characters in which each radical is used in modern (simplified) Chinese:

The radical (tongue) is common in communicative characters     (talk)
  (opinion, theory)
The radical (four legged animal) will give a connection to the animal world     (dog)
  (wild, violent)
The radical (three droplets of water) is common in characters regarding liquids     (river)
The radical (heart) is common in rather emotional characters     (problem, worry)
The radical (cloud of rain) is often seen in characters describing weather     (snow)

It's very important to be able to see what radicals a character consists of – it will, among other things, make it easier to use Chinese dictionaries!

When you want to train writing Chinese, it's suitable to start with simple characters (i.e. radicals) and then work yourself up to more complex characters where the radicals are involved – but if you want to be extra meticulous, you should of course begin by training the different strokes. For that purpose I suggest a closer look at the basic strokes!

The Eight Basic Strokes

Basically you can say that all modern Chinese characters are drawn with a palette consisting of eight basic strokes. Generally all strokes are painted from top to bottom and left to right – with exceptions for characters number six, which is draw upwards. In the following overview each type of stroke is shown (drawn in black colour) within actual characters (drawn in grey colour):

#1 = Dot (dian3):
#2 = Horizontal (heng2):
#3 = Vertical (shu4):
#4 = Slanting to the left (pie3):
#5 = Slanting to the right (na4):
#6 = Rising (ti2):
#7 = Hook (gou1):
#8 = Turning (zhe2):

That was a short walkthrough of the strokes – make sure that you train writing these strokes really well, thus making it a lot easier to continue your studies. After this, you will also need to know in what order the strokes are supposed to be draw to build up characters...

Rules for Stroke Order

The basic rule, when writing Chinese characters, is to always write from top to bottom, from left to right. If a character consists of more than one radical, you always write each included radical as a separate piece.

Within each radical you have six basic rules, which I will now illustrated with sequences of pictures. The complete characters are first shown on a yellow background, and then you see a sequence of pictures from left to right, showing how the character is built up, stroke by stroke, to form the final result:

Rule #1:Top down.
Special case: Left side of squares is drawn before the top.
Rule #2:Left to right.
Exception: Hook on the right side comes first.
Rule #3:Horizontal lines and squares before crossing vertical lines.
Exception: Bottom lines are always drawn last.
Rule #4:Frames before contents.
Note: The bottom line of a frame is drawn last.
Rule #5:Centre before symmetrical sides.
Rule #6:Secondary dots drawn last.

These rules are based on practical experience – the rules reflect what has been learnt from using brushes in practice. The rules give good guidelines, but to learn to write properly, it's probably best to find a dictionary or textbook that clearly shows the stroke orders of several characters. In my examples above, I've only chose characters that are relatively simple and easy to write – when the number of strokes increases, the risk of the basic rules becoming inadequate will increase. In some special cases it's even possible that there is more than one correct stroke order...

A Universal Character to Practice!

The character for "eternal" or "eternity" is a classical example of a character where all the basic types of strokes can be found. If you can write this character really nicely, then you'll probably be able to write all characters well! The numbers and arrows indicate in which order and directions the strokes are written.

Further reading

© 2001 - 2004: Patrick Zein