Variable Stroke Order in Chinese Characters
19 Aug 2008
I started learning Japanese in 1996. When I began learning Mandarin in 1998, I already had a foundation in Chinese characters, thanks to my Japanese studies. Learning the two languages at the same time, I was frequently annoyed by little discrepancies such as 歩 and 步, 別 and 别, 氷 and 冰, etc. Those little character details caught my attention, though. I ended up writing my senior thesis on how and why the Chinese characters of the Chinese and Japanese writing systems ended up diverging.
One little detail that always nagged at me, though, was stroke order. The truth is, stroke order of Chinese characters is not consistent across Japanese and Chinese. I was reminded of this recently by Tae Kim’s blog entry entitled, What’s the stroke order of 【龜】? Who cares? He brought up the stroke order of the character 必 as an example of a “weird character.” This character just happens to be one of the ones whose correct stroke order has been ever so slightly bugging me all these years.
必 is a great example, because it shows up in plenty of relatively simple words in both languages, like 必要 (necessary) and 必须 (must) in Chinese, and 必ず (without fail) and 必要 (necessary) in Japanese.
Now let’s take a look at the stroke order of this simple character. I’ll have to assign letters to each stroke so that we can keep the different stroke orders straight:
– Ocrat, MDBG, and Wenlin all say A-B-C-D-E.
– Learn to Write Characters (click on 必), maintained by Dr. Tim Xie, says A-B-C-E-D.
– A-B-C-E-D makes a lot of sense to me, because the character’s radical is 心 (but that doesn’t necessarily matter at all).
– Remember that Chinese has the added excitement of the simplified/traditional divide, as well as other regional differences in the mainland, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
– If you have more to add to this (especially from more authoritative sources). please leave a comment!
– WWWJDIC, Kawatsu, Kodansha, and Gakken all agree on the bizarre C-D-B-A-E.
– It’s almost as is they’re writing 义 first, then adding “wings,” but no, the radical here is 心 as well. (We can see why Tae calls it weird.)
Hmmm, that’s a lot of inconsistency. Gives you more respect for the people that can create good Chinese handwriting recognition software, doesn’t it?
But wait! It doesn’t end there. An even simpler character — 出 — behaves inconsistently as well. I’ll spare you all the details and jump to a diagram taken from a very interesting tool I found illustrating various stroke order differences:
Note that aside from the incredibly common 出, the heart radical 忄 — a component of tons of very common characters — is also among the ambiguously stroke-ordered. Notice too that the Japanese-only variants are not included in this list.
So what’s my point? Well, it’s not any of the following:
– Chinese is really hard
– Chinese characters are really complex
– Chinese characters are hard to learn
– Chinese character stroke order is fun!
Chinese is not semi-mystical. Chinese characters were created by people a really long time ago, and thus it is an amazingly imperfect, inconsistent system. East Asian brains aren’t semi-mystical either; with all these differences going on you can bet that the Chinese and Japanese get mixed up too. In fact, armed with the chart above you’ll find it really easy to spark debates with very literate Chinese over the “correct stroke order.”
Like me, you may be bugged by these inconsistencies. You may feel compelled to seek out some underlying pattern or just memorize a big list of exceptions. Don’t do it! Be satisfied with a quick look over the chart above. Just get the non-exceptional stroke order basics down and you’ll be fine, trust me. Don’t obsess over perfect stroke order and all the exceptions, because it’s an imperfect system. The deck is stacked against you. Learn to read and use characters to communicate, and you win.