A Visual Case for Stroke Order

Inevitably, students of Chinese characters will ask, at some point, “why do we have to learn stroke order? What difference does it make?

It’s a good question. This is the answer:


(The message reads 好无聊. “So bored.”)

This is what Chinese characters start to look like as the strokes flow together. And it’s not just about calligraphy and an appreciation of ancient culture; I discovered the image above through Tencent’s WeChat (the iPhone app).


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. It turns out Korean uses the same stroke order as Chinese, were the bits of Korean letters very simple Chinese. ㅁ is written like 口, ㅈ a lot like 又. Knowing the importance of stroke order made is a lot easier to read hand-written menus in cafes and restaurants.

    Another good case for stroke order is Pleco. In the handwritten input, quickly scrawl out a somewhat complex character. It seems to pay more attention to the stroke order than the overall ‘shape’ of what’s been otherwise ‘drawn’. For some things it doesn’t matter much; 无 written as above or in reverse-stroke order both worked just fine. But for the most part, order-consciousness (Pleco’s or your own) is a great way to make sense of whatever note your landlord just left on your apartment door.

  2. There is another amazing proof linked with your consideration. When a native Chinese writes apparently random paints exploiting that smartphone handwriting recognition tools, it’s pretty awesome to notice that for the application they are often easier to be recognized than your block capitals characters.
    This is just due to the fact that such algorithms heavily take into account strokes order.

  3. Man… once in a while stuff like this makes me feel like my 7 years in Taiwan and all those hours I spent learning to read was a waste. I never would have gotten the 2nd character… and I can’t even blame it on Jianti since I spent some time in Beijing!

  4. True! Also, I was able to input a rare character into my Chinese friend’s phone, (handwriting input) after she had tried and failed several times, because my stroke order was correct! That was a very happy moment.

  5. I’ve been going through the old but interesting and useful “Chinese Cursive Script” by Wang Fangyu to learn cursive writing and knowing the stroke order really does help. It’s also fun to see where the stroke order is changed for speed reasons.

  6. There was an interesting experiment (wish I had the citation) that demonstrated the importance of stroke order for native speaker recognition of characters. Characters were presented one stroke at a time (non-animated strokes) with one stroke disappearing when the next appeared. Some characters were presented with proper stroke order, others with improper stroke order. Participants were able to recognize characters when the strokes were in order. They had great difficulty when strokes were not in order. It’s not a surprising result I guess, but it does confirm that stroke order is a valuable trigger for recognition–not necessarily the only one–and just because natives rely on it doesn’t mean every human necessarily has to. But, if you’re erring on the side of caution, learning stroke order seems wise.

    • That’s interesting in that it requires the reader to be watching the stokes happen for it to matter. If you wrote a character, 回 for example, with simple straight lines, strokes in any order, it wouldn’t really make it unreadable. If I write R like D on top of |\, as long as it fits together in the end it’s fine. I think that’s the view of new learners who think stroke order doesn’t matter. Because really, once all the strokes are on paper, who cares how they got there? The problem is it doesn’t take actual hand-written anomalies into account.

      Actually just yesterday I had to make sense of a hastily scrawled note in traditional characters. Were it not for EXACTLY this sort of ability I would have never been able to make heads or tails of it.

    • i’ve played games where you one person draws a character on the back of another, and the person being drawn on has to guess the character. i can tell you the task is much more difficult when the drawer uses improper stoke order!

  7. Hate to break it to you, but cursive Chinese does not follow the same stroke order rules as standard characters. (For example, 木 can be written as a “Z” shape with a vertical line through it.) In fact, the direction of the longest vertical line in the 3rd character above seems to have been written from bottom to up. This isn’t to say stroke order doesn’t matter at all, but for the sake of being able to read shorthand, knowing stroke order won’t help you as much as well, being able to read shorthand/cursive forms.

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