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Newb Questions That Never Get Good Answers: Part 3

Posted by Hofmann , 25 September 2010 · 785 views

What’s the correct stroke order of…?

Questions like this make me want to leave and go to sleep; hoping that somehow somebody could just figure it out themselves. However, it would take a huge dose of luck for the average newb (and his/her friends) to figure out the correct stroke order of a character whose stroke order is worth asking about. It would take even more luck for them to figure out the whole situation of stroke orders of Chinese characters. It’s also a hassle to explain the whole situation of stroke orders. Even if the whole situation were explained, there’s still a deep root stuck in Chinese calligraphy that needs explaining, so I feel like I have to write a textbook if I want to get anyone to understand what the correct stroke order of something is. But dammit, that’s what I’m going to try right here.

The first thing I want to talk about is language. Language can only exist if two or more people share linguistic expectations. If expectations are shared among all or almost all of a population, they become linguistic rules. When someone learns a language, they learn the rules of the language, which are the linguistic expectations of the users of the language. In the case of English (which I hope you’re familiar with), such rules can be about spelling, vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. There are rules about writing Chinese called 書法 (technically only meaning “writing rules” but one can infer that because this term is in Chinese it refers to the writing rules of Chinese. This is often translated as "Chinese calligraphy." Note also that this term is commonly misused to refer to a creative art that is based on script). These rules include rules about stroke order.

What are the stroke order rules? I need to make a premise that if people think something is written well, it is written with a correct stroke order. Throughout Chinese history, there have been many written materials, many of which are considered to be written well, i.e. they are examples of good handwriting. Among those examples of good handwriting, there are some that are considered the best. These are the models on which people of later generations base their handwriting. Among these one can find patterns, trends. There are trends that are universal, existing in all pieces of Chinese writing, and some that are only consistent on the pieces of good handwriting. Among these are trends in stroke order. If one finds the stroke order of a certain character is the same universally or almost universally, one may consider that as the correct stroke order and that it is a rule. If one finds uncommon stroke orders, one may consider them as discouraged stroke orders. Stroke orders that never or almost never occur may be considered incorrect.

How does one tell what the stroke order of a character was by looking at it? One cannot be absolutely sure without having seen it written, but in many cases, one can get pretty damn sure. One thing to look for is the shape of the strokes. It might take a little imagination, but one can picture what the most likely movement that produced that shape is. This should be easy in script styles where inertia significantly affects the shape of a stroke, such as in 行書 and 草書. Another thing to consider is the evolution of the character. Sometimes the shape of a character in an older form will give hints on its stroke order. Again, this might take some intuition, but sometimes very obvious hints will be obtained. Also consider that for a given script style, if the stroke order of an ancestor and descendant script style are the same, it is likely that the stroke order of the script in question is also like that of its direct ancestor and descendant. If its direct ancestor and descendant differ, it is more likely to be like either of them than like a more distant relative.

Using the methods explained above, among others, the stroke orders of almost all characters have been found with certainty. What’s there to discuss then?
There exist modern regional standards for Chinese characters. See my blog post Newb Questions That Never Get Good Answers: Part 1 and read about them. In addition to standardizing the forms of Chinese characters, the modern governments also standardized the stroke orders.
Standardized stroke orders are described in:All standards differ. All standards clearly have many inaccuracies. Remember, if you never or almost never see a stroke order in the best examples of handwriting, it’s wrong. Many of the stroke orders prescribed in the standards have absolutely no evidence to support them in any samples of handwriting even considered remotely good. That creates a huge mess because in every region where Chinese characters are written in the primary language of the region, students learning the languages are probably taught according to the governmental (educational) standard. Because of this, almost all who grew up in China, Taiwan, or Japan grew up writing incorrect stroke orders. Even ethnic Chinese and Japanese growing up outside the Sinosphere are influenced by the standards. Therefore, the most likely topic in discussions about stroke order is the differences between standards, with the participants most likely not knowing that they are talking about standards.

Imagine how one would join in such a discussion and rectify it. Let us say they were talking about the character 有. The correct stroke order is 丿 first. The Japanese standard matches this, while the ROC, PRC, and Hong Kong standards write 一 first. I would imagine that they are debating over whether the “Chinese stroke order” or the “Japanese stroke order” is correct. You might even read something like “We’re talking about Chinese characters, which the Chinese created, so of course they would be correct,” not being aware of how diligently the Japanese studied Chinese calligraphy before World War II and how rapidly the caliber of writing in China declined after the fall of Qing. If one were to just go in and say “丿 first” one can imagine how quickly they would conclude that you’re siding with the Japanese for some illogical reason. No, that won’t work. The only way you’ll get your point across is to start from the beginning like I did here. Additionally, you’ll need to show them images of models in order to take care of those who are extra skeptical. This is where a 書法字典 would come in handy, but if you don’t have one, online versions of 書法字典 also work, although they are not as complete and sometimes contain fake characters (i.e. they say someone wrote something some way but it was really a modern person writing it to look like someone’s writing) and misidentified characters. But what if they were talking about character that none of the standards prescribe correctly, like 無? Then you need to make it extra clear how sloppily the standard stroke orders were prescribed.

If you want a quick way to find the correct stroke order of a character, please see the extension entry to this entry.

Quiz:
  • Only one modern standard prescribes the correct stroke order for 布. Which is it?
  • What is the correct stroke order of 隹?


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M.E.Townsend
Sep 27 2010 03:15 AM
I know quite a few Chinese friends who told me that they themselves don't write Chinese characters that often nowadays. I guess being able to recognize the right character and pinyin should be enough anyway...
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creamyhorror
Oct 02 2010 03:52 PM
If in such cases the only commonly-used stroke orders are 'wrong' by historical standards, then I submit that they can't really be considered 'wrong' from a contemporary and functional point of view - especially not for newbs who aren't particularly invested in calligraphy studies. I guess your stance just strikes me as a little prescriptively activist for people who are just starting out.
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If in such cases the only commonly-used stroke orders are 'wrong' by historical standards, then I submit that they can't really be considered 'wrong' from a contemporary and functional point of view - especially not for newbs who aren't particularly invested in calligraphy studies. I guess your stance just strikes me as a little prescriptively activist for people who are just starting out.

I think this is an acceptable reply to your comment.

Nobody learning Chinese writing cannot not study calligraphy. Either that, or one should more correctly understand me if one thought I was not talking about calligraphy. (By now I'm getting the impression that it would be better just to say I never ever talk about calligraphy.)

Also, to call your point of view contemporary and functional implies that it is more contemporary and functional than something else. I'm guessing that you mean it's enough for newbs to just write legibly with whatever stroke order they want. However, I think it is still better to prescribe something (as language instruction cannot work without some prescription) and people are doing so already, as I said in the blog post. What is different between their prescriptions and my prescriptions (excluding Japan to an extent) is that mine describe something that exists or existed. Most of their standards come from nowhere. What makes it seem more functional to follow the standards is that their information is more widespread (and newly spread among the newly literate), while information obtained from research has been kept among a few people who already knew how to write anyway. Before the Republic, most people who could write wrote with correct stroke orders. Standards with errors caused the majority of the population to learn errors. This is where the new "right" comes from. Taking pre-Republic Chinese writing into account, they are more prescriptivist than me. I feel like I'm rambling....
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I think I was lucky with some good initial teaching of characters, and rarely have stroke order problems. I'm now at the stage of starting to study calligraphy, though, and find it really difficult to now accept that - depending on the script - there are different orders to take on board!
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