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Handwriting: The minimum requirements (Part 1)



This series is outdated. I wrote a book about regular script, which I recommend over reading this.


This post is meant to provide a clear-cut standard for beginners regarding Chinese handwriting using common hard-tipped writing instruments like pencils and pens, focusing on regular script (楷書). This is necessary because commonly available materials provide inaccurate information or stray too far into aesthetics too early, while neglecting the basics. My goal here is not to get you to write well, but to write correctly. The examples I show are made with a pencil, only caring to ensure that things are correct where they should be, with no attention paid to aesthetics.

First, some axioms.

  • Writing is a form of communication through symbols. Recognition of these symbols without distraction requires them to adhere to certain rules. These rules are called 書法, “writing rules.”
  • Characters in regular script are recognized based on the length, direction, and placement of strokes. Stroke thickness is not essential. Therefore, regular script can be written correctly with a monoline writing instrument. However, an atypical scheme of line thickness variation that becomes distracting is still wrong.

With that, your goal when writing (regardless of writing instrument) should be to communicate without distraction. The most common potential distraction when writing is producing wrong characters. In general, writing something that has not been commonly employed in exemplary pieces of writing for that particular morpheme will probably result in a wrong character. More concretely, the difference between a right and wrong character can depend on:

  • Substitution of one character for another, e.g. dfuebr.jpg instead of 29p5kqw.jpg
  • Substitution of one component for another, e.g. i1a6ie.jpg for 33lyyc4.jpg.
  • Absence of a required stroke (which may result in a substitution), e.g. j58tq1.jpg for 2u9tvf7.jpg.
  • An extra stroke, e.g. s6p01t.jpg for 15z0684.jpg.
  • Stroke placement is incorrect, e.g. osgw15.jpg for sy1eh3.jpg.
  • Substitution of one type of stroke for another, e.g. 1gg5fa.jpg for27xe6s.jpg.
  • Width relationship of certain strokes are incorrect, e.g. s6p01t.jpg for 21lonsw.jpg.
  • Height relationship of certain strokes are incorrect, e.g. 14iebgl.jpg for 214thtd.jpg.
  • Width relationship of certain components are incorrect, e.g. 2ir3rdc.jpg for rjkzrq.jpg.
  • An opening where there should be none, e.g. 5cddlv.jpg for 30htw13.jpg.
  • Lack of an opening where there should be one, e.g. 30htw13.jpg for 5cddlv.jpg.
  • Visibly incorrect stroke order, e.g. 2nvqus8.jpg for 16c2deb.jpg

I think that about covers it. The first piece of homework you have to do, then, is to learn to recognize and reproduce the basic strokes of regular script. They are most reliably recognized by their orientation and curvature. The number of different strokes varies depending on how you count. I only include those which I think differ significantly in technique.

A horizontal stroke, commonly called 橫, is written from left to right. It can be truly horizontal or tilted up at the right a bit. It rare cases it can be tilted down, but not doing so in such a case will not make the difference between a right and wrong character. It may bow up (most commonly) or down in the middle, but not extremely. If you vary the thickness, it must be thick on both ends.


A vertical stroke, commonly called 豎, is written from top to bottom. It must not curve. In most cases it should be ideally truly vertical. In some cases such as in the second stroke of 五 it can slant and still be a vertical stroke as long as it does not curve. When written with line width variation, both ends are usually thick, although in some cases it can end in a point, and sometimes it must end in a point.


A positive-sloped stroke, commonly called 撇, is written from the upper right to the lower left. Lengths and curvatures of these strokes vary greatly. It usually bows down in the middle. In rare cases it must either be completely straight or bow up, such as the second stroke of 為 (examples). If you vary thickness, in most cases it must start thick and end thin. In some cases, such as in the third stroke of 鹿, it may start with a point, however not doing so will not result in a wrong character.


Dots, commonly called 點, are short strokes going in some downward direction, written from the top. When writing with varying line thickness, start with a point and increase thickness until the end.


The dot to the right can be lengthened using the same technique, resulting in a straight or upwards-bowing negative slope stroke, called 長點 or 反捺.


A negative slope stroke that bows down in the middle is called 捺. At the top, if it is closer to horizontal, there is initially a rightward motion. If it is steeper, it starts directly in the downward bow. If it starts in the middle of another stroke, it starts with a point. If not, it likely must start thick, as in the last stroke of 之 (examples).


A stroke that is written from the bottom left to the upper right, and tilts up more than a horizontal stroke, is called 提. These are never the last stroke of a character. They start thick and end thin.


A round curve of about 90 degrees is called 彎. They are usually a transition between a vertical and horizontal stroke.


Hooks, called 鉤, are short attachments to major strokes. Most of them are very straightforward. On horizontal strokes, hooks can only go down. On vertical strokes, hooks can only go left.


One stroke only occurs with a hook. I don't know what it's called, but it occurs in the last stroke of 子 and the second stroke of 狗. It is rather vertical but bows to the right, starting thin and ending thick (where the hook starts, which ends thin again).


Hooks attached to rather steep 捺 are likely called 斜鉤. However, there are steep 捺 where you must not hook, as in the 4th to last stroke of 國 (example). The hook should point straight up or slightly to the right, even if the next stroke occurs left of it, except in 心 and 必, where it should point left.


Corners are the end of one stroke and the beginning of another. Corners can be correctly made by lifting your writing instrument up and starting a stroke that covers the end of the previous stroke. However, if at the end of one stroke you feel that you are prepared to start another, then go ahead and connect them. Note that stroke counts for dictionary classification are made assuming cornered strokes are connected into one where possible. Therefore, while I would write 幺 in 5 separate strokes, a dictionary would say it has 3 strokes.

(Continued in Part 2)


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Great post.


If one mistakes 日 with 曰, which difference do you think it falls under?


What's that character that looks like 日 but with an opening on top?

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曰 has an opening on top. That is the difference. In Part 2 I mention using good examples, and using 書法字典. I know 9610.com misclassifies some 曰 in 日 and some 日 in 曰. You can see examples of how it came to be here (except for the .gif). 田蘊章 also explains the difference between 日 and 曰 in this video from 22:43.

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I thought before 日 is rectangular (taller than it is wide) and 曰 is more flat (square or wider than it is tall), but your video says it is a relatively new distinction.


Not trying to disagree, I find it interesting the most commonly available computer fonts (DFKai-SB, MS JhengHei, MS YaHei, MingLiu, SimSun and whatever san-serif font that came with iOS) do not have that opening on top.

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I think I should point out to people who don't know the author that this post is typical Hofmann propaganda. That doesn't necessarily mean it's bad persay, to some people it can be a very detailed and helpful explanation of how to write Chinese characters.


However, our friend Hofmann might be operating under slightly different assumptions than the rest of world, and for people who don't know his assumptions it might be confusing to follow what he says.

When Hofmann tells you to do something, it is not necessarily because it is the "correct" or "most common" thing to do by modern standards or modern popular usage; a lot of his "corrections" will be focused on getting a very traditional character writing style that is not very strictly followed today.


Granted, it is generally not a bad thing if you do follow them, but if you wonder why your Chinese teacher is teaching you things that are completely contradictory to what Hofmann is saying, it is not because Hofmann is a wrong stupid foreigner, but because your Chinese teacher has different assumptions from him.


My recommendation: read this series and take what you want out of it, but don't just blindly follow it unless you are sure you want to hold the same assumptions as Hofmann.

Tho I have to say, I have always had trouble writing 華 in Traditional, and I realized it was because the models I was looking at (common fonts) just looked ugly, but this series helped me realize that other models exist that look nicer by having a different long stroke.


EDIT: Although Hofmann generally doesn't have the concept of explaining the assumptions he holds to poor people who don't realize he holds them, he has done so well in these two posts which I recommend reading: 


See the third comment on this post: http://www.chinese-forums.com/index.php?/blog/25/entry-168-newb-questions-that-never-get-good-answers-part-3/


And another post he made that is referenced in the previous link: http://www.chinese-forums.com/index.php?/topic/14918-handwriting-thread/page__view__findpost__p__227770

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