Chinese Writing Strokes: Basic Building Blocks

Image courtesy of https://baike.baidu.com/item/%E7%AC%94%E7%94%BB

Last updated: 04 Feb 2021

In the closely related article that is a thorough treatment of radicals, we got an complete coverage of all types of radicals and their application in character construction.

(This article has been converted into a course at this Facebook group.)

This article is part 3 of 4 that fully explain the Chinese writing system:

(The 4-part foundational series provides solid ground for actually learning Chinese! Visit our compendium of 3500 characters when you’re done with the series!)

In the 2nd article, on Types of Radicals and Their Application, I mentioned that improvised radicals are built from a small and special subset of indexing radicals: the single-stroke indexing radicals (radicals 1 through 5). That isn’t entirely true because the single-stroke indexing radicals aren’t all the strokes that exist in Chinese writing. By my last count, there are 7 stroke types in Chinese writing.

Let’s have a quick look at how and why we need a nomenclature for 7 stroke types, instead of relying on just 5 single-stroke indexing radicals (which aren’t enough) or on the somewhat official 32 Chinese writing strokes (which are cumbersome).

Visual Nomenclature, but insufficient labels

In the previous article, we looked at improvised radicals in the character ‘监’ (character 1883). The top-left improvised radical is built with 2 strokes ‘丨丨’, and the top-right improvised radical is built with 3 strokes ‘丿一丶’. Notice I used indexing radicals 1 (‘一’), 2 (‘丨’), 3 (‘丿’) and 4 (‘丶’) to visually describe the improvised radicals. We’ll term this visual nomenclature as our Visual Strokes nomenclature.

Our Visual Strokes nomenclature, while visually convenient, has only 5 labels. It is insufficient for describing all 7 stroke types in Chinese writing.

Here’s one example that demonstrates the insufficiency of the Visual Strokes nomenclature. It is a typical scenario where I (or you as a teacher yourself) try to reference the shapes in character ‘衣’ (character 520, also radical 142) in an attempt to explain useful mnemonics or possible etymologies therein.

The top segment of ‘衣’ is simple enough, represented by 2 strokes in the Visual Strokes nomenclature ‘丶’ (radical 4) and ‘一’ (radical 1). It also happens to be an indexing radical itself, ‘亠’ (radical 17).

But what about the bottom-left and bottom-right segments?

In the bottom-left, we see ‘丿’ (radical 3) and something like ‘丨’ (radical 2) but with an uptick at the end. We encounter one stroke that our Visual Strokes nomenclature can’t label.

In the bottom-right, we see a very short ‘丿’ (radical 3) and something else that is ‘㇏’ (Unicode code point 31CF) that looks like the mirror image of ‘丿’. Here is yet another stroke our Visual Strokes nomenclature can’t label.

We clearly need another way to label these strokes in Chinese writing.

Conventional Nomenclature is cluttered

We will still use our Visual Strokes nomenclature to visually describe shapes in Chinese writing, for ease of expression and reference. While there are only 5 single-stroke indexing radicals in our Visual Strokes nomenclature, there are some 32 Chinese writing strokes to contend with in the conventional nomenclature. (We will still need to address the fact that we need 7 labels to describe the 7 stroke types in Chinese writing. We’ll come to that soon.)

There aren’t that many stroke types in Chinese writing. The somewhat official 32 Chinese writing strokes can be boiled down to 7 definitive stroke types.

Image courtesy of https://baike.baidu.com/item/%E7%AC%94%E7%94%BB

Another reason we cannot use the 32 Chinese writing strokes to describe shapes in Chinese writing is because many of those strokes don’t display on our computer screens.

Many of the 32 Chinese writing strokes in conventional nomenclature aren’t supported by common fonts, and hence can’t be displayed on many computer screens.

The Chinese writing strokes are specified by Unicode code points 31C0 to 31E3 (minus some exceptions), but not all codes points for the Chinese writing strokes have fonts to display them on my Mac. For example, while ‘㇏’ (code point 31CF) is available in my Mac fonts, 31D9 is not. Therefore, we need an alternative lingo to refer to Chinese writing strokes.

7 Stroke Types

We now develop our own sufficient nomenclature for describing all shapes in Chinese writing: our 7 Stroke Types nomenclature.

The Chinese character ‘永’ (“forever”, character 324) happens to contain all 7 stroke types in Chinese writing. Native Chinese speakers of old had discovered this interesting phenomenon, and even documented it as early as the 9th century in China.

We only need 7 of the 8 traditionally recognized stroke types in character ‘永’ (“forever”). The 6th stroke type is a “bend”, which can be better represented by either the “throw” or the “press”. (See below for the full list of our 7 stroke types.)

Note that we have to invent our own English names to identify the stroke types because a literal translation from their Chinese names aren’t culturally familiar today. Also, the English names describe stroke direction (demonstrated later in section “Descriptive examples for 7 stroke types”), which also serves to teach you how to actually write the strokes.

Our own English names for the 7 stroke types double up as writing instruction because they describe “stroke direction”. Our 7 stroke types is a minimal set of strokes that cleanly identifies all Chinese writing stroke types.

The 7 stroke types, along with a mapping to our Visual Strokes nomenclature, follows. Note that the “press”, “rise” and “hook” have surrogate representations in our Visual Strokes nomenclature; no visual likeness exist for these stroke types.

  • right”: ‘一’ (radical 1)
  • down”: ‘丨’ (radical 2)
  • throw”: ‘丿’ (radical 3)
  • “press”: ‘㇏’ (Unicode code point 31CF)
    Surrogate representation: ‘丶` (radical 4)
    (Horizontal mirror image of the “throw”.)
  • dot”: ‘丶` (radical 4)
  • rise”: ‘㇀’ (Unicode code point 31C0)
    Surrogate representation: ‘丶` (radical 4)
    (Vertical mirror image of the “dot”.)
  • hook”: As seen in the bottom of ‘亅’ (radical 2.a)
    Surrogate representation: ‘乛’ (radical 5)
    (Horizontal mirror image of the “rise”.)

The above lingo should serve us well as we communicate Chinese writing shapes to one another in our discussions. The existing variety of lingos is a confusing mess, many of which contain cumbersome redundancies.

Although our 7 Stroke Types nomenclature isn’t visual, you should find it easy enough to memorize the labels and their visual counterparts. The small number should be much easier to memorize than the 32 in conventional nomenclature.

Our 7 Stroke Types nomenclature consists of “right”, “down”, “throw”, “press”, “dot”, “rise” and “hook”. 4 of the labels have precise relation to our Visual Strokes nomenclature. Only “press”, “rise” and “hook” are represented by surrogates because they have no visual likeness in that nomenclature.

We will next present a quick explanation of “stroke order” in writing Chinese characters, and then move on to give descriptive examples for illustrating the use of our 7 Stroke Types nomenclature.

Stroke order

A quick description of stroke order is required here, before we go on to study and learn our 7 Stroke Types nomenclature.

Chinese character writing has a stroke order that is:

  • Left to right
  • Top to bottom
  • Outside to inside

Actual examples will better illustrate stroke order. We dive into actually using our 7 Stroke Types nomenclature, so that we can learn both the stroke order and the nomenclature easily.

Descriptive examples for 7 stroke types

We’ll be using Chinese characters and radicals as descriptive examples.

Curves: The “throw” and the “press”

The “throw” ‘丿’ (radical 3) and the “press” ‘㇏’ (Unicode code point 31CF) need special explanation because they’re named after their writing effort, not their shape (curve).

The “throw” is written with a down-left throw for right-handed writers, throwing the pen’s tip away from the hand and arm.

The “press” is written with a down-right press for right-handed writers, quite literally pressing the pen’s tip towards (or “into”) the hand and arm.

The “throw” and “press” are named after their writing effort, not their shape. They are horizontal mirror images of each other.

The bottom-right segment of character ‘衣’ (“clothing”, character 520) has both the “throw” (a very short one) and the “press” (typical full length). Recall that stroke order is top-down, so the “throw” is written first before the “press”. (Stroke order for ‘衣’ at here.)

The bottom-right segment of character ‘衣’ (character 520) has both the “throw” (a very short one) and the “press” (typical full length).

The bottom-left segment also contains a “throw”, of typical full length.

In some cases, the “throw” can be vertical rather than slanted to the left. An example is in character ‘手’ (“hand”, character 121). The 1st stroke is also a “throw”, and it’s orientation is the conventional slant towards the left. The 4th stroke is a vertically oriented “throw”. (The 2nd and 3rd strokes are both “right”. Stroke order for ‘手’ at here. The 4th stroke is really a “throw-hook”, but we’ll explain the “hook” further below.)

In some cases, the “throw” can be vertical rather than slanted to the left. An example is in character ‘手’ (“hand”, character 121).

The “press” also has an alternative orientation: horizontal. An example is in character ‘心’ (“heart”, character 174). The 1st stroke, the left-most (because stroke order is left-right), is a very short “throw”. The 2nd stroke is a horizontal “press” (your font may display it as ‘乚’, Unicode code point 4E5A, but it’s really ‘㇃’, Unicode code point 31C3). (The 2nd stroke is really a “press-rise”, but we’ll explain the “rise” further below.)

At this point, we have an opportunity to witness the outside-inside stroke order in action. The top-most “dot” is the 3rd stroke because it is inside the horizontal “press”. Therefore, the horizontal “press” is written before the top-most “dot”. (Stroke order for ‘心’ at here.)

In some cases, the “press” can be horizontal rather than merely slanted to the right. An example is in character ‘心’ (“heart”, character 174).

Hooks and Rises

In our 7 Stroke Types nomenclature, “hooks” consistently face left and “rises” consistently face right. (The conventional nomenclature has hooks and rises facing inconsistent directions.)

“Hooks” face left, “rises” face right. They are horizontal mirror images of each other. In cases where orientation is rotated, “hooks” turn clockwise and “rises” turn anti-clockwise.

Going back to our example of character ‘心’ (character 174), the 2nd stroke is a “press-rise”. In character ‘手’ (character 121), the 4th stroke is a “throw-hook”.

For more straightforward examples that don’t involve rotation or curves, the variant radical ‘亅’ (radical 2.a) features a “down-hook” and the bottom-left segment of character ‘衣’ (“clothing”, character 520) features “press down-rise”.

In many cases, the “rise” can also stand alone, such as the 2nd stroke in ‘冫’ (radical 18). In such scenarios, the “rise” is never rotated.

(Stroke order for ‘冰’, “ice”, at here.)

The “rise” is visually related to the “dot” in that they are vertical mirror images of each other.

Putting it altogether

Using the character ‘永’ (character 324) to demonstrate our 7 Stroke Types nomenclature, we would describe the character shape as (in stroke order): “dot”, “right-down-hook”, “right-throw”, “throw press”. In Visual Strokes nomenclature, that would be:

  • ‘丶’ (indexing radical 4)
  • ‘一丨乛’ (or ‘一亅’) (indexing radicals: “1 2 5” or “1 2.a”)
  • ‘一丿’ (indexing radicals: “1 3”
  • ‘丿’, ‘丶’. (indexing radicals: “3”, “4”.)

(Stroke order for ‘永’ at here.)

Stress-test

Our 7 Stroke Types nomenclature should be able to robustly describe all shapes in Chinese writing. Let’s test it here!

I’ll now dissect a particularly difficult to explain character using our 7 Stroke Types nomenclature, to test the robustness of our system. Take a deep breath, sit down, and let’s dive in!

The character construction for ‘衣’ (“clothing”, also radical 142) has evolved so greatly from its original form that it is difficult to create mnemonics for it.

The top segment is simple enough. It also happens to be an indexing radical on its own, ‘亠’ (radical 17) which symbolizes a covering. So what does it cover?

The indexing radical ‘亠’ (radical 17) can mean “a cover (or lid)”.

The bottom-left segment has a shape that is “throw down-rise” (‘丿’, ‘丨丶’). Note how it can be morphed, with minimal imagination, into character ‘人’ (“person”, also radical 12).

The bottom-right segment has a shape that is “throw press” (‘丿’, ‘丶’). Note how it can also be morphed, with minimal imagination, into character ‘人’.

Together, the bottom segments originally looked something like ‘从’.

The bottom segments of character ‘衣’ (“clothing”) originally looked something like ‘从’ (2 “persons”, ‘人’).

Presumably, the original story behind the character ‘衣’ is that “clothing covers people from all walks of life”.

It’s not easy to remember how to morph ‘从’ into the bottom segments of ‘衣’, but the story still gives us one precious piece of mnemonic handle to use. In addition, our 7 Stroke Types nomenclature provides yet another mnemonic handle, one which directly guides our writing: “dot right”, “throw down-rise”, “throw press”.

Now that we have covered everything about radicals and their application, as well as their construction (with 7 stroke types), we’re fully equipped to dive into character construction at Chinese Writing: Character Construction Strategies!

This article is part 3 of 4 that fully explain the Chinese writing system:

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Jon Wong

Jon Wong

Jon writes technology tutorials, fantasy (a dream), linguistics (phonology, etymologies, Chinese), gaming (in-depth playthrough-based game reviews).