The number of strokes per character for most characters is between one and thirty, but the number of strokes in some obscure characters can reach as many as seventy. As such, official stroke order was devised to help speed, fluidity, and accuracy in composition. In the twentieth century, took place in mainland China, greatly reducing the number of strokes in some characters, and a similar but more moderate simplification also took place in Japan. The basic rules of stroke order within each language, however, remained the same.
The rules for stroke order evolved to facilitate , to maximize ease of writing and reading, to aid in producing uniform characters, and – since a person who has learned the rules can infer the stroke order of most characters – to ease the process of learning to write. They were also influenced by the highly cursive Grass Script style of .
Because writing characters in the normalised stroke order can greatly facilitate learning and memorization, children are required to learn and use correct stroke order in school; adults, however, may ignore or forget the normalised stroke order for certain characters, or develop idiosyncratic ways of writing. While this is rarely a problem in day-to-day writing, in calligraphy, stroke order is vital; incorrectly ordered or written strokes can produce a visually unappealing or, occasionally, incorrect character, particularly in styles such as Grass Script, in which individual strokes are often combined in fluid motions without lifting the brush from the paper. Also, the accuracy of handwriting recognition software may be reduced when entering strokes out of order.
The Eight Principles of Yong uses the single character 永, meaning "eternity", to teach the eight most basic strokes.
Stroke order per style
In ancient China, the carved on ox scapula and tortoise plastrons showed no indication of stroke order. The characters show huge variations from piece to piece, sometimes even within one piece. During the divination ceremony, after the cracks were made, the characters were written with a brush on the shell or bone . Although the brush-written stroke order is not discernible after carving, there exists some evidence that it was not entirely idiosyncratic: a few of the characters, often marginal administrative notations recording the provenance of the shells or bones, were not later recarved, and the stroke order of these characters tends to resemble traditional and modern stroke order . For those characters which were later engraved into the hard surface using a knife, perhaps by a separate individual, there is evidence that in at least some cases all the strokes running one way were carved, then the piece was turned, and strokes running another way were then carved .
With the development of '''' and '''' we continue to see "cursive" signs which also do not indicate a clear stroke order. Moreover, it is evident that each archaic kingdom of current China had its own set of characters.
In Imperial China, the graphs on old steles — some dating from 200 BCE, and in Xiaozhuan style — start to reveal tiny indications of the stroke order of the time.
About 220 BCE, the emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first to conquer all China, imposed several reforms, among them Li Si's character uniformisation, which created a set of 3300 standardized ''Xiǎozhuàn'' characters. However, stroke order could still not yet be ascertained from the steles, and no paper from that time is extant.
The true starting point of stroke order is the which is more regularized, and in some ways similar to modern text. In theory, by looking the Lìshū style steles' graphs and the placement of each stroke, we can see hierarchical priority between the strokes, which indicates the stroke order used by the calligrapher or stele sculptors.
— still in use today — is more regularized, allowing clearly to guess the stroke order used to write on the steles. It can be seen that the stroke order 1000 years ago was similar as that at the end of Imperial China. By example, the stroke order of 广 is clear in the Kangxi dictionary of 1716; but in a modern book, the official stroke order will not appear clearly. The Kangxi and current shapes have tiny differences, while current stroke order is still the same, according to old style.
Cursive styles and hand-written styles
Cursive styles such as '''' and '''' show stroke order very clearly, as each move made by the writing tool is visible. However, calligraphic stroke order does not always follow standard stroke order.
Native writers, moreover, create their own stroke order rules for their own use, with some tiny differences with the official stroke order taught in school.
Stroke order per polity
While the majority of characters are written in exactly the same stroke order everywhere, the "official" stroke order of Chinese characters varies from country to country because calligraphic styles evolved differently in Imperial China, Modern and Communist China, Japan, and Korea.
* Traditional stroke order: Imperial China, in China from 1911 to 1949, modern Taiwan and Hong Kong. This system of stroke order follows the rules of traditional Chinese and Chinese Grass Style calligraphy.
* Japanese stroke order: Modern Japan and Korea. This stroke order follows the traditions of Japanese calligraphy and Japanese Grass Style. The occupation of Korea by Japan , and their close intellectual and artistic exchanges meant that they developed similar calligraphies and now follow the same stroke order. Some Japanese kanji were reformed in 1946.
* Modern stroke order: Modern Mainland China . The Chinese government in 1956, and also reformed the stroke order of some characters. A notable "innovation" of this stroke order reform was the conception of a "horizontal writing" stroke order, to facilitate horizontal writing.
1. Write from left to right, and from top to bottom
As a general rule, characters are written from left to right, and from top to bottom. For example, among the first characters usually learned is the number one, which is written with a single horizontal line: 一. This character has one stroke which is written from left to right.
The character for "two" has two strokes: 二. In this case, both are written from left to right, but the top stroke is written first. The character for "three" has three strokes: 三. Each stroke is written from left to right, starting with the uppermost stroke:
This rule applies also to more complex characters. For example, 校 can be divided into two. The entire left side is written before the right side . There are some exceptions to this rule, mainly occurring when the right side of a character has a lower enclosure , for example 誕 and 健. In this case, the left side is written first, followed by the right side, and finally the lower enclosure.
When there are upper and lower components, the upper components are written first, then the lower components, as in 品 and 襲.
2. Horizontal before vertical
When strokes cross, horizontal strokes are usually written before vertical strokes: the character for "ten," 十, has two strokes. The horizontal stroke 一 is written first, followed by the vertical stroke → 十.
3. Cutting strokes last
Vertical strokes that "cut" through a character are written after the horizontal strokes they cut through, as in 車 and 中.
Horizontal strokes that cut through a character are written last, as in 母 and 海.
4. Diagonals right-to-left before diagonals left-to-right
Right-to-left diagonals are written before left-to-right diagonals : 文.
5. Centre verticals before outside "wings"
Vertical centre strokes are written before vertical or diagonal outside strokes; left outside strokes are written before right outside strokes: 小 and 水.
6. Outside before inside
Outside enclosing strokes are written before inside strokes; bottom strokes are written last: 日 and 口. This applies also to characters that have no bottom stroke, such as 同 and 月.
7. Left vertical before enclosing
Left vertical strokes are written before enclosing strokes. In the following two examples, the leftmost vertical stroke is written first, followed by the uppermost and rightmost lines : 日 and 口.
8. Bottom enclosing strokes last
Bottom enclosing strokes are always written last: 道, 週, 画.
9. Dots and minor strokes last
Minor strokes are usually written last, as the small "dot" in the following: 玉.
Traditional Chinese stroke order
* by the Taiwan Ministry of Education. Book available online . ISBN 957-00-7082-X
Japanese stroke order
* Hadamitzky, Wolfgang & Mark Spahn. ''A Handbook of the Japanese Writing System''. Charles E. Tuttle Co. ISBN 0-8048-2077-5.
* Henshall, Kenneth G. ''A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters''. Charles E. Tuttle Co. ISBN 0-8048-2038-4.
* O'Neill, P.G. ''Essential Kanji: 2,000 Basic Japanese Characters Systematically Arranged for Learning and Reference''. Weatherhill. ISBN 0-8348-0222-8.
* Pye, Michael ''The Study of Kanji: A Handbook of Japanese Characters''. Hokuseido Press. ISBN 0-8934-6232-2.
** Includes a translation of the Japanese Ministry of Education rules on Kanji stroke order.
* Keightley, David N. . Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 0-520-02969-0
Traditional Chinese stroke order
* with animated stroke order, by the Ministry of Education, R.O.C. .
Modern Chinese stroke order
* - Free Online Chinese character stroke order animations for over 5000 frequently used Chinese characters with pronunciations, example words, writing worksheet generation and character learning flashcards.
* , from the California State University, Long Beach
* - unknown number of animations.
* Online query of stroke order animations.
* Complete set of Online Stroke Order Animation, together with Dictionary from CEDICT and HANDEDICT
Japanese Kanji and Korean Hanja stroke order
* , from the Engineering Department of New Mexico Tech, Socorro.
*, 3205 Kanji with stroke order.
*, a free interactive online tool for learning Japanese kanji, featuring 1235 hand-written stroke order animations.
*, 1,513 Japanese kanji stroke order diagrams and animations, freely downloadable under license.
*, 6,373 Japanese kanji stroke order diagrams presented as a TrueType font.