A friend asked me for a brief description of the general guidelines for writing Chinese characters. What are the simplest ways to describe those "rules" that apply across most characters?
The best place to start is with the Wikipedia entry on stroke order. It lists these guidelines, along with more detail and some nice animated examples:
- Write from top to bottom, and left to right.
- Horizontal before vertical
- Diagonals right-to-left before diagonals left-to-right
- Center before outside in vertically symmetrical characters
- Enclosures before contents
- Left vertical before enclosing
- Bottom enclosures last
- Dots and minor strokes last
In my experience, you don't need to panic about the details of each character, and there is sometimes disagreement about the "correct" order. If you learn the general guidelines, you won't usually make embarrassing mistakes. If you do want to see the details of a specific character, there are lots of on-line resources. Here are the two I most often use:
- MDBG.net - Type the pinyin and press enter, then click on the character you want. Finally, hover over the >> arrow and click on the brush to see a stroke order animation.
- zhongwen.com - Use the search page to find the character you want, then scroll to the bottom and click on the "Animated" link to see a different stroke order animation.
Although those are the two I use most often, the stroke order reference I find most beautiful and readable is the Wikimedia Commons Stroke Order Project, specifically, the Black and White images. Here's an example:
They're much easier for me to use than an animation, because they are static images. I can scan back and forth with my eye, instead of waiting for the animation to cycle through. I used them as the inspiration for my Mnemosyne flash card files. Mine aren't quite as pretty, because they are automatically generated, but they have the added feature of a grid to guide your stroke placement.