How are strokes composed to make up a Chinese character?

For someone raised on Latin or Latin like alphabets, Chinese characters look very complex (and they are).

There must be some rules to exclude every possible combination of strokes, leaving only the "good" ones, as otherwise no one would be able to handle this.

Are there any formal rules, or how else can I start an understanding?

If this is a silly question or one that has already been asked and answered, I will delete this question.

  • A simple search in Google for "Chinese characters strokes" would help you understand how many types of strokes there are and the basic rule of stroke order
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Apr 22 at 18:29
  • @TangHo Thank you, this is helping. But then, Google searches are ever changing. I have made a down-lode of the current article. Commented Apr 22 at 18:33
  • 1
    I think, we may ask, "Why are there only vowels and consonants in Latin type languages?" a is a, however you pronounce it, ay, eh, or ah ( you don't know till you see the word), but consonants (= with sounding letters) cannot be spoken without a vowel. b = be, c = see, d = dee. If Latin-based languages wrote words as they speak the letters, spelling would be, at least, difficult. "ough" has many pronunciations in English, without any indication of what it should sound like. For someone raised on Chinese, Latin-based languages look very complex, and they are!
    – Pedroski
    Commented Apr 22 at 22:19
  • @Pedroski Consonants obviously can be pronounced without vowels. There are words without vowels. E.g. in English: hmm; single-consonant prepositions in several Slavic languages: k, s, v, z; Czech and Slovak also have nouns with syllabic [l̩] or [r̩], e.g. krk, vlk.
    – Arfrever
    Commented Apr 23 at 3:03
  • I'm afraid I cannot agree: At the very least, to say any consonant, you will at least need to also say a schwa, "ə". That's why they are called 'consonants".
    – Pedroski
    Commented Apr 23 at 5:03

3 Answers 3


I don't think it's a silly question, but it's very broad in scope and difficult to answer, but I will try to do so.

I think the focus on strokes is mistaken, but it's an easy mistake to make and probably the biggest misconception about Chinese characters among Westerners. I don't think native Chinese would think of the strokes at all when composing a character, unless it was specifically relevant such as when doing calligraphy. When I started learning characters I had to memorize each stroke to begin with, one after the other, but after a certain point it wasn't necessary any more and I stopped doing it.

A character like 好 is composed of two parts: 女 and 子. In this case the components are themselves simpler characters, but they don't need to be. If someone asked how to write the character 好, the answer would be something like: "Female side radical, with 'child'." This is the equivalent of "spelling" for Chinese characters. Unlike English, the components can be placed above, below or around each other, not only alongside.

By analogy, words in English could also seem to be composed of strokes for someone not familiar with the Latin alphabet (and indeed they are) but focusing on this would create confusion. We also never think about the strokes, we think about the letters or letter groups. When I read words such as thought, through, rough, tough, dough, sough I see a a letter group in common (ough) with a few different letters that can go in front of it or behind. So for me even though each of these words has a moderately complex and non-intuitive spelling (and a non-trivial stroke count), I only need to memorize two or at most three "components" which I happen to already know. Which is not at all dissimilar to the way Chinese characters are learned!

I don't know if there are formal "rules", but I believe the number of "components" for Chinese characters is in the low hundreds and it's probably comparable with the number of letter groups in English. If you learned to read Chinese characters in a formal setting you would quickly start to recognize that a lot of the time, new characters you encounter are made of parts of other characters that you already know how to write. This means that learning is hardest at the beginning but gets exponentially easier the more characters you learn and you would start to notice this effect after maybe 50 or so.

  • Quote:- "This means that learning is hardest at the beginning but gets exponentially easier the more characters you learn and you would start to notice this effect after maybe 50 or so" I suppose this applies to learning any language as a second language, or learning to drive a car. Everything is easy or at least learnable with patient practice. I think the problem of non-native adults learning Chinese is that they tend to jump straight into complex characters too early, unlike native children who start and stay with the simplest of characters, building up gradually over many years. Commented Apr 23 at 2:28
  • “英文字母也是由笔画构成”,这话不假。但是,到了单词的层次,就完全是由字母组成了。复杂词汇也是由部件(词头,词干,词尾)组成。英文的这些组合完全是一维直线的。但是汉字不同。汉字直接是笔画构成,没有字母这个层次,而且是二维平面的。即使使用部件,也是笔画和部件结合使用。学习汉字比学习英语单词要难得多。美国小孩子在六岁时可以阅读英文书籍,中国小孩子六岁可以阅读拼音书籍,但是要到十岁才能阅读汉字书籍。
    – PdotWang
    Commented Apr 23 at 10:27
  • ough, yes, in the part of the world that uses Latin alphabet, it is sometimes difficult to make sense of a combination of letters. American English is an extreme case. The Romans encountered tribes from the east (east of Rome) who did not have an alphabet of their own (or it was weakly developed). The languages in concern had different phonemes where the Latin alphabet had no counterpart. That was cured by diacritics or compositions of letters, such as "sh" or "kh", but causes much confusion to speakers of other langues using the same (basic) alphabet. Commented Apr 23 at 21:04
  • 1
    ough, yes, in the part of the world that uses Latin alphabet, it is sometimes difficult to make sense of a combination of letter To be honest most letter combinations in English don't really make sense, you just have to memorise them. In theory a phonetic alphabet should be easy, but in practice I feel even if it is easier than Chinese it's probably not that much easier. Commented Apr 23 at 21:17
  • 1
    Main reasons why English spelling is seemingly nonsensical and reform is unlikely are: 1. Many conventions of English spelling are based on pronunciation from about 15th century, before some major phonological changed occurred (e.g. Great Vowel Shift). 2. No institution to govern English language (unlike Académie Française for French language or Real Academia Española for Spanish language). 3. Many divergent dialects of English language.
    – Arfrever
    Commented Apr 23 at 22:10

You might like this Site: https://tmrc.tiec.tp.edu.tw/html/rsr20081105093736a6g/sixbook.htm

It show how Chinese Words is created.

General speaking, there are exist 6 methods.

For beginner, try to focus on the first one, 象形 (Pictogram?) it depends on the graphic of the object.

Or, you might try to google keyword: "象形字典 象形文字查詢"

  • 把“汉字六书”翻译成“六本书”,是错误的。
    – PdotWang
    Commented Apr 23 at 10:13
  • Dear James, when I ask how to compose strokes to make up characters, how could you even get the idea that I could even recognize the characters in your link, even less extract their meaning? Commented Apr 23 at 20:51
  • @PdotWang 抱歉,英文不好,不知道該怎樣翻譯比較正確
    – James
    Commented Apr 24 at 0:44
  • There's somebody create a online dictionary of Chinese words. You might interest about it: Chinese Word Dictionary ... Beware it only allow you to use it once per day .
    – James
    Commented Apr 24 at 0:57
  • @GyroGearloose Exactly , when we start to learn Chinese words, we have no ideal about this relactionship yet. After learning 5 or 6 years, we just study the relaction first time. But I think it's much fun for learning Chinese word with somebody. And you might easy to memorize it if you know how it be created.
    – James
    Commented Apr 24 at 1:07






Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.