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The 8 Chinese Calligraphy Brush Strokes

    When I first started learning Chinese, I copied characters out just by looking at them.

    This was a mistake…

    I soon found that when tried to write characters on screens, it didn’t work. And when I wrote them on paper, Chinese people laughed…

    This is because Chinese writing is made up of a set number of strokes. These strokes don’t change. But luckily, unlike the Chinese language, they can be learned quickly!

    Let’s look at the basic strokes that make up the art/practice of Chinese calligraphy.

    What is a Chinese character stroke?

    A stroke is a basic unit of a Chinese character. Each stroke is essentially a single contact between brush and paper.

    To outsiders, Chinese characters look incredibly complicated. But they are actually relatively simple to write. This is because they are all made up of the same small set of strokes.

    Chinese character strokes can be grouped into three main categories:

    • Dots
    • Lines
    • Hooks  

    All strokes are confined to the same direction

    All Chinese strokes can be seen as starting at a central point and moving in one of five directions. 

    These include everywhere from north-east to south-west (so not including west, northwest or north). Or, to think of it like a clock: everywhere from 2 o’clock to 7 o’clock.

    Stroke orientation/direction

    What range of strokes do Chinese characters have?

    The simplest character has one stroke. It is, the character for ‘one’ itself: 一 yī.

    The character with the most strokes is the word for ‘verbose’, which has 64 strokes:

    Chinese character with most strokes zhé

    However, most characters only require a single digit number of strokes.

    Remember stroke order is essential

    Once you know the strokes, the next thing to learn will be stroke order. This is the order strokes must be written in for each character.

    In general, stroke orders usually start high up on the left and move rightwards and downwards. Or: top before bottom, left before right.

    This might sound complicated, but trust me: once you have practiced writing your first 20 or 30 characters, it becomes very easy and intuitive. 

    Soon (we are talking within weeks or months if you are studying full-time) you’ll see characters and immediately be able to correctly guess their stroke order most of the time.

    Chinese writing comes from Chinese calligraphy (or vice versa!)

    Before modern pens, Chinese was written with brushes. People who wrote simply needed ‘the four treasures of the scholar’s studio’ – a brush, ink, inkstone, and paper.

    The art of calligraphy eventually emerged from this. So, writing gave birth to calligraphy.

    From brushes to pens to pinyin

    Then things switched around… Chinese people began using modern pens to write with. Naturally, they used the same stroke order that had been used with brushes.

    And nowadays, like everywhere else in the world, the Chinese mainly use phones and laptops to write. 

    To do this, they largely use a form of predictive text, where they write out the character’s pinyin (it’s Romanised/Latin character sound) and then select the character from a list.

    The Chinese brush strokes you need to know for calligraphy

    Ok, now let’s get on with introducing the strokes. Naturally, these are used for both calligraphy and writing. 

    So, everything you see here done with a brush, can also be done with a pen. The main difference is that most pens don’t give as much flexibility to each stroke, so they will usually produce a more a more rigid version of it.

    The 8 basic brush strokes of Chinese calligraphy

    Chinese brush strokes can by categorised in several different ways. The most studied way is by using the eight components of the character for ‘eternal’(yǒng 永). This method was first put forward by the great Jin dynasty calligrapher Wang Xizhi (303AD – 361AD).

    Chinese character yong and its component strokes

    Below are the 8 main brush strokes divided into the three main groups. 

    As noted below, there are very slight variations of each stroke. But ultimately these basic strokes are what are used.

    1. Dot stroke (点)

    dot stroke chinese calligraphy

    The dot stroke (also known as the ‘sideways’ [侧] stroke) is a small dash created using short downward motion. It begins high up, flows downwards for a very brief moment, and then whips back up to an abrupt finish.

    The result is a small droplet-shaped figure.

    2. Horizontal stroke (横画)

    horizontal stroke chinese calligraphy

    The horizontal stroke (also known as the ‘bridle’ [stroke) is created by brushing ink from left to right. 

    At the very beginning and the very of the stroke, the brush should briefly reverse direction.

    The result doesn’t have to be a perfectly horizontal line. Horizontal strokes are often slightly risen on the right side – this gives them a slightly more artistic and free-flowing appearance.

    3. Vertical stroke (竖画)

    vertical stroke chinese calligraphy

    The vertical stroke (also known as the ‘striving’ [努] stroke) is created with a simple downward motion that ends by essentially flicking off to the left.

    4. Hook stroke (钩)

    hook stroke chinese calligraphy

    Hooks (also known as the ‘jumping’ [趯] stroke) are the part of the strokes that turns back on itself.

    5. Rising stroke (提)

    raising stroke chinese calligraphy

    The rising stroke (also known as the ‘horsewhip’ [策] stroke) travels upwards. It creates a shape not unlike a fang pointing upwards – thicker at the base and then sharpening down into a point. 

    The brush leaves the paper like a place taking off a runway.

    6. Curved stroke (弯)

    curved stroke chinese calligraphy

    The curved stroke (also known as the ‘sweeping past’ [掠] stroke) begins with an almost blotched point (where the brush first makes contact with the paper) and then swerves downwards. The brush is simply raised off paper at the end.

    7. Left-falling stroke (撇)

    Left falling stroke chinese calligraphy

    The left-falling stroke (also known as the ‘peck’ [啄] stroke) starts with a small blotch and then sharply draws downward before finishing on a sharp point.

    8. Right-falling stroke (波)

    Right falling stroke chinese calligraphy

    The right-falling stroke (also known as the ‘wave’ [] stroke or ‘dismemberment’ [] stroke – named after a method of execution) draws to the right downwards, widening out as goes, like a wave expanding as it spills across the shore.

    Variations of the main strokes

    The 8 main strokes can be expanded out into a total of 32 strokes.

    Example: (some) variations of the dot

    The dot alone has many variations, including (but not limited to) the following:

    • Leftward dots (xiàng zuǒ diǎn [向左点])
    • Rightward dots (xiàng yòu diǎn [向右点])
    • Vertical dot (zhí diǎn [直点])
    • Elongated dot (chǎng diǎn [长点])
    • Curved dot (qū bào diǎn [曲抱点])
    • Two-faced dot (liǎng xiàng diǎn [两向点])
    • Left-right dot (zuǒyòu diǎn [左右点])
    • Hooked dot (gōu diǎn [勾点])
    • Level dot (píng diǎn [平点])
    • Upward dot (xiàng shàng diǎn [向上点])
    • Miniscule dot (wēi diǎn [微点])
    • Beak dot (huì diǎn [喙点])

    Many of these variations come naturally once you have learned to write Chinese characters. You don’t need to know each individual one by name to be a competent calligrapher.

    The eight defective strokes (bā bìng [八病]) in Chinese Calligraphy

    At intermediate and advanced levels of calligraphy, the precise shape of each stroke is often emphasised and scrutinised.

    It varies according to what style of calligraphy is being used (see below, ‘Styles of calligraphy’), but generally speaking the precise dimensions of each stroke should be thick and thin in the right places.

    The eight defects are: 

    1.     Ox-head dot 

    2.     Mouse tail

    3.     Wasp waist 

    4.     Bamboo section

    5.     Water caltrop

    6.     Broken branch  

    7.     Stork leg

    8.     Pole for carrying fuel

    the eight defects of chinese calligraphy

    How to correct your Chinese calligraphy strokes

    Correcting your strokes comes with practice of the correct form.  

    It’s important to make sure that you are holding the brush properly, that your posture and focus are optimal.

    Just like with playing an instrument, or a sport, it takes many years of practice to achieve mastery. And if you aren’t a native Chinese speaker, it will be more difficult because you will probably be learning the characters as you go along.