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Culinary Chinese: It’s all in the Stroke…

CC All in the Stroke 1

Every single Chinese character is composed of a specific set of brush strokes that is formally prescribed both in form and number. Now… repeat that last sentence to yourself and digest it for a moment.

Chinese calligraphy is a fascinating subject in its own right but we won’t actually be spending too much time on it in these posts for a couple of reasons. First, I am pretty darn awful at drawing Chinese characters (and therefore in no way qualified to instruct others) and, secondly, this series of posts is more about reading, rather than writing. Still, that being said, we can’t completely ignore the rudiments of the latter if we are going to be any good at the former.

 As already discussed in our post ‘Look me up sometime…’, being able to look up Chinese characters in a dictionary is an essential skill and I asked you, in that post, to consider the ways that lists of characters might be organized. Kudos to those of you who then read ‘A Character Study…’ and guessed that the number of strokes in a given character might be a useful indexing method. As it happens, listing characters according to their ‘stroke count’ is just one of the ways of organizing them into dictionaries… 

CC All in the Stroke 2

In ‘Look me up sometime…’, I presented you with the characters in the first line of the above picture and asked you to sort them in to ‘order’. Here, now, you can also see what the same list would look like once sorted according to ‘stroke count’.


CC All in the Stroke 3

In order to be able to count the number of strokes in a character, you must first be able to identify the individual strokes themselves. In the above picture, the diagram on the left displays what are known as the ‘8 Basic’ strokes of Chinese Calligraphy. The character at the bottom of the diagram is typically used as an example of a character that employs all the basic strokes together.

The issue of stroke count is made a little more complex due to the fact that some more complex strokes can be made from combinations of the 8 basic ones. In the diagram at the right, all the shapes are drawn without lifting the brush from paper and thus are considered to be single strokes. Pay close attention to the particular shape at row 4 of column 4…


CC All in the Stroke 4

The picture above displays the Chinese characters for the numbers 1 through 4 (the last of which will be familiar to you already). The number of strokes in the first three characters are extremely easy to count but a little more tricky for the last. If you counted 6 strokes then take a look at the stroke form in row 4, column 5 of the previous picture once again. The top and right hand sides of the bounding box in the ‘

四’ character are formed by a single stroke and thus the correct stroke count for this character is actually 5.

 Exercise 1

CC All in the Stroke 5

Try your hand at counting the strokes in each of the above characters and then check your answers against the ones given at the end of the post.

If you managed to get them all correct then you really have done very well indeed. If, however, you were off by a stroke or two for one or more of the characters then don’t feel bad at all… The truth is, I routinely am off by at least one stroke when I encounter a complex character I have not seen before. This will almost certainly happen to you as well and becoming proficient at counting strokes is, you will find, something that comes with practice and familiarity.

CC All in the Stroke 6

The above picture shows what can be called a ‘stroke-order’ diagram for a familiar character. In calligraphy, not only is the number and form of the various strokes rigorously prescribed for a given character, the order in which they are drawn is also ‘set in stone’. This is obviously an important issue if you wish to start learning Chinese calligraphy but it is also important in another regard….

It has probably occurred to some of you that, though stroke counts are a useful means for organizing character lists, the value of it does have limits. In Exercise 1, the first two characters each share the same stroke count, as do the final two characters. Obviously, when we are dealing with collections of characters numbering in the hundreds, or perhaps thousands, you will inevitably end up with large numbers of characters for each given stroke count and, as you can probably guess, what is needed is some means of further ‘indexing’ the characters in each of these stroke-count groups.

CC All in the Stroke 7

One of my most-used Chinese dictionaries is contained within Reading and Writing Chinese, which is pictured above. This text is extremely useful and, if you plan to study Chinese characters in any depth at all, you will want to have a copy of this.

The reason I am mentioning the book here is because the dictionary it contains lists all characters by stroke-count and then further organizes them according to one of four possible ‘first-stroke’ types. As it happens though, this particular method of indexing is not that widely used and the ‘moral of the story’, if you will, is that, unlike the alphabetic system in English, Chinese dictionaries list characters according to different criteria. Accordingly, one must thus use different methods for looking things up. In a couple of weeks, we will look at an entirely different, and much more useful and commonly used classification system.

CC All in the Stroke 8

Finally, I am concluding today’s post with the extremely complex character you see above. The character, pronounced “biáng”, contains a staggering 58 strokes and is suitable for particular study as it is a ‘culinary character’. In the picture on the right, the sign outside the restaurant lists the “biáng” character twice, followed by another character we recently learned about. Can you decipher what dish is being served?

 Oh, and the answer to Exercise 1 is: 3, 3, 10, 8, 16, 14, and 14 strokes respectively.


6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Fascinating! You continue to educate me, in more ways than one. 🙂 Very cool.

    April 27, 2014
    • Thanks Lesley… It’s been a fun learning experience for me too 🙂

      April 27, 2014
  2. Another great lesson! Thank you.

    April 27, 2014
  3. Eha #

    A whole week late, but fascinating! Can understand, now have to learn. Will be filed 🙂 !

    May 4, 2014
  4. I’m not sure exactly why but this site is loading extremely slow
    for me. Is anyone else having this problem or is it a issue on my end?
    I’ll check back later and see if the problem still exists.

    May 10, 2014
    • Seems to be loading at regular speed for me (and I am travelling and not using my regular network or computer). Curious… the page is not heavily graphic and most of the pictures are fairly small size (less then .25Mb mostly, I think)….

      May 10, 2014

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