Note: This post is by Harvey Dam. He’s writing a book on Chinese handwriting, so if you like this and want to see more, or if you have any questions or suggestions, please leave a comment and let us know! For more of Harvey’s thoughts on handwriting, check out his series over at Hacking Chinese. And if you like his handwriting, check out our Semantic Components Posters, which feature his handwriting!
This post is about handwriting, specifically how components are aligned in regular script (楷書/楷书), the most common Chinese script style, and probably the one you’re most familiar with.
Now, if you think you might have missed some introductory articles about handwriting, you haven’t. I am sort of jumping into the middle of things instead of starting at the very beginning. However I will give you a little bit of background information to put it into proper context.
Regular script is, at the most basic level, made up of strokes. A stroke is a mark that your writing instrument makes on the writing surface. They look like this:
There is a finite number of different strokes, and writing one versus another in the same context can make the difference between two different characters. As for the number of different strokes, it depends on whom you ask. Most say there are about ten basic strokes, although you could argue that there are seventeen, or only one.
Regular script developed in an environment where brushes dominated. Because of this, it’s arguably easier to write regular script strokes with a brush than with anything else. However, regular script can also be written correctly with other writing instruments, like a pencil. For example, I’ll reproduce the above brush strokes in pencil here:
I will be using a pencil for example characters in this post. That’s all I will say about strokes for now.
Many of our blog posts have been about paleography, and if you haven’t noticed, this post isn’t about paleography. Therefore, I want to clarify what a component is in this context. In short, a component is a stroke group. If a set of strokes are grouped in a certain arrangement, then their relationship with each other doesn’t change, while the whole group can be moved or transformed. If any of you have done graphic design, object grouping follows the same concept. Here are some examples of stroke groups:
The first group is simply two strokes. The second group is made of eight strokes. I can merge the first two groups together to form the third stroke group. Finally, in the fourth example, I add a bunch of strokes to the left to form a new group. Now, some of you might see that this is different from how components are identified when studying paleography, especially with the above example, where one might say that there is a character 旗, composed of two components 㫃 and 其.
How components are aligned
There are two ways in which components can be aligned: horizontally or vertically.
I understand if that seems oversimplified. If you’ve studied any Chinese, you likely know of characters where components seem to wrap around each other in various ways, overlap, and float around each other in no obvious pattern. After you see a few examples, you might see how all of these can be reduced to matters of horizontal and/or vertical alignment.
All components have a center. The center of a component can be identified by the types of strokes that compose it, their intersections, and the spaces between them. It’s also possible that experience looking at Chinese characters can affect the identification of the center of a component (the Müller-Lyer illusion comes to mind). The center of a component is not necessarily the point between the farthest “pixels” in any direction. Component centers are used to align components with each other, and to align characters with the center vertical line in a line of text (ignored when writing horizontally).
I’ll go into detail about component centers elsewhere; it’s a whole other topic. For now, I’ll mark the center of each component with a red dashed circle.
Components are aligned when their centers are aligned. And remember that they can only be aligned horizontally or vertically. This doesn’t mean that they must be aligned exactly; I’m just describing a basic property of regular script. Small variances occur in real-world writing. (In most people’s handwriting, including mine, “horizontal” things go up to the right.)
Using the previous example, I’ll mark the centers of components, and use a red line to show how they’re aligned.
How is this information useful? Because there are only two ways that two components can be aligned, upon encountering a new character, you can more easily understand how its components are arranged. For example, 森 is not an arrangement of three components, but two: 木 on the top and 林 on the bottom, aligned vertically.
(This also happens to correspond with the character’s etymology.)
Also, when writing characters, you can more easily separate what matters from what doesn’t. Consider 往:
(BTW, this variant preceded the one with the dot on the upper right.) I’ve pointed out that the two components are aligned horizontally. Now, with some intuition about how their centers were determined, you can presume that a few things don’t matter: how far the second stroke goes to the left, the spacing of the horizontal strokes, the length of the horizontal strokes, maybe even the length of the vertical stroke on the right. Let’s change a few things and see if it still looks correct:
I made the second stroke longer, some horizontal stroke longer, the last one shorter. It didn’t change the alignment of the two components; the character still looks correct.
Also, an understanding of how components can be arranged allows you to more easily write certain characters. Let me show you a few characters that are easily misunderstood, but before that, let me show you one proof of concept that stroke groups can share strokes:
OK, moving on.
(Both components’ centers are in the same place in this case.)
I hope this was informational. It was a rather general topic. Future posts may be more specific, perhaps about certain characters or graphical features, or may not be about handwriting at all, depending on what you want and what I feel like writing. If you have any requests, be sure to put them in the comments. I’m currently writing a book all about regular script and its execution, so practically it’s about Chinese handwriting. Its contents will be stuff like this, but in more detail, with more supporting structure, and with exercises. Feel free to make suggestions on it.