Consider the following characters, 牛 and 生. I know both are not exactly identical for sure.

According to the textbook I am using, the stroke orders are given as follows:

enter image description here

My question is why the third and fourth steps are different?

  • Do you mean why as in "How did they decide these on the stroke order for these kanji?", or why as in "Is there a simple rule I can remember to tell which way 牛 and 生 should be written?"
    – user1478
    Commented Jan 6, 2014 at 2:53
  • @snailplane: The former. Commented Jan 6, 2014 at 2:58

3 Answers 3


If you compare these two links:

http://www.vividict.com/WordInfo.aspx?id=2831 for 牛 and http://www.vividict.com/WordInfo.aspx?id=2512 for 生

you can see how these characters have evolved over time.

Basically, 牛 starts as the image of the face of a water cow with its horns. so the down stroke came last. Conversely, the life image emerged from 屮 and 土 at one point during its evolution so you write the parts that come from the top half first which means you wind up doing the down stroke as stroke 3 and then two horizontal strokes after that.

Sometimes these historical artifacts of how to write it are better preserved in Japanese than Chinese (esp. compared to mainland China).


I can only speculate, but Japanese (and Chinese which it is copied from) was traditionally written from top to bottom, so many characters are "optimized" for writing in this direction. Both | and _ are fine to end a character in the bottom, so the next one can be started without too much moving. That explains why character in left column is ended with |.

As for the character in the right, it feels smoother (try it with hand, imagine to have a brush in it) to write it as presented - you do not need to go up too much (if it was written as the left one, you would need to get up longer after the middle -).

But it is just a sort of 'reverse engineering' from the fact of the top-down writing direction. Maybe kanji stroke order has some more complicated and more formalized rules.

  • Actually, in Chinese we write both of these characters the left-hand-side way; i.e. we write 生 as 牛 + one stroke at the end. At least I write it that way ;)
    – ithisa
    Commented Jan 4, 2014 at 21:58
  • I wouldn't describe every character as optimized. Many characters are written in ways that seem strange now, because they are simplifications of more complex originals.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jan 4, 2014 at 23:32
  • @virmaior I changed it to "many characters". Not every, of course.
    – herby
    Commented Jan 6, 2014 at 7:57

There are many such exceptions. A nice example occurs already with the first-grade kanjis for "left" and "right".

migi hidari

Here it makes some sense, because you write the first two strokes of "left" from the right to the left, while you write the first two strokes of "right" from left to right, even though they look exactly the same. See also http://www.sljfaq.org/afaq/stroke-order.html for further examples. I don't know if it is possible (or helpful) to find an explanation for each exception. Btw, does somebody know which authority determines the "correct" stroke order?

  • 1
    The 文部省, I think.
    – user1478
    Commented Jan 6, 2014 at 3:11
  • 1
    This one is a special kind of maddening.
    – db2
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 14:07

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