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(No.16) Chinese Font Transition

Characters and strokes

Characters have been a main means of communication for eons. We now have two kinds: phonograms and ideograms. In general, each phonogram represents a phoneme and an ideogram represents both meaning and phonetic representation. As the number of phonemes or syllables is limited, meaningful words can be created with a small number of symbols. Here, we'll call those symbols a character. The only practical descriptive way to depict a character is using strokes, drawing the character with line segments. A meaningful character set is called a word, which is used to compose a linear structured sentence. Most typically, a sentence comprises characters aligned horizontally as in English or vertically as in classic Chinese or Japanese. In general, horizontal sentences prefer characters with more vertical strokes than horizontal strokes; conversely vertical sentences prefer the opposite. This can be clarified by the simple experiment shown in Fig. 1. There are more horizontal strokes than vertical strokes in Kanji (Japanese character) or Hanzi (Chinese character), and the method is effective for the characters to align vertically.

Fig. 1 Horizontal writing and vertical writing

Fig. 1 Horizontal writing and vertical writing

The shape of a Chinese character (Chinese font) has become standardized along with common usage for social activities like knowledge acquisition and information transfer over 2000 years. The only writing medium in early times was assembled bamboo or wooden plates, which required characters to be written vertically. People write sentences a character at a time, which requires painstaking effort. As the volume of information increases, efficient writing becomes more important, encouraging people to adopt a more efficient writing style, called cursive style. Compared to Western calligraphy, which uses special tools like a pen or pallet, Chinese calligraphy requires only a brush, but a lot of skill. As the population grows more literate, more and more people enjoy reading, which explains why accomplished calligraphers were held in high regard. Some have even been respected as artists or intelligentsia.

Characters changed nature from writing to reading

In Asia, only the brush was used for writing. People manipulated the brush to produce myriad complicated characters, which meant only a few people could write. A small number of specialists were able to produce beautiful characters efficiently. As a result, Chinese characters evolved to be elegant from the standpoint of both reading and writing. This practical style was established around the late Han Dynasty.

In the 19th century, Chinese characters evolved again to meet wider requirements for usage. They had to be easy to write and easy to read, even for non specialists. So that the masses could use them, simplified fonts were invented in both in Japan and China. People still kept, however, to vertically aligned sentences.

Here, another requirement was added for printed documents. Modern fonts must match modern contents, with a wide variety of descriptive power that includes scientific expression or even foreign languages. Printing technology allows documents to be accessed by anyone. At this stage, a printed document covers wide ranging applications.

In modern society, fonts used for printed documents are designed for reading rather than writing. It is reasonable that characters are used mostly for reading. The writing method has completely changed. We no longer need to draw strokes. We just tap at the keyboard or talk to the computer.

Chinese characters, which were originally designed for vertical sentences, have certain rules to make the fonts looks beautiful. One famous law says "the center of gravity for each character should be well aligned along a vertical line" (c.f., Keinosuke Satoh, Series of "Font Designing" (in Japanese), Maruzen Pub. Co.). Printed fonts can also be designed to comply with this law. This means that Chinese calligraphy still sticks to vertical writing even now. In Fig. 3, the center of gravity, represented by a red circle, should be aligned along one straight vertical line.

Globalization and fonts for readers

We now share information all over the world. Any language must be able to describe other languages and characters. As a result, we need a common way to describe information.

Japanese representation has been modified from vertical description to horizontal since the 19th century by adopting new fonts to match the trend. This change was much quicker in China. After the New China was born, with most printed matter like newspapers or magazines, written description changed from vertical to horizontal. At the same time, new simplified fonts were introduced. Chairman Mao had a strong interest in fonts, partly because he was proud of his calligraphy. Simplified characters are based on the cursive style, which is good for writing. One of the best examples is the word "ma"; the original font requires ten strokes but the new one needs just three (Fig. 2). During the 1950s and 1960s, font design changed a lot as the horizontal descriptive style progressed.

Fig. 2 Difference between old characters and new characters

Fig. 2 Difference between old characters and new characters

A few weeks ago, we visited one of China's largest newspaper publishers called the China Youth Daily and had a chance to see font design changes over the past 60 years. A synopsis is shown in fig. 3. In this figure, red squares indicate circumscribed rectangles, and red circles inside the rectangle show the approximate center of gravity for each character.

Fig. 3 Font design changes in Chinese newspapers

Fig. 3 Font design changes in Chinese newspapers

Here are some things we concluded from what we saw:

    1. 1.
    If a font for vertical use is used for horizontal sentences, some of the character lines seemed wavy. This problem is more striking with simplified characters. You can easily identify the effect by looking at the uppermost line of Fig. 3 ( *
    ). This side effect is reduced by introducing new fonts.
    1. 2.
    In western fonts, a horizontal character line needs to be well aligned based on circumscribed rectangles. Traditional Chinese fonts don't care about this requirement, as seen in the 3rd line of Fig. 3. The modern character for *
    extends its size to match that of the adjacent character.
    1. 3.
    Traditionally, horizontal strokes are thinner than vertical strokes. The difference in modern fonts, however, is less.
    1. 4.
    Fonts have elongated vertically in recent years.

Since China took only 50 years to move to simplified characters, it adjusted quickly to horizontal description, which dominates printed documents. This trend may continue in the future and, eventually, fonts will not comfortably fit in vertical sentences.

Japanese printing professionals, on the other hand, often claim that vertical Japanese fits well in any page layout design. Sometime ago, a popular science magazine called Kagaku Asahi (Asahi Scientific Magazine), which used to be most popular science magazine for general readers, changed its page layout from vertical description to horizontal. Readers rejected the new page layout and the publisher immediately returned to the original style. Even now, Japanese newspapers keep to the vertical layout. We can say that the Japanese publishing community prefers to stay with vertical font layout.

In the 1970s, when Asahi Shimbun (Asahi Newspaper) introduced electronic printing, it changed the font to fit vertical layout by squeezing font height. I agree that the new font looks much better when compared side by side with the old one. Many other publishers followed suit.

Future font design

During in the spring of 2006, I walked around Beijing looking at various font styles. Although the fonts I collected are limited, they show that current fonts are evolving toward the framed based style; i.e., the circumscribing frame is an imaginary frame that expands to full size. Some of the examples in Fig. 4 show characters elongated vertically to fit the horizontal character line layout. One of the signboards along a sidewalk shows a wide font, which should be designed to be observed from an angle. It looks good.

Fig. 4 Font design changes in outdoor advertisement

Fig. 4 Font design changes in outdoor advertisement

In general, a new culture clearly appears in art. Beijing is one of the most competitive cities in the world of art. The new Chinese calligraphy just happened to attract my attention (Fig. 5). Although Chinese characters have more horizontal strokes than vertical strokes, the modern font has a similar number of strokes in both directions. This may be the emerging trend to fit multidirectional description. You may find similarities between this font and the Western alphabet.

Fig. 5 New Chinese calligraphy

Fig. 5 New Chinese calligraphy (by Mr. Qian Liqun lives in Chengde Hebei Province, China)
(* This calligraphy is published upon the author's approval.)

I deeply appreciate Ms. Mei Hui for helping me collect font samples from newspapers.

(Ej, 2006.04)