While learning Mandarin, have you ever wondered about where Hanzi began? What about the fonts it comes in? If you think the writing system is complex, just wait until you learn the quantity of work that goes into creating various fonts for it! Hanzi’s exact origins remain unknown and are believed to date back to the 2nd millennium BC. That said, the earliest known inscriptions originated during the Shang Dynasty, an ancient Dynasty that ruled over China during the 18th to 12th centuries BC. Characters would be inscribed onto pieces of bone and turtle under-shells and used for ocular deviation. Many of these etchings, known as “oracle bones,” have survived to this day and are estimated to date back to at least the 13th century BC if not earlier, which is around the same time the Greeks sailed for Troy in the onset of the Trojan war.
Over time, these etchings evolved and changed to eventually become the Chinese characters we know today. The most significant historical shift happened during the Qin Dynasty in the second century BC: this dynasty unified the many writing systems of the area into a single system. The next major shift came much more recently in the 1950s when communist China simplified the writing system to make it more accessible. The conventional reader is said to need to know around 2,000 characters to understand a newspaper, and about a thousand more for the average novel today.
Guān: mountain pass, to close, to shut, to turn off, to concern, to involve
With the evolution of scripts and technology, computers brought a new aspect to the writing arena: fonts. We read all the time, however, have you ever paused to wonder how the fonts we read and write in are produced, especially in a language with thousands of characters? Believe it or not, producing a font for the Chinese script is incredibly difficult and a multi-year long process. Although font diversity is considerably more difficult in a language with a writing system of such scale, better technologies for the design, display, and transmission of fonts mean more and better Chinese fonts are on the way.
Consider the symbol “a”. This “a” design for a font is known as a “glyph”. In Chinese, each character is a “glyph”—for instance, 水 (spoken “shui” for “water”). English-language fonts are usually comprised of around 230 glyphs. A font that covers all of the Latin scripts—meaning over 100 languages—typically only requires as little as 840 glyphs. That said, the simplified version of Chinese already requires nearly 7,000 glyphs. Traditional Chinese goes all the way up to 13,053 glyphs. It takes six months to create a new font that covers dozens of Western languages for a single designer, yet, Chinese fonts require teams of workers and can still require two or more years.
The first phase in creating a new font is a research phase. In most cases, the research phase takes a full year in and of itself. This process begins developing a hypothetical idea for a new font and then builds on it until a set of a few hundred characters has been created. This set then creates a precedent moving forward. Latin typefaces are designed in a similar way, but the scale is much smaller. However, another aspect that is important to remember with latin typefaces is singularity. A latin font can be developed by one person and therefore more easily stick to one person’s vision. Chinese fonts, however, must maintain uniformity even though they are developed by teams of people.
As with Latin fonts, a crucial initial decision is to determine which font “style” to use. Chinese has two main styles, called Mingti and Heiti, akin to the serif and sans-serif of Latin. Heiti is a bit like sans-serif: clean, straight lines without extra ornamentation at the ends. Mingti is similar to serif, with extra embellishment at the end of strokes that gives it a more bookish feel.
Underlying all of this is the goal of identifying an opportunity in the market. In other words, you don’t want to design a font unless you are sure users will want to use it. Although characters can be broken down into strokes and radicals, these radicals and strokes are not supposed to be identical in all characters. For instance, just have a look at the various uses of the radical 言 (spoken “yan” for “speech”). Even in cases where it is in the same position, such as the left half of the character, the stroke weights and shapes can be slightly different.
However, despite all these difficulties, there are hundreds of millions of Chinese-speaking internet users, many of whom want font alternatives. Furthermore, a big change in technology was the ability to distribute fonts through the web. Users no longer need to have the font registered on their computer to be able to see it when online. Most importantly, however, is that customers are willing to pay to have access to these fonts.
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If you want to learn more about fonts and Chinese character writing, you can also check out these resources:
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