No matter what the form of writing, calligraphy or type, from the micro to the macro view, the square is the spirit behind Hanzi.
History of the Square
Writing within the square, by Qing calligrapher Yao Meng Qi
As I wrote in a previous post, the pictographic origin of Hanzi meant that it evolved into an ideographic script. But at that point it still held a very human, lively and vibrant aesthetic. There were always people attempting to regulate Hanzi, however it was not until Hanzi matured, during the rise of Kaishu in the Tang Dynasty (‘Kai’（楷）means “regulation” and “system”) that the square came into existence. It is rumoured that the Tang Dynasty’s calligraphy grandmaster, Oh-Yang Sheun (Ou Yangxun), invented the square grid to form a loose regulation of Hanzi’s structure, consistency and readability. His legendary calligraphic works have been used constantly as models for practice, for at least a thousand years, and continue to be used in the present day.
Philosophy Behind the Square
Calligraphy writing based on the ‘米’ square
I recently read a book about the aesthetic of Chinese calligraphy, and although I’m not sure of the authenticity behind this, it is still interesting to share the theory with you.
Traditional Chinese culture doesn’t believe we have to change nature, or indeed that we could, because we are part of nature. We realised that there are always limitations, as humans living on the earth, and that there are always regulations among human beings as well. It doesn’t mean the Chinese create boundaries for themselves, but rather, while limitations are actually there, it is always good to realise them and then aim at breaking them. The theory is then that the square was introduced for philosophical reasons, to place a limitation on the shape of character, rather than purely aesthetic ones.
The Square in Hot Metal Type
Metal type in Ri Xing Type Foundry, Taiwan
There was wooden type in China before the invention of hot metal type, however it was made using a loose system and didn’t produce a good standard of printing.
It wasn’t until American missionary William Gamble, who was appointed by the American Presbyterian Church and sent to Shanghai and Hong Kong in 1858, that things moved on. He adapted the proportional Latin movable type system to the Chinese ideographic character set, and unified the character cutting method by introducing the electrotype type-making method to the Far East. The nature of the technology in use reinforced the square boundary that had previously been introduced to the script. The ‘square’ spirit has since then been transferred to all the Hanzi typefaces.
Metal typesetting of Korean Hangul, picture: Hangeul Typography School
Hangul are also drawn within the square, picture: Hangeul Typography School
The legendary Shuetai font family, Kana, Kanji being set in square. picture: @miucaffe on Flickr
Japanese Kana and Korean Hangul’s ideographic nature also made them fit into the ‘square’ system, since the three ideographic scripts are together called CJK scripts, as invented by Dr Ken Lunde in his classic book ‘CJKV Processing’.
CJK Typefaces in the Square
Shuetai font family’s Kana drawn within the square
As CJK typeface designers, we are all very familiar with the ‘CJK unified ideograph’ character set, which takes up half the contents of any Unicode codebook. The CJK typefaces went through the phototypesetting age and, in today’s digital age, the solid form is not a technical constraint anymore. The square is thus not as prominent as in the hot metal age, however, CJK typefaces are still being draw in 1em square box (1000x1000upm in font design software), and with an inner square used to define letter spacing among characters. We have noticed that there is a trend that new Korean fonts are also now being drawn in a rather condensed rectangle bounding box, so perhaps new technology is now dictating limits to other scripts in the way that it has to Hanzi in the past.