Horizontal and Vertical Setting

In my previous blog post we talked about that mysterious box, which basically controls the fundamental setting of each Chinese character, and the whole font. However, what was the reasoning that drove the CJK (Chinese Japanese Korean) world to think of using a box for bounding purposes? Horizontal and Vertical setting are definitely the crucial factor behind it.

Some History

CJK text was originally set in the vertical direction.

The first ever existing Hanzi was pictographic. From the beginning there was a tendency for the characters to be drawn from top to bottom on oracle bones (which I’ve described in a previous blog post). Hanzi already had a rich humanistic, pictorial nature, and this created a rectangular shape that naturally prompted vertical setting. The medium onto which Hanzi was written also influenced its setting. Before paper was invented during the Han Dynasty period by Cai Lun, Hanzi was inscribed on long and narrow bamboo slips, and this created the primary reason for vertical setting, as there was now an expectation that the script would be read vertically.

In the many years following the Han Dynasty period, Kaishu (the modern script) evolved from the early clerical script and has been the most prominent writing style since then. Its aesthetic, which has lasted over 1,000 years, always suggests a rather narrow letterform which has resulted in an elegant, yet humble visual letter structure.


A re-creation of bamboo slips writing from the Han Dynasty period

Influence from the West

The horizontal setting of Chinese didn’t exist until missionaries started coming from the West  during the Ming Dynasty (15-18th century) and Qing Dynasty (17th-20th century) periods. At that time, the knowledge exchanges between East and West were substantial, but it seemed that neither way of text setting could fit with the other. There were attempts to get either Latin to fit into a vertical setting, or Chinese to fit into a horizontal setting, but it was not until the late Qing Dynasty, that huge amounts of scientific knowledge and the results of the industrial revolution flooded into China and Asia. Chinese metal type was successfully produced in the late 19th century, and it was then that Chinese in a horizontal setting was first created.


The world changed after missionaries came from the West. Picture showing Matteo Ricci with Xu Guangqi, an important official of the Ming Dynasty period.

Vertical/Horizontal usage nowadays

How does the CJK world decide when to use a horizontal or vertical setting for text? In fact, there are no absolute rules at all. However, books or magazines decide the text direction based mainly on the contents: for texts that have a heavy use of Western content within them or are translated from foreign languages, horizontal setting is preferred. For texts that have more of a cultural significance, and content that is completely homegrown, like novels, vertical setting is always the best choice. It creates a calm, culturally rich reading environment for readers that the modern and slick horizontal setting couldn’t match.

Vertical setting was banned in mainland China during the 1950s when they were seeking a radical cultural change. Today, the ban has still not been lifted, but there are a rising number of uses of vertical setting in books. Vertical setting is now rarely seen in South Korea, while Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong still maintain a strong tradition of books with vertical typesetting.



The famous Japanese design magazine, Idea, provides a good example of how Asia decides on a horizontal or vertical setting. Horizontal setting is used when contents are more international; vertical setting is used when the contents is pure Japanese text.

Next post: How type designers design type for different settings.

Julius Hui


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