Introduction to Chinese Typography: Hanzi

Chinese = Hanzi?


An overview of language distribution across China.

China is a truly multi-ethnic country – the 1.4 billion people incorporate 56 ethnic groups. While Tibetan, Mongolian, Manchurian and several minority ethnic groups have got their own writing system, the Han Chinese make up over 91% of the population. As a result Hanzi, the written language of the Han people, has naturally come to be the dominant spoken language. It is the country’s official written language, and always regarded as the ‘Chinese language’. We will limit the context of our discussion of Hanzi to China, rather than also discussing Kanji in Japan and Hanja in Korea, because Hanzi has unique usages in those respective countries.

Hanzi’s Logographic Nature


A comparison between Ancient Egyptian script (consonant based) and Chinese oracle bone script (syllable based), both are logographic writing systems.

As the art and technique of arranging specified type and text carries ideas and thought, it is always good to know how a visual language works to our eyes – there is no exception for Chinese typography – particularly as the script is completely different from a Syllabary script in the West.

Hanzi is an ancient written language – the first Hanzi could be found on a piece of carbonised pottery buried in Dahankou, China, dating back to 4,000 years ago.


Historians believe ‘旦’ is the very first Hanzi.

The letterform is so interesting that one could literally see a combination of ‘Sun’, ‘Cloud’ and ‘Mountains’ with five apexes, a scene of the sun rising. This logo-like structured drawing, possibly formed the very first Hanzi in history – ‘旦’ – a character that means ‘Born’. This drawing has explained well how the Chinese ancestors chose to form their visual language by combining symbols.

From the Shang dynasty’s oracle bone script, through Qin’s seal script, to Han’s seal script and Tang’s kaishu, the written form of Hanzi kept evolving and being rationalised throughout history. This was because there was continual need to improve writing speed, however its logographic, and squarish nature has never changed. One of the greatest Chinese calligraphers, Ou Yang Xun of the Tang Dynasty, was rumoured to have invented the famous three by three Chinese calligraphic grid. This is a guiding system for measuring and standardising character structure, letter-spacing, and rhythm. Since then, ‘ideographic’, and ‘squarish’ have become the letterform nature of Hanzi, so much so that the Chinese people continue to write on square grid paper right up to today.


How Hanzi is written on grid paper. (Image: drwilliams@Xanga)

How Chinese Typography Works

The Irish-born American missionary, William Gamble, who worked for the American Presbyterian Mission, invented the first Chinese metal type and sizing system through the electrotype method in Shanghai in the late 19th century. He adapted the variable width typesetting system of the West, into an ideographic-width system which fit into the Chinese script’s squarish nature. He designed the first ever metal type Song-ti ( ‘Serif-font’ in Chinese) in history.


How Chinese type fits into a CJK typesetting grid in InDesign Chinese. (Font used: DF LiSong Medium)

The technology was then passed to Japan, beginning the squarish nature of Chinese, Japanese and Korean type today. The picture shown here is the typesetting grid that could be found in the Chinese version of InDesign, the Chinese text and punctuation are all, ideally, fitted into type-squares. Characters are read one by one, and reading speed mostly depends upon a readers’ reading experience.

Julius Hui

Next post:
Basic Setting of Chinese Type


William Gamble, a missionary for the American Presbyterian Mission, invented the first Chinese metal type system and used it for publishing the Bible in the late 19th century.


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