Tag Archives: Chinese

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

The Square


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

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

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

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

Metal typesetting of Korean Hangul, picture: Hangeul Typography School

 Hangul are used to be drawn within the square, 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

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 was being drawn within 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.

Julius Hui


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.

Chinese Font Design

blogtypeNei Ho/Ni Hao! which is “greetings” in both Cantonese and Mandarin. I’m Julius Hui, a type designer for Dalton Maag, and I’m both a born native of, and currently based in, Hong Kong. I’m very glad to be able to share with you my knowledge of Chinese (Hanzi) type design – this is probably the very first time that Chinese type design has been properly exposed to the world.

It has long been a myth, not only believed in the Western world, but also by Chinese people, that the Chinese are not willing to share their typographic knowledge with a third party, or only to disclose it to a very limited extent. There is also a lack of willingness to systemise the knowledge available. This is mainly because of the Chinese culture of the craftsman, which is not limited to type design, but add to this the incredibly huge character set, and the number of Chinese type designers is very limited as a result. In fact there are probably no more than ten type designers who are capable of developing a Chinese character set entirely on their own. To sum up, it has always been one of the toughest careers of all in design.

But I have been very lucky. Five years of design studies at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University provided me with plenty of time and space to get myself focused on type and typography research. Upon graduating, I decided to take a Chinese type apprenticeship under a type master, learning to draw Chinese characters stroke by stroke, as well as studying massive weight-balancing and structure refinements, the three main processes of Chinese type design.

3 years of apprenticeship was tough, but extremely meaningful. I set out on my own afterwards, until I met Bruno last summer. I then joined up with my lovely colleagues, who were coping with the fast-growing client needs for Chinese type design. Having learnt a comprehensive set of skills, and combined these with my academic background, they have asked me to be an evangelist for good Chinese type design, demystifying that ‘wild west of type design’ and all the challenges ahead – stay tuned with our new blog as I’ll be writing more!

Dor Jei/Xie Xie!

Julius Hui

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