Tag Archives: Hanzi

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.