Fundamentals of Chinese Typography: #1 Fonts Styles (Songti, Fangsongti, Mingti, Heiti, Kaiti)

Most of our Chinese typefaces tend to be few and far in between, apart from the random file names, type names, we find it often a baffling task to make sense of Chinese type. To open this new series of posts about Chinese type in greater detail, allow me to explain to you how Chinese typography is classified. This will help you to recognise, identify and be more precise when it comes to typeface selection. Here we go! 🙂

Let’s define some important concepts I’ll be using here first:-

A. KEY CONCEPTS

Font Styles 字型格式: These are NOT to be seen as typeface / font. No, they are called STYLES, because they represent a tone, if you will, of how a typeface looks like. For instance, Garamond is a TYPEFACE, and it falls under the category of ‘Old Style’, for instance.

Fonts aka Typeface 字體: Arial, Comic Sans, Helvetica. These are what we like to call (the names of) fonts, and typefaces.

Typeface Style 字體樣式: Bold, Italic, Oblique, Thick, Extrabold, Bold Italic, etc. These apply to a specific typeface, and its variety depend entirely on the typeface itself.

It’s much easier to see it from the perspective of English typography. For instance, there are a few broad categories that typefaces can fall into:-

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In the same manner, Chinese typefaces can also be classified into a few broad categories known as font styles.

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B. HOW TO UNDERSTAND CHINESE TYPEFACE  NAMES

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As you may be immediately aware, Chinese typeface names usually carry much more info than English. In the typeface selector menu, you can instantly tell what font AND font style it is.

In the case of Fangzheng and Hiragano type face, we can see the specifications listed directly in each typeface name.

A Chinese typeface name is made up of the font name + font style + typeface style (if any) + language specification.

Screen Shot 2013-01-04 at 4.19.21 PM

In other words, should you have the complete set of a particular typeface, you will have, literally, several very similar names in the menu. Unless you look carefully, you may even think that they are duplicates of each other!

Unlike English typeface where you basically use ‘Times”  then go to select “Bold”, for example, each typeface style (Bold, Italic etc) is completely redrawn and recognised as a separate typeface name listed on your computer. This can be confusing for many people, but know that its the same thing.

Screen Shot 2013-01-04 at 4.24.31 PM

And of course, there are also bigger typeface families that have much more specific typeface styles as well.

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Thankfully the classifications don’t get too much more complex from here. To understand the various classifications, we need to understand the Chinese writing system.

C. CHINESE FONT STYLES 

1. SONG TI

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You can tell a songti very easily by its relatively thinner horizontal lines compared to its vertical strokes. There also ‘triangles‘ at the end of each stroke. This is to compensate for any possible ‘wear and wear’ that may occur during printing of that era.

2. FANG SONG TI

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Some characteristics of Fangsong include a uniform thickness of stroke width throughout the character, and are visually narrower and taller than its original song ti.

3. MING TI

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The main differences between Song Ti and Ming Ti lies in the way the characters are written, as shown below:-

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4. HEI TI

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Hei Ti has a standard, uniform thickness in stroke width throughout, and and looks much fuller and has stronger optical weight compared to other typeface styles.

5. KAI TI

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Kai Ti can be easily recognised as its strokes mimic the fluidity of the calligraphic brush, with varying stroke width throughout the typeface.

I have covered the 5 main types of Ti (Font Styles) that you will commonly encounter. But of course, there will always be more styles for us to discover.

D. SUMMARY

Chinese fonts behave similarly to English fonts, in that they can be classified into broad categories known as font styles. Understanding this is crucial to making sense of Chinese typography.

Within the typeface itself, there are also typeface styles, aka bold, italic, etc. In Chinese type, this may be seen as 小標、中標、大標、幼線、粗體etc.

Chinese fonts are more specific in their taxonomy; every listed font will only have one variant of each typeface (e.g. bold, light, regular will appear as SEPARATE listed fonts), unlike English ones where you can simply ‘select’ the typeface style within that same typeface.

The usage of different font styles suit different purposes (I’ll be discussing this in more detail in days to come).

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my take on chinese design 中文設計之感想

I can no longer stand the silence. I’ve always had a personal conviction that Chinese design in Singapore generally feels and looks like a 2nd class citizen. Most designs are primarily done in English, and then haphazardly translated into Chinese. Language can be roughly translated, but design isn’t like that. People cannot expect an English design to be merely lifted and converted into another language and STILL expect it to be as effective. Allow me to point out why.

English and Chinese are vastly different in their Written Forms.

Chinese characters are logograms (象形文字), which means they are written to LOOK like what they represent. And more than just that, ALL characters have a fixed width and height, and are BLOCKISH. Or what we call monospaced characters. There is no spacial separation (space) within words and sentences.

English characters, on the other hand, are totally different. They are variable in width. Just like in this blog entry, the letters ‘i’ and ‘m’ have different width. English letters stick together form a discernable word. An empty space tells you when a word ends / begins.

These differences between languages may seem small, but in design it’s enough to define two entirely different design philosophies already. In other words, Chinese design will have to be entirely rethought. Designers NEED to recognize that Chinese medium demands a entirely new approach to ensure the message is enhanced, not lost, to the very audiences they seek to speak to.

If I may, I would like to offer my word of advice to anyone who’s dabbling with Chinese design.

1. Give Chinese language the respect and coverage it deserves.

Don’t give your last ounce of design stamina to it. Don’t leave it to the last to do. If your tendency is to neglect it, them why not give it primary attention first. This way you can spare more time to thinking of how Chinese design works. It’s not difficult, it just requires you to care enough about the people who will see your design.

2. Please diversify your Chinese fonts.

I dare say that 80% of Chinese designs use only ONE FREAKING FONT. Simhei, or Simsun. I’m not sure if it’s due to laziness or lack of innovation, but they both behave like Arial. They both are so common they actually suck. Yucks! I will release a subsequent post JUST talking about Chinese font. So keep a look for them!

One thing about Chinese design is that, because of the uniformity of Chinese characters, you CAN (read: CAN) break the design rule by using 4 or 5 fonts! In a page! Yes!

Why so? Because even after the font is changed, the overall appearance is still the same. Simsun and Simhei, while being entirely different in themselves, look similar from a macro point of view. A design will greatly benefit from the having different fonts, the same way English design can benefit as well. Varied fonts can more accurately bring out the emotion of the design. Using a ‘standard’ font basically handicaps the aesthetic appeal of any design.

3. English design rules don’t apply in Chinese!

What are the common typography design rules? Leading, tracking, drop caps, font weight, presentation. Hierarchy. Are they such rules for Chinese design? Yes. But are they the same rules? NO!
For example:
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1. You can track a English word, but not Chinese! You need a certain horizontal space between characters for them to be legible! This means that when using software like Word or InDesign, you have to do the extra work to track the characters properly! Because these softwares do a very poor job in tracking.
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2. You can exploit the vertical writing ability of Chinese characters! Very few people will think of presenting Chinese vertically. Yet for short phrases and taglines, it’s immensely effective, simply because its the ONLY language that can be presenting vertically, with GRACE. Try it with English. It’s gross.
I will post a another post JUST on Chinese typography. I think it’s so important to understand this. It’s been neglected for too long. It’s crucial to Chinese design! Hope that you’ve found this post beneficial to you! 🙂

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