The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Chinese Fonts

How many glyphs are there in a Chinese font set? Does
Chinese have “serifs” and “sans-serifs”? What is the Helvetica of the Chinese
font world? We’ll answer all these questions and more as we cannonball into the deep end of East
Asian typography.

Why You
Should Care

From a practical perspective, I’m getting an increasing number of calls from web and graphic designers who are being asked to
produce Chinese-language versions of printed and digital materials. That might
be you someday, no?

From a learner’s perspective, Chinese text is just flat-out cool. As
far as anyone knows, Chinese is the world’s oldest in-use writing system, and most
of the major East Asian written languages are kind of like Github forks of written
Chinese. Many of those languages, though they’ve evolved into something unique
and distinct, still include Chinese characters today. 

Plus, Chinese is pretty. Who doesn’t like looking at pretty

Nothing’s That Easy: Traditional vs. Simplified Chinese

Did you know there are two
standard versions of written Chinese?

Long story short, after Chairman Mao and the Communists came
into power in 1949, Mao decided that he could raise national literacy rates by
decreasing the complexity of the language. So he rounded up some linguists and they got
busy. Wikipedia tells us that the 

“PRC issued its first round of official character
simplifications in two documents, the first in 1956 and the second in 1964.”

The thing is, Mao wasn’t the boss of Hong Kong, Taiwan or Macau
at the time, so they never
made the switch, instead keeping the original, traditional Chinese. There were also a
bazillion Chinese immigrant communities and Chinatowns that had been
established overseas before the new language was released; they also kept the traditional characters.

Where Simplified Chinese characters
are used:

  • As the official written language of Mainland
    China, used everywhere after around 1954-64, from TV subtitles to product

Where Traditional Chinese characters
are used:

  • As the official written language of Hong Kong,
    Taiwan and Macau.
  • In Chinatowns established outside of China.
  • On antique documents written in Mainland China
    prior to 1954.
  • In extremely formal usage in Mainland China,
    like official place names or titles.
  • Incorporated into languages which forked off Chinese before the simplification, like Japanese, Korean and retro Vietnamese.


it’s Raining Glyphs

Think about what all that history means for font foundries:
to release a pro font, they not only have to create a character set of at least around
20,000 characters, they have to do it twice: once for Simplified and once for
Traditional. And that doesn’t even take multiple font weights (thicknesses) into account. 

I’m sorry, did you say 20,000?

Oh, many pardons–did I not drop that bomb already? Despite simplification, professional simplified Chinese
fonts must include a glyph count approximately 20,000 strong, sometimes a few
thousand more, sometimes a few thousand less. That includes the English
alphabet, English and Chinese punctuation, and a big ol’ dictionary of Chinese
characters. Traditional character sets have been known to run to 30,000 or higher. Non-professional fonts will sometimes squeak by with as few as 2,000 of the most common glyphs, but these shouldn’t be used for base body text, as you’ll inevitably run into a character you need but don’t have. 

How does that work with @font-face
and webfonts?

It doesn’t. China’s not on the @font-face boat at all, they’re
still stuck with their original browser standard fonts and PNG/SVG for special type. Because Chinese
font files contain so many glyphs, they usually run from about 3-7 MB per font
weight, a size which defies web embedding (and which partially explains why Flash
maintained its popularity here for so long). Only recently have some extremely
experimental technologies emerged for Chinese non-standard webfont rendering,
like Youziku and Justfont.


Major Classifications
of Chinese Fonts

Western language fonts are classified under a few major
headings and a pantheon of minor ones. We have serif and sans-serif. We have blackletter, script, display, slab, monospace, and a handful of other words that indicate
a general typographic style. Though you can’t really place every single font
into either a serif or sans-serif category (some fonts, like hand-drawn
scripts, don’t really fit under either) these two words are probably the most
commonly used font distinctions, bandied about even outside of the design

In this sense, Chinese font classifications are very similar
to our own. In Chinese, the two most commonly used classifications are song
(sounds like sawng tee), which you could think of as
the Chinese serif, and hei ti (sounds like hey tee), similar
to a sans-serif. The word “ti” 体 essentially means “font”, so you can expect to
see that word at the end of many font names.

Songti (宋体)

If one type of font had to be chosen to represent Chinese
typography, it would be the songti. Early
songti scripts were in use as far
back as the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.), when Chinese woodblock printing reached
its golden age. Due to the grain of the wood in the woodblocks, which ran
horizontally, horizontal lines were easy to produce and could be thinner, but
vertical lines, which ran counter to the wood grain, were prone to breakage
during carving, and had to be thicker. Plus, because the end points of the
horizontal lines were easily worn away, flourishes were added to make them
thicker and longer-lasting. And so songti, the Chinese serif typified by perfectly straight horizontal strokes, wider
verticals, and classy but regimented flourishes, was born.

Thin straight horizontals thick verticals and flourishesserifs
Thin, straight horizontals, thick verticals and flourishes/“serifs”

Web Standards

The font Zhongyi Songti (中易宋体), better known by its English name SimSun, and its predecessor, New Songti
(NSimsun –  新宋体) is the Times New Roman of
Simplified Chinese, made popular due to its out-of-the-box inclusion in Windows
XP. The Simsun love affair continued until very recently: it was still the default Simplified Chinese input font in Windows 7. Ask a Chinese web
designer what makes an interface look “Chinese”, and you’ll often get a chuckle and
the answer, “Simsun, 12pt”–that’s how ubiquitous this font has been until very recently.

Songti Examples

Here’s SimSun, the oh-so-utilitarian default Chinese songti:

Note the classic songti thick verticals and straight, thin horizontals in FZCuSong, created by famous Chinese foundry FangZheng:

Hong Kong-based typography savant Julius Hui was commissioned to create the Chinese typeface for the New York Times prior to the launch of its Chinese language site. He chose an ultra-sharp songti with endpoints which stylistically match the NYT’s existing logo: 

So meta: a songti calligraphy book from the 1950’s:

A songti was used on the founding seal of the People’s Republic of China for the 1954 signing of the constitution: 

Songti font for the featured article title at the bottom of the May 2009 cover of Chinese Marie Claire magazine:

This condensed songti appears on a wall plaque. On the top line, “Quotes from Chairman Mao”, and below, “We should modestly, cautiously, avoiding pride, avoiding hot-temperedness, serve the Chinese people heart and soul.”

Heiti (黑体)

The other major classification is the heiti, which could loosely be translated as “sans-serif”. Heiti fonts are a relatively modern
invention. The exact history of heiti
is heavily disputed by scholars, but we see it emerge in the commercial press
around the early 1900’s.

Blocky structure no flourishes
Blocky structure, no flourishes

Web Standards

SimHei was the standard sans-serif to SimSun’s serif. In recent years, Microsoft Yahei has started to replace SimHei as the preferred
standard in web layouts, but there are still a couple of compatibility issues:
MS YaHei was introduced in Windows Vista, but the number of machines still
running XP in China–even now–would blow your mind, so while everyone’s still pretty tired of looking at SimHei, it’s not quite safe to give it up.

Heiti Examples

Here’s your basic SimHei:

And the upstart heiti, Microsoft Yahei, which I’ve (probably hyperbolically) been calling the Chinese Helvetica:

Source Han Sans is a lovely new heiti released by Adobe in 2014, in partnership with Google. You’ll notice the endpoints don’t splay the way they do in SimHei:  

An early example of heiti used as a title font in a 1913 newspaper:

Noto Sans Simplified Chinese is part of Google’s universal language project:

Currently my favorite heiti is Yuehei by Makefont:

Shanghei, another–and much more stylized–Makefont heiti home run:

An italicized, design-y heiti on a gorgeous package of spearmint gum (traditional Chinese characters) from the 1960’s:

via univscn

Kaiti (楷体)

A kaiti font
mimics basic brush script lettering–you might loosely translate this as “regular brush”. But a kaiti is not a novelty font, it never
gets overly flowery, and it’s still constructed within certain parameters and maintains
an upright structure.  Here’s Adobe Kaiti Standard which comes bundled with Photoshop and some other Adobe products:

Horizontals can be angled soft blobbier terminals and natural stroke widths
Horizontals can be angled; soft, blobbier terminals and natural stroke widths

Chinese Calligraphy Names in Fonts

If we’re going to get crazy accurate here, kai doesn’t just mean “brush script”. It’s actually one of the more clearly-written ancient calligraphic script styles, emerging
somewhere between 151-230AD. There are other calligraphic styles that appear in
modern font names, like caoshuti (cursive
lishuti (scribe script), and xingshuti (running script), but
those fonts are much fancier and more stylized and you see them less in basic

If you want to dig into calligraphic styles, check out this gorgeous letterpress History of Chinese Characters project by one my favorite modern typographers, Archer Zuo (and for heaven’s sake, check out this great interview with him on Creative Hunt):

Web Standards

Kaiti does have a web standard version for simplified Chinese, simply called “Kaiti” (or Biao Kaiti), so yes, you can use a basic kaiti in web layouts. I wouldn’t recommend this at small sizes, though. 

Kaiti Examples

Modern kaiti fonts are inspired by calligraphic styles like thick kaiti poem called “Passing through Duchang County” by Song Dynasty calligrapher Su Dongpo (1037-1101AD):

And this bureaucratic record from around 1300AD:

Kindle Kaiti Bold:

And FZKai:

All of the large lettering in this 1925 newspaper is kaiti:

Fangsongti (仿宋体)

Fangsongti is a
hybrid style, mixing the structure of a songti
with the hand-lettered visual influence of a kaiti. The untrained eye will have a rough time telling the
difference between a fangsongti and a
songti at first, but here’s a quick
trick to telling them apart: the
horizontal lines in a classic songti
are perfectly straight, whereas in a fangsongti,
they’re tilted. Plus, the fangsongti doesn’t go quite so big with the endpoint flourishes, and stroke widths don’t vary as much as they can in a songti.

Horizontal lines angled usually lighter flourishes
Horizontal lines angled, usually lighter flourishes

Fangsong Examples

Here’s FangZheng’s take on fangsong:

Another big rival foundry, Hanyi does a sharper approach in Hanyi Fangsong:

A custom “flyaway” fangsong typeface made by this guy:

In an old manuscript:

Meishuti (美术体)

In English, we’d call meishuti
a “display
font”. These are highly stylized font faces that might range from silly to historical
to novelty–the word meishu actually just means “artistic”, so this covers a great range of lettering types. There are no web standard meishuti fonts. To use these online, you’d need to use SVG or PNG
methods, or employ extremely experimental Asian font embedding formats like Youziku. Here’s Dingding Hand, some swirly-whirl nonsense from Makefont:

Here’s some custom meishuti on camera packaging from the 1970’s:

Yuanti (圆体)

Yuanti are typically a
sub-class of heiti (sans-serif). It’s more of a search tag than a font type—the Chinese word yuan means “round”, and
that’s exactly what these are: sans-serif fonts with soft curves at the corners. Yuanti is popular in
modern corporate collateral and advertising. There are no web-standard fonts here either. 

You May Have Noticed: Font Name Prefixes

As you may have already surmised, Chinese font names are often prefixed with the name of the foundry. Fonts that being with “HY” are made by Han Yi. Fonts which begin with “FZ” are made by Fangzheng. Fonts beginning with “MF” are the work of Makefont, etc. 

Yes, You Have to License Chinese Fonts 

And yes, they are way, way more expensive than English fonts (and they should be–did I mention 20,000 glyphs already?) But all is not lost: some foundries provide demo versions of the font for personal use with limited character sets, so if you just want to play around, make a logo, or style headings or titles, you should be able to do that with demo fonts. 

Structural Considerations

Squares Everywherez

Chinese characters are designed on a rigidly square grid, and well-designed characters sit evenly within a square space. Even Chinese punctuation marks typically take up a full square of space, and there’s no need to add additional spaces after periods or commas. I could get into spacing for years, but suffice to say, the square is the basic building block of the written language. 

Up, Down, Left, Right: Directionality

I’m not gonna diss your nerd cred: you probably know enough
about manga to know that Asian languages can be read right-to-left, up-to-down.
These days, in most situations, Chinese text is read left-to-right, same as
English. But because of that whole built-on-a-square thing, Chinese works a lot
better rendered up-to-down in vertical lines. This means that in arty contexts where blocks of texts are short (book covers, logos, signage) it’s ok to get pretty creative in terms of how you lay out characters without losing too much readability–as long as there’s some semblance of a word order, it can probably be read. For basic reading, however, left-to-right, top-to-bottom (like English) is standard. 

Look Ma, no Spaces

In a language with no spaces, how do you know when one word
starts and another word begins?  And if the text can be written in any direction, how do you know where to begin reading? I’ve been studying Chinese for many years now, and oddly, I can’t answer that question. There came a point in my studies where the cadence of the language fell into place, and I didn’t notice the lack of spaces anymore. And apparently, neither does anyone else: 

In 2008, researchers published a study in which they looked at the effects of adding word spacing to Chinese on the reading abilities of Tianjin Normal University students. They tried placing spaces between each character and between groups of characters, and concluded:

“… the results of the present experiments indicated that inserting spaces between words (or highlighting word boundaries) did not facilitate reading Chinese, at least beyond the level observed for normal unspaced text.”

The lack of spacing has several interesting ramifications in terms of typesetting, most notably the fact that there’s no word hyphenation in Chinese–typesetters must know where one word or concept ends and the next one begins in order to line-break properly. 

A Gallery of
Modern Typographic Design in Chinese

 Let’s put it together, shall we? I have some primo Chinese typographic design work here, starting with this poster by Tan Ho from Macau. The design consists of four characters, read from top to bottom, illustrating a popular Chinese saying: 天天向上. 天天向上 literally translates into “every day upwards”, or “to make an effort to improve oneself on a daily basis”. You’ll see that Tan has turned the characters into arrows pointing towards the sky, and surrounded each letter with clouds to illustrate the meaning. 

This stunner was created by More Tong from Shanghai. This single image contains two characters, broken apart. The character are 非常, the Chinese name for ad agency Anomaly. He actually broke apart the word 非 and placed each half on either side of the word 常 – can you see it?

This poem visualization by Liam Lee, Beijing-based typographer, is layered with meaning. He effortlessly weaves the essence of the characters, the words of the poem, the vibe of the poem, and the character visuals together into a storied piece of art. This is read up-down, right-left. Notice how you can find traces of “trees”, “peaks”, and “rhythm” hidden among the lines and characters, and how the “boundless ocean” breaks the “bounds” of the square character, flowing across the two lines (right column, 8th character down).

In this much-shared series, designer Mr. Mz creates visual representations of famous people’s names. This one is the Chinese name of Zhang Fei 张飞, a military general who’s often depicted in popular fiction with a bristling black beard: 

This work for Disney, done by Ding Yi, the founder of Makefont, was lauded for another reason: the brand-identity for Alice In Wonderland was well-preserved across linguistic mediums: 

 The custom Kong (empty) typeface, by Kevin He in Singapore:

The Chinese characters for New York, 纽约, turned into a visualization of the Empire State Building 纽 next to a hot dog 约, by Shangchin Ding:

Shanghai’s Wang 2Mu illustrates another Chinese phrase, 逆流而上 , meaning “to go against the current” (via creative blog NEOCHA):

Neat, yeah? Now that you can pick a songti out of a lineup, you’re all set to do some further digging into Chinese typography by taking a gander at all the killer Pinterest pins I’m not allowed to copy into this post. 

Further Reading