Character building is costly and time consuming

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I would like to call the attention of Language Log readers to an extraordinary article by Nikhil Sonnad:

"The long, incredibly tortuous, and fascinating process of creating a Chinese font " (Quartz, 12/18/15)

I knew that Nikhil was writing this article, because I helped him with the part about the historical development of the script over a month ago.  After that I didn't hear anything from him until yesterday when he sent me notice that the article had just been published.  Now that I've had a chance to read Nikhil's article, I must say that it a unique and amazing accomplishment.

Most people seem to think that designing a Chinese font is not particularly difficult.  Just figure out what you want the basic strokes* to look like, then combine them as required and, presto digito! you effortlessly can produce 7,000 or 13,000 or 80,000 characters as you wish.

Sorry, folks, that's not the way it works.  Because the proportions and sizes of the strokes change depending upon their placement, each character has to be designed individually from the ground up.  This explains why there are so few Chinese fonts compared to the mind-boggling array of fonts that are available for alphabetical scripts.  By going to the people who actually do the tedious work of drawing each character, Nikhil demonstrates (with ample, effective illustrations) how new Chinese fonts are created.

The sharp disparity between the complexity of Chinese fonts compared to Western fonts is brought out in this sentence from the article:

An experienced designer, working alone, can in under six months create a new font that covers dozens of Western languages. For a single Chinese font it takes a team of several designers at least two years.

I consider Nikhil's article to be an awesome achievement.  So far as I am aware, there is no other comparable journalistic presentation of what is involved in the creation of a Chinese font from beginning to end.  Not only is it thorough and detailed in its coverage of the technical and graphical aspects of the design and production of Chinese fonts, it is also learned in its comparison with similar tasks in the creation of Western fonts.  Highly recommended for anyone who is interested in typography.


*As to how many basic strokes there are, most people would say that there are somewhere between 6 and 8, usually no more than 10 — it all depends on how you count them — though some people even claim that there are as many as 30 different strokes, but most of those beyond 10 are merely variants of the few main types.  It is often claimed that the character yǒng 永 includes all / most of the basic strokes / elements of Chinese characters, but even here contention reigns, since standard authorities claim that it only has five strokes.

[Partially quoting myself from "Stroke order inputting " (10/30/11)]


  1. Stephan Stiller said,

    December 22, 2015 @ 7:24 am

    In my opinion, the biggest mistakes with Chinese fonts are: (1) designers using the same fat strokes for dense characters as for characters with few strokes and (2) people applying Western typographic styling (boldface, italics): it generally doesn't work well with the font, and there are Chinese alternatives (dotting or straight/squiggly lines; switching between Ming (serif) and Heiti (sans-serif); or be creative and invent something). If you're active in the area of Chinese typography, remember this!

    Btw, I didn't know people still used the word "grammatology" ("part design, part calligraphy, part grammatology, part market research").

  2. Dick Margulis said,

    December 22, 2015 @ 8:01 am

    Regarding "it is also learned in its comparison with similar tasks in the creation of Western fonts," I'm confused by that assertion. There are many books on the creation of Western fonts, not just on their historical origins and development but also on the craft aspects, both historical and contemporary.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    December 22, 2015 @ 8:31 am

    @Dick Margulis

    I meant that the author's presentation is learned in comparing tasks in the creation of Chinese fonts to similar tasks in the creation of Western fonts. In other words, in discussing the development of Chinese fonts, the author displays a knowledge of Western typography and uses it to advantage in explaining how Chinese fonts are created.

  4. Dick Margulis said,

    December 22, 2015 @ 9:26 am

    Aha. I misread that sentence in a precaffeinated state. Apologies.

  5. Ray said,

    December 22, 2015 @ 9:49 am

    @ Stephan

    it’s interesting to consider what “font” and “typeface” mean when it comes to chinese characters. in a given western typeface (for example, garamond) one can have different fonts (10 point bold, 10 point italic, 18 point italic, 14 point bold italic, etc.), but one wouldn’t mix these fonts according to each letter in a word — the fonts for any given typeface are designed by weight and size to accommodate any combination of letters in a block of text, to give that block of text an evenness in tone and legibility. for chinese characters, it may be best, in a given typeface (whether serif or sans serif), to scale the size/weight of strokes for the densest characters (for legibility) and then figure out some way of classifying descending levels of character density (say, 6 levels of density) and then design a different size/weight for strokes in each level. ie, fonts in chinese characters would be determined from the bottom up (from the characters) rather than applied ‘top down’ for all characters…

  6. Stephan Stiller said,

    December 22, 2015 @ 10:01 am

    Thanks! I think this would be an interesting thing to try.

    (About my own use of the word "font": I know that experts distinguish between "font" and "typeface", but I was using "font" in its popular meaning.)

  7. DWalker said,

    December 22, 2015 @ 2:44 pm

    As for the phrase "most people would say that there are somewhere between 6 and 8, usually no more than 10 — it all depends on how you count them — though some people even claim that there are as many as 30 different strokes, but most of those beyond 10 are merely variants of the few main types.":

    The link shows a side-by-side comparison of a passage written in Heiti and Mingti.

    To my untrained eye, the leftmost character on the second line, and two of the characters on the third line, seem to contain about 20 strokes each. Are these really variants of the few main types? They seem to be separate strokes.

  8. leoboiko said,

    December 23, 2015 @ 6:42 am

    The 8 and 5 counts for 永 are for different meanings of the word "stroke". It's 5-stroke if you mean "stroke" in the calligraphic sense of how many times do you have to lift the brush (which is also the dictionary "stroke count"). It's 8-stroke if you mean "strokes" in the visual/typographic sense of how many discernible visual components does it have—which correspond to individual hand gestures in calligraphy (as opposed to brush-lifts).

    The difference in counts arise because several gesture-strokes may be joined in a single brush-strokes. Specifically, of the 8 永 gestures, numbers 2-3-4 are joined, as well as 5-6, as portrayed here. So the calligraphic "hand dance" of yōng goes: 1, 2-3-4, 5-6, 7, 8.

    It just so happens that this is a particularly instructive sequence of "dance moves", since each gesture is a different one: dot, horizontal-vertical-jump, uptick-leftsweep, downtick, rightsweep. I disagree that these are all the basic dance moves, but it's most of them, so the character is a good practice sequence.

  9. leoboiko said,

    December 23, 2015 @ 6:43 am

    Sorry; yǒng.

  10. Bruce Foster said,

    December 23, 2015 @ 6:45 am

    Character building is costly and time consuming

    Did anyone else notice the ambiguity of the title of this post. Socrates would agree that "Character building is costly and time consuming

  11. Jacob said,

    December 23, 2015 @ 3:09 pm

    Any article that uses a few lines from 月下独酌 to show the difference between Mingti and Heiti gets a thumbs up. It's interesting to see how much work that goes into creating a new font/typeface.

    Around two years ago or so, I noticed that many young women with Android phones changed the system font to what looked a lot like handwriting.

  12. Jacob said,

    December 23, 2015 @ 3:11 pm

    I meant to say young women *in Beijing* with Android phones changed the system font.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    December 23, 2015 @ 3:36 pm

    @Bruce Foster

    The ambiguity was intentional. Thanks for catching it.

  14. Jenny Chu said,

    December 23, 2015 @ 8:13 pm

    Is there a Chinese equivalent of the "lorem ipsum" text in Chinese? Is that Tang dynasty poem it?

  15. William Locke said,

    December 30, 2015 @ 11:32 pm

    A friend of mine recently link me to this article, which I thoroughly enjoyed. One statistic confused me however: "The simplified version of Chinese, used primarily in mainland China, requires nearly 7,000 glyphs. For traditional Chinese, used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, the number of glyphs is 13,053." Why would this be the case? Assuming 1 character = 1 glyph, is there any reason the traditional set would need twice as many?

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