Rectilinear rectitude

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An alternative name for M Hànzì / J Kanji / K Hanja / C hon3 zi6 漢字 ("sinoglyph; Chinese character") is fāngkuàizì 方塊字 ("square shaped character").  I learned that the very first year of my Chinese language studies more than half a century ago.  From kindergarten and elementary school on up, Chinese children learn to practice writing characters with the concept of fāngkuài 方塊 ("square shaped") firmly in mind.  To assist them in that endeavor, they use a zìtiè / zìtiě 字帖 ("copy book") with the squares clearly marked.

For further assistance in achieving proportionality within the almighty square, they use a tiánzìgé 田字格 ("field character grid").

For still further refinement in attaining quadratic perfection, they resort to mǐzìgé 米字格 ("'rice"-character grid").

It's all about the rectification of characters / graphs / glyphs.

Hold that brush upright and straight!

Writing characters foursquare builds character.


Only after you've mastered rectilinear rectitude may you progress to shūfǎ 書法 ("law / dharma of writing", i.e., "calligraphy"), about which we've also opined extensively on Language Log.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Zihan Guo]


  1. Jongseong Park said,

    November 6, 2023 @ 8:54 pm

    The Korean alphabet Hangul is usually written with the syllabic units fitting into squares. Ditto with Japanese kana. Japanese 原稿用紙 genkō yōshi "manuscript paper", which is like ruled paper except that it has squares, is based on this idea; it is called 원고지 won'goji "manuscript paper" in Korean.

    The very first documents using Hangul had it on the same page with Chinese characters, so harmonizing visually with the latter must have been an important consideration from the beginning.

    There have been efforts to break Hangul syllables out of the square. This was done by Korean typewriters out of necessity (e.g. the glyph 몸 would be the same as 모 with an ㅁ underneath, so 몸 would be much taller than 모), but some actually preferred the "de-squared" (탈네모/脱네모 tal-nemotallemo) Hangul that resulted. Typographer Ahn Sang-soo (안상수) introduced his eponymous typeface in 1985 based on a modular approach that radically left behind the square. The liberal newspaper Hankyoreh, known for being one of the first major newspapers to print Korean horizontally instead of vertically and to abandon the practice of mixing in Chinese characters with Hangul, started using a more subtly de-squared typeface in 2005.

    However, the majority of text typeface designs in use, especially the ones intended for longer reading, still adhere to the square. Many claim that de-squared Hangul is easier to read, but it is dubious whether that can be tested, as is the case with most claims about readability (one reads best what one is familiar with, and it is notoriously difficult to control for that in experiments).

    One wonders what would have happened had other scripts in the region also tried to follow the square paradigm of Chinese characters. Can you imagine what the Tibetan script would look like if the syllables had to fit into squares, so consonant clusters with superscripts and/or subscripts would have to be cramped in vertically?

  2. 9grids said,

    November 7, 2023 @ 3:57 am

    I'm more familiar with the 9 grids pattern “九宮格”

  3. Victor Mair said,

    November 7, 2023 @ 5:31 am

    @Jongseong Park

    I am deeply grateful to you for this confirmation of regional scriptal squareness.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    November 7, 2023 @ 5:37 am



    Not so much for calligraphy practice (e.g., squaring up hanzi / kanji / hanja), more for games, etc.

    See here.

    "田字格" "書法" 339,000 ghits

    "米字格" "書法" 110,000 ghits

    "九宮格" "書法" 83,400 ghits — favored by students who learn traditional Hanzi (Chinese characters) and Zhuyin 注音 (i.e., bopomofo)

    "田字格" 2,210,000 ghits

    "米字格" 896,000 ghits

    "九宮格"2,620,000 ghits

    Because its divisions within the square border are asymmetrical both left-right and top-bottom, the "九宮格" is inferior to the "田字格" and the "米字格" for achieving proportionality when practicing fāngkuàizì 方塊字 ("square shaped characters").

  5. Victor Mair said,

    November 7, 2023 @ 5:03 pm

    This is called "rì zì gé 日字格" ("day / sun character grid"); it was commonly used for practicing arabic numbers.


  6. Jim Unger said,

    November 8, 2023 @ 8:25 am

    In Japan, the Kanamojikai, the chief organization promoting the exclusive use of kana, developed a condensed (narrower than high) font in the early 20th century for katakana that included ascenders and descenders (like and in lower-case roman). It can be mapped onto a typewriter keyboard and, with word-spacing, produces texts with good legibility.

  7. DS said,

    November 8, 2023 @ 6:33 pm

    Oh, @vmair the "9 grids pattern" 九宮格 is completely a legitimate category of grid-assistance for calligraphic practice and that's how I grew up practicing how to write Hanzi beautifully. Indeed, for standardized school education, we were given "field character grid" 田字格 notebooks by default. However, I felt it extremely hard to use and my handwriting was never too good as a child (despite that I learned how to write Hanzi since age 4). When I turned age 10 (in the early 2000s), my mother decided to sign me up for a pen calligraphy 硬笔书法 class. The famous local teacher – to my remembrance a nice lady in her 50s at that time – told the class (about 15 of us) to use the 九宫格 notebook instead. After giving us an indignant presentation on how the conventional 田字格 or "rice-like pattern" 米字格 was ultimately destructive to people's understanding of the structure of Chinese writing system (which I always completely agree), she began promoting the 九宫格 since the 1980s and having been teaching people of all age groups with 九宫格 only. Hundreds of her students won provincial and national calligraphic prizes throughout decades.

    It did worked magic, at least on me too. My handwriting made progress by leaps and bounds within a short few months and by the end of the two-year learning I became one of the students with best Chinese handwriting in my school. Even now I'm still proud of my Chinese handwriting. I hope that the teacher is still well, and, nowadays the 9-grid 九宫格, just like the "field-like" or "rice-like" patterns, already becomes a natural assistance for Chinese chirographic / calligraphic practice.

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