This article looks at Chinese fonts from the computing perspective discussing what they are, what the technologies they are based on are, and what you might do with them. There is enough information in this article to get an orientation to the subject, make an informed choice of technologies and tools, and find material for design of fonts.
Chinese fonts come in a rich diversity trailing a long history, which, along with the graphical nature of Chinese characters, makes Chinese fonts somewhat both complex and more interesting than most other fonts. An understanding of Chinese fonts is important for design of any web site with Chinese text content. An increasing number of sites are globalized to include both English and Chinese content making it important for English site designers to understand something about Chinese fonts. Even just learning several categories can be useful and enlightening. My goal in writing this article is to share what I learn about the subject for my own interest.
Cang Jie 仓颉 is the legendary inventor of Chinese characters. He was the historian for the legendary Yellow Emperor 黄帝. According to legend, Cang Jie was not able to express his intent with tieing knots so and was inspired by footprints left by different kinds of animals. Whether or not Cang Jie really existed, it is certainly true that Chinese characters are steeped in history and each one has a story to tell.
It is believed that Chinese characters originated with geometric designs in pottery in the Neolithic period. The design below from a Shang Dynasty (c. 1700—1045 BCE) bronze ware artifact illustrates the idea with a design called animal mask 兽面纹. The picture was translated into vector format and cleaned up from a photo that I took in the Shanghai Museam using a tool called Inkscape that I describe below.
The characters in use today took shape around between the Warring States period (403—221 BCE) and the Qin Dynasty (221—206 BCE). The main style used at that time is called seal script. Seal script is still used on chops today. Although it looks very different from modern Chinese text it can be mapped relatively easily. Another interesting development was bird and insect script 鸟虫书 used on swords at about the same time. It is similar to seal script but decorated in the shapes of birds and insects. Sometime around the Qin Dynasty modern regular script 楷书 developed.
Printed block and movable type printing were invented in China in the Song Dynasty (960—1279 CE). Song fonts (宋体) were developed and are still one of the most widely used styles of font today. Traditional print fonts and computer fonts developed for ease of reading, especially at low resolutions. This is a very practical aim. However, today we have enough computing power at our disposal that we can go back in time and revive the older style scripts.
The content in this article is arranged according to two main ideas. Firstly, to give the reader sufficient knowledge of tools and technologies so that they can display fonts successfully on their computer and have tools at their disposal to draw text in an interesting way. Secondly, to give readers ideas and inspiration for creating interesting text. The history of characters is interesting in its own right. Historic forms and the styles of caligraphy over the ages provide a lot of inspiration to create designs that are interesting to people today.
For more on the history of Chinese characters see the book Chinese Characters [Han Jianting 2008].