The Traditional Chinese Printing Standard

Until recent decades, Chinese printing and type design followed a single standard of character structure that was used throughout East Asia. This standard, the traditional printing standard (傳承字形), has significant advantages over other standards in use. It matured with the character forms that were used to print books in the Ming and Qing dynasties, was widely used across East Asia before the script reforms of the mid– and late 20th century, and continues to be used today despite these reforms. The standard adheres as faithfully as possible to character origins and principles of character formation while remaining legible to modern readers, and it is specifically adapted to the mechanical aesthetics of printing, as opposed to handwriting.

Because the standard has been in currency for hundreds of years across the East Asian cultural sphere, there is no single, authoritative definition; instead, it is based on relatively objective principles of legibility, aesthetic convention, and fidelity to character origins, and allows for a small degree of variation. The headwords that appear in the Kangxi Dictionary (1710) provide one version of these traditional forms, as do those that appear in the Dai kan-wa jiten (1955–60), which updates a few forms that have become obsolete since the publication of the Kangxi. More recently, the editorial team of the Ichiten Font Project, led by Ichirou Uchiki 內木一郎, developed a set of documents that define a rigorous version of this standard.

Unfortunately, all of the modern governments that have the most influence on typefaces used to set Chinese, including those of China, Japan, and Taiwan, have abandoned the traditional standard. Instead, beginning in the mid–20th century, they prescribed a number of new character structures that were rarely, if ever, used for printing. Japan and China have both prescribed a number of dramatically simplified variants: Japan simplified a few hundred characters, while China simplified several thousand. These simplifications disrupted a standard of legibility that had been in place for over a millenium, introduced semantic ambiguity, disregarded the history of character formation, and (especially those of China) impaired the visual beauty of the writing system. Taiwan, meanwhile, has prescribed a number of variant forms that are relatively similar to their traditional counterparts and often used in handwriting, but that likewise ignore the principles of character formation; and Taiwan and China have both mandated extensive minor modifications (xin zixing 新字形) that ignore the aesthetic distinctions between handwriting and type design, ensuring that a large number of characters take significantly uglier forms than those used in traditional printing. The adverse effects of these government standards are monumental, as type designers, publishers, and software companies capitulate to their demands and contribute to the cultural and aesthetic degradation of the Chinese script.

Typefaces that do follow the traditional standard, however, are still available. Many of these are digitized versions of movable type or phototype fonts that were designed before the Taiwanese script reforms, although a few recent digital designs do exist. In addition, Korean typefaces generally follow the traditional standard; as do Japanese ones, with the major exception of the few hundred simplified characters (shinjitai) mentioned above. These fonts, however, will often lack glyphs that are necessary for a modern Chinese text; most Korean fonts are so deficient in this regard that they are practically unusable. Note that some characters that appear to be missing may simply be encoded on a different codepoint: for example, Chinese input methods typically default to U+9109 鄉, but Korean and Japanese typefaces usually encode the same character on U+9115 鄕. When using a Japanese font, one must also pay attention to the forms: many shinjitai are encoded on different codepoints than their traditional counterparts and will be naturally avoided when typesetting Chinese, but some share the same codepoint and will thus appear in the simplified form in Chinese text. One such character is U+6D77 海, whose right side is simplified to 毎 in Japanese fonts. Some Japanese fonts provide an alternate glyphs that can be manually substituted in design software. Designers familiar with type design software can also make their own alternates, in addition to supplementing glyphs that are missing altogether. (The Chinese text on this website is set in the Korean and Japanese versions of Source Han Serif: it uses the Korean version of a character if it is available, and falls back to the Japanese version if it is not.)

In addition to using a font with traditional glyphs, we must also ensure the correct glyph is used for each character—which, due to the inconsistencies of Unicode, may be encoded at a different codepoint than the one selected when typing the manuscript. Most Chinese input methods, for instance, will default to U+70BA 為, when the traditional printing form is encoded at U+7232 爲. The two characters mentioned above, U+9109 鄉 and U+9115 鄕, are another such example; the latter is the more faithful to the character’s origin.

When designing for an audience educated in any form of “traditional Chinese”, such as readers in Taiwan or Hong Kong, the traditional standard may be used indiscriminately. In these areas, even though the standard script taught in schools breaks from the traditional printing standard, the traditional standard is still employed so widely and differs from educational standards so slightly that people have no issue reading text set in it.

People educated in the radically different Simplified standard, however, are usually more comfortable reading Simplified Chinese, and are likely familiar with fewer traditional characters. When designing something intended to be widely and comfortably read by such an audience, like readers in China, Singapore, or Malaysia, it is thus more considerate to use Simplified Chinese despite its disregard for aesthetic, semantic, and cultural concerns. But in any context where these concerns are more important than optimal readability, the traditional standard should still be preferred. Thus, traffic signage, train tickets, and the text of most books and newspapers should probably use Simplified Chinese (and are often required to), but traditional printing characters should be considered for shop signage, book covers, art books, and many other contexts. To a degree, traditional forms are already popularly used in these areas, but there is still room for more widespread use and promotion.

Finally, I should note that the traditional standard discussed here should only be followed by certain kinds of mechanically reproduced type and lettering. Chinese calligraphy would not hold its allure, and contemporary lettering would not be as new or exciting, if the characters were forced to comply to any rigid standard. In particular, traditional calligraphic styles have their own conventions, which should not be ignored in favor of the printing standard. But Chinese type and graphic design should often favor the standard described here over the current government standards, as it is the only one based on rational principles.

May 2020