Modern Chinese: An Evolving Language
Over the past decade, Sinophone communities have seen a surge of interest in Chinese typography. A new generation of practitioners is trying to understand how to reconcile the tradition of one of the world’s oldest written languages with the practice of graphic design within a pluralistic and multicultural context. The form of written Chinese has a lineage stretching back to the first inscriptions used for divination in the second millennium BC. The vast distance of time and memory traversed between those first oracle bones to the present day covers all manner of printing technologies and cultural encounters that make this area of design simultaneously exciting but also thoroughly overwhelming.
The Chinese language we encounter today is the result of its interactions with modernity. The process, which began in the nineteenth century and continues today, has affected everything which graphic designers might see as language made materially visible. Such changes include shifts in the directionality of writing, the emergence and adaptation of standardized punctuation, and the development of phoneticization systems like pinyin that mediate between Chinese, other languages, and technologies like the keyboard. The most recent and visible of these changes occurred in the middle of the twentieth century when the script itself underwent stroke simplification from what is now known as traditional Chinese to simplified Chinese in mainland China. For Sinophone communities, these changes are still within living memory. Paradoxically, for a language as old as Chinese, some of its visual grammar is still quite new.
A closer look at Chinese and its typographic forms will quickly reveal a recurring tension with scale and modular complexity. Written Chinese is a historic collection of characters embodying a multiplicity of ideas developed over four millennia. Some characters are of pictographic origin, but many more characters signify sound and meaning that together are remixed and combined to form the eighty thousand plus standard and variant characters we see today. Each character is a self-contained visual unit loosely bound by a square with a defined order of strokes radiating from an invisible center of gravity. There is no baseline on which characters sit. They hang in space and contribute to the adaptability for Chinese to be read both vertically and horizontally.
Up until the twentieth century, most books were produced with comparatively inexpensive woodblock printing rather than with available movable type technology. Although the Chinese invented and experimented with movable type of different materials like clay, wood, and metal, it was Western missionaries in the nineteenth century who made concerted efforts to develop lead movable type for Western-style printing presses. The failures and successes of these early presses and the resulting typographic forms are entwined with the beginnings of China’s modern publishing industry.
For printed books, four typeface families are commonly recognized as having emerged over the long course of Chinese printing history: Regular Script, Songti, Imitation Song, and Heiti. There is also a very distinct tradition of display lettering called meishuzi used predominately for signage and display purposes that proliferated between the 1930s and 1970s. Together with a pre-existing tradition of Chinese calligraphy, these form the basis for much of Chinese typographic discourse today. With no shortage of vantage points from which to parse the complexity of Chinese, all of the usual factors of historicism, nationalism, technological positivism, and pure pragmatics are at play when so many stakeholders and actors spread across the world are involved.
The Chinese Type Archive: An Evolving Database
It is within this context of the growth and evolution of Chinese type that we embarked on building a database that could aggregate tangible data that would support and allow these distinct perspectives to be made accessible and open. The Chinese Type Archive (www.chinesetypearchive.com) seeks to address a question we had: where could one find a list of Chinese typefaces, books, and typographic terms? This deceptively simple question gave rise to an on-going, collaborative, open-access index of Chinese typographic resources.
The three main sections of the archive—resources, typefaces, and concepts—contain different types of records that catalog key information to allow designers, students, and educators to jumpstart their investigations into Chinese type. For instance, each resource record is linked, where possible, to OCLC’s WorldCat to allow users to find that item in their local library. Typeface and concept records capture different names and synonyms that reveal how these artifacts and ideas have changed over time. To make this possible, each record is given a unique identifier that is stable and never changes.
As our collective understanding of Chinese typography changes and grows, the Chinese Type Archive can capture these shifts and update these records while also being findable and linkable. Indeed, discernable shifts in the way Chinese typographic vocabulary is deployed and standardized is already occurring before our eyes. Seeing this happen in “real-time” is a rare and exciting opportunity.
At present, the archive contains over 800 typefaces, concepts, and resources with more being submitted by the public and added every few weeks by a dedicated community of volunteers and research assistants that find, cross-reference entries, and draw diagrams. As the archive grows, images will be added in addition to new functional enhancements to the site. Educators using the site will immediately notice that the entire site is bilingual which is part of a broader aim of building bridges between Chinese typography and the wider typographic community. As more records are created, it will become easier to find points of similarity and difference between these systems that can serve to enrich design pedagogy at large. In addition, as an open access resource, the data is making its way into other websites like the popular Fonts In Use site to support the general design community.
Learning through Collecting
Within the Chinese Type Archive, educators will find brief records on typefaces both famous like the one produced by the Hall of Military Eminence under the Kangxi Emperor to the curious, like the Paris Font, a divisible typeface made by Marcellin Legrand and cut by Chinese students in Paris. For everyone involved in contributing to the Chinese Type Archive, the process of collecting was and still is a process of learning. For instance, one theme to emerge from looking at all of the records in the archive is the continual challenge designers have with technological change and its influence on aesthetic form. Themes like this can be teased out of the multiplicity of stories waiting to be told and hidden in the archive that all contribute to understanding an ever more expansive picture of typography and design. From the Chinese Type Archive, design educators can ask students to:
- Note similarities and differences between Chinese typographic and Latin typographic concepts and encourage them to take advantage of the space in-between to posit new ways of thinking about typography and language in general
- Consider how the tools of production affect aesthetic form
- Consider how systems that manage scale and complexity intersect with graphic design (these themes are more familiar to architects but less so for graphic designers)
More broadly, design educators can also encourage students to take seriously the act of collecting as a way to capture visual ephemera and history that may be overlooked by other disciplines. The simple act of collecting is a way to understand the breadth of material, to ascertain precedence, and to allow others to partake and draw their own conclusions. Design educators can ask students to:
- Engage in collecting as step towards designing
- View collections as repositories with generative potential where new stories and lines of thought can be found
- Use the act of collecting as a method of sharing
We hope that The Chinese Type Archive will be a valuable resource for you and your students, and we welcome your suggestions and contributions to help make it even better.
The Chinese Type Archive was supported by a grant from AIGA DEC as well as funding from Parsons School of Design. We want to especially thank our editors, Mac Wang and Stephanie Winarto, and all of our contributors for making this initiative possible.