Designing with the Hanzi script

Tam, K (2018) ‘Hanzi’, in Wittner, B; Thoma, S; Hartmann, T, eds. Bi-scriptual: typography and graphic design with multiple script systems. Salenstein, Switzerland: Niggli, 204–211

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An introductory article to designing with the Hanzi (Chinese) script, discussing the characteristics of the script and typographic issues.


The Chinese language is written in the Hanzi script, where Han refers to the dynasty (202 BC–220 AD) as well as the largest ethnic group in East Asia. Other languages also use subsets or variant forms of Hanzi: Kanji for Japanese, Hanja for Korean, and Chữ Nôm for Vietnamese. The origins of the Hanzi script date back to the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046BC), with inscriptions etched onto bones and animal shells used for divination. Hanzi is a logographic script, where each character represents a morpheme. The Hanzi script is made up of six kinds of characters known as liushu: pictographs, simple ideograms, compound ideographs, rebuses, phono-semantic compound characters, and derivative cognates. Each character represents one syllable, but pronunciation bears little relationship to the form of the character except in phono-semantic compounds, where pronunciation is imprecisely denoted. The Chinese language also consists of large numbers of homonyms – characters that share one pronunciation. The totalled number of Chinese characters currently documented in the GB18030–2005 encoding standard is 70,244, 4,808 of which are frequently used.

Figure 1 The eight types of strokes illustrated by the character yong in Kaiti, Songti and Heiti

Strokes are the most elemental building block of Chinese characters. The character yong (永) is used to illustrate the eight types of basic strokes in Chinese calligraphy [figure 1]. Strokes are used to construct a total of 213 radicals (部首). These are root characters that can either exist as individual characters, or combined to form composite characters. A word in Chinese can be made up of one to three characters, with an average word length of 1.5 characters. 55% of words comprise of one character, 40% of two characters, and 5% of three characters. There is no spatial separation between words; they can only be differentiated in context. 

There are eight main varieties of speech in China, often referred to as dialects rather than languages. Mandarin and Cantonese are the two that are most widely spoken. Mandarin was designated as the official form of Chinese in 1932 during the Republic of China era. Mandarin – called Putonghua (普通话) in Mainland China – is the official language on the Mainland, Taiwan and Singapore. While the majority of the population in Hong Kong and Macau speak Cantonese, they have been taught to write in a way that closely resembles Putonghua.

Hanoi Pinyin (汉语拼音or simply Pinyin) is a standard romanisation system for Putonghua. It was introduced after the establishment of the People’s Republic during the 1950s by Zhou Yonghuan (周永光). This system uses the Latin alphabet with four diacritical marks that denote the flat (macron ¯), rising (acute ´), falling (grave `) and falling-rising (caron ˇ) tones. Wade–Giles, Sin Wenz, and Yale are other romanisation systems, but are now largely superseded by Pinyin. Zhuyin (注音, also known as Bopomofo ㄅㄆㄇㄈ) is a phonetic notation system that uses 37 phonetic characters and four tone marks [figure 2]. This system is commonly used for teaching reading and writing in school books in Taiwan, but not used on the Mainland. 

Figure 2 The Zhuyin phonetic system used in Taiwan. Source: Wikimedia

There are two forms of Chinese orthography: Traditional Chinese (繁体中文) and Simplified Chinese (简体中文). Simplified Chinese characters were derived from the traditional forms by reducing the number of strokes, and were first proposed during the Republic of China era in 1935. The official set of Simplified Chinese characters was later expanded and then imposed by the government of the People’s Republic of China during the 1960s and went through several iterations. The current national standard consists of 8,150 characters. Simplified Chinese is the official script in Mainland China, and it is also used by Chinese diasporas in Malaysia, Singapore and other parts of the world. Traditional Chinese is used in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, and in some overseas Chinese communities. A reader’s preference of one form over the other can be owed to his reading proficiency, habit, cultural propensity, or regional sentiment.In addition to Traditional and Simplified Chinese, further regional orthographic variations exist between Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Kanji (Japanese) and Hanja (Korean) also have their own regional orthographic variations [figure 3].

Figure 3 Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Japanese and Korean regional variations of a selection of characters in Noto Serif.

Chinese text is traditionally written vertically from top to bottom, with lines running from right to left. Books and publications were almost exclusively printed vertically until the Republic of China era (1912–1949), foreign influences and bilingual publications encouraged the adoption of Western style horizontal typesetting. Since 1955, the Government of the People’s Republic of China has enforced horizontal setting for all printed matters. In Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau however, both vertical and horizontal settings can be found.

The use of a soft, pointed brush for writing Hanzi characters dates back some 5,000 years ago. By varying the pressure applied, different thick–thin stroke transitions are achieved. Calligraphic scripts such as Bronze Script (金文) or Zhuanshu (篆书, zeal script) show less brush manipulations, with almost monolinear characteristics. Lishu (隶书, clerical script) shows more variations in pressure and finial treatments. Kaishu (楷书, standard script), Xingshu (行书, running script) and Caoshu (or grass script) display appreciably more sophisticated variations in stroke contrast and finial manipulations. [figure 4]

Figure 4a An example of Bronze Script, San Shi Pun (散氏盤), late Western Zhou dynasty. Source: Wikimedia
Figure 4b An example of Lishu script, from Cao Quan Bei (曹全碑), 185 AD. Source: Wikimedia
Figure 4c An example of Xingshu script, copy of the Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion (蘭亭序) by Wang Xizhi (王羲之), 353 AD. Source: Wikimedia

The development of Kaishu in 219–265 [figure 5] paved the way for the subsequent development of standardised lettering styles used in woodblock and subsequently typefaces used in movable type printing. Kaishu reached its height during the Tang Dynasty (618–906). The work of four master calligraphers from the Tang Dynasty – Ou-yang Hsun (欧阳询), Yen Chen-ching (颜真卿), Liu Gong-chuen (柳公权) and Zhao Meng-fu (赵孟頫) – became archetypes, widely imitated as the major lettering styles for xylographic printing. Kaishu was the last development in the evolution of the Chinese script, and it has remained largely unchanged to this day.

Figure 5a An example of Kaishu by Liu Gongquan (柳公权), Xu Mi Ta Bei (玄秘塔碑) c841 AD. Source: Wikimedia
Figure 5b An example of Kaishu by Yen Zhenqing (顏真卿), Duo Bao Ta Bei (玄秘塔碑), Tang Dynasty. Source: Wikimedia

Xylographic (woodblock) printing was first developed during the Sui Dynasty around 1,400 years ago. At first, Kaishu was the style used for book production. The intricate curves of Kaishu soon proved to be inefficient for carving onto wood. A new style called Songti (宋体) evolved from Kaishu in order to speed up production [figure 6]. This style took the essence of Kaishu and regularised and standardised its features. The development of Songti reached maturation during the Ming Dynasty, hence the style is sometimes referred to as Mingti (明体) or Minchōtai (明朝体) in Japan. Songti was a development that signalled a typographic rather than calligraphic aesthetic to printing, later fuelled by the work of missionaries such as William Gamble, who brought the industrialised process of moveable type printing from the west in the late 19th century. 

Figure 6 A xylographic book page from a Ming Dynasty edition of the Book of Qi, printed with Songti. Source: Wikimedia

Punctuation has a long history in Chinese books, dating back to the Qin Dynasty (219–207 BC). These marks were originally added to text as a form of annotation to aid reading, between columns of vertically run text. These were once added by the reader by hand, and later printed with xylography, usually in second colour such as red. Punctuation was not standardised until the end of the Qing Dynasty towards the end of the 1920s, when Western punctuation marks were introduced. Until the end of the Republican era, punctuation was always interlinear rather than within the text flow (with the exception of quotation marks and brackets).

Anatomy and typography of Hanzi characters

Hanzi characters are customarily monowidth; they sit within a notional square. This is defined as the em square in typesetting, referred to as the ‘body frame’. Spacing between Chinese characters are defined internally within each glyph, with a margin within the body frame called the ‘surface frame’. The surface frame is often defined as percentages of the body frame. The larger this percentage, the more tightly spaced and the larger the typeface appears. If a typeface’s surface frame is 90%, given that the em square consists of 1000 units, the space between two characters would be 200 units [figure 7]. This data is usually not known to the user of typefaces and can only be judged by eye. Condensed typefaces such as most Fangsongti (仿宋体) appear very widely spaced on the body frame, whereas typefaces with small surface frames such as Kaiti often appear small compared with other typefaces of the point size [figure 8]. In the Hanzi script, all strokes and characters are centred optically within the body frame, and sized and aligned optically between each character. This makes it possible for most Chinese fonts to be set horizontally as well as vertically. 

Figure 7 The (average) surface frames and internal character spacing of Microsoft Ya Hei (top), ST Songti (middle) and ST Kaiti (bottom).
Figure 8 A comparison of Songti (top left), Heiti (top right), Kaiti (bottom left) and Fangsongti (bottom right). Note that the appearing size and spacing of the characters vary.

Type classification

Chinese typefaces can be broadly classified into four major categories: SongtiFangsongtiKaiti (Kaishu), and Heiti [figure 9]. These categories of typefaces are considered general purpose and conventional, most suitable for continuous text as well as display use. Typefaces that are outside of these four categories can generally be considered novelty display typefaces.

Figure 9 Top to bottom: Four major categories of Hanzi typefaces: Songti, Fangsong, Kaiti and Heiti

Kaiti (楷体) is a calligraphic typestyle that closely follow the style of Kaishu (楷书). All strokes are made up of curves, with no orthogonal lines. Conveying traditionalism, this style is conventionally used for correspondence, business cards or invitations, suggesting formality. It is also often used for Children’s readers or textbooks, because it most closely resembles handwritten forms. Kaiti may be preferred by elderly readers, but can sometimes appear too traditional, and may slow down reading if used in long texts. 

Songti (宋体) is the most ubiquitous category of typefaces for continuous reading. Its modulated stroke contrast and emphasised stroke terminals can make it comparable to Latin seriffed typefaces. It is also sometimes called Mingti (明体) in Chinese, especially in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Songti has a literary quality that works well for both text and display use. 

Fangsongti (仿宋体) was a style developed for interlinear notes in small sizes in xylographic printing during the Song Dynasty. The stroke contrast is low, with condensed proportions and often very light stroke weights. Fansong typefaces are usually very light in weight, therefore unsuitable for lengthy continuous reading, especially in small sizes. Its condensed proportions make it suitable for vertical setting.

Heiti (黑体) appears to be the most contemporary style amongst the four major categories. It is most similar to monolinear sans serif Latin typefaces. During the letterpress era, Heiti was used for display purposes or as emphasis within continuous text, and was only available in medium or bold weights. Much wider ranges of weights are now available, and they are popular for continuous reading as well as display use in contemporary graphic design.

Reading direction

Vertical setting is suitable for continuous, immersive reading, often associated with literary works. When vertical setting is used in a publication, binding is always on the right with the fore-edge on the left. Horizontal setting is often more suitable for complex content structures and publications that are designed to be read selectively or consulted. For parallel bilingual texts, horizontal setting is often more convenient for both the designer and the reader.

Alignment and justification

Continuous prose in Chinese is customarily set justified. The fact that Chinese characters are monowidth makes flush left, ragged right alignment impractical. Flush left alignment can only be achieved satisfactorily when line breaks are manually forced. Column widths should be defined as multiples of the point size of the text in order for the spacing to be optimal as defined by the type designer [figure 10]. Chinese justification and spacing rules should be used to ensure good spacing.

Figure 10 Chinese typesetting is based on a character grid set on multiples of the point size of the body text.


Chinese punctuation marks usually occupy the space of a full em square. However, the space around punctuation can be flexibly reduced to improve spacing. Larger display or short texts usually benefit from reducing the spacing around punctuation to half-width [figure 11]. There are two types of Chinese punctuation marks [figure 12]. In simplified Chinese fonts, punctuation normally sit near the bottom of the em square, aligned to the left (except the dash, ellipses and brackets). Punctuation in Traditional Chinese fonts are centred within the em square, making them function for both horizontal and vertical setting. Note that the single and double quotation marks are different in these two kinds of punctuation. Line-beginning and line-ending rules for punctuation should always be observed [figure 13]. Mainland China and Taiwan have separate guidelines for punctuation usage. These should be consulted when designing for different locales.

Figure 11 By using half-width quotation marks and angled brackets (work title marks) in the bottom line, five full character spaces have been saved, and the text appears more coherent and aesthetically pleasing.
Figure 12 Traditional and Simplified Chinese fonts come with different sets of punctuation which are positioned differently within the body frame. Note that Simplified Chinese uses English style quotation marks.
Figure 13 Certain punctuation should not fall at the beginning or the end of a line of Chinese text.

Line spacing (leading)

Ascenders and descenders in Latin text make it require relatively less line spacing compared to Chinese. For Chinese typesetting, a line space of at least half an em (half the point size of the text) is recommended, so that lines of text can be clearly differentiated. For example, for a type size of 10 point, the line spacing (leading) should be at least 15 point. The gap between two lines of type is hence half an em, 5 point.

Signalling new paragraphs

In Chinese text, new paragraphs are usually signalled by using first-line indents. Traditionally, this indent is two-em wide. A blank line may also be used between paragraphs when a larger break is required. When the column width is narrow, a one-em first-line indent may be used instead. 

Comparison between Hanzi and Latin scripts

From both linguistic and visual points of view, Hanzi and Latin are at the polar opposites of the spectrum. While the Latin alphabet is made up of 26 letters in lower- and uppercase with simple, somewhat modular strokes and shapes, Hanzi is an open system consisting of tens of thousands of characters which are much more complex in form and construction. Hanzi characters do not have obvious alignment references such as baseline, x-height or cap-height as in the Latin script. This makes alignment with Latin or other scripts slightly inconvenient. [figure 14]

Figure 14 A comparison of the anatomy of Chinese and Latin characters.

Hanzi characters occupy the em square quite fully and, without such components as ascenders and descenders, appear to be much larger than Latin letters, given the same point size. Judicious adjustments should be made in order to make both scripts work well together, not compromising legibility.

No two Hanzi characters are absolutely the same width, height and proportion in the same typeface, as the profiles and structure of individual characters vary greatly. But on average they are optically equal in height and in width. They are comparable to uppercase Latin letters, which are of equal height. As the Hanzi script has no casing, it is rather difficult to compare Latin lowercase letters with Hanzi. The x-height would be a key reference for size matching and alignment. 

The lack of any variant forms in Hanzi typefaces that are comparable to upper- and lowercase, small caps, italic make text articulation different in the Hanzi script. Other variables such as colour, weight, size, change of typeface and use of graphic devices will have to be used instead to signal text structure or differentiation. The lack of word spaces make Hanzi and Latin quite different in texture in a passage of text. Punctuation provide the only breaks in reading a passage of Hanzi text. 

It would be difficult to compare the styles of characters between Latin and Hanzi, as their historical developments took completely different courses. However, both Latin and Hanzi have typefaces with modulated and modulated stroke contrast. Songti and seriffed typefaces have modulated stroke contrast and are considered similar in form and construction, though the logic and features are different, with Latin based on calligraphy with broad-edge and flexible pointed writing tools, while Hanzi is based on manipulations of the brush. Heiti and sans serif share obvious similarities with little stroke contrast. Obviously calligraphic typefaces such as Lishu and English Roundhand for example would share little similarity, if at all.

Considerations when combining Hanzi with Latin

Text extent

A passage translated from English into Chinese is usually shorter. In a study conducted by George Sadek Maxim Zhukov in 1997, the Chinese translation of a selected English text is found to only require 61% of the area occupied by the English counterpart. This rather large difference in text lengths can create a difference in visual effect on the page. If the two scripts are intended to be given equal status, careful layout and typographic considerations have to be made in order to create visual parity. 

Type size

The anatomical differences between Chinese and Latin characters make them appear different in size even when they are both set in the same point size. Chinese characters appear larger, as they occupy the em square more fully than Latin characters. Latin typefaces with large x-heights and relatively shorter ascenders and descenders tend to match better with Hanzi characters. The type size and baseline of Latin type may be adjusted in relation to the Chinese typeface used so that they are better harmonised visually. Common type sizes for body text in modern Chinese typesetting is between 9 and 12 points, which is similar to typesetting in Latin-based languages. The most common size for Chinese body text in lead type used to be 10.5 point. Xylographic books used much larger character sizes still, around 1cm square. Due to the shear stroke densities of Chinese characters, it is important that the size of Chinese text is not so small that reading comfort and legibility is compromised.

Weight and density

Chinese characters can have anywhere between one to 64 strokes, making their densities vary quite considerably. A page of Chinese text can appear spotty compared with the even grey value in Latin script. This variation in density is natural and aids legibility, though poorer quality typefaces would appear rather spottier. Many Chinese typefaces offer a range of weights. Differences in weight is achieved by varying the average stroke widths in relation to characters with varying stroke densities, so that a reasonably consistent overall visual weight is achieved. When matching weights between Latin and Chinese typefaces, look for an approximate equivalence of overall density rather than an absolute match of stroke widths. Very heavy weights of Chinese typefaces should be avoided for small sizes, as the small counters tend to be filled in, hindering legibility.

Inserting Latin characters within a Hanzi text

When inserting Latin characters within a Hanzi text, it would be helpful if a more condensed Latin typeface is used, as words in Latin-based languages tend span longer than several Hanzi characters. Latin characters that are too wide would disrupt the overall spacing. Spacing between Latin letters and Hanzi characters often need to be adjusted in order to appear visually balanced. A word space would be too large; a space of the width of one-eighth of an em would usually suffice. [figure 15]

Figure 15 Xin Gothic has rather condensed Latin glyphs and a moderately large x-height. A space of one-eighths of an em gives an appropriate distance between the Latin and Hanzi glyphs.

A few points to note when designing with Hanzi

  1. Alignment of Hanzi characters are based on the centre line, with no precise references such as the baseline in Latin letters. It is normal that very few parts of adjacent characters line up, if at all – this is how it should be. Do not try to force elements to align.
  2. Optimal spacing in Hanzi text is achieved by having a column width that is precisely the width of the point size of the text multiplied by the number of characters desired in a line.
  3. Hanzi text is customarily set justified. If flush left, ragged right is desired, manual line breaks would be necessary, and this should be done by someone who knows the language.
  4. Hanzi requires more generous leading compared with Latin text. A leading of 1.5 times of the text size is the minimum.
  5. The grey values of Traditional and Simplified Chinese text can be quite different due to the difference in complexity of the characters, and more different still when compared with Latin text. Comparing overall densities rather than exact stroke widths would be more useful. Latin typefaces with larger x-heights tend to harmonise better with Hanzi text.
  6. Since Hanzi characters can be very dense, a slightly larger body text size is usually advisable. 10 point is a good starting point. 8 point or below would be arduous to read.
  7. Some Chinese and Latin punctuation marks are very similar, especially comma, colon, semicolon, dashes, ellipses, and parentheses. Check that proportional-width punctuation is not used within a Chinese text. 
  8. Use lining figures where there are Arabic numerals within Chinese text. 

Further reading

Heijdra, Martin J. (2004). The development of modern typography in East Asia, 1850–2000. The East Asian Library Journal 11, no. 2. 100–168.

Minick, Scott and Ping, Jiao (1990). Chinese graphic design in the twentieth century. London: Thames and Hudson.

Takagi, Mariko (2014) Hanzigraphy: a typographic translation between Latin letters and Chinese characters. Hong Kong: MCCM Creations.

Tam, Keith (2012). ‘A descriptive framework for Chinese–English bilingual typography’ in Typographische Monatsblätter, 4 | 5 | 2012, 38–46

Typographische Monatsblätter, 4 | 5 | 2012

Xiaofeng Wang 王小枫(2013). 中西文字并排设计 [Chinese & Latin typography]. Dalian, China: Dalian University of Technology Press.

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