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Chinese typefaces (and fonts) and how to use them



Learn Chinese at advanced levels and you’ll eventually have to write a paper, or design something, with Chinese text. I’ve written a paper or two, and so I’ll summarize my preferences regarding Chinese typefaces.

BTW, in this blog entry “typeface” refers to a set of glyphs in many variations in weight, width, Italics or Roman, etc. “Font” refers to a variation. Adobe Garamond and Monotype Garamond are two different typefaces. Adobe Garamond Bold and Adobe Garamond Bold Italic are two different fonts, but the same typeface. These terms are being blurred lately, so elsewhere you’ll probably see them all called fonts.

The three most common Chinese type styles are, in chronological order, regular script (楷書體), Ming (明體), and sans-serif (黑體). You can read a history of these styles (in Chinese) here. To summarize:

  • The first moveable type was from the Song Dynasty, using ceramic tiles in regular script. Compared to most modern regular script typefaces, Song Dynasty regular script typefaces have straighter lines and lower variation in line width. This is what is commonly called imitation Song (仿宋體), although it is still a regular script type style.
  • The Ming style appeared in the Ming Dynasty as a result of straightening regular script lines. I’m not sure why. It was not created to compensate for wood grains. Regular script can be properly carved out of wood. Also, in Mainland China this style is called Song (宋體), which is a bad name at best as there is no evidence of this style appearing before the Ming Dynasty. There have been xenophobic explanations made up in an attempt to support this bad name. This has created a mess of analyses and theories trying to explain the difference between Ming and Song as if they were two different things.
  • Sans-serif Chinese typefaces appeared in the late 19th century, first in Japan, probably from Latin character sans-serif typeface influence.

Use of these type styles depends on medium. On paper, for body text, you’ll most likely see a Ming typeface, although sans-serif is also appropriate and not rare. On screen you’ll most likely see sans-serif. This makes sense as until recently, printers have had a higher resolution than displays. Sans-serif typefaces, with their low contrast, large counters, and frame-filling glyphs, allow for high legibility at low resolutions. Ming typefaces have characters that are more distinct, and a little less legible, but the popularity of Ming typefaces on paper is probably more due to the tradition of using it for printing body text since the Ming Dynasty. Regular script typefaces’ characters are most distinct, but least legible at small sizes, and can occasionally be seen in body text but probably not at small sizes and not smaller than about 48 pixels high, unless the designer has bad taste.

Below I have an example of Chinese text in (from right to left) regular script, Ming, and sans-serif typefaces.


Notice that the Ming and sans-serif examples fill each square more than the regular script example. That is because regular script requires certain strokes to extend out far from the body of the character in order to look right, requiring the body of the character to be smaller in order to fit in the frame.

Therefore, I have some guidelines for Chinese typeface usage. This is my opinion.

  • No more than 2 different typefaces in one document, unless you have a good reason. You can have different fonts but use them appropriately.
  • If you have almost exclusively Chinese text, prioritize vertical orthography, allowing Chinese to be displayed in its natural direction.
  • On screen, prioritize sans-serif typefaces. No Ming typefaces less than 24 pixels high. No regular script typefaces less than 48 pixels high.
  • On paper, prioritize sans-serif and Ming typefaces. No Ming typefaces smaller than 10 points. No regular script typefaces smaller than 18 points.
  • Also, do not shear Chinese glyphs in order to fake an Italic font. Emphasis should be done with emphasis marks, and titles should have 《》 or wavy lines to the left or below.

As for recommended typefaces,

  • I rarely type in regular script. Most modern regular script typefaces are quite objectionable in that there are too many wrong characters and they are too obvious. Just pick one. DF-KaiSB included in Windows doesn’t suck as much as most others. If I absolutely must type something in regular script, I have Morisawa’s 欧体楷書, which has much fewer wrong characters than anything else I’ve seen, whose glyphs I edit as I need to.
  • For Ming, if you want frame-filling glyphs and large counters, Founder’s 博雅方刊宋 is good. If you don’t require counters that are that large, and have the patience, you can use Kozuka Mincho included in a lot of Adobe software and use the glyphs panel to select alternate glyphs when the default one is too Shinjitai for you. If you don't want to deal with glyph selection but want multiple weights, Founder's 雅宋 is one of the few acceptable typefaces. Of course, Ming and sans-serif typefaces contain just as many wrong characters as regular script typefaces, but since it isn’t regular script, it’s less noticeable.
  • If you’re using sans-serif, you probably want legibility and even texture. Microsoft’s YaHei and Founder’s 蘭亭黑 are the best I’ve seen. The former is based on the latter, tweaked to be even more frame-filling and with extensions to the first and second stroke of boxes to make them more distinct (in the regular font. The bold and light fonts lack these extensions.). You can read more about their design here. I find that YaHei can look crowded and slightly messy with the extensions on boxes, while 蘭亭黑 looks simpler. Ideally I would use 蘭亭黑 most of the time and YaHei in sizes below 8 points and on low-density displays. Microsoft JhengHei, done by Monotype, is far inferior to either.

If you can read Chinese, blog.justfont.com is a Chinese typography blog whose author(s) are much more familiar with and anal about Chinese typography than me. Read it and you'll probably become a better typographer.


Recommended Comments

Really great post. Great idea to put this up, very helpful and informative. Thanks!


Two questions:


- How's the situation for free and paid Chinese web fonts?


- What do you think of the psychology of each of the more popular Chinese fonts? I don't have enough experience to really know, but I've spoken with native speakers about it and found that my perception of the "feel" of different typefaces is totally different than theirs. Did you see this great NYTimes experiment on fonts? How do you think Chinese perceptions of different Chinese fonts would be in similar experiments?

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How's the situation for free and paid Chinese web fonts?

Free fonts are vary widely in quality. The ones that suck really suck, but there are some good ones made by "real" foundries like Arphic.


Paid fonts are usually dirt cheap, especially considering the amount of work required to produce one, e.g. look at Founder's Taobao store.


What do you think of the psychology of each of the more popular Chinese fonts?

Interesting article. I'd imagine that there is some kind of similar effect to Chinese typefaces. Most Chinese readers do not pay as much attention to typefaces compared to Latin character language users. There is no widely detested typeface like Comic Sans, although I've read a lot of complaints about the ROC's standard character forms, exemplified in PMingLiU version 5.03 and later. Personally, I think SimSun occupies a spot analogous to Times New Roman. It's default, popular because it's default, ubiquitous, generally unobjectionable, less refined though, but most Chinese readers can't tell. PMingLiU before v5.03 was superior. There's something different about it though; it's often used on Chinese websites where a sans-serif typeface should be used. The other OS-included typefaces I can't comment on.

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I only use typefaces if every character contains at least one random squiggle or 口 in the shape of a heart.

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If you have almost exclusively Chinese text, prioritize vertical orthography, allowing Chinese to be displayed in its natural direction.


How many papers written by Chinese people use vertical ortography nowadays?

I'm not sure, but this strikes me as a case of trying to be more Chinese than the Chinese.


Otherwise, this has been a very informative blog post.

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How many papers written by Chinese people use vertical ortography nowadays?

I'm not sure, but this strikes me as a case of trying to be more Chinese than the Chinese.

Few. Most of them will have an abundance of citations or formulae or whatnot in a Latin-character language, making it inconvenient to typeset.


For other things, use the Chinese as your standard, and your Chinese will be just like theirs.

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What do you think about slanting of horizontal strokes?  We usually write them slightly slanted but most modern printed matter seems to use Ming / san-serif typefaces that has completely horizontal strokes.


For on-screen typefaces it is understandable because they look sharper on low resolution by sticking to the pixel grid, but for printed matter I wonder if it is due to people just choosing the default computer fonts, or if there's some reason that makes them preferable to "slanted" typefaces like the fang song ti on this page.

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Nice post.


I have recently become a fan of Google's Noto font (for personal screen usage). Mainly because it can display pretty much everything in a coherent style. So no more borrowing from another font when you see a random Japanese or Cantonese character or something. Noto also has a few different styles of CJK characters, my personal favourite is the Korean one. Try them out. (Note that not every style has all the characters, so for example the Korean style doesn't have some Simplified/Cantonese/Japanese characters, but these will be borrowed by the Traditional/Japanese styles respectively. All the styles fit with each other but the 字形 is sort of different between styles. It doesn't really bother me, and in fact seeing Simplified characters in the Korean style would probably be weirder.)


My favourite Ming font is the old version of MingLiu. (I think like pre-Vista) I have no idea why, but from around Vista onward they changed MingLiu to look a lot more Taiwanese and I didn't really like it.

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I've used the Noto Sans series on occasions where I need one typeface that can display standard characters in many standards. As with any standard typeface, there will be wrong characters. The Korean-oriented one follows the Kangxi Dictionary, if I'm not mistaken. Not a descriptive reference.

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