Jump to content
  • Sign Up

Eyes tired when reading Chinese... Normal?


Recommended Posts

My eyes feel tired when I read Chinese. I don't seem to have this problem with alphanumerical characters though. I often use pop-up dictionaries not because I don't know a character but because the pop-up usually contains a larger version of the character! So here goes my little analysis.

Chinese characters inherently pack a lot of information per character, which means two things:

1) Fewer characters are required to express a thought than would be required using ABCs.

2) For a given font size, ABCs are always easier on the eyes than Chinese characters.

Now, before anyone jumps at me, here's an experiment. Step away from your computer screen until you can't make out either of the following two characters, both of which are the same font size:

A 疆

Then slowly step towards your screen and see which one you can make out first. No doubt it's the A.

But, like I said, 疆 contains a lot of information, while the A is meaningless, therefore this is not a fair comparison at all. A fairer comparison would be this:

xīn jiāng

de jiāng

Now that the pinyin version and the Chinese version occupy the same amount of space and contain similar amounts of information, do the same experiment again, and you will find that the Chinese character is actually easier to read, in fact, good luck trying to read the pinyin tone marks.

My problem is this: If Chinese characters inherently occupy less space, then why don't they make them bigger?? The font size used in most Chinese websites is ridiculously small. Trying to configure any piece of Chinese software makes me want to stick with default settings every time, for example:


... or this:


Now, if you ask a literate Chinese person, they will tell you that they have zero problems reading the text in the above examples. I can't help to think that they guess a large proportion of the characters, without actually based on context and the surrounding characters. They can't actually make out the intricate details of each character.

We could ask the same Chinese person to write down the following randomly chosen low-usage frequency characters, and see how well they do this time:


Making them a little bigger might help:


Oh! Now even I can do it!

I think the problem is to do with aesthetics, since mixing font sizes on the same line of text doesn't look very neat:


... although it is undeniably a lot easier to read!

I have read in several places that reading a large font size from afar is much better for our eyes than sitting near and using a small font size. In both cases the same size image is projected onto the retina, but the latter approach requires more accommodation of our eyes which results in eye strain and fatigue.

Interestingly, I notice that a large proportion of Chinese students wear glasses or contacts, so maybe there is a correlation between this and the ubiquitous tiny fonts? Perhaps a new pandemic of impaired eyesight is about to ensue as a result of smartphones' tiny displays?

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I've had this problem before too, and I still have it sometimes, but it's definitely gotten better. Actually I find overly large fonts rather annoying these days - they force my eyes too move too much, and it slows down my reading speed. I guess Chinese people would feel the same way.

I think this is a normal progression, and it's not at all limited to Chinese. If you look at an English book for small Children the font size will surely seem ridiculously large to you. As the reading skills of Children improve, the fonts they feel comfortable with get smaller and smaller, until they reach normal adult levels. I think the same will happen for most learners of Chinese as their skills progress - which is why I've chosen to emulate this process with font sizes that automatically adapt to your skill level in my Web-Tool Chinese Reader Revolution.

I think a good way to get more comfortable with small fonts and reduce eye strain is to study radicals. When you're very familiar with all the components in a characters, you can read (and learn) it realtively easy, without much eye strain. For example, when I see 袈 - a very rare Character I've probably never seen before - I can instantly and without straining my eyes recognize it's 力 and 口 over 衣, even at this font size. Not because my eyesight is particularly good, but because I'm very familiar with these components.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I a list of the first 10,000 most used characters, sorted by frequency of use. Although 袈 is a statistically rare character, ranking 4833rd on my list, it's a relatively simple character compared with, say, 徽, which ranks 2277th on the same list.

The truth is that some small font sizes are unable to accurately represent the intricate detail of many characters. I imagine this problem gets worse with traditional characters:

開關 vs 开关 which one looks clearer when you stand two metres away from your screen?

Clearly more detail demands larger fonts.

Today I did the following experiment: I put a small table in front of my desk and the keyboard and mouse on it, Then I increased font size and sat about 2 metres away from the screen. My eyes were instantly more relaxed. I have used this set-up for four hours today and it feels great, although unfortunately some text cannot be made bigger e.g. GUI menus, etc, so it's not very practical for regular use, although I will use it while just reading texts. In the future when I move out of the university and I have a bigger place I will consider a projector.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Of course the more complex the character the more difficult it gets, actually I have wondered how they do it with those extremely complex traditional characters in small fonts too, I never studied them myself - but obviously it works for the Chinese. I still think the more familiar you are with the characters and components (and how they look when they're not so clear any more in a small font), the easier it gets. After all you don't really need to see every line as long as you can make out the components and every character looks different. It's really the same problem with sloppy handwriting or cursive script - lines become unclear, the characters seem unreadable to us because we're not used to them, yet Chinese people read them effortlessly.

I think you could set you operating system to display all fonts (including menus) larger. Or otherwise just use a smaller resolution if you want to work at such a distance.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

This is something I've always been curious about too.

I can sort of understand it for localised versions of international products because the people doing the UI design probably aren't going to have any understanding of the Chinese language, which is why you get websites still sticking with 8pt fonts for small text when you switch the language to Chinese, which is basically unreadable.

It's always bemused me however when Chinese websites and software products also use font sizes based on defaults more suited to the latin alphabet. I figure it's lack of decent/automatic support in the OS and browser for this sort of thing, and programmers being lazy and just sticking to defaults.

For example, in Windows, you can't have different default system font sizes for different languages, and although you can configure this sort of thing individually in some web browsers, the defaults are still set to sizes better suited to the latin alphabet because because the majority of web browsers are written by people from English (or latin-alphabet) using countries and the defaults reflect that. Therefore unless the programmer makes a conscious effort to change this then it will just stay at a size suited for English.

For all the faults of simplified characters, one thing I like about them is that I find them much easier to read at smaller font sizes.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

For all the faults of simplified characters, one thing I like about them is that I find them much easier to read at smaller font sizes

That's a very fair comment.

And regarding larger font size for Chinese characters, I doubt it's ever going to happen because you can't go much larger on a device that needs to fit in the average pocket. Zooming is the best we'll ever get.

By the way, I am still using my 2m away from my laptop, I can already see better without increasing font size as much as yesterday. I think basically my eyes were tired, so it must be working. Someone at work told me once that it's a good idea to vary the distance. Is it possible that things like Google Glass might screw up our eyes?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

And regarding larger font size for Chinese characters, I doubt it's ever going to happen because you can't go much larger on a device that needs to fit in the average pocket.

I don't see that as so much as a problem, because even at larger font sizes Chinese is still more compact than English. I also find that font sizes don't need to be significantly larger. e.g. I find 12pt to be comfortable for English, and 14pt provides the same level of comfort for me when reading Chinese. Chinese at 12pt feels like English at 10pt - manageable, but cramped.

Chinese at 10pt and below really shouldn't be used for any significant length of text.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

You're definitely not alone there. I find this particularly an issue in videogames and certain programs where you can't change font size. Played a game called Age of Wushu not long ago, it did have the option to enlarge text but it wasn't all that helpful because all it did was zoom in, making the characters blurrier.

Some characters are definitely impossible to read with some of the small fonts being used. For example the 鬱 in 憂鬱. Fortunately as far as I know this character is never used alone so you can always guess the context. I also came to like 简体字 for that reason, as it does away with redundant and unnecessarily complex characters such as 鬱 (simplified variant: 郁).

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and select your username and password later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Click here to reply. Select text to quote.

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...