Chinese Typography and a PhD

A post by ABDA member Tony Palmer

VolumeOneCover  Volume2cover

Ok, before I get started, two things. Firstly, in my experience whenever anyone starts talking about their PhD thesis boredom sets in pretty quickly. So, sorry about that. I’ll try to make this as straight-to-the-point as I can. And secondly, whenever I mention the topic of my PhD, Chinese Typography, most people assume I’m talking about Chinese calligraphy. But my area of study has very little to do with Chinese calligraphy. Of course, there is a link between typography and calligraphy, but only a very small one. Eventually, I hope the work I am in doing in this area will help make this distinction clearer.

Anyway, about five years ago when I first seriously began looking at Chinese typography I thought I’d find some basic texts that would tell me all I was curious to know. I presumed there would be Chinese publication equivalents to Erik Spiekermann’s Stop Stealing Sheep and Learn How to Use Type Properly, or The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst. But after some fairly exhaustive searching I realised Chinese typography didn’t have the same legacy of typographic commentary that the Latin alphabet has.

Discovering this was probably the first of many ‘wow’ moments I would have as a postgraduate student. It was as if I had climbed a great cliff face and come up on to a plateau to see for the very first time a wide, untouched landscape you had never thought could have possibly existed. Now, in hindsight it might have been wise at this point to put my interests aside. The landscape was vast and seemingly pathless. But it was all a bit too late. For by then I was plunging headlong into the scrub and I’m still scrambling around in it now – trying to write those books I couldn’t find when I first started out.

Even the first step in this journey – getting myself into a position to write commentary on Chinese type – has been a massive undertaking. A project like this requires a highly specific and vast amount of technical design document translation from Mandarin to English. And there’s not only the language interpretation.

Often the translation requires research into the use and application of now-redundant typesetting technology. At several points in the process I have nearly given up on this process alone, as it virtually impossible to find anyone than can translate this kind of stuff. But gradually, I’ve taken the task on myself and become weirdly proficient in deciphering 1960s Chinese typesetting manuals whilst still floundering with SBS’s Mandarin news broadcast.

To-date I’m about half-way through formulating the content chapters of my thesis. These chapters outline a complete Chinese typographic syntax. Or in other words, I’ve written half of what I feel is important to know when attempting to typeset Chinese language well. The first part of the syntax addresses the nature of Chinese typeface designs, covering-off on all kinds of information about the size and complexity of the Chinese alphabet and how this has severely limited the variation of unique typeface designs.

I was also really excited when I got permission from Founder Electronics in Beijing to display a new typeface, Yuan Song (which translates as, rounded Song – with Song being the dynasty) designed by the elder-statesman of Chinese type design, Yu Bing Nan. Look at the image below and note the typeface’s rounded serifs and terminals. This approach opens up some exciting new territory for Chinese language letter forms.


The syntax then moves on from typefaces to examine type sizes and line spaces. To me it is fascinating digging back through iconic publications like The Selected Works of Mao Zedong and, The Quotations of Mao Zedong, then analysing precisely what the very best typographic craftsmen were doing with these texts so as to reach as wide a reading public as possible. It’s also been something of a revitalisation of my own personal thirty-five year connection to type. I’d nearly forgotten all about the strict and limited size groupings of commercially available type, and how these were as much an aesthetic imperative as a commercial one. Today, thinking about the endless array of size choices and spacing options from digital technology, it seems to me that it might not be such a bad idea to go back and have a look at all this. A kind of less is more thing. Where headings, text and footnote sizes follow a purposed and directed size allocation governed by the creators of the type themselves. This next image shows some of these groupings.


Both these chapters, Typefaces and Type Sizes and Line Spacing I’ve converted to ebook publications and are currently available on iBooks and Amazon. All this digital production work is probably the reason why I’m still only half-way through the third chapter of the syntax, Letter Spacing and Punctuation. Yes, yes. I know it sounds boring and weird. But I get really excited about Chinese language and punctuation usage. No other single factor ruins the continuity and regularity of good Chinese typesetting than poorly handled punctuation. In fact there is a maze of dialogue boxes for punctuation regulation in the Chinese version of InDesign. Which reminds me – I didn’t mention before how much of a pain-in-the-arse task it was to learn how to use the Chinese version of InDesign. This screen grab shows level of detail and control InDesign allows for punctuation setting. What a freaking nightmare.


The final content chapter of my syntax will discuss layout. At this point, I only have a vague notion of what it will contain. But I never seem to stop thinking about Chinese type, so the whole process of study and writing never feels particularly onerous. It’s actually pretty exciting. A bit like that whole pioneer thing – striking out into the wild without a map or guide. Hey, maybe I’ll never finish this, maybe I’ll die out here. I could think of worse things.

Tony Palmer is a Melbourne-based designer. He has also written a number of books on Australian History.



1 comment

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  • Debra Billson

    Tony!! You're a better man than I am. Keep up the good fight! My head hurts just thinking about it!