Strokes of ge­nius that built a lan­guage for the world

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COVER STORY - By XING YI

The Chi­nese writ­ing sys­tem is among the old­est in the world, stretch­ing from the script carved on or­a­cle bones dur­ing the Shang Dy­nasty (c.16th cen­tury-11th cen­tury BC) to text typed on to­day’s com­put­ers.

Although the char­ac­ters have evolved from pic­tograms to be­come more sim­pli­fied, most Chi­nese would have no dif­fi­culty in rec­og­niz­ing many of the pro­gen­i­tors of cur­rent char­ac­ters that go back hun­dreds of years.

Just as English words are made up of let­ters that in turn con­sist of strokes, Chi­nese char­ac­ters are built us­ing strokes, but that is about where the close sim­i­lar­ity between the two writ­ing sys­tems ends.

For any­one learn­ing Chi­nese cal­lig­ra­phy, the char­ac­ter yong, mean­ing for­ever, is re­garded as the one par ex­cel­lence to prac­tice be­cause it Chi­nese ty­pog­ra­phy con­tains the eight most com­mon strokes that are part of al­most all the char­ac­ters.

Af­ter strokes, the ba­sic build­ing blocks of most char­ac­ters are rad­i­cals, which con­sist of sev­eral strokes that in iso­la­tion rep­re­sent a root mean­ing. These rad­i­cals are com­bined with other char­ac­ters, pro­duc­ing thou­sands of com­bi­na­tions. In many cases one of the build­ing blocks used in mak­ing these char­ac­ters acts as a pointer to how it is pro­nounced.

How­ever, be­cause of changes in lan­guage over the cen­turies this is far from a sure pro­nun­ci­a­tion guide, and the fruits of any guess­work may be mere em­bar­rass­ment. Thus the say­ing that a medi­ocre scholar reads un­fa­mil­iar char­ac­ters by half.

There is such a thing as a Chi­nese type­writer, but it has never been widely used be­cause of the sheer vol­ume of char­ac­ters. So be­fore the mass use of com­puter pinyin in­put soft­ware that has come in since the ad­vent of per­sonal com­put­ers, Chi­nese were apt to do a lot more hand­writ­ing than their Western coun­ter­parts.

That is why hand­writ­ing con­tin­ues to be em­pha­sized in Chi­nese ed­u­ca­tion, and be­ing able to write beau­ti­fully with a per­sonal style is con­sid­ered a mark of honor, and an id­iom has it that in see­ing a per­son’s hand­writ­ing you see the per­son.

Af­ter the pop­u­lar­iza­tion of the per­sonal com­puter, con­ve­nient Chi­nese in­put soft­ware based on pinyin, word pro­ces­sor and in­ter­net, dig­i­tal Chi­nese type­faces are the lat­est in­no­va­tion.

There are about 1,000 Chi­nese type­faces, per­haps the most com­monly used be­ing Songti, as well known and rec­og­niz­able among Chi­nese as the Latin type­face Times New Ro­man is among Western­ers. Its name comes from the Song Dy­nasty (960—1279), when wood­block print­ing was no longer lim­ited to print­ing Bud­dhist su­tras, but also used for the large-scale pub­li­ca­tion of books on the clas­sics, books of lit­er­a­ture, and school text­books.

For the con­ve­nience of carv­ing char­ac­ters in wooden blocks, the carver used straight lines to re­place curves but re­tained hand­writ­ing fea­tures by ad­ding a serif — the hor­i­zon­tal stroke that adorns the bot­tom of the let­ter f here.

To this day, most news­pa­pers and books in China are printed in Songti or vari­ant type­faces of the Songti fam­ily. In com­put­ers this type­face can be found un­der the name SimSun in the Win­dows sys­tem or STSong on Mac.

Heiti is a widely rec­og­nized Chi­nese sans-serif type­face sim­i­lar to the Latin type­faces Hel­vetica and Arial in that it is de­void of those small adorn­ments at the ends of cer- tain strokes. It was in­vented in the early 20th cen­tury.

The strokes in Heiti are uni­form in their width and have a weight­ier, block­ier and bolder look that does Songti.

Heiti was used more of­ten in ti­tles and posters when it was first in­vented. But it has be­come a pop­u­lar type­face by dint of Mi­crosoft us­ing a vari­a­tion of it for the past 10 years in web­site de­sign.

The type­face Kaiti is named af­ter a style of cal­lig­ra­phy that orig­i­nated dur­ing the Eastern Han Dy­nasty (25-220), peaked in the Tang Dy­nasty (618-907) and be­came the reg­u­lar script of hand­writ­ing in China. Any­one want­ing to study cal­lig­ra­phy will be told to start by im­i­tat­ing Kaiti.

Kaiti, with a breezy style that mim­ics hand­writ­ing, is of­ten used to ap­peal to read­ers on a warm, per­sonal level.

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