Driving the painstaking process of building Chinese laptop or computer fonts

Pamela G. Knowles

But there are tens of hundreds of Chinese characters, and a 5-by-7 grid was as well modest to make them legible. Chinese expected a grid of 16 by 16 or larger—i.e., at minimum 32 bytes of memory (256 bits) per character. Have been a single to envision a font that contains 70,000 small-resolution Chinese people, the whole memory requirement would exceed two megabytes. Even a font containing only 8,000 of the most typical Chinese people would involve approximately 256 kilobytes just to retail store the bitmaps. That was 4 occasions the overall memory ability of most off-the-shelf personalized computers in the early 1980s.

As critical as these memory issues ended up, the most taxing problems confronting small-res Chinese font output in the 1970s and 1980s had been types of aesthetics and structure. Extensive before any individual sat down with a program like Gridmaster, the lion’s share of operate took put off the pc, applying pen, paper, and correction fluid.

Designers expended yrs attempting to vogue bitmaps that fulfilled the low-memory prerequisites and preserved a modicum of calligraphic elegance. Between those who created this character established, no matter if by hand-drawing drafts of bitmaps for certain Chinese figures or digitizing them utilizing Gridmaster, were being Lily Huan-Ming Ling (凌焕銘) and Ellen Di Giovanni.

Draft bitmap drawings of Chinese people for the Sinotype III font.


The core dilemma that designers confronted was translating amongst two radically distinct techniques of writing Chinese: the hand-drawn character, generated with pen or brush, and the bitmap glyph, developed with an array of pixels organized on two axes. Designers experienced to make a decision how (and no matter if) they ended up likely to try out to re-produce particular orthographic features of handwritten Chinese, these types of as entrance strokes, stroke tapering, and exit strokes.

In the situation of the Sinotype III font, the system of developing and digitizing minimal-resolution Chinese bitmaps was extensively documented. A single of the most interesting archival resources from this period is a binder comprehensive of grids with hand-drawn hash marks all more than them—sketches that would afterwards be digitized into bitmaps for many countless numbers of Chinese figures. Each individual of these figures was thoroughly laid out and, in most instances, edited by Louis Rosenblum and GARF, making use of correction fluid to erase any “bits” the editor disagreed with. Over leading of the preliminary set of inexperienced hash marks, then, a second set of pink hash marks indicated the “final” draft. Only then did the function of facts entry begin.

A close-up of a draft bitmap drawing of bei (背, back again, rear) exhibiting edits created working with correction fluid.


Supplied the sheer selection of bitmaps that the team essential to design—at least 3,000 (and preferably a lot of a lot more) if the equipment experienced any hopes of satisfying consumers’ needs—one could assume that the designers appeared for strategies to streamline their get the job done. A single way they could have finished this, for instance, would have been to replicate Chinese radicals—the base components of a character—when they appeared in roughly the identical locale, dimensions, and orientation from just one character to one more. When creating the many dozens of prevalent Chinese characters containing the “woman radical” (女), for illustration, the group at GARF could have (and, in idea, really should have) developed just 1 standard bitmap, and then replicated it within every character in which that radical appeared.

No these mechanistic selections have been made, even so, as the archival materials clearly show. On the opposite, Louis Rosenblum insisted that designers change every single of these components—often in nearly imperceptible ways—to be certain they were being in harmony with the general character in which they appeared.

In the bitmaps for juan (娟, swish) and mian (娩, to deliver), for example—each of which is made up of the woman radical—that radical has been changed at any time so somewhat. In the character juan, the center segment of the woman radical occupies a horizontal span of 6 pixels, as as opposed with 5 pixels in the character mian. At the same time, nonetheless, the base-suitable curve of the lady radical extends outward just 1 pixel additional in the character mian, and in the character juan that stroke does not prolong at all.

The bitmap people for juan (娟, graceful) and mian (娩, to provide) from the Sinotype III font, recreated by the writer.


Throughout the complete font, this level of precision was the rule relatively than the exception.

When we juxtapose the draft bitmap drawings in opposition to their ultimate forms, we see that extra modifications have been built. In the draft variation of luo (罗, collect, internet), for case in point, the base-left stroke extends downward at a great 45° angle in advance of tapering into the digitized version of an outstroke. In the closing version, even so, the curve has been “flattened,” starting at 45° but then leveling out.

A comparison of two draft versions of the character luo (罗, acquire, internet).


Regardless of the seemingly small room in which designers had to work, they had to make a staggering variety of decisions. And every 1 of these decisions affected just about every other choice they made for a precise character, due to the fact introducing even one pixel typically modified the total horizontal and vertical equilibrium.

The unforgiving measurement of the grid impinged on the designers’ operate in other, unexpected methods. We see this most evidently in the devilish trouble of obtaining symmetry. Symmetrical layouts—which abound in Chinese characters—were especially tough to symbolize in reduced-resolution frameworks since, by the policies of arithmetic, making symmetry requires odd-sized spatial zones. Bitmap grids with even dimensions (these as the 16-by-16 grid) produced symmetry unattainable. GARF managed to accomplish symmetry by, in several instances, using only a part of the general grid: just a 15-by-15 location inside the total 16-by-16 grid. This minimized the volume of usable room even more.

Symmetry and asymmetry in the figures shan (山, mounting), zhong (中, middle), ri (日, sunshine), and tian (田, subject).


The story gets even additional intricate when we start to examine the bitmap fonts created by unique firms or creators for different jobs. Take into consideration the drinking water radical (氵) as it appeared in the Sinotype III font (beneath and on the appropriate), as opposed to yet another early Chinese font designed by H.C. Tien (on the left), a Chinese-American psychotherapist and entrepreneur who experimented with Chinese computing in the 1970s and 1980s.

A comparison of the drinking water radical (氵) as it appeared in the Sinotype III font (suitable) compared to an early Chinese font created by H.C. Tien (left).


As minor as the earlier mentioned illustrations might seem, every single represented but one more determination (amongst 1000’s) that the GARF design and style workforce had to make, whether through the drafting or the digitization period.

Small resolution did not keep “low” for very long, of system. Computing advancements gave rise to ever denser bitmaps, ever a lot quicker processing speeds, and ever diminishing fees for memory. In our present-day age of 4K resolution, retina shows, and more, it may possibly be challenging to appreciate the artistry—both aesthetic and technical—that went into the creation of early Chinese bitmap fonts, as minimal as they had been. But it was trouble-solving like this that ultimately manufactured computing, new media, and the world wide web obtainable to just one-sixth of the international populace.

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