Chinese Italics: where are the Oblique Chinese fonts?

There are some questions that come up again and again when typesetters and designers who are used to working with Roman fonts start to tackle Chinese typesetting. One perennial issue, which crops up even in professional fonts which supply several weights, is why are there no oblique cuts?

The short answer is because it’s bad and it’s wrong. Find some other way to emphasis or pick out text (or cheat and do it anyway – see the conclusion below).

Before delving into more detail, it’s worth straightening up (!) some English terminology.

Italics, Oblique or Slanted?

These three terms are often used interchangeably. To be a technical pedant, they actually all mean rather different things. A “slanted” font is a skewed version of the upright version. An “Oblique” font is slanted but also adjusted to be optically correct. Usually this means that someone has lavished care and attention on these “true cut” obliques – getting the curves and stroke weights to get the letter shapes to be “just so”. Sadly this isn’t always the case, even in professional fonts: see this critique of ITC Avant Garde Gothic Pro Oblique. An “Italic” font is a cursive font, whose glyphs may be very different shapes to the roman type. It is usually designed from scratch to complement the roman font in question.

That said, there is a lot of genuine confusion over these terms and they have become widely used interchangeably. Whichever word they use, what people tend to miss in Chinese typesetting is an oblique font to pick out or differentiate a piece of text.

Find another way

Designing an italic or “true cut” oblique in a roman font can be a painstaking process. Chinese fonts have many, many more glyphs. A Simplified Chinese font will have several thousand, a Traditional Chinese font tens of thousands. Ok, it would be a lot of work to hand craft slanted versions but someone must have tried? Well, no, because slanted text in this way is not part of the typographic tradition.

So what should a Chinese typesetter do when attempting to follow an English design that use italics?

First, consider the role of the italics in the English document. Are the italics an aesthetic feature or do they add to the meaning of the text? An example of the former, purely aesthetic usage might be a standfirst or picture caption typeset in italics. In this case, the best option is usually to ignore the italics completely and just use an unaltered Chinese typeface. Sometimes, however, italics add to the meaning of the text – for instance, in providing emphasis on a particular word. This needs to be conveyed in the Chinese text. Sometimes this can be done using punctuation such as quotation marks:
Roulette is a named after the French for little wheel.
Roulette一詞在法語的意思解作“小圓輪”。

In other instances, the emphasis could be conveyed by the use of a different weight of font in place of the English italics:

thank you for not smoking
感谢您吸烟

Dots are for emphasis?

One way to indicate emphasis in Chinese text is to use emphasis marks. Each emphasis mark is a dot placed under the character to be emphasised (or to the right in vertical text). However, this is rarely used in practice. It is still taught in some schools, but may not be familiar to all Chinese speakers. A lack of support in DTP and word processing software has contributed to the decline in its use. Online is not much better: although CSS3 has a property called “text emphasis” (link in Chinese) it is not supported in any major browsers. If you want to use these marks, an interesting open source project has developed an OpenType font that allows for them to be typeset. It is called Kenten Generic after the Japanese name for emphasis marks. [2]

Slanting is not calligraphy

If you really, really still need to have oblique Chinese text, then just slant it in InDesign. It’s a case of if you can’t beat them… join them. This has become acceptable, to some extent, especially given the ubiquity of Word and its ease of using “faux italics”. So in the last resort you can (but please don’t, use your design creativity instead). If you need help getting started, you can read our earlier guide on Chinese typesetting basics.

1 thought on “Chinese Italics: where are the Oblique Chinese fonts?”

  1. To my knowledge, in Chinese typesetting, the font family corresponding to italics is a script font, usually called `Kai’. Similar to italics, the family has its origin in a handwriting style. The Wikipedia page `Regular script’ has more explanation on this writing style. Do take a look at the list of fonts linked in the section `Regular script in computing’.

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