Chinese is a global language of increasing importance. The population of China is over 1.3 billion, and the number of Chinese internet users has been predicted to have topped 550 million by the end of 2011. Yet Chinese typesetting engenders some unique challenges for those more used to European languages.
Chinese is not written with an alphabet, but is “logosyllabic”: each Chinese character may be a word in its own right or a part of a multi-syllable word. This means there are a lot of glyphs and not every Chinese font supports every character. This makes careful checking of Chinese typesetting a must.
Simplified and Traditional Chinese
When you are writing or typesetting a Chinese language, you need to specify Simplified Chinese or Traditional Chinese. These are two related but different writing systems.
Simplified Chinese is used mainly in mainland China (formally the People’s Republic of China), Singapore and increasingly in Hong Kong now it’s part of the PRC, while Traditional Chinese is used mainly in Taiwan, expat communities around the world and widely in Hong Kong and Macau.
The PRC government has promoted Simplified Chinese since the 1950s to encourage an increase literacy. The simplification of the original (Traditional) Chinese attempts to simplify the structural form of individual characters while reducing the total number of characters. A Simplified Chinese font may contain “only” a few thousand glyphs compared to tens of thousands in a Traditional Chinese font.
Therefore, it is important to know from the start which writing system you are using. Note that this is not the same as the language. There are many Chinese languages (eg Mandarin, Cantonese, Wu) but they are written by and large in the same two writing systems, albeit sometimes with additions or adaptations. Standard written Simplified Chinese will be based on Mandarin unless someone specifies otherwise.
Chinese font encoding
Historically a number of methods were used to encode Chinese fonts, one of the most popular being Big-5 for Traditional Chinese. However, variations and different encodings caused complications. Luckily these problems are mostly in the past, and all text, typesetting, fonts and webpages should be in Unicode.
Typeset Chinese in InDesign
As so often when dealing with foreign languages, InDesign is the application of choice for typesetting Chinese. Let’s make up an example to see it in action: say we need to match this English text with Chinese typesetting.
You can paste Chinese text into regular InDesign and apply a system font. This will work and give you something like this:
This example is readable Simplified Chinese, in that it’s legible. But the Chinese typesetting is pretty awful.
The font isn’t a good match to the original. The English words don’t look great in the Chinese font (although this could be improved by going through and changing their font by hand). There should be a bit of space either side of the English words (again, you could kern this by hand). More seriously the third line starts with a full stop which is plain wrong. Note also that the end of the second line is not justified correctly (Chinese text is often justified more often than English). The incorrect indent is happening because the Chinese bracket character contains space around it. Therefore this problem is hard to fix in the English version of InDesign. A similar problem is occuring at the end of the paragraph between the final bracket and full stop.
Using the dedicated version of the software (such as Japanese InDesign) will let us:
- Apply the “Adobe Japanese Paragraph Composer” which handles Chinese, Japanese, Korean (CJK) text
- Specify the Mojikumi which controls how particular pairs of characters (notably punctuation) interact
- Set the Kinsoku which control the line breaking rules
- Use a “composite font” to use an English or Chinese font as appropriate to each character
The same sample text re-set using these Chinese typesetting processes is far more visually appealing:
Horizontal and Vertical Chinese
Chinese can be written horizontally from left to right (like English) or it can be written vertically from top to bottom, starting at the top right. Simplified Chinese is usually written horizontally. Traditional Chinese can use either direction depending on context. In fact, they can even be mixed as in this example from Chinese wikinews:
Arabic numerals (the same as used in English) are widely used in Chinese. An alternative way of writing numbers are Chinese characters that correspond to the spoken numerals. This is similar to writing “one hundred and ten” instead of “110” in English. When typesetting Chinese, it is fine to leave Arabic numerals in place – although they often look best if typeset in the English font.
There is no equivalent to uppercase in Chinese, the writing system does not use capital letters. When designing a document which will also be typeset in Chinese, think twice before using capital letters to pick out phrases in the English. Oblique text is of debatable acceptability in Chinese, although it has become more commonplace with the wide-spread use of Word. A bolder font weight is generally a much better choice.
Chinese typesetting questions?
Want to know more about an aspect of Chinese typesetting? Think there’s something I’ve missed? Comments and questions are very welcome, so feel free to ask!