Chinese typesetting basics

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.
English original to match Chinese

You can paste Chinese text into regular InDesign and apply a system font. This will work and give you something like this:
Chinese typesetting (basic)

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:
Chinese typesetting (professional)

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:

Hebei Wen'an jin fasheng dizhen - Beijing you zhengan

Chinese numerals

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.

Chinese uppercase

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!


13 thoughts on “Chinese typesetting basics”

  1. If I am using InDesign CS5, is there any special plugin I need to set Chinese? The client has indicated that they would like the text to be set vertically — although your article here indicates that is not necessary — are you aware of any times where that would be necessary?

  2. @Perry: It’s not really a question of whether it’s necessary, it’s an option. An unusual one for Simplified Chinese, less so for Traditional. If the client is a Chinese speaker and they want this, then fair enough. If they are not a Chinese speaker, and have just got the idea it’s necessary, then further questioning might be needed!

    You will not be able to do this straight into regular InDesign. That can’t get the correct spacing between some characters (even in horizontal setting) and will not support the vertical direction.

    You could try using the World Tools Pro plug in from in-tools as this opens up InDesign’s Far Eastern composer (“Japanese paragraph composer”) to allow support for typesetting Chinese. You can then use it to set the paragraph orientation, Mojikumi, Kinsoku, etc. although the maker points out “World Tools Pro does not offer control over every feature offered by the Japanese Composer”. The plug in also offers some support for composite fonts, as discussed above, but I haven’t used it so I can’t vouch for how well it works.

    Another option is the full Far Eastern version of InDesign (ie a completely separate install), although the expense and hassle will only be worth it if you are doing a lot of Chinese typesetting. This is what I use, though, and it works very well.

    The other way forward is to get someone else to do the Chinese typesetting, and give it back to you as outlined text in InDesign. Whether it’s worth doing that depends on much you have to do, how much you want to learn the in’s and out’s of Chinese typesetting and, as always, how fussy your client is. A quick search will find lots of pro Chinese typesetting services.

    Hope that helps. Just leave another comment if you want to know more about a particular approach, or just to let us know how it turns out!

  3. Great article. Thanks. I’m in the States and about to do a book for a client that is an English translation of a Chinese text. I just went looking for InDesign FE and the folks at Adobe here in the US have no idea what I’m talking about. Any idea where one can purchase InDesign FE? Thanks.

    1. @Josh: I should have phrased my comments about InDesign a little better. There are Far Eastern versions of the software that support the features necessary, but they are localised versions. For instance, you can get the Japanese version of InDesign from Adobe Japan. Be warned though: last time I checked the interface was in Japanese only.

      Do you need a specialised version of InDesign though? You say the translation is into English. If there is only the occasional word or phrase still in Chinese within a broader text that’s in English then “regular” InDesign might suffice. For a few characters here and there, a character style should be enough (it’s where you have flows of text with punctuation that the spacing starts to go wrong). Alternatively the plug in I mention above might help with composite fonts, etc. Or, as a third option is to enlist some expert help with the Chinese portions of text.

      Good luck with the project!

  4. I am using Indesign CS5.5 with your Word Tools Pro. I use these tool for chinese typesetting. but some punctuation letters are not coming correctly. Its fully awful typesetting.
    I read the tutorial of the adjustment in mojiukmi controls.
    but I can’t understand that comment. pls. give me right resoultion for the chinese typesetting.

  5. @Venkat: Sorry to hear you are having problems with World Tools Pro. As I mention above, I haven’t used it so I can’t vouch for how well it works (and, to be clear, I have no connection with the company that makes it).

    That said, what you describe could also be a font problem. Which font are using, and what exactly is the problem with punctuation? Are characters not appearing, or is the spacing around them incorrect?

    If it’s the spacing, you should be able to control this through the mojikumi controls you mention. This should allow you to control the spacing between pairs of characters.

    If you let me know more details, I will try to suggest a solution. Assuming you don’t have a Japanese speaker to hand to use Adobe Japan’s product, otherwise all I can suggest is that you enlist the help of some Chinese typesetting experts.

  6. Great article. Thanks. We are setting up a dual language (Eng + Trad Chi) weekly publication here in Hong Kong and I think we’ll go along the World Tools Pro route. I just wanted to get your advice on the Trad Chi font we are proposing to use: the DF Hei family from DynaComare. Do you agree? I think it should cover all our needs in HK and has a good set of five weights. Many thanks!

  7. Hi,

    I have a large amount of InDesign CS5 files in Traditional Chinese, and need to convert to Simplified Chinese without changing any of the typesetting, layout, font, etc.

    Please advise:

    1. Does InDesign CS5 or CC Windows has this capability? If not, which plugin can do it?

    2. Does InDesign CSx or CC MAC has this capability? If not, which plugin can do it?



  8. I am typesetting a book with many, many Chinese extracts. The extracts often use several different fonts–SimSun, MS PMincho, and Bablestone Ha, along with a few subscript numbers and letters in Palatino. The punctuation in the extracts is in SimSun. I cannot get the Chinese in these extracts to fully justify — they all look ragged right and the author is very unhappy about this. Mostly I am having to kern each line to try to fix it, but it doesn’t always work. Is there a plug in I can have my office purchase to force the work to justify?
    Many thanks for any suggestions!

    1. @Laurie, it sounds as if you are lacking appropriate Mojikumi and Kinsoku settings, as described above in “Typeset Chinese in InDesign”. These not only control the spacing between characters but also “pull in” inappropriate space at the beginning or end of lines (e.g. when a Chinese open bracket sits at the start of a line). Without them, you need to kern by hand but, as you say, it’s not only time consuming but often far from perfect. Your best option is the CJK version of InDesign. Otherwise World Tools is an InDesign plug-in – which I heard reasonable things about – made for CS4 but I believe it is still supported. But it sounds like things are also getting awfully complicated with your fonts? Do you need such a mixture aesthetically or is it an attempt to solve other technical problems? Depending on how annoyed your client is, and how high quality the end result needs to be, it may also be worth considering a translation company with in-house studio to help with the Chinese typesetting? Some offer typesetting-only services if you feel you simply want to hand the problem over.

  9. I have a document that has been translated from English to Chinese. My client would like both documents to be formatted as similarly as possible, so I’m doing that in InDesign. However, I can’t seem to find a font that displays all the Chinese characters. What is a good extensive Chinese character font?

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