Chinese Typography: Long in history, short on commentary

Anthony Palmer
2013 Conference

In eighth century China a method of printing Chinese characters on to paper emerged. This event signalled the end of the Chinese scribal period. A new form of non-scribal reproduction had arrived and its ultimate dominance had begun. In contrast to this, the European scribal period lasted well into the fifteenth century, nearly six hundred years after these first Chinese xylographs. But what is extraordinary is that Chinese printed typography would generate very little commentary about itself. Whilst in Europe, typographic commentary would be almost unbridled. Therefore it seems appropriate and timely to give some attention to two important questions about the nature of the Chinese printed language. Firstly, there is the question as to why there is so little typographic commentary about Chinese typography. And secondly, there is the question of the substance of Chinese typographic commentary – the characteristics that create maximum legibility and aesthetic purpose when setting long paragraphs of prose. These characteristics have seldom been written about by non-Chinese speakers and a practical typographic syntax would be invaluable for non-Chinese speaking designers, printers, and design undergraduates who are increasingly interacting with Chinese speaking networks.

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About the author

Since graduating from Monash University in 1985, Tony Palmer has worked as a book designer for publishers, Macmillan, Cengage Learning, Pearson Education and Penguin Books. He has recently completed his fourth year of language study in Mandarin at RMIT University and is currently undertaking his second year of a Masters of Art and Design at Monash University. Palmer is also formulating typographic curriculum for the Think Education Group, teaching third year design at RMIT University and teaching an online typographic course at the Academy of Art, San Francisco.