In 2020, type designer Julius Hui flew back to his native Hong Kong. The previous year, he’d quit his “too comfortable and steady” job at Monotype, one of the world’s largest type foundries, and moved to Munich. Now, forced to head home by the pandemic after only six months, he found himself with little paid work, but finally able pursue a passion project that he’d been sitting on for more than six years: Ku Mincho, a radical rethinking of Chinese type.
Hui, who previously designed the New York Times’ Chinese logo and a custom typeface for tech giant Tencent, believes that Chinese type design has become stagnant and unoriginal. Most of the fonts on the market have gone through a process of convergent evolution to become blocky and conventional. “There’s no emotion behind them,” Hui told Rest of World.
Ku Mincho is a Mingti typeface, based on Ming dynasty calligraphy. To create it, Hui enlisted two of his former colleagues, Kin Cheung and Sammy Fung, who each have more than 30 years of experience in Chinese type design.
Hui said that the point of the project is not just an exercise in aesthetics, but an attempt to “decolonize” Chinese type. He intends to take it back to its roots before the influence of Japanese designers, and to free it from the cultural gravity of the mainland, where even typefaces come under the purview of the state. His research and dedication to the history of Chinese typography is, improbably, a revolutionary act. “I think all typefaces should have a ‘traditional Chinese feel,’” Hui said. “I want my type foundry to be one that spreads this, so that it’s clearer for everyone what Chinese culture’s roots are.”
As any good Chinese student learned in Sunday language school or while living in a Chinese-speaking country, printing is one of China’s four great inventions (alongside paper, gunpowder, and the compass). Printing began with the carving of full pages onto blocks of wood — but artist Bi Sheng, who lived from 990 to 1051 A.D., invented movable type, where each character is carved on its own block that can then be rearranged to a custom order. However, for a variety of practical, aesthetic, and political reasons, woodblock printing remained the norm for centuries.
Type and the way characters have been portrayed has always been political in China. Before mass reproduction, writing was mainly done in calligraphy — one of the six arts to be mastered in order to be the Chinese equivalent of a Renaissance man. It was practiced only by scholars and aesthetic tastes were at the whim of emperors. Starting from the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 B.C.) and lasting until the final Qing dynasty (1644–1912), calligraphers would paint in styles the emperors liked, who would not only collect works, but also produce their own.
By the start of the Qing dynasty, the favored style was called guan’geti. The standard style for government, it basically translates to “official style.” Appearance-wise, it was sterile, a result of what Peiran Tan, an editor at The Type, a Chinese typography media collective, called the “smother[ing of] the artistic spontaneity and irregularity of Chinese calligraphy.”
Guan’geti was easy to copy by hand, and ultimately to engrave. “Overall,” Tan said, “it was a style that, while superficially retains a strong smell of calligraphic freedom, was, deep down, the most ready for mechanical reproduction.”
Guan’geti soon morphed into what is known as Mingti today. In the 1800s, Western missionaries tried to use movable type to mass-produce spiritual texts, modeling their fonts off Mingti. Tan said the styles the missionaries created were looked down on by Chinese readers, who found them not to be calligraphic enough.
When one missionary, William Gamble, left China in 1869 to return to the U.S., he stopped over in Japan. There, he met with Motoki Shozo, a translator at the Nagasaki Iron Mill (which, more than 65 years later, would be renamed Mitsubishi Heavy Industries). Gamble taught Shozo electrotype casting, a method that allows shapes to be quickly and accurately replicated in metal, and the foundry began producing type. Japanese kanji, characters that have their own intrinsic meaning, were adopted from Chinese hanzi characters in around the fifth century, making the type usable in both countries. Soon after Gamble’s visit, fonts were being traded back and forth across the East China Sea. In the new economy of type, Mingti became the standard.
After the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, the new communist government pushed the adoption of a simplified Chinese writing system, with the aim of making it easier for citizens to gain literacy. Simplified Chinese reduces the number of strokes required to write thousands of characters in “traditional Chinese,” which continues to be used in Hong Kong and Taiwan. In the early 1960s, the government established the Shanghai Printing Technology and Research Institute (SPTRI) to create new typefaces for this simplified system — a new look for a new state.
As SPTRI was a state-sponsored institution, there were no commercial considerations, so the type designers innovated hard, creating typefaces within the main existing font families (FangSongTi, Heiti, Mingti and KaiTi) and pushing the boundaries by creating hybrid fonts. Subsequent privatization in China in the 1990s gutted SPTRI; its fonts were plagiarized (sometimes knowingly) and the Chinese type scene lost interest in its history.
The shift to digital media in the 2000s drove another evolution, to what Hui calls “fat and blocky” characters. Characters were enlarged, and the spaces between strokes were increased so they could be read in small print on screens, and printed in newspapers. “A kind of modernizing impetus briefly took a chokehold on digital Chinese type designers,” he said. “[The designers] were, in a way, enamored with the software’s numerical possibilities, and wanted to maximize a typeface’s legibility and uniformity.”
Traditional Chinese took on a similar squatness. Microsoft YaHei, the default typeface for the company’s simplified Chinese interfaces, shares an aesthetic with its traditional Chinese equivalent, JhengHei. Both of these fonts are heiti style, which has its origins in Japan, but which was adopted by the communist government for its lack of ornamentation and a sense that it represented a break with the past. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) commissioned heiti because it not just “symbolized both a new and better society,” Tan said, but also “a new and better type of society.”
Other font families withered, as graphic designers saw them as outdated and old-fashioned.
The politicization of type in China has created its own movements elsewhere. Taiwanese designers’ desire to distance themselves from mainland influences has driven the creation of a nascent industry of type foundries, which look to build typefaces not based on historical Chinese source material.
Hui sees Taiwan as the main source of business for his foundry. Instead of producing the Ku Mincho typeface and then trying to sell it, he launched a fundraising campaign on January 4, using the Taiwanese crowdfunding platform Zeczec. In a little over two months, it raised 20,450,840 Taiwanese dollars ($71,660), 511% of its original goal. Several Taiwanese government departments have expressed interest in using Ku Mincho once it’s completed.
Hui is only making Ku Mincho for traditional Chinese, rather than simplified, since the mainland market is essentially inaccessible. While both China and Taiwan have their own sets of how characters are to be officially written, only China’s is compulsory — digital fonts have to be certified by the China Electronic Standardization Institute. Hui’s experience at Monotype taught him that you need political connections to deal with the bureaucracy.
“I’d rather work in markets I understand first,” Hui said. “I also think Taiwan and Hong Kong will be enough for my company’s survival; I don’t want to deal with those problems [on the mainland]. Maybe later, if I need to, I’ll deal with it.”
Having raised the money, Hui’s team still has a huge task ahead of them. Designing a Latin-based font typically means creating fewer than 300 glyphs — letters, numbers, punctuation marks, and so on. To build Ku Mincho, they have to design 13,000 commonly-used Chinese characters, as well as 981 Taiwanese, Hakka, and Hong Kong-specific characters. Including punctuation marks, Arabic numerals, and other common symbols, their typeface will require around 15,000 glyphs.
Hui’s team hopes to finish the first 7,600 primary characters by March 2022, with the full set completed by July. The design work is all done manually. While some Roman fonts are now made using machine learning — a designer builds the first few letters and lets AI make approximations of the rest — this isn’t possible with a complex Mingti script.
The modern way of assembling characters tends to resemble flatpack furniture. Designers draw the widest and narrowest iterations of each one, then use a computer program to generate the intervening sizes, before putting characters together. Hui and his team started with pen strokes and single-sized radicals to build Ku Mincho’s characters — the workflow to wrangle the thousands of characters was one of the things on his mind in the six years the idea fermented.
Hui started with 天 (sky) to figure out how much space each character would need. He used the words 東 (east) and 田 (field) to determine the different sizes of counters (the gaps in the glyphs). Then it was a case of filling out basic shapes of radicals — most Chinese characters are made up of other characters, or simplified versions of characters — and then using those building blocks to put together the next character on the list. At this point, he puts a 春 (referring to spring, the season) above and below the character he’s working on, and then makes adjustments — the 春 give him perspective, as it has the widest endpoints of its curved strokes, evenly-spaced horizontal strokes, and small counters in the 日 at the bottom. Hui and his other designers check that there is that “Chinese feel” and a distinct interpretation to each character.
With such an enormous investment in time, it’s an uncertain venture. There’s little appetite for Mingti fonts because, as Tan said, “tradition and hundreds of years of cultural-psychological conditioning is too hard to shake off.”
Because they need to make Mingti fonts commercially viable, Hui’s team also have to think beyond Chinese. Firms increasingly aspire to have a coherent brand identity across the world, meaning that they need typefaces that span Chinese, English and Japanese.
Chinese-language websites, even large ones like Alibaba’s Tmall, can appear disjointed, since they use fonts that don’t have Latin equivalents. The same is true the other way around. The New York Times’ English and Spanish versions use the paper’s custom typefaces, but the Chinese version uses the stock-standard Arial and Georgia for Latin-based characters, and basic Heiti SC for the Chinese characters, causing a mix of serif and sans serif words in the same line.
(Even Rest of World has this problem: The body text is coded to be GT Sectra, which has no Chinese component, so the characters, as displayed in this article, are an incongruent Heiti.)
To increase Ku Mincho’s utility for potential clients, Hui has enlisted the same foundries who worked with him when he designed Tencent’s font: Klim for the Latin-based font and Oryzae for Japanese.
Hui hopes that, by proving the commercial potential of Ku Mincho, he can demonstrate a real appetite for design that explores the cultural lineage of the language. His crowdfunding campaign didn’t push too hard on explaining the history of Mingti type. “If you have to explain why a typeface is beautiful,” he said, “then it isn’t. I think Ku Mincho is quite a successful experiment in showing that people will buy typefaces by feeling.”
Typography is a tool, Hui said, but not just for displaying words. Type reflects culture and influences it. “Chinese trends have always lagged by 10 years,” Hui said. “I really want to help the Chinese scene to catch up to the Western or Japanese visual language and culture. I hope Chinese will.”