Why does Chinese printing of Latin characters always use the same font?
March 27, 2008 10:06 PM   Subscribe

Why does Chinese writing, when including a few English words, always seem to use the same font?

If you look at instructions written in Chinese for some gadget, you'll often see bits of text in the Latin alphabet mixed in with the typical Chinese characters. They always seem to use the same font, which looks like the console font from old Sun workstations. I've seen this not just on a variety of printed material, but also on computers. You can see what I am talking about by looking at this screenshot of Google's Chinese site.

Why is this font so popular for Chinese writing but relatively uncommon in English?
posted by tomwheeler to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
There are far fewer fonts that include all the Chinese characters, because there are so many characters involved. (The fonts are also much more expensive, as a result.) A Roman font needs around 100 glyphs, many of which are similar; Chinese and Japanese need thousands. So you tend to see the same two or three fonts.

Why do the Roman characters in these fonts look so dreadful? They're an afterthought, or optimized to roughly match the Chinese characters, or both.
posted by xil at 10:13 PM on March 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Okay ... I'm confused here. You're really only seeing them through your computer. How many Chinese fonts do you have? Maybe one or two in addition to the standard popular unicodes?

I have some couple dozen, so I don't see the problem the same way, I guess. Although I will grant that the Latin alphabet not only tends to look odd, but the spacing is often skewed too.
posted by RavinDave at 10:21 PM on March 27, 2008

Latin characters on a Chinese language web page often use a jaggy, awkward, ugly version of Times New Roman. This is how I understand it: there are two character sets that people use to display Chinese characters on computers [GB or Big5]. Forgive me if I'm simplifying a bit here. Both these character sets are often expressed in fonts that have all the appropriate Chinese characters. But they also include Latin characters (a, b, c, d, etc.).

Most browsers, when displaying text, will use the Chinese font to display all the Chinese characters and all the Latin characters since theoretically the Chinese font supports both sets of characters needed on the page. Hence, the "Google" in your example looks ugly since it's using characters from the Chinese font.

I have noticed this first hand, many times, on my parent's Windows computer. It drives me insane.
posted by kathryn at 10:33 PM on March 27, 2008

Yabut you get the same effect on packaging. Lots of boxes, instructions, etc, have that godawful spindly Times variant with the nasty, nasty serifs, I don't think it's just an online phenomenon.

Of course, it could be due to the same cause - cheap Big5 fonts containing horrid Latin characters.
posted by polyglot at 11:52 PM on March 27, 2008

I haven't seen chinese text looking like that since Windows 98.

The main reason it looks like that is because there are 2 main fonts in chinese. One serif and one sans serif. It's rendering roman letters using whoever built that font. Add to the fact that the chinese fonts are fixed spaced, u get old looking letters. You say old Sun console font. Think Courier/Courier New.
posted by mphuie at 12:27 AM on March 28, 2008

The same sort of thing happens with Korean, and I'm constantly reminding my Korean colleagues that when they write something in English, particularly for presentations, they should switch from the default Korean font MS Office uses (which included horrible-looking roman characters, even though the Korean character look fine) to something designed to look reasonable in English. They never remember.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:48 AM on March 28, 2008

Konqueror = Not running Windows = Not running MS Office = You probably don't have the nicer-looking Unicode fonts installed. Google China looks fine to me. It pulls it up using Arial Unicode (page CSS specifies Arial or sans-serif font). I only see crappy-looking Roman characters like that when I'm using old computers or Linux boxes.
posted by caution live frogs at 5:30 AM on March 28, 2008

Okay. Do you see a lot of Chinese graphic design? How many different Chinese fonts are there? Hint: more than two. (Just like in English.)

But if you don't see a lot of Chinese on a regular basis and you don't read it, then you'd probably never notice. Especially if Chinese isn't your first language. If a Chinese glyph is unfamiliar to you, you'd have a lot of trouble noticing whether this particular serif character is actually shaped differently than another serif character you saw elsewhere because you're too busy trying to remember what the character means.

Similarly, I don't suspect that native Chinese speakers ever actually fully appreciate the wide world of Latin alphabet typography. You get the point across with ugly default Latin characters when you need it, end of story. Chances are they wouldn't know the difference between that and Adobe Garamond unless they had samples side by side. The finer points of how it looks matters only to those who know it intimately (that is, you native speakers).

disclaimer: I'm American-born Chinese.
posted by lou at 8:11 AM on March 28, 2008

They are the roman characters in fonts like these, MS MingLiu, MS Song, Sim Hei, etc. I saw some pro-Chinese video on youtube the other day and noticed those characters even though there were no Chinese characters.
posted by delmoi at 8:31 AM on March 28, 2008

I usually write too many words, but in this case I'll say that I've just read a lot of extra talking about a simple matter.

"Lou" is correct. But simply said: as Chinese business grew in China, and roman chars. were needed in marketing texts, nobody was willing or able to understand how to integrate a standard, well-cut one-byte font -- with proper bounding, kerning, and hinting -- into their workstations and skill-sets. And people were NOT falling over themselves to learn English (e.g.), either. Thus, the CHinese fonts (of which there are dozens) merely had popped into them those crude-looking roman char's. Words were misspelled, wrongly punctuated, etc etc, all using the ugly letters. Of course H.K. was far better in this regard and has always had top-quality typesetters and designers. But the big wave of trading was (and is) operated out of mainland China, not H.K. Unfortunately, the system fonts used when one has set up one's Gates machine for Chinese, Japanese, etc. (which are two-byte char's.) exhibits this same brutal effect.
posted by yazi at 9:34 AM on March 28, 2008

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