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You are here: Home / Conferences / Hong Kong 2012 / Programme / 11–14 October – General programme

Songti and the modernisation of Chinese typography

When Fri 12 Oct 1020
Where Hotel Icon
Who Keith Tam


First developed in the Song dynasty (960–1279) and matured in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Songti has been a staple of Chinese text typography for almost a millennium. Often seen as a counterpart of the large category of ‘seriffed’ latin typefaces, Songti’s development was not fuelled by an industrialised process as was the case in the West, but rather the craft-based mass production process of woodblock printing.

In Mingjun Li’s book An illustrated history of artistic calligraphy [sic] in China the author traces the development of Songti to its origin as a style of drawn characters used for seals, banknotes and documents. With thin horizontal and thick vertical strokes, the style is especially susceptible to extreme vertical compression, as needed for the long titles of court officials. Based on the standardisation and abstraction of the Kai calligraphic script, Songti was adapted for woodblock printing in the Song dynasty. As the style more naturally lends itself to carving in wood than Kaiti, the efficiency of the production process was greatly increased. The standardised style of Songti also enabled craftsmen to carve directly onto woodblocks, eliminating the need for a calligrapher. Throughout the ages, Songti was criticised by calligraphers and literati as a style that lack refinement and was often ridiculed as superficial, having only ‘skin and bones’. It is often called ‘craftsman style’ with a negative association, as the status of craft was often seen as lower than that of art in Chinese culture, with calligraphy being the utmost form of artistic expression.

Despite the invention of moveable type by Bi Sheng during the Song dynasty (an account of the process was published in a collection of essays written by Shen Kuo in 1088), most books continued to be printed with hand-carved woodblocks in enormous quantities until the close of the Qing dynasty. The initial investment for woodblock printing was low compared to printing with moveable type, and the blocks could easily be stored for making more impressions at a later time. One of the major challenges for the slow adoption of moveable type printing in China was the lack of an efficient method for producing the individual type en mass, as the type had to be carved individually by hand instead of casting from moulds. It was not until the late 19th century that the industrialised process of letterpress printing was introduced from the West and became the norm in China.

In his book Modern typography, Robin Kinross writes: ‘If the printing process was one of the main facilitators in the development of the modern world, then the phrase “modern typography” may be an unnecessary duplication of sense. Is not all typography modern?’. This raises an important yet challenging question: is this the case in China? The definition of ‘typography’ perhaps has a broader basis in the East than in the West. Under the context described in the paragraphs above, it is obvious that the conception of ‘typography’ (for lack of a more fitting term) for the Chinese language took a distinctively different course from that of the Western world. The history, theory and praxis of typography in China continues to be a territory for contentious debates and redefinitions.

This presentation/paper argues that the ‘modernisation’ of typography in China began with the development of Songti, essentially the standardisation of a craft-based process. It will trace Songti’s development and investigates the factors which influences the longevity of Songti as a major category of text typefaces in China to this day from production, aesthetic and cultural perspectives and attempts to provide a working definition of typography in China.


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