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Behind the painstaking process of creating Chinese computer fonts



But there are tens of thousands of Chinese characters, and a 5 by 7 grid was too small to make them readable. Chinese required a grid of 16 by 16 or more, that is, at least 32 bytes of memory (256 bits) per character. If one imagined a font containing 70,000 low-resolution Chinese characters, the total memory required would exceed two megabytes. Even a font containing only 8,000 of the most common Chinese characters would require around 256 kilobytes just to store the bitmaps. This was four times the total memory capacity of most commercial personal computers in the early 1980s.

As serious as these memory problems were, the most trying problems that Chinese low-resolution font production in the 1970s and 1980s faced were those of aesthetics and design. Long before anyone sat down with a program like Gridmaster, the lion’s share of the work was done outside the computer, using pen, paper, and correction fluid.

Designers spent years trying to create bitmaps that met low memory requirements and kept minimal calligraphic elegance. Among those who created this character set, whether by hand drawing draft bitmaps for specific Chinese characters or digitizing them using Gridmaster, was Lily Huan-Ming Ling (凌焕銘) and Ellen Di Giovanni.

Chinese character bitmap design project for Sinotype III font.

LOUIS ROSENBLUM COLLECTION, STANFORD UNIVERSITY LIBRARY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

The main problem the designers faced was translating between two radically different ways of writing Chinese: the hand-drawn character, produced with a pen or brush, and the bitmap glyph, produced with an array of pixels arranged on it. two axes. The designers had to decide how (and if) they were going to try to recreate certain spelling characteristics of the Chinese manuscript, such as entry strokes, stroke reduction, and exit strokes.

In the case of the Sinotype III font, the process of designing and scanning low-resolution Chinese bitmaps has been thoroughly documented. One of the most fascinating archival sources from this period is a filing cabinet filled with grids with hand-drawn hash marks all over the place – sketches that would later be scanned into bitmaps for several thousand Chinese characters. Each of these characters has been carefully laid out and, in most cases edited by Louis Rosenblum and GARF, using correction fluid to erase “bits” with which the publisher disagreed. Above the initial set of green hash marks, a second set of red hash marks indicated the “final” draft. It was only then that the data entry work began.

Close up of a draft bitmap drawing of bei (背, back, back) showing the changes made using correction fluid.

LOUIS ROSENBLUM COLLECTION, STANFORD UNIVERSITY LIBRARY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

Given the large number of bitmaps the team needed to design – at least 3,000 (and ideally many more) if the machine had any hope of meeting consumer needs – one would assume that the designers looked for ways to streamline their work. One way to achieve this, for example, would have been to duplicate Chinese radicals – the building blocks of a character – when they appear in roughly the same location, size, and orientation from one character to another. When producing the many dozen common Chinese characters containing the “female radical” (女), for example, the GARF team could have (and, in theory, should have) created a single standard bitmap and then replicated it. in every character in which this radical has appeared.

However, no such decision has been made, as archival documents show. On the contrary, Louis Rosenblum insisted that designers adjust each of these components – often almost imperceptibly – to ensure that they were in harmony with the general character in which they appeared.

In bitmaps for Juan (娟, gracious) and mian (娩, deliver), for example – each of which contains the radical woman – this radical has been changed very slightly. In the character Juan, the central section of the radical femme occupies a horizontal extent of six pixels, against five pixels in the character mian. At the same time, however, the curve at the bottom right of the radical woman extends outward just a pixel farther into the character. mian, and in the character Juan this trait does not extend at all.

The bitmap characters for juan (娟, gracious) and mian (娩, to deliver) of the Sinotype III font, recreated by the author.

LOUIS ROSENBLUM COLLECTION, STANFORD UNIVERSITY LIBRARY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

Throughout the policy, this level of precision was the rule rather than the exception.

When we juxtapose the bitmap drawing blanks to their final shapes, we see that more changes have been made. In the provisional version of round (Luo, collect, report), for example, the lower left stroke extends downward at a perfect 45 ° angle before narrowing in the digitized version of a stroke. In the final version, however, the curve was “flattened”, starting at 45 °, then leveling off.

A comparison of two preliminary versions of the character luo (罗, collect, net).

LOUIS ROSENBLUM COLLECTION, STANFORD UNIVERSITY LIBRARY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

Despite the seemingly tight space that designers had to work in, they had to make an overwhelming number of choices. And each of those decisions affected every other decision made for a specific character, as adding even a single pixel often changed the overall horizontal and vertical balance.

The ruthless size of the grid has impeded the work of the designers in other unexpected ways. We see it most clearly in the evil problem of symmetry. Symmetrical layouts – which are full of Chinese characters – were especially difficult to portray in low-resolution frames because, according to the mathematical rules, creating symmetry requires odd-sized areas of space. Bitmap grids with even dimensions (like the 16 by 16 grid) made symmetry impossible. GARF managed to achieve symmetry by using, in many cases, only part of the global grid: just a region of 15 by 15 in the global grid of 16 by 16. This further reduced the amount of d usable space.

Symmetry and asymmetry of the characters shan (山, montage), zhong (中, middle), ri (日, sun) and tian (田, field).

LOUIS ROSENBLUM COLLECTION, STANFORD UNIVERSITY LIBRARY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

The story gets even more complex when we start to compare bitmap fonts created by different companies or designers for different projects. Consider the water radical (氵) as it appeared in Sinotype III font (below and right), as opposed to another ancient Chinese font created by HC Tien (left), a Chinese psychotherapist and entrepreneur. – American who experimented with Chinese computing in the 70s and 80s.

A comparison of the water radical (氵) as it appeared in the Sinotype III font (right) versus an ancient Chinese font created by HC Tien (left).

LOUIS ROSENBLUM COLLECTION, STANFORD UNIVERSITY LIBRARY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

As minor as the above examples might seem, each represented another decision (out of thousands) that the GARF design team had to make, whether during the drafting or digitizing phase.

Low resolution didn’t stay “low” for long, of course. Advances in computing have resulted in increasingly dense bitmaps, ever faster processing speeds, and ever lower memory costs. In today’s age of 4K resolution, Retina displays, etc., it can be hard to appreciate the artistry – both aesthetic and technical – that went into creating China’s first bitmap fonts, however limited they might be. -they. But it was solving problems like this that ultimately made computers, new media, and the Internet accessible to one-sixth of the world’s population.



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