The digitization and erosion of a visual language / by David Hu


On left: 'shu', meaning book or writings; on right: 'shu fa', meaning art of writing or calligraphy

Chinese is not, by any means, an easy language to learn. Because of Chinese's rising importance in the world of commerce, politics, and countless other fields, people are flocking to it and hoping it will give them a competitive edge. But aside from its utility on the international stage, there is something captivating about the language to its new students; something bold and striking, yet soft and poetic at the same time. And the reason for this is the oft-overlooked fact that Chinese is a visual language. Chinese has tens of thousands of individual characters, many of which have multiple meanings. Each Chinese character is like a symbol: many look similar, most do not, but every single one is unique. These characters cannot be spelled like Latin languages can be from their alphabets. To be well learned in written Chinese one must not only practice relentlessly but also have quite an acute visual memory.

There are complexity and sophistication in the construction of Chinese characters. To start, there is only a couple of standards in the way they are written: the stroke order of a character and the skeletal structure of a character. The stroke order determines the sequence of writing a character and it is roughly written top-to-bottom and left-to-right. In fact, this is what allows Chinese dictionaries to classify characters according to the number of strokes it takes to write them. For example, the character 書 ('shu', as shown on top) is a 9-stroke character. In everyday use, no matter what one's handwriting is like, 書 should always be written in the correct skeletal structure so it's not confused for another character. The 'skeleton' is akin to the underlying structure of a Latin letter, such as the capital letter 'E'; that is, regardless of stroke weight, 'E' must be composed of a vertical line and a column of three horizontal lines, the former of which sits to the left of the three horizontal lines. There are exceptions, of course, but if the written form deviates excessively from one letter to another, then it becomes unrecognizable and unappealing. In Chinese calligraphy, however, this rigidity is not always required, and in the hands of a master calligrapher, its deconstruction is highly celebrated as a work of art.

Calligraphy by Wang Xizhi (王羲之). Jin Dynasty, 265-420 A.D.

The mastery of Chinese brush calligraphy requires, on a physical level, a trained sense of space, stroke weight, brush size, even paper texture; and, on a mental level, a thorough, philosophical understanding of the meaning of the character so that it would sit correctly, meaningfully, and aesthetically pleasing in relation to the previous and following characters in the traditional vertical sentence structure. In the past, the way in which words were written was held in such high regard that calligraphy was believed to be a reflection of a person's true character. For the sake of finding the perfect rhythm, the most beautiful line, and the best balance, Chinese calligraphers of the past have pushed the boundaries of how each character can be written. Often a character would be barely recognizable out of context but together, the characters flow poetically, linked from one to the next. With the advent of the brush, artistic calligraphy was experimented with and studied for thousands of years, making one of the oldest written languages today also one that has explored and established strong aesthetic principles. Chinese calligraphy can be said to be the reflection and the distilling of the Chinese sense of form, beauty, and design. But now that we've entered the digital age, what effect does it have on a language that is so rooted in the handwritten tradition?

Calligraphy by Yan Zhenqing (颜真卿). Tang Dynasty, 618-907 A.D.

In addition to a vertical sentence format, there are no absolutes in the many styles of Chinese calligraphy. It should come as no surprise, then, that Chinese calligraphy cannot be converted to a font that will preserve its integrity. Furthermore, it is not possible to assign a single key on a computer keyboard to each Chinese character--there are simply too many. So when a person needs to digitally communicate in Chinese, he must input a combination of keystrokes and then select the character that he wants from a list of possibilities.

There are two commonly used input methods: using Latin alphabets to phonetically spell out a character and then choosing the correct character from a list of possibilities; or, having the keys assigned specific strokes, type out a specific sequence and selecting from a list of possible characters. Whichever the method, the writer must correctly 'spell' the character and then recognize it. The upside is that computer programs have become so efficient at guessing the desired characters in real time that it is often unnecessary to completely spell them out. This has vastly sped up the input of Chinese characters on the computer and has allowed the Chinese language to flourish on the computer screen and by extension, in the digital world.

But efficiency is often not without its sacrifices. A young native Chinese speaker who was, like his western counterpart, born and brought up in the digital age may very well not need to correctly write Chinese. It is now entirely possible to have a much blurrier memory of how a character is written but still correctly choose it from a list on the computer simply because no other characters look like the correct one. The irony is that the same digital process that has allowed an ancient language to continue flourishing in the 21st century has eroded away much of its visual, artistic beauty. And if calligraphy is, as I believe it to be, a keeper of Chinese aesthetic and philosophical values, then it is possible that a detachment to the calligraphic tradition is depriving young artists and designers of a major source of inspiration.

Lest I be misunderstood, this isn't a calling to increase calligraphy classes in education; the deeper concern is in regards to the generations of today and tomorrow losing grasp of the visual beauty of the Chinese language, and consequently being trained only to follow the already-mature Western development of design. But there is the beginning of a solution: the endless source of design inspiration to be found in Chinese calligraphy. Beyond the meaning of the words, Chinese calligraphy represents a people's unwavering belief in its language as an essential means of communication, a record of each era's sense of balance and beauty, and a reflection of how it sees the world--in sum total, its philosophies. If Chinese design wants to sow and nurture its own identity, then it must first look to its own beginnings.

(Images from Chinese Online Museum)