Behind the meticulous process of creating Chinese computer characters

But there are tens of thousands of Chinese characters, and a 5 by 7 grid was too small to make them readable. The Chinese required a grid of 16 by 16 or larger, that is, at least 32 bytes of memory (256 bits) per character. If one could imagine a character containing 70,000 low-resolution Chinese characters, the total memory required would exceed two megabytes. Even a source containing only 8,000 of the most common Chinese characters would require about 256 kilobytes just to archive the bitmaps. That was four times the total memory capacity of most personal computers in the early ’80s.

As serious as these memory challenges were, the most fiscal problems faced with the production of low-resolution Chinese characters in the 1970s and 1980s were those of aesthetics and conception. Long before anyone came up with a program like Gridmaster, the lion’s share of the work was done outside of the computer, using pen, paper, and correction fluid.

Designers have spent years trying to modify bitmaps that meet low memory requirements and have kept a minimum of calligraphic elegance. Among those who created this character set, both with manual drawing of bitmap bits for specific Chinese characters and digitized with Gridmaster, were Lily Huan-Ming Ling (凌焕銘) and Ellen Di Giovanni.

Sketches of bitmap drawings of Chinese characters for Sinotype III font.


The core problem that the designers faced was to translate between two radically different ways of writing Chinese: the hand-drawn character, produced with pen or brush, and the glyph bitmap, produced with a series of pixels arranged on two assi. The designers have to decide how (and if) they should try to recreate certain handwritten Chinese spelling features, such as input shots, stroke accuracy, and exit shots.

In the case of the Sinotype III source, the process of designing and digitizing low-resolution Chinese bitmaps has been thoroughly documented. One of the most fascinating archival sources of this period is a grid-filled linker with hand-drawn hash marks on them – sketches that will then be digitized in bitmaps for several thousand Chinese characters. Each of these characters was carefully arranged and, in most cases, edited by Louis Rosenblum and GARF, using the correction fluid to erase any “bits” with the editor disagreeing. In addition to the initial set of green hash marks, therefore, a second set of red hash marks indicated the “final” draft. Only then did the data entry work begin.

A close-up of a beautiful drawing bitmap project (背, back, back) that shows changes made using the correction fluid.


Given the number of bitmaps the team needed to design – at least 3,000 (and ideally many others) if the machine was hoped to meet the needs of consumers – one could assume that designers were looking for ways to simplify their work. One way to be able to do this, for example, would have been to duplicate the Chinese radicals – the basic components of a character – when they appeared at about the same location, size, and orientation from one character to another. When producing so many dozen common Chinese characters that contain the “radical woman” (女), for example, the GARF team could have (and, in theory, should have) created just a standard bitmap, and then replicated it to each character. in which the radical appeared.

No such mechanistic decisions have been made, however, as archival materials show. On the contrary, Louis Rosenblum insisted that the designers added each of these components – often in almost imperceptible ways – to ensure that they were in harmony with the general character in which they appeared.

In bitmaps for Juan (娟, gracefully) and mine (娩, delivery), for example – each of which contains the radical woman – that radical has always been changed so little. In character Juan, the middle section of the radical woman occupies a horizontal span of six pixels, compared to five pixels in the character mine. At the same time, however, the lower right curve of the radical woman extends only an extra pixel in character. mine, and in character Juan that blow doesn’t even stretch.

The bitmap characters for juan (娟, graceful) and mian (娩, for delivery) from the source Sinotype III, recreated by the author.


Throughout the character, this level of accuracy was the rule rather than the exception.

When we juxtapose bitmap design drafts against their final forms, we see that more changes have been made. In the writing version of round (Luo, collects, net), for example, the shot at the bottom left extends down to a perfect 45 ° angle before settling into the digitized version of a shot. In the final version, however, the curve was “flattened”, starting at 45 ° but then leveling.

A comparison of two writing versions of the character luo (罗, collection, net).


Despite the seemingly small space in which the designers had to work, they had to make an astonishing number of choices. And each of these decisions influenced every other decision they made for a specific character, since adding even one pixel often changed the overall horizontal and vertical balance.

The unforgivable size of the grid has influenced the work of designers in other unexpected ways. We see this more clearly in the diabolical problem of obtaining symmetry. Symmetrical layouts – which abound in Chinese characters – were particularly difficult to represent in low-resolution frames because, by the rules of mathematics, creating symmetry requires spatial areas of strange dimensions. Bitmap grids with uniform dimensions (such as the 16-by-16 grid) have made symmetry impossible. GARF was able to achieve symmetry by using, in some cases, only a part of the general grid: only a 15 by 15 region in the general 16 by 16 grid. This further reduced the amount of usable space.

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


The story becomes even more complex when we start comparing bitmap characters created by different companies or creators for different projects. Consider the water radical (氵) as it appears in the Sinotype III source (bottom and right), as opposed to another initial Chinese source created by HC Tien (left), a Chinese-American psychotherapist and entrepreneur. who experimented with Chinese computer science in the 70s and 80s.

A comparison of the water radical (氵) as seen in the Sinotype III feature (right) versus a first Chinese source created by HC Tien (left).


As small as the above examples might seem, each represented another decision (among thousands) that the GARF design team had to make, both during the drafting phase and in the digitization phase.

The low resolution hasn’t been “low” for long, of course. Advances in computing have resulted in ever-denser bitmaps, ever-faster processing speeds, and ever-decreasing memory costs. In our current age of 4K resolution, retina displays, and even more, it can be difficult to appreciate the art – both aesthetic and technical – that went into the creation of the first Chinese bitmap characters, however limited they may be. they were. But it was problem solving that finally made computing, new media and the internet accessible to a sixth of the global population.

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