Fonts and Writing Systems of the Chinese Language: What Went Wrong in Mulan?

Mulan’s family sword in the 2020 production of Mulan. (Source: Mulan’s trailer)

By: Cheryl Lu, Social Media Coordinator

As a native Chinese speaker, as much as I want to appreciate Disney’s effort in trying to recreate the story of Mulan, a famous female soldier who symbolizes bravery and loyalty in Chinese literature, the above scene gave me mixed feelings. Upon looking at the inscription on Mulan’s family sword, my feelings might be equivalent to an English speaker watching a period film, where one of the characters opens up a leather-bound parchment book, and discovers that all the text inside is printed in size 12 Arial.

“Chinese tattoo fail.” (Source: www.weibo.com/ttarticle/p/show?id=2309404243236200779638)

Unfortunately, this is a common mistake when international languages are visually presented outside their regions. If you do an online search for “Chinese tattoo fail,” you’ll find most of the tattoos are not only hilarious in content, but also feature a similar font style: rigid, squarish, every stroke cleanly separated from each other. They are relatively modern fonts invented for the convenience of print and digital presentation, rather than for carrying cultural value or personality statements. (This struggle of losing traditional scripts due to modern technology also exists in many other cultures, for example, Urdu.)

The Chinese writing system and fonts, like the language itself, have evolved for thousands of years; and the fonts that remain preserved today seem to each serve a default purpose in the speakers’ minds, whether it be for engraving, writing, or printing. No one has trained us to think this way, but as native speakers, we’d know it when spotting a misused font, just like how English speakers would never mix the time periods of Gothic fonts, cursive, and typewriter style.

Oracle Bone Script – The First Chinese Words

The first documented Chinese words, dating back to the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.), were carved into animal bones and tortoise shells for divination, hence the name oracle bone script (甲骨文). Prior to the Bronze Age, kings and priests on the land that is now China used to carve hieroglyphs onto these same media, set them on fire, and interpret the cracking marks afterwards; and the images they carved soon evolved into a script. This is the font in Chinese history that looks the most ancient, mysterious, primitive, or even tribal. Earlier this year, Legend of Deification, a Chinese movie featuring the life story of a famous politician/king advisor of that era, incorporated the oracle bone script style into its poster.

Movie Legend of Deification, with oracle bone script elements in its poster.
A comparison between modern Chinese (top) and oracle bone script (bottom): “sun,” “rain,” “water,” “four” and “north.” (Source: zidiantong.com)
Oracle bone script (L) and Chinese bronze inscription (R): “mountain” and “rain.” (Source: www.comdesignlab.com/typochina, www.pinshiwen.com).

Bronze Script – A Step Forward

As the Bronze Age came, words were widely casted onto bronze vessels used for sacrificial ceremonies. Scripts from this era are called Chinese bronze inscriptions (金文 literally: metal script), and the logographs became more mature with simplified strokes and consistent styles for each character.

Seal Script – Perfect for Engraving

After both the Shang and Zhou (1046 – 771 B.C.) dynasties fell apart, vassal states each claimed sovereignty, and languages and scripts evolved within each state independently, like modern Europe. Seven political powers emerged with their own writing systems for the language, until 221 B.C., when six vassal states were conquered and unified under Qin, the first imperial dynasty of China. At that time, fonts and scripts were unified into Qin’s local official writing: seal script (篆文). All books and documents created in other scripts were located, piled and burned.

Unified scripts from each vassal state: “horse” and “safe.” (Source: sohu.com)

Seal script is a surviving font that is still used today thanks to its aesthetic and artistic value. It kept the pictographic components of its predecessors, while at the same time came up with relatively advanced compositions and structures for each character. As the name suggests, seal script and its different variants are widely used for calligraphy seals and stamps. It is also commonly used for engraving, and is often featured in historical films and TV shows. If the crew behind Mulan had done more thorough research, they would have found this font to be the most appropriate for Mulan’s sword.

A Seal script engraving of “Whatever” on the sword in the 2019 production of The Untamed.

Clerical Script – Practicality Wins

Though ornate and fancy, seal script was soon found to be too complicated for daily writing due to its extravagant nature. Since the unification of fonts and scripts, the Emperor had to deal with seven times more documents than the previous amount. Thus, clerical script (隶书) was introduced and promoted for efficiency.

In a turning point in Chinese calligraphy, clerical script greatly simplified and standardized the writing system, making it easy to read and write while projecting a formal vibe. Created for official use, clerical script came to its prime during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 A.D.) and was replaced by regular (also known as standard) script (楷书) in the Three Kingdoms Era (220-280 A.D.). Clerical script, as a formal yet practical font, remains widely used for monuments and gravestones. If Mulan’s family wanted to choose a more recent and simple engraving for their sword, this could have been a possible font too.

From left to right: seal script, clerical script and regular script. (Source: www.shufazidian.com, www.qhsfjxh.com, read01.com/8aJKNx0.html#.X1qN4WdKghs)

Regular Script – A Handwriting Standard 

Regular script evolved from clerical script during the long warring decades and was well received by the public from its inception. Simple yet elegant, this font became extremely popular with its calligraphic variants, held its status throughout a thousand-year-long history, and still is the standard for handwriting and one of the default computer settings among today’s Chinese-speaking population worldwide.

Cursive Scripts – Rebellious Statements

Upon the basis of regular script, there emerged two incredibly expressive fonts for handwriting: semi-cursive (行书) and cursive script (草书). Full of the writers’ personalities, these fonts are often made into art pieces, collected and given as gifts, and (reportedly) commonly banned for students in China’s primary and secondary schools whose handwriting is deemed “still needs practicing.” For those interested in Chinese tattoos, these fonts might be great options, for their existence alone is sometimes a sophisticated yet rebellious statement.

Semi-cursive script (L) and cursive script (R). (Source: m.yac8.com)
Opening credits of The Untamed (2019), with a title designed in semi-cursive script and a stamp similar to the style of seal script.

The First Print Type

Another ancient font that is still used (and perhaps abused) today is the Song (mainland China)/Ming (Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong) font. Invented in, and named after the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.), this font was created specifically because of the invention of movable type printing technologies and the rise of fiction writing. With reduced curves and rigid angles, Song as a typeface improved the efficiency of printing and promoted literacy among the commoners.

Different digital variants of Song/Ming (Source: blog.justfont.com)

With increased international interactions, Song/Ming spread across Asia during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) (hence the second name) and later across the globe. In today’s world, Song/Ming and its offspring are still the most commonly seen Chinese fonts for all purposes, including academic writing and government documents. With Windows setting it as one of the default computer typefaces, this thousand-year-old font is thriving in the digital age and serves as the Chinese equivalent to Times New Roman.

Going back to Mulan, this font bug would not have happened to a producer sensitive to Chinese culture, along with other anachronisms such as Mulan’s family’s style of residence (which comes 150 years later, in a different region of China) and the martial art of Tai Chi used in the film (which was not invented until 700 years later). Fonts, as unremarkable and boring as they sound, carry centuries of language evolvement in every culture that has a written history, and it’s a shame that we seem to be losing traditional writing styles (even in English) due to modern technologies that prioritize utility before culture. I, as a language enthusiast, have high hopes in the globalized film industry and am eager to see more of these traditional and original ways of writing in each language authentically presented on screen.