Some fonts *not* to use for Pinyin

One of the traditions in advance of Chinese New Year is housecleaning — something not among my favorite activities. But I thought I’d do a bit of housecleaning of half-finished posts and get at least one up before the new year (tomorrow). So here it is.

Although I occasionally bemoan the fact that relatively few font families are made such that they can handle Hanyu Pinyin with tone marks (at least not right out of the box), it’s worth noting that some of the commonly found fonts that do cover all of the letters and diacritics really suck at it and should be avoided when writing in Pinyin.

Typically, such fonts were designed mainly with Hanzi in mind.

Here’s one example:
screenshot of a Pinyin text set in Adobe Ming -- and, boy oh boy, is it ever hideous


That was Adobe Ming. Yes, Adobe.

I’ll go ahead and point out the obvious problems:

And I’m not so sure about the consistency of the x-height either. Those stubby little descenders are puzzling, too, but are not necessarily wrong.

Perhaps the designers intended these letters for use in vertically aligned text — though I don’t think these forms would work well even then. Perhaps there’s some context in which these might make sense, though I’m inclined to doubt this. Perhaps the designers have an irrational hatred of romanization and wanted to make Pinyin look as ugly as possible. Whatever the reason, even though this and the other Unicode-compliant fonts below have all of the letters with diacritics that Pinyin requires, using them for Pinyin texts would be a very bad idea.

Since there is apparently still some confusion about why the “?” form (in contrast to the normal “a” form) is incorrect, see the chart below.

table showing that the fonts discussed in this post that use the rounded style for the letter 'a' do so only with diacritics, not elsewhere. This is wrong. The rounded a's should not be used at all.

Note how the odd form of the letter a does not appear in regular text or even in double-width forms; instead, it’s seen only when accompanied by a tone mark. In other words, even within individual fonts the ? form is treated not as a normal “a” that happens to look that way but as something specifically for Pinyin, which is flat-out wrong. Other than the addition of diacritics themselves, there is no reason to alter letter shapes in any way for Pinyin.

Let’s get back to the broader issue. Here are some more examples of fonts that render Pinyin in ugly ways. (Click image to view PDF.)

click to view PDF with much larger and clearer text

To aid Web searches, here’s a text list of the fonts above, none of which should be used for Hanyu Pinyin:

  • Adobe Fangsong Std
  • Adobe Heiti Std
  • Adobe Kaiti Std
  • Adobe Ming Std
  • Adobe Song Std
  • MS Gothic
  • MS Mincho
  • MS PGothic
  • MS PMincho
  • MS UI Gothic
  • NSimSun
  • SimHei
  • SimSun

SimSun is probably the least awful of the bunch. But even so, there’s no good reason to use it instead of something else that would do the job much better, such as Gentium:
screenshot of the same Pinyin text, but this one is set in Gentium -- and it looks great

Generally speaking, if you wouldn’t want to use a font for English, French, Italian, etc., then don’t use it for Hanyu Pinyin.

Say no to making Pinyin ugly!

I wish you all a happy and P?ny?n-rich year of the dragon.

It’s Poetry Time

Shì shíhou le

Shì shíhou le, Zh?ngguórén! Shì shíhou le
Gu?ngch?ng shì dàji? de
Ji?o shì zìj? de
Shì shíhou yòng ji?o qù gu?ngch?ng zuòch? xu?nzé

Shì shíhou le, Zh?ngguórén! Shì shíhou le
G?q? shì dàji? de
Hóu[lóng] shì zìj? de
Shì shíhou yòng hóu[lóng] chàngch? x?nd? de g?q?

Shì shíhou le, Zh?ngguórén! Shì shíhou le
Zh?ngguó shì dàji? de
Xu?nzé shì zìj? de
Shì shíhou yòng zìj? xu?nzé wèilái de Zh?ngguó

—Zh? Yúf? (??? / Zhu Yufu), recently arrested in China for just this poem

Thanks to VHM for finding the full text of this poem for me.

Pinyin font: Noticia Text

Since my last examination of the selection at Google Web Fonts the number of font families for Latin Extended has reached 98 [edit: May 31, 2012: 188], with one new face capable of rendering Hanyu Pinyin with tone marks: Noticia Text.

image showing the font Noticia Text in action on a Hanyu Pinyin sample text

Here are the Pinyin-friendly font faces at Google Web Fonts.


  • EB Garamond
  • Gentium Basic
  • Gentium Book Basic
  • Neuton
  • Noticia Text

Sans Serif

  • Andika
  • Ubuntu
  • Ubuntu Condensed
  • Ubuntu Mono

For future reference, the font most recently added to the Latin Extended group is Ruda [edit in May 2012: Chau Philomene One], which doesn’t support Pinyin with diacritics (except, perhaps, through combining diacritics).

See also

Pinyin font: Flexion Pro

Today I’d like to introduce a highly individualistic font family that supports Hanyu Pinyin: Flexion Pro. This one, however, isn’t free.

sample of the Flexion Pro font being used for text in Hanyu Pinyin

Flexion was originally designed for the movie The DaVinci Code, which is apt, given how the main character, Robert Langdon, was named after Flexion’s designer (and ambigram specialist) John Langdon. Hal Taylor completed the font.

Here’s part of Taylor’s description:

Flexion is possibly the only symmetrical type design currently available. In keeping with John’s well-know propensity for ambigrams, many of the characters are mirrored to become other characters; the B is a reversed E, the C is reversed to become a D, G is a mirrored P, the K is a reversed N, and so on.

Of course, some of the tone marks will complicate making this work for ambigrams. But since Chinese-English bilingual ambigrams are possible, making Pinyin ambigrams, even with tone marks, shouldn’t be out of the question.

Flexion comes in four weights.

Platform on tai?

President Ma Ying-jeou’s re-election campaign slogan is “Táiw?n ji?yóu,” so one can see that all around Taiwan these days, as the election is only about two weeks away.

The Ma campaign has decided that the English translation of “Táiw?n ji?yóu” is “Taiwan, Bravo,” which isn’t quite right but at least sounds positive. Of Ma’s two opponents, Tsai Ing-wen (Cài Y?ngwén / ???) of the anti-Hanyu-Pinyin Democratic Progressive Party chose the somewhat cryptic English slogan of “Taiwan next,” while third-party candidate James Soong (Sòng Ch?yú / ???) chose as his slogan “Me, me, me!”

OK, I made that last one up, but only because I couldn’t find the real one, other than maybe it’s “Renew.” (Does anyone know for sure?)

What I really want to talk about here, though, is how Ma’s slogan gets written: ????.

There is of course nothing unusual about that — except that Ma likes to make a big deal out of using traditional Chinese characters rather than simplified ones. Every year or so Ma talks about how he wants to get the United Nations to declare traditional Chinese characters a super-duper world something-or-other. He has already purged government Web sites of versions that people in China and Singapore could read more easily than versions in traditional Chinese characters. And if he criticizes the PRC, it’s often to tell Beijing that people in China really ought to use traditional characters. Ma’s devotion to people in China being able to have traditional Hanzi reminds me of George W. Bush during the Hainan incident:

“Do the members of the crew have Bibles?” “Why don’t they have Bibles?” Can we get them Bibles?” “Would they like Bibles?”

In other words, while that might be a concern, I sometimes wonder about his priorities.

By now a lot of you are probably thinking, “But ? is one of those simplified characters that is not only OK to use in Taiwan but also by far more commonly seen than ?. So what’s strange about this?”

That’s entirely correct. In most cases there would be nothing noteworthy about using “????” rather than “????.” It seems entirely normal. What’s strange here is that the Ma administration actually has a position on the matter of ? vs. ?: Although the ? form can be tolerated in some instances, ? is supposedly better and is mandatory in certain cases.

About a year ago, for example, the Ministry of Education reported that official government documents (g?ngwén/??) would have to use the ? form. And textbooks would need to be updated to change instances of ??, ??, ??, ??, etc., to ??, ??, ??, ??…. Webmasters of some government Web sites scurried to perform a whole lot of search-and-replace. There were not, however, so many instances of ?? to change to ?? because Ma had already declared that in Mandarin pages “??” (Taiwan) was out and “????” (Zh?nghuá Mínguó / the Republic of China) was in; so mainly this was visible in city names in addresses.

Predictably, though, lots never got changed. (“Close enough for government work.”)

Yes, I know: None of you are deeply shocked by the notion that a politician would tell people to do one thing but do something else himself. And the way the premier downplayed the policy makes me suspect many find it pointless or even embarrassing. Still, the fact remains that the administration did decide not to leave well enough alone and went out of its way to favor ? over ?.

Supposedly this is because after the Ministry of Education studied the origins of ? and ?, it decided that the tai in the name Taiwan should be written as ?, according to Chen Hsueh-yu (Chén Xu?yù / ???), executive secretary of the ministry’s National Languages Committee.

This doesn’t much sense. Whichever form got used first — which is a dubious method for determining the correctness of usage for something now — the tai in Taiwan doesn’t have anything to do semantically with platforms, terraces, tables, stations, etc. In the case of the origin of the name of Taiwan, there’s no more meaning inherent in ? than there is in ? — or than there is in the Roman letters Tai, either, for that matter. As Victor Mair has noted:

Superficially (according to the surface signification of the two characters with which the name is customarily written), “Taiwan” means “Terrace Bay.” That sounds nice, even poetic, but it is an inauthentic etymology and has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual origins of the name. (This is a typical instance of the common fallacy of wàngwénsh?ngyì ????, whereby the semantic qualities of Chinese characters interfere with the real meanings of the terms that they are being used to transcribe phonetically.) The true derivation of the name “Taiwan” is actually from the ethnonym of a tribe in the southwest part of the island in the area around Ping’an. As early as 1636, a Dutch missionary referred to this group as Taiouwang. From the name of the tribe, the Portuguese called the area around Ping’an as Tayowan, Taiyowan, Tyovon, Teijoan, Toyouan, and so forth. Indeed, already in his ship’s log of 1622, the Dutchman Comelis Reijersen referred to the area as Teijoan and Taiyowan. Ming and later visitors to the island employed a plethora of sinographic transcriptions to refer to the area (superficially meaning “Terrace Nest Bay” [Taiwowan ???], “Big Bay” [Dawan ??], “Terrace Officer” [Taiyuan ??], “Big Officer” [Dayuan ??], “Big Circle” [Dayuan ??], “Ladder Nest Bay” [Tiwowan ???], and so forth). Some of these transcriptions are clever, others are fantastic, but none of them should be taken seriously for their meanings.

I’m not sure how best to characterize — sorry — the differences between “????” and “????.” Although using the ? form would definitely come across as more formal, it wouldn’t be exactly the equivalent of “Fight Fiercely, Harvard.” Yet the use of the ? form isn’t really the equivalent of a campaigning politician droppin’ his g’s either.

? vs. ?

Additional sources:

Please don’t write to comment for or against simplified characters in general. This post isn’t about that really, even though ? could serve as a poster child for Hanzi simplification.

Pinyin fonts at the Open Font Library

A search for Pinyin fonts at the Open Font Library currently yields 15 font families.

Not all of those, however, really do support Hanyu Pinyin with tone marks. Here are the ones that work, though not always without problems:

And here’s a PDF of all of those Unicode Pinyin font families in action.

I’ve previously mentioned more than one of these: Pecita and the various Gentium faces. I’ll write more about the latter in another post on the work coming out of SIL.


screenshot of the serif font 'crimson' in action on a sample Pinyin text

screenshot of the serif fonts 'Gentium' and 'Gentium Book' in action on a sample Pinyin text

screenshot of the serif font 'Judson' in action on a sample Pinyin text

screenshot of the serif font 'Libertinage' in action on a sample Pinyin text

screenshot of the serif font 'Wirewyrm' in action on a sample Pinyin text

Sans Serif

screenshot of the sans-serif font 'Designosaur' in action on a sample Pinyin text

screenshot of the sans-serif font 'News Cycle' in action on a sample Pinyin text

screenshot of the sans-serif  font 'Pfennig' in action on a sample Pinyin text


screenshot of the monospace sans-serif font 'Consola Mono' in action on a sample Pinyin text


screenshot of the script font 'Pecita' in action on a sample Pinyin text

Full list (including fails), for future reference:

  1. Anahi/Abbey
  2. Consola Mono
  3. Crimson
  4. Designosaur
  5. Douar Outline
  6. Futhark Adapted
  7. Gentium
  8. Judson
  9. Libertinage
  10. Logisoso
  11. News Cycle
  12. Pecita
  13. Pfennig
  14. Vegesignes
  15. WireWyrm

Google Web fonts and Pinyin — December 2011 update

When I put up my first post on Google Web fonts (Google Web fonts and Hanyu Pinyin), that site offered 252 font families, 29 of which cover at least parts of Latin Extended. Now, some three months later, the total has grown to 342 font families, with 70 of those covering at least parts of Latin Extended.

Only two of the new families, however, support Hanyu Pinyin with tone marks: Ubuntu Condensed and Ubuntu Mono. That brings the total to eight Google Web fonts that support Hanyu Pinyin: four serifs and four sans serifs.


  • EB Garamond
  • Gentium Basic
  • Gentium Book Basic
  • Neuton

Sans Serif

  • Andika
  • Ubuntu
  • Ubuntu Condensed
  • Ubuntu Mono

Here’s what the two new families, Ubuntu Condensed and Ubuntu Mono, look like next to the earlier Ubuntu.

example of Ubuntu, Ubuntu Condensed, and Ubuntu Mono in action on Hanyu Pinyin

For reference, here’s the total list of Latin Extended, with Pinyin-compliant fonts in bold.

Serif Faces

  1. Bitter
  2. Cardo
  3. Caudex
  4. EB Garamond
  5. Enriqueta
  6. Gentium Basic
  7. Gentium Book Basic
  8. Neuton
  9. Playfair Display
  10. Radley
  11. Sorts Mill Goudy

Sans Serif Faces

  1. Andika
  2. Anonymous Pro
  3. Anton
  4. Chango
  5. Didact Gothic
  6. Francois One
  7. Fresca
  8. Istok Web
  9. Jockey One
  10. Jura
  11. Marmelad
  12. Open Sans Condensed
  13. Open Sans
  14. Play
  15. Signika Negative
  16. Signika
  17. Tenor Sans
  18. Ubuntu
  19. Ubuntu Condensed
  20. Ubuntu Mono
  21. Varela
  22. Viga

Display Faces (all fail)

  1. Abril Fatface
  2. Arbutus
  3. Bubblegum Sans
  4. Butcherman Caps
  5. Chicle
  6. Eater Caps
  7. Forum
  8. Kelly Slab
  9. Knewave
  10. Lobster
  11. MedievalSharp
  12. Modern Antiqua
  13. Nosifer Caps
  14. Piedra
  15. Passion One
  16. Plaster
  17. Rammetto One
  18. Ribeye Marrow
  19. Ribeye
  20. Righteous
  21. Ruslan Display
  22. Stint Ultra Condensed

Handwriting Faces (all fail)

  1. Aguafina Script
  2. Aladin
  3. Devonshire
  4. Dr Sugiyama
  5. Fondamento
  6. Herr Von Muellerhoff
  7. Marck Script
  8. Miss Fajardos
  9. Miss Saint Delafield
  10. Monsieur La Doulaise
  11. Mr Bedford
  12. Mr Dafoe
  13. Mr De Haviland
  14. Mrs Sheppards
  15. Niconne
  16. Patrick Hand

Gift ideas for Mandarin learners

Here are some books I recommend. You may still have time to buy some of these for others (or persuade others to buy for you) before Christmas.

In a departure from my usual practice, all of the images below are linked to Amazon — in part to make things easier for most readers of this site but also because I’m a bit curious to see if the potential kickbacks from that site would ever add up to enough to buy myself some books I’ve been wanting. Mainly, though, I’d like to see these books make it into the hands of more readers. This isn’t meant to be a complete list; but it’s a good start.

One of these days I’ll post about the works below I haven’t written about previously.


ABC English-Chinese, Chinese-English Dictionary, edited by John DeFrancis and Zhang Yanyin. This is the Mandarin-English/English-Mandarin dictionary that every student needs. Suitable for all ages and levels. It’s small enough to carry with you. And at US$20 or even less it’s a bargain too. For an e-edition, get Wenlin (see below). Description. Excerpt from Mandarin –> English half. Excerpt from English –> Mandarin half.
ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary, edited by John DeFrancis. The best large Mandarin-English dictionary. Entries are arranged alphabetically, by words, rather than head Chinese characters. Note: This is a Mandarin –> English dictionary and does not offer an English –> Mandarin section. For an e-edition (which does allow for the lookup of English words), get Wenlin (see below). Sample of what entries in this dictionary look like.
Chinese Biographies: Lang Lang, by Grace Wu. Pinyin-annotated biography of pianist Lang Lang, with English notes. There’s also a helpful Web site with additional resources. Ideal for beginning and intermediate students.
Chinese Biographies: Yao Ming, by Grace Wu. Pinyin-annotated biography of basketball star Yao Ming, with English notes. There’s also a helpful Web site with additional resources. Ideal for beginning and intermediate students.
The Besieged City (Abridged Chinese Classic Series), by Qian Zhongshu. Pinyin-annotated abridged version of a terrific Chinese novel. With notes in English, proper word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin for the entire text, simplified Chinese characters, and a CD with MP3 files of the entire book being read aloud. Excerpt.
Family (abridged and annotated edition, with full Hanyu Pinyin), by Ba Jin. With notes in English, proper word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin for the entire text, simplified Chinese characters, and a CD with MP3 files of the entire book being read aloud. Excerpt.
Spring (abridged and annotated edition, with full Hanyu Pinyin), by Ba Jin. With notes in English, proper word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin for the entire text, simplified Chinese characters, and a CD with MP3 files of the entire book being read aloud. Excerpt.
Autumn, (abridged and annotated edition, with full Hanyu Pinyin), by Ba Jin. With notes in English, proper word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin for the entire text, simplified Chinese characters, and a CD with MP3 files of the entire book being read aloud. Excerpts.
Basic Spoken Chinese: An Introduction to Speaking and Listening for Beginners, by Cornelius C. Kubler. Although this book is not in orthographically standard Pinyin, it’s nonetheless strong. A practical, real-world textbook that focuses on learning the language, not getting beginners bogged down memorizing character after character.
Fundamental Spoken Chinese, by Robert Sanders. Another excellent textbook. Audio files are available online. Excerpt.
The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, by John DeFrancis. Essential reading. This book will inoculate you against the absolute nonsense that many people — including all too many teachers — believe about Chinese characters. Excerpt.
Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma, by William C. Hannas. A wide-ranging, detailed book that discusses some of the drawbacks of the continued use of Chinese characters. Excerpt.
Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar, by Li and Thompson. Good for the linguistically inclined. Just about the only Chinese characters in this book are on the cover, which, yes, I consider to be a good thing.
Wenlin software for learning Chinese, version 4. I use this on a daily basis. This incorporates both dictionaries listed above.
Beyond This List

Here are some things not listed above, in most cases because Amazon doesn’t stock them.

  • Pinyin Riji Duanwen, by Zhang Liqing. A book of largely autobiographical short stories, written entirely in Hanyu Pinyin (except for one brief letter in English). For intermediate and advanced learners — and for native speakers of Mandarin as well. At just US$5, plus shipping, this is the least expensive work on this list. The complete text is also available for free online, though a URL just doesn’t have that same Christmas feeling as a physical book, does it?
  • Any or all of the three volumes in Y.R. Chao’s Sayable Chinese series. For intermediate and advanced learners — and for native speakers of Mandarin as well. Note: These books are in Chinese characters and Gwoyeu Romatzyh, not Hanyu Pinyin, so for most people the learning curve is steeper than for reading something in Hanyu Pinyin. With some notes in English. Excerpt (Gwoyeu Romatzyh column only).
  • Other works on my recommended readings list, which may be available at Amazon but which may or may not fit well on a list for Mandarin learners.
  • KEY5 2011 Multimedia — a different sort of software than Wenlin but one that offers excellent Pinyin support.