Language is the foundation of culture. Fascinated by the relationship between the two, Taiwanese filmmakers Mu-Ming Tsai, Iris Lai, and Emily Hsiang were inspired to create Hanzi, a documentary that gives insight into Chinese visual culture and celebrates the beauty of Chinese typography.
“We found that Taiwan, more than anywhere else, has preserved traditional Chinese characters, or hanzi,” they note. (Mainland China uses a set of simplified hanzi.) “Every day we’re surrounded by this beautiful script, but we had never really sought to understand and appreciate it.” Beyond investigating character design, the filmmakers also use the documentary as a way to discuss other questions, such as how an ad’s typography exerts a subtle influence on viewers, how language shapes identity, and how handwriting is declining in the digital age. Seeking to explore even more possibilities in hanzi, they’ve interviewed people in United States, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Japan, and Taiwan.
One person they interview is Shao-Lan Hsueh, the creator of Chineasy, a visual approach to learning Chinese. Raised in Taiwan and based in England, Hsueh has designed a more fun, more effective learning method for anyone who studies Chinese as a second or heritage language.
This method takes advantage of the fact that Chinese writing is logographic. Unlike in English or other alphabetic writing systems, in logographic systems, the composition of a character can itself express meaning. Hsueh’s series of rich visual designs breaks hanzi down one by one, so that by looking at an image you can immediately connect it with a character’s meaning.
其中一位访谈对象，是图像式中文学习法 Chineasy 的创办人薛晓岚。她是一位住在英国的台湾人，为了下一代必须在外语环境中学习中文，她设计了一套让学中文更有趣、更有效的方法。
Another notable voice in the film is Jieguan Zhang, the owner of Rixing Type Foundry. Located in Taiwan, Rixing Type Foundry is the last surviving foundry for traditional characters, and it holds nearly 300,000 lead slugs inside. Twenty years ago, the advent of digital typesetting put an end to the age of printing as an art. Casting movable type is a technique that’s no longer needed, and one after another the foundries that used to support several households have now closed. Only Rixing, founded in 1969, remains. The reason lies in Zhang’s fondness for the profession of casting type: he doesn’t have the heart to let a tradition of such historical significance disappear forever. That’s why he’s fought to preserve this small storefront and the invaluable foundry inside.
另一位值得一提的访谈者，是日星铸字行的老板张介冠。位在台北的日星铸字行是世上仅存唯一的繁体中文铸字行，店内收藏了近三十万个铸铅字。二十年前，数位排版软体的出现终结了印刷术的年代。专为活版印刷存在的铸字技术，如今已不再被需要，曾经养活好几人家的铸字行，也一间一间关门了。其中日星铸字行是从 1969 年创立以来，坚持下来的最后一间。原因是张老板对铸字这行业的一片心意，不忍心让这项承载着重要历史意义的传统永远消失，于是把这一间小小的店铺，和里面极具价值的铸字，努力保存下来。
Everyone interviewed in the film is deeply engaged in the innovation and preservation of Chinese characters. In addition to Hsueh and Zhang, the film includes enlightening conversations with font designers, billboard makers, and some sixteen other people. “In the process of shooting, even we learned a lot,” admit the filmmakers. “We hope that Hanzi leads people to rediscover the typefaces around them, and learn about how characters are designed, and how important language is to culture. And if after seeing it you start to feel proud or thankful for this part of our culture, even better.”
Hanzi is now available for purchase. For more information, please visit their official website.