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01 July, 2007:
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Typing In Chinese 用汉语打字

Study Chinese
Hutong School


As recently as the 1980s, people were skeptical about the fate of Chinese characters in the information age. Some went as far as to speculate that characters would soon give way to a simpler writing system because “Romanizations would smooth the development of modern technology.” After all, there are thousands of characters so it must take a really huge keyboard to type in Chinese…right?

In fact, as early as the 1940s practical Chinese typewriters had already been developed. Lin Yu Tang, a Chinese intellectual who spent most of his professional life in the United States, invested years of his life and his entire savings in producing an easy and efficient Chinese typewriter. Unfortunately, when it was finally completed, China was deep in civil war, and therefore not a great market for a somewhat luxury item. However, the entry system, 输入法 shu1ru4fa3, that Lin developed for his machine later became one of the first entry methods used for typing on computers.

With computers, typing in Chinese, 打字 da3zi4, is much simpler than anyone predicted in the last century. Yes, there are thousands of characters, but not every one of them needs its own key on the keyboard. In fact, a full keyboard is not even necessary to type in Chinese: the keypad of a mobile phone, 手机 shou2ji, is convenient enough to use for sending text messages, 短信 duan4xin4, written with Chinese characters. Text messages are such a popular form of communication in China that advertisers and novelists have cashed in on the medium. Although the number of characters that can be sent in a message is often limited to about 70, advertisements are common, and cell-phone novels are published in semi-daily installments.

Entry Methods 汉字输入法

Many different methods, 汉字输入法 han4zi4shu1ru4fa3, exist for entering characters into a computer or mobile phone. Among these, the most important are the Pinyin method, 拼音 pinyin; the stroke method, 五笔 wubi; and the Zhuyin Fuhao method, 注音符号 zhuyinfuhao, which is mainly used in Taiwan. For both Computers and phones, the most intuitive entry method uses Pinyin. Essentially, using the Pinyin entry method, you simply type the Putonghua pronunciation of a word to enter a character.

Pinyin Entry 拼音输入法

Using Pinyin to type characters means typing the phonetic representation of a word and then selecting the appropriate characters from a set of options stored in the computer. Different pinyin entry systems vary in terms of how many characters constitute a word. On many computer programs, multiple-character compounds can be entered as a single unit. In this case, the computer usually provides a list of homophonic compound words from which to choose. Initially, the computer will generally attempt to automatically select the most fitting word. The invention of artificial intelligence and predictive text has made typing a fairly easy process.

On a cell phone, you can rarely enter multiple characters at a time. However, the predictive text is fast and fairly accurate. After one character has been manually entered, predictive text programs offer a selection of characters that could occur in conjunction with the original choice. Computer programs also feature this type of predictive text capability.

While the pinyin system is simple and intuitive, it still has its fair share of problems. One of the biggest problems is that not everyone speaks the same Chinese. While someone who speaks perfect Putonghua will have no problem typing the correct phonetics every time, a native speaker of a dialect such as Cantonese or Hakka may not know exactly what a word sounds like in the standard language.

Another problem is that not everyone is familiar with Pinyin. The phonetic spelling system is taught in schools now, but is less useful to Chinese once they have mastered characters. Older Chinese with less familiarity with the system may find the Roman letters too cumbersome to deal with. Also, the pinyin system is almost completely foreign to overseas Chinese who are accustomed to using different Romanizations and phonetic transcriptions.

Zhuyin Entry 注音输入法

Another entry method used for both computers and cell phones relies on the Zhuyin Fuhao, 注音符号, or Bopomofo transcription system as opposed to Pinyin. Naturally, this system is not used in Mainland China, where Pinyin replaced Zhuyin in the mid 1900s. Nevertheless, it is a viable option in areas, such as Taiwan, that utilize this transcription system.

On a cell phone, the Zhuyin symbols take the place of Roman letters on the keypad. Typing is intuitive if you know how to spell using Zhuyin. The system essentially works the same way as the Pinyin method, and as such is subject to the same problems. Non-standard pronunciations, dialects and spellings are not covered by this entry method. Also, the community that uses Zhuyin Fuhao is fairly small, and the system is inaccessible to those outside that community.

The Stroke Method 五笔输入法

For both cell phones and computers, one interesting entry system is known as "the stroke method" or 五笔 wu3bi4 . This method uses five of the eight basic strokes used to write characters. Each stroke is assigned to one key.

On a cell phone keypad or a computer, the user enters the first three strokes in the order that they are written for a given character, then the user enters the final stroke of the character. As with the Pinyin system, the program then generates a list of possible characters for the given combination of strokes. Not many people use this entry method because it requires a fairly high level of concentration and training.

That said, someone who is specially trained in using the Wubi stroke method can type extremely fast on a computer. This system can be radically faster than the Pinyin system because the number of possible characters for a given stroke combination is fewer than the number of homophonous syllables. Keep in mind that for over 50,000 characters there are only 400 different Pinyin spellings!

An experienced Wubi typist can enter characters at a rate of about 180 characters per minute!

The Future 将来

The technological innovations of the computer age have not influenced the development of a new writing system for Chinese. New technology has developed to efficiently handle the extant writing system.

One unforeseen result of the computer age is the decline of handwriting. Whereas calligraphic brush writing used to be an important skill learned starting in primary school, it is no longer considered important. Character recognition is now more important than the ability to write every character from memory, and the beauty of handwriting is now far less important than the quality of content.

Nevertheless, the characters have proven to withstand the tests of time. Changing mediums have not altered the shape of the characters themselves, and the Chinese language continues to extend its thousand year legacy without pause.