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