Chinese Corner

The Write Stuff4 min read

Writing Chinese is hard. Is technology helping or hindering? – by Eveline Chao


One day in 2010, I was in a car with my cousins, being driven around Taipei by a (directionally challenged) aunt. After our third time getting lost, my aunt finally pulled over, plugged in the GPS, and used her finger to write the address of our destination onto the touchscreen device. As she scribbled out the characters, my cousins all leaned forward to watch. “Wow,” one of them said when she was done. “I don’t know how to handwrite anything anymore.”

Writing in Chinese, in case you hadn’t noticed, is freaking hard. So much so that Chinese people think so, too. I’ve seen everyone from my mom, to a seatmate on a Beijing bus, even to my Chinese teacher, suddenly stop in the midst of writing, unable to continue because they’ve blanked on a word. Professor Victor Mair at the University of Pennsylvania has called this character amnesia (he later clarified he “cannot guarantee that I coined the expression”).

Thanks to the rise of computers and text messaging, the ability to write characters by hand is declining even more. Because of the way typing works on phones and computers, people rarely have to conjure up characters from scratch. They can rely on recognition rather than recall memory, which is easier on the brain. (For those who don’t already know how typing in Chinese works, you usually type the pinyin, then choose the correct character from the selection that pops up.)

It’s hard to know just how much to lament the maybe-impending obsolescence of Chinese handwriting, and how much to cheer for it. On the one hand, it seems sad to lose that ability, because what about culture and tradition? On the other hand, all that culture and tradition didn’t go anywhere. It’s right here, on my handy-dandy smartphone, which enables me to compose all kinds of deep important messages I could never write by hand, and in much nicer fonts.

Linguists, academics and world leaders have debated for more than a century whether the Chinese writing system actually holds the country back, because it’s so arduous to learn. It leaves schoolchildren wasting entire years, the thinking goes, on rote memorization of characters. Many people think China ought to switch to using only pinyin (or some other alphabet-based system). That would free up teachers and students to work on more useful skills, like critical thinking or coding.

Then there are the people who argue that since technology has made recall-based handwriting less important, the mainland might as well switch from simplified characters back to traditional. The People’s Republic of China codified this modified system in the 1950s in a bid to increase literacy. Whether the simplifications met that goal is up for debate – Taiwan continue to use the standard of the last two millennia and has a literacy rate of 98.5%, two percentage points above the mainland. If you can’t remember how to write the characters anyway, why not switch back to the traditional system on the mainland? The decline in handwriting brought about by technology might lead, ironically, to even greater restoration of culture and tradition.  

Of course, technology has brought about even more changes since 2010. The rise of WeChat means that many Chinese speakers now eschew texting altogether in favor of voice chats. Voice recognition has also improved by leaps and bounds over the last several years, and continues to do so, making it easier to input text via dictation. Handwriting recognition on touchscreens is also bound to improve – we could potentially all switch to handwriting again. Or maybe in a few decades we’ll all have a chip in our brain that directly beams our thoughts to each other, rendering all of this moot.

Of course, some other innovation could come along altogether that nobody’s thought of yet – just as, once upon a time, when the impossible unwieldiness of Asian-language typewriters put East Asian countries at a disadvantage to those with manageable little alphabets, Japanese engineers invented the fax machine and sidestepped the issue of typing altogether. I can’t wait to see what happens next. ∎

Feature image used with permission from Victor Mair of Language Log.

Eveline Chao

Eveline Chao is a freelance writer and the author of NIUBI! The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School. She lived in Beijing from 2006 to 2011. She's now based in Brooklyn, New York, where she continues to write about China, as well as the history of Manhattan Chinatown.