Digital age puts Chinese 'characters' in a bind

Long ago, in ancient China, the feet of some women from wealthy or ruling families were bound, and the resulting “bound feet” were not a pretty picture. Now, the digital age of computers and microblogging is placing a bind on the ability of younger Chinese people to write their Chinese characters.

While there are around 25,000 Chinese hanzi to learn, most people in China get by with knowing about 2,000 to 3,000 characters, tops. Still, the digital age has turned millions of Chinese youngsters into calligraphy dummies, and even writing simple Chinese characters in email and microblogs has become something they are not all so sage about anymore.

The ability to write Chinese characters has been affected by, you guessed it: the digital technology of the West. But Chinese pundits in Beijing are not blaming the West for this one; they are blaming their own kids—and the rise of a somewhat un-Confucian popular culture.


China Central Television’s “Dictation Assembly of Chinese Characters”

Says Cui Zhichiang of the Chinese Calligraphers Association in Beijing: “The style of writing among Chinese people today has been changed or ruined.”

Mr. Cui, 60 years old and born in a different era, says cellphones and computers have changed China forever, and that as a result, things will never be the same. A similar situation holds true in Taiwan and Japan, where hanzi (or kanji) still rule the day. The kids just don’t know their “strokes” anymore.

Some cultural critics in China and Taiwan see all this as an existential crisis for Chinese characters. It could spell the end of Chinese civilization as we know it.

Educators in China, Taiwan and Japan are, under the circumstances, quite worried about the increasing number of students who cannot write their hanzi or kanji anymore, with a pen or a brush. If “Johnny” has trouble with his penmanship or spelling in America these days, the young princes and princesses of China (and by extension Taiwan and Japan, which are separate countries) “can’t write.” It’s getting that bad, or so the picky pundits say.

As you can imagine, China’s mandarins are not taking all this sitting down. A new TV show in Beijing did well in recent summer viewer ratings, and what was it’s theme? Promoting ”the joys of writing in Chinese characters.” “Why Jintao can’t write” is being remedied by the popular program, but educators are still worried.

The show, titled “Dictation Assembly of Chinese Characters” was aired on China Central Television every weekend over the summer.

8 Comments on Digital age puts Chinese 'characters' in a bind

  1. This makes me wonder how recorded audio such as in a podcast is working there. There are substantial populations in the world and even in the US who could be accurately characterized as belonging to an oral culture.

  2. I asked a reporter inside China, a Chinese woman, if this is true, and she replied re the TeleRead article: “Yes, Dan, it is quite true. and it really a problem in Chinese new generation. Many people even forget how to write when puting up the pen!! Digital age is invading our traditional beauty Hanzi.”

  3. Damn… a younger, knowledgeable generation is rejecting an ancient, primitive writing system that’s overly difficult to master in favor of the infinitely more efficient one used by mostly everyone else. The sky is falling!

    Sounds just like European nationalists complaining that national languages are losing popularity in favor of English. You’d think older people don’t want us to communicate more with each other. Which is, you know, rather counterproductive in an increasingly global civilization. And come to think of it, insufficient communication has been the cause of many wars historically…

  4. Friends in Japan told me today re this article:
    ” It’s true in Japan too.
    Not only young people but also elder generations including us are facing the
    difficulty in handwriting Chinese characters correctly or figuring out
    appropriate Chinese characters.
    We don’t write letters as frequently as before, because we email.
    Computers and iPhones can immediately tell you right Chinese characters that
    you’ve even never used before. Because of decreased opportunities of
    handwriting, our ability of handwriting words, especially Chinese
    characters, has become poorer and poorer….!! We even heard, through a TV
    show, that some Japanese people have difficulty in writing even hiragana or
    katakana too!
    — Satoru and Mitsuko, TOKYO

  5. Cursive writing in the US may be on the decline as well, see:
    The keyboard is frequently cited as a cause but computer mediated dictation may also be a factor.
    English calligraphy was a special interest to me as I used to watch and marvel at the skills of the “sign writers” that worked in my father’s outdoor advertising business. Some here may remember the paper signs that appeared in shop windows daily that announced special prices or the availability of some rare cut of meat. These were dashed of in no time by a skilled sign writer with a brush and a few paper cups containing water color paints.
    Magic markers and computers have sent all of this to the dustbin of history too.

  6. Interestingly, digital input for East Asian users has never been easier than in the latest generations of tablets and smartphones. East Asian languages were always better suited for HWR than Western scripts anyway, because the characters fit in boxes and follow a predictable sequence of character strokes. Many phones sold in East Asian markets, like the kind I used to see during my 12 years in Hong Kong, have had an onscreen character drawing option for a very long time. Many leading HWR programs, including 7Notes which I use for writing freehand on my tablets and phone, come from East Asian developers. Fine, most of the typing programs primarily use phonetics, and fill in the characters so the writers don’t have to bother remembering. But tablets with styluses are still hugely well adapted for character-based input, and even calligraphy. If East Asian educators and language nationalists really want to push to preserve/revive this heritage, there’s never been a technologically better time for it.

  7. Here’s an interesting demo of how various East Asian languages are implemented on a touch device.
    This caused me to wonder whether English speed writing or shorthand has been implemented in these devices yet. Would people be able to write faster that way?
    Would we use it if it were available? After all, we’re still using the QWERTY keyboard which is described as far from optimal in the digital world.
    Is speed and efficiency at all important?

  8. I’m using freehand writing with HWR on my tablet all the time. It’s slower than keyboards, but not by much. Conversion accuracy just isn’t an issue any more. And you can scrawl one-handed on a tablet in many more places and situations than you can keyboard-peck.

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