Google has launched a self-promoting Chinese-language blog, not long after unveiling its controversial Chinese search engine last month. According to the Washington Post, China already has as many as 16 million bloggers. How do you type Chinese characters on a keyboard?
You use a piece of software called an “input method editor,” which allows conventional-looking keyboards to produce the thousands of characters used in written Chinese. There’s no standard system, though, so two Chinese keyboards may not look exactly the same and they may not function in the same way.
In the Peoples’ Republic of China, most computer users type out their Chinese in transliteration, using the standard Roman alphabet keys on a QWERTY keyboard. To generate a character, you type out its sound according to the same spelling system—called Pinyin—that represents the name of China’s capital with the word “Beijing.” The computer automatically converts the Pinyin spelling to the correct Chinese characters on the screen.
Or at least it’s supposed to. There are lots of Chinese words that sound similar but look different on paper. If you’re using the Pinyin input method, you’ll have to put in some extra effort to make sure the right characters show up onscreen. First, you can follow a syllable with a digit, to indicate which of several intonations you want. If the computer still doesn’t have enough information to pick a character, you’ll have to choose from a pop-up list of possibilities.
The best Pinyin input methods can guess what you mean to say according to the context and by suggesting the most commonly used characters first. In this way they function a bit like the text-editing software on most cell phones. Some input methods let you set arbitrary shortcuts: If you found yourself typing out the Chinese word for blog—”bu-luo-ge”—over and over again, you could assign it to a simpler letter combination, like “b-l-g.” Even with the fancy software, though, typing in Pinyin can be a drag.
Speed-typists in mainland China use another input method called Wubi. To type a character in Wubi, you don’t spell out how it sounds—you punch in a sequence of keys that corresponds to what it looks like and how it’s drawn. A Wubi-configured keyboard looks just like the Western version but has additional labels on each key. The QWERTY keys are divided into five regions for different types of pen strokes: left-falling, right-falling, horizontal, vertical, and hook. You “spell” a character by typing out up to four strokes, in the order in which you’d draw them on paper. (For intricate characters made of many strokes, you’d type the first three and then the last one.) If he knows what he’s doing, a Wubi typist can produce up to 160 characters per minute.
Older people who aren’t comfortable with typing might be more inclined to use an electronic writing tablet instead. The precise strokes of Chinese characters make them relatively easy for a computer to distinguish. Many other methods exist as well. The stroke-count system, for example, lets you type in the number of strokes required for a given character and choose the right candidate from a long list. The four-corner system lets you draw out a character by entering numbers for the graphical element in each corner: A “1” makes a horizontal stroke, a “2” is vertical or diagonal, and so on.
Bonus Explainer: Bloggers in mainland China would likely use a different keyboard and input method than bloggers in Taiwan (or even bloggers in Hong Kong). A standard Taiwanese keyboard lets you use the Zhuyin input method, which is based on an alphabet for sounding out Chinese words that was designed in the early 20th century. The Taiwanese also use an input method called Cangjie, which works sort of like Wubi but lets you type out the full set of traditional Chinese characters (rather than the simplified set used in the PRC).
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Explainer thanks Joe Wicentowski of Harvard University, and Mark Zumwalt for asking the question.