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UPDATED: October 8, 2013 NO. 41 OCTOBER 10, 2013
Hanzi Crisis
Dictation contest proves handwritten Chinese characters are under threat in digital age
By Bai Shi

TRUE OR FALSE: Linguistics experts examine answers by a student contestant at the Dictation Contest of Chinese Characters on CCTV (CNTV)

In the digital age, people are becoming adept at inputting Chinese characters, or hanzi, into computers or cellphones, using little more than thumb and forefinger. While many have abandoned the habit of using a pen, some can't even remember the last time they had to physically write something down.

A sensational program

This summer, a TV program has fueled enthusiasm for handwritten Chinese characters across the country. The Chinese Characters Dictation Contest, a Chinese version of the U.S. Spelling Bee, is being screened on China Central Television (CCTV) during prime time every weekend from August 2 to October 18. According to CCTV reports, the show ranks top among cultural and entertainment programs.

"This is not a talent show. There are no sensational performances or odd-ball stories. Instead, we just present a pure and simple contest for hanzi writing on TV. And we try to encourage our audience at home to write down each character along with contestants," said Jin Yue, executive producer of CCTV's education channel.

A total of 160 high school students grouped in 32 teams from across the country compete for the position of national champion over 12 rounds by writing down various common and uncommon Chinese characters.

According to Jin, research staff at CCTV spent two years preparing for the contest. Outstanding Chinese linguists are invited to judge the game, with prestigious TV news broadcasters acting as dictation examiners.

"Apart from font, pronunciation must be correct," he said. "By revealing the intricacies of writing, we hope the program can induce the audience to simultaneously take part in the game."

"The contest is not easy," said Guan Zhengwen, program director. The vocabulary list covers a lot of ground, he says, from classical literature such as A Dream of Red Mansions written by Cao Xueqin (about 1715-64) in the 18th century, to contemporary masterpieces, including works by Lu Xun (1881-1936), as well as idioms and technological terms.

"Without extensive reading and vocabulary skills, a player would struggle to pass on to the next round," Guan stressed.

"Many misused and often mispronounced Chinese characters are also included in the contest to provide viewers the chance to correct their errors," he said.

Apart from vocabulary, competition rules are strict. Players must write down characters correctly and each stroke must conform to a certain standard.

Characters forgotten

As Jin expected, the program has rekindled enthusiasm for the native language. However, most adults struggle to pen common characters, let alone rare forms of hanzi. For example, only one third of audience can correctly write ganga (meaning embarrassment), two common characters in Chinese. Furthermore, many people cannot write the characters they are able to read, which could be put down to burgeoning digitalization. A survey carried out by China Youth Daily shows that 98.8 percent of respondents have encountered the embarrassment of "character amnesia," while only 38.9 percent write every day. As for why some forget how to write, 92 percent of respondents said they have grown used to digital input devices. Around 72.3 percent think the habit of reading is decreasing in daily life, with 43.9 percent criticizing Chinese cultural education.

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