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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

PRECIOUS RELIC: A fragment of bone script, excavated from the relic of the Shang Dynasty (about 16th-11th century B.C.) in Anyang, Henan Province, is on show at the National Library in Beijing on April 20, 2012 (WAN XIANG)

Qi Fei, a correspondent working for a magazine in Anhui Province, could not believe that he failed to write nearly half the characters during one episode of the program.

"Though my job involves writing, I use a computer instead of a pen," Qi said. "In recent years, many companies have promoted office digitalization and reduced the use of paper for the sake of the environment. Except for signing package receipts and bills, I am hardly required to write. My handwriting looks like a scrawl."

"It is a terrible fact that competence in written Chinese across society is on the decline," said He Yu, head of a research team for Chinese teaching at a high school in Beijing. "Compared to adults, teenagers do well in writing hanzi, because they spend more time in learning and practicing at school. Thus, young players mostly outperform older audience members," He said.

However, "the impact of digital technology on students cannot be ignored," He pointed out. "Many students are obsessed with digital devices such as electronic dictionaries and computers to assist their studies. Over dependence on such tools, as well as the Internet, will make students too lazy to think and write."

Digital input

China has been anxiously trying to include hanzi script in computers since the early 1980s. Unlike English and other alphabetic languages, Chinese is one of the most complex and one of the oldest hieroglyphics in the world. Hanzi consists of comparably more "strokes" than the 26 letters in English, which means adding them to digital devices is a difficult procedure.

In 1983, Wang Yongmin invented the Five-Stroke Chinese Code, or the Wang Code, which greatly increased the speed of typing. Accordingly, people were able to type up to a record breaking 100 characters per minute. Wang dismantled hanzi into a number of frequent parts, and sorted them into 25 keys. But typists had to recite a special formula which put these strokes together.

Several years later, pinyin, or spelling, input was invented, rendering Wang's formula relatively absolute. As long as hanzi could be spelt out using Latin letters, people were able to input Chinese into computers.

Today, the Wang Code and pinyin are the two major methods for Chinese to write hanzi on computers. For English, typing is writing because pronunciation and spelling are consistent. But Chinese is different. When a computer user types Chinese, a menu box opens on-screen, from which the user needs to choose characters from a group of options. Repeatedly using such an input method, the user inevitably grows less familiar with handwritten Chinese.

Furthermore, affected by utilitarianism, the prospects for Chinese language writing remain bleak.

"Most students are not able to learn and practice calligraphy at primary school," said Xie Yong, who teaches Chinese at Beijing Lu Xun High School. "Parents and teachers are zealous in sending their children to learn mathematics and English rather than about traditional culture, mainly due to enrollment requirements at key middle schools."

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