Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines

CHINA: New Technology Deals Blow to Writing Mandarin Characters

Mitch Moxley

BEIJING, Aug 2 2010 (IPS) - Yu Daihai, a 23-year-old college graduate from Dandong city in northern Liaoning province, uses his computer and mobile phone everyday to communicate with his friends. But technology is having an unwanted side effect: Yu, like a growing number of young Chinese, is starting to forget how to write his native language.

A man browses books of Chinese calligraphy at an art market in Beijing. Credit: Mitch Moxley/IPS

A man browses books of Chinese calligraphy at an art market in Beijing. Credit: Mitch Moxley/IPS

When writing using computers and mobile phones, most Chinese type out the beginning of a word in ‘pinyin’ – the Romanised version of Mandarin – and are then presented with a range of characters to click on from the screen. “I type in pinyin, of course. It’s much easier,” Yu told IPS. “Chinese characters are very important – it’s the culture of China. But writing characters in proper stroke order is much more troublesome and complicated.”

It has been at least half a year since Yu last wrote anything by hand, and he is having difficulty even remembering how to do so. At a job fair in 2009, he was asked to write a personal resume on the spot. When he realised he could not remember how to write some of the characters or ‘hanzi’, he suggested he submit the resume online.

The problem is so common that the Chinese have invented a term for it: ‘tibiwangzi’, which translates into “take pen, forget character.”

A poll commissioned by ‘China Youth Daily’ newspaper in April found that 83 percent of the 2,072 respondents admitted having problems writing characters. Another survey by Dayang Net, a popular Guangzhou-based news portal, found that 80 percent of respondents acknowledged they have forgotten how to write some characters.

Many simply do not have to. The Dayang poll found that 43 percent of respondents use a computer all the time for their jobs, and another 43 percent write out characters only for signatures and for filling out a few lines on forms.

Experts say the biggest culprit in the decline of using characters is mobile phones. China sends more text messages than any other country in the world. Because phones rely on ‘pinyin’ for short messaging, typing is replacing the elaborate strokes that make up Mandarin characters, the oldest continually used writing system in the world.

Each character in Mandarin can have one or more meanings and the language has many words that sound the same but have different meanings. The only way to learn a specific character’s meaning and match it with the right way to write it, is to memorise it.

Characters date back to 1200 B.C., when pictographs, called “oracle bones,” were first carved into bones and turtle shells.

In truth, there have been movements throughout Chinese history to abolish the use of characters. Mao Zedong wanted to scrap them entirely before deciding instead to simplify some in an attempt to promote wider reading, in what is today known as ‘simplified Chinese’. Today, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau, as well as some overseas Chinese communities, still use traditional characters.

Lu Jianming, a professor in the Department of Chinese at Peking University, said characters have been simplified throughout Chinese history, and the latest round of simplification under Mao helped improve literacy rates.

To learn Mandarin, Chinese children spend a lot of time memorising and copying characters, which are core to learning the language. By age 15, Chinese students will have learned to write a minimum of 3,000 characters.

At the same time, characters are more than simply a writing system for many Chinese – they are an integral part of spiritual and cultural identity, thought even to improve concentration and longevity.

“It is the essence of Chinese culture,” Lu told IPS.

But students are grappling with difficulties in remembering how to write many words and characters, as a growing number rely on computers for their schoolwork. A survey conducted in Chongqing municipality found that 65 percent of pupils only write characters while taking notes in class or when taking exams, according to ‘Chongqing Daily’. Over 75 percent of students said they thought writing by hand could be totally replaced by computers.

The Chinese government is starting to take action. In 2008, the Ministry of Education found that 60 percent of the 3,000 teachers it surveyed complained about a decline in writing ability among their students. Last year, the ministry launched a writing competition with 10 million participants and has now initiated programmes to encourage more handwriting at schools.

In 2009, university educators held the first nationwide conference on the problem with ‘hanzi’. They discussed making students submit handwritten papers, instead of typed versions.

Wu Bailing, a calligraphy teacher at the Teacher Training College in Dandong, has studied calligraphy for 20 years and taught the subject for 10. He said schools should focus on teaching students calligraphy to ensure that handwritten characters become part of a student’s daily life.

Wu remains confident that the Mandarin characters will not be going anywhere. “Characters are China’s greatest accomplishment,” Wu told IPS. “The character at its core is Chinese culture, and it won’t be replaced by any advanced technology.”

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