• James Fan

Typing Chinese on QWERTY keyboard


A chart that helps users memorize rules of wubi keyboard

The QWERTY keyboard isn't something many people think about as they type along through the day. In fact, the only time you even consider your keyboard is when it breaks or sticks. The Chinese keyboard however continues to go through a constant stream of evolution, offering many ways to convey the characters being typed. The journey to these perfected systems of typing was not easy. Here is the story.


Considering complicated characters such as 顿 (dùn, pause), it would seem impossible to translate this into a usable keyboard. 顿 consists of 10 strokes, none of which are the same. A Chinese keyboard only has 18 keys, some of which are not for typing but rather function keys. Unfortunately, if the keyboard was expanded to accommodate every Chinese character, it would be bigger than most European nations. That is the dilemma. Should it be written out with pinyin (letters) or strokes?


Compared to these conundrums, the English keyboard became simply beautiful in its function: in phonetic languages, the keyboard can be simple. The k key = a k on the screen, whereas in a Chinese keyboard a “k” placed on the screen has to predict the next characters and use processing power to display a graphical character representation, which isn’t actually much for a computer, but for a small screen, where people with big hands struggle to even press the keys correctly, it was a nightmare.


Eventually, two methods emerged: people could either type/swipe out the characters on the screen using the pinyin system, or draw out the character and hope the system recognized their intended character. It is undoubtedly true that the pinyin system gained more popularity among the younger Chinese, but the handwriting system is favored by the elderly. Another method is the wubi keyboard, in which you assemble the characters according to the stroke on the key of the keyboard. However, this is not suitable for keyboards that do not have these preexisting keys. Also, it is impossible to blind type because there are many, many strokes on one key and there is a complicated selection process.


This video shows typing the same word 顿 using pinyin and drawing


There is a point to be made about the potential — or lack thereof — in innovation regarding the English keyboard. The QWERTY keyboard has been used since the beginning of time, and there is certainly no rush to redevelop it to compensate for a big flaw. This flaw is that the QWERTY keyboard is long in the tooth, and with many developing technologies quickly advancing every aspect of life, the QWERTY system is heading the way of the typewriter. Apple’s Quick Swipe keyboard, where you swipe words for faster typing, Grammarly’s smart correctional keyboard or Google’s Gboard keyboard with built-in maps and contacts integrations all change and speed up the typing process for speakers of phonetic languages.


On the other hand, some say the new Chinese typing system is actually more efficient than that for phonetic languages. The Chinese may be leading the way with its new innovations to communicate in the digital realm, and certainly this keyboard situation shows concrete advancement they have made.


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