One of modern civilization’s most commonly used tools sits just beneath our fingertips, as our keyboards provide us with an arsenal of approximately 80 numbers, letters, and commands, all ready to do our bidding. For those of us who utilize the Roman alphabet (approximately 70% of all major languages), we press these keys in various combinations and assemble the words we need to express ourselves in English, French, Polish, German, etc. For someone who grew up with the Roman alphabet, the process of typing is deceptively intuitive – you make words with individual letters.

The Kanji Keyboard Problem

Not everyone uses letters though, and by not everyone, I mean more than a billion people in China alone. Chinese does not have an alphabet in the sense that other languages do, instead depicting every word or concept with an individual character (kanji). So how can you use a standard QWERTY keyboard to write in a language that has over 100,000 different characters?

Chairman Mao Promotes New Pinyin System

Even before the days of computers, some prominent Chinese leaders sought to simplify the complex system of using Chinese characters. As part of his sweeping reforms aimed at modernizing Chinese education, industry, and agriculture, Chairman Mao first pushed for the pinyin system, which uses the Roman alphabet to spell out Chinese characters as they sound phonetically. This system is still commonly used today, and it greatly simplified Chinese writing and improved the country’s literacy.

China and the Computer Age

During the meteoric global rise of computing in the 1970s, however, it became evident that the pinyin system was still not ideal for typing. 26 letters are useful for depicting 100,000 characters, but that is still an incredibly time-consuming process. And in the burgeoning computer age, the importance of typing, and typing quickly, became more apparent each day.

This was a compound problem – Compared to other nations in that era, China had precious few computers, much less an efficient way to type on the standard keyboards. Chinese inventors, linguists, and engineers recognized this issue at a crucial time, and got to work developing a variety of solutions.

Potential Solutions to the Chinese Keyboard Problem

In the ‘70s, countries in Europe and the West were making significant breakthroughs in computing and technology, while China was still rushing to adapt to keyboard input systems. One effort was made to utilize old typewriter keyboards with nearly 2,500 characters. Others promoted the fax machine, as using those would dodge the text input issue altogether. Finally, however, not just one but several workarounds were found for using the QWERTY keyboard layout for both traditional and simplified Chinese.

Taiwan and the Cangjie System

During the 1940s revolution, the old Chinese government retreated from communist China to the island of Taiwan. And to this day, though people in Taiwan and mainland China use the same system of characters, the pronunciations are so different that they are mutually unintelligible. This creates a major obstacle when using a phonetic system like pinyin. If the words sound different in China than they do in Taiwan, then the same pinyin system would be impossible to use in both places.

Taiwan developed a solution, the Cangjie input system, which uses a shape-based approach to inputting characters with QWERTY keyboards. This solved the different pronunciation problem, as everything was based on how the characters looked, which was the same in mainland China and Taiwan. In Cangjie, the basic strokes of each character are created using different keyboard keys, and this method is still commonly used in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Mainland China and the Wubi System

A similar shape-based input method was developed in mainland China, a system known as Wubi. The characters are created by correlating five zones on the QWERTY keyboard to five “building strokes” for writing Chinese characters. Each zone of the keyboard is used to create a stroke that is either left-falling, right-falling, horizontal, vertical, or a hook. In essence, the intricate characters are drawn stroke by stroke.

Chinese Predictive Text

All of these workarounds were hugely beneficial, but still paled in comparison to the impact of predictive text. Commonly seen while texting or writing an email, these predictive text algorithms use massive databases and cloud computing to suggest what is most likely the next word.

For most Western users, the arrival of predictive text was a small convenience. For Chinese QWERTY keyboard users, however, it was a massive leap forward. Its potential for typing and texting Chinese was recognized early on, and Chinese developers worked to create and implement the auto-suggest and predictive text tools nearly three decades before they gained popularity in the West. The system works similarly in English and Chinese – You put in the first couple of letters or strokes, then choose the option you need from a menu. In English, it saves a bit of time. In Chinese, it was a breakthrough.

Is China Still Hindered by QWERTY Keyboards?

No, and average Chinese typing speeds on QWERTY keyboards are equivalent to average speeds in Western countries, if not faster. In addition to all of the advances and adaptations China has made for using its character system on keyboards, Western users also face a natural typing impediment – the keyboard layout was not designed with typing speed in mind. Some claim that the original typewriter keys were intentionally arranged in an inconvenient array in order to slow down typists and prevent jams, while others state that the layout is a relic of the system used by Morse code telegraph operators. Regardless, the world’s most common text input system is not optimal for modern typing in any language.

About the author

Justin Benton

Justin Benton

Justin Benton is a writer and English teacher based out of Colombia.