China’s F.A.Q.: First delivery

This will be a series where I will try to answer questions about China that frequently arise. Some are very common and simple, other are complex and rare. Little by little I’m going to be explaining them.

Since I’m using a computer to explain and you are using one to read it, it seemed logical that the first post is how do Chinese write on computers.

The Chinese language

To begin with, it is necessary to do a brief description of the Chinese writing. Chinese is written using characters, each of which is a syllable. The words (or concepts) can be monosyllabic or polysyllabic, so these can contain a single character, two, three… There even are proverbs written using four or five characters.

Keyboard with characters

This is how a part of a 4.000 keys keyboard would look like

The Chinese language has been accumulating characters throughout history, totaling approximately 50,000. The question then arises, how to make a keyboard with 50,000 keys?

But we shall not worry, as the problem is not as bad as it seems. Of those 50,000 characters, to be fully literate you only need to use between 3,000 and 4,000. Now we just need to make a 4000 keys keyboard. Despite this, Chinese use the English qwerty distribution keyboard. Even with the simplest ten-key mobile phone you can write without problems.

Pinyin

The thing is that “Chinese” (from now on we will focus on Mandarin dialect, the official throughout China) besides written, obviously is also spoken (it is a language originally intended to be written and then evolved into spoken, perhaps one of the reasons that there are so many dialects). This gave the opportunity to develop hànyǔ pinyin or simply pinyin input method, which literally means “spelling of the language of the Han cultural group.” This method uses the Roman alphabet and four accent marks to phonetically write the characters. The pinyin, though not the only computer input method, is the most popular. Explaining it simply, to write using a computer keyboard, you write phonetically and a software translates it into characters.

Options for shi's pinyin

Options for the syllable shi

Now, there are many syllables/characters that are spelled the same. Consequently, for what is entered in pinyin the software returns a list of possible characters from which the user has to choose the right one. For example, if I write zhu I obtain 主(zhǔ: host, owner, idea, main, to give the change when someone pays, on behalf of, etc.), 住 (zhù: to live in, stop), 助 (zhù: help, assist), 猪 (zhū: pork), 朱 (zhū: bright red, a surname), 祝 (zhù: express good wishes, congratulations, a surname, etc.).

You might have noticed that zhu has different accents, so it is not accurate to say that all these characters are written/pronounced the same. This helps to narrow the list of possibilities, using an input method which also includes the accent. Mandarin tones are classified in this order: ˉ, ˊ, ˇ, ˋ so zhū is zhu1, zhǔ is entered as zhu3 zhù is zhu4, etc..

Another way that the process is simplified is when the word is polysyllabic, since the greater number of syllables, the fewer potential hits. For example if I type “zhu yi”, I get 注意 (zhùyì: pay attention, be careful), 主义 (zhǔyì: doctrine), 主意 (zhǔyi: idea, opinion) or 逐一 (zhúyī: one after another). Sometimes you get lucky, for example with “zhu he” which has only one possibility: 祝贺 (zhùhè: congratulate).

In the cellphone, where each number represents three or four letters, there is also added a writing recognition software, the same as in English, Spanish or any other language. In Spanish the 741 combination would be “río” or river. In Chinese it can be the syllables qin or pin, and it also could be shou, so the user must first choose the syllable and then the character.

Other input methods

WuBi Hua input method

Five strokes input method (WuBi Hua)

As I said, this is the most popular method they developed to solve the problem of including 4,000 characters on a keyboard. There are also others, divided between the pronunciation methods and the character structure methods. One of the character structure methods is writing by strokes. As every character can be divided in basic predefined strokes, and there is an established order to write the strokes, this method is based on choosing the strokes in the correct order in which the character is written. 你 (nǐ: you) would be written by pressing the 3 (downwards right-to-left strokes) + 2 (vertical strokes) + 3 + 5 (for all other strokes) + 2. This is called the Wubi Hua or Five Stroke method.

The list of methods also includes methods such as Zhuyin (pronunciation, based on 37 special symbols to represent the Mandarin sounds) or Canjie (character structure, where each basic graphical unit of the character is represented by one letter of the roman alphabet).

Finally, a question came up to me while I was writing this. Which language do Chinese use to program software? Generally they use English based programming languages, but they also developed Chinese based languages, usually included under ChineseBASIC, where commands are easily translatable into English: 印 = PRINT, 入 = INPUT, 下一 = NEXT, etc..

With that I put an end to the first delivery of F.A.Q. about China. Which other questions can you think of? Please comment leaving your questions!

  • Manuel

    Hola, muchas gracias por la información. Quisiera aprovechar para preguntarle como puedo escribir sobre teclado el pinyin si bien lo estoy haciendo en cuanto a las palabras no así la acentuación o tonos de las sílabas. No encuentro, si la hubiere, las teclas que corresponden a la acentuación. Muchass gracias por todo. Manuel

  • Agus

    Me había surgido la duda, gracias por la información. Muy interesante.