BEIJING - Yu Daihai, a 23-year-old college graduate from Dandong city in
northern Liaoning province, uses his computer and mobile phone every day 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.
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 Inter Press
Service (IPS). "Chinese characters are very important - it's the culture of
China. But writing characters in proper stroke order is much more troublesome
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 realized 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% of
the 2,072 respondents admitted having problems writing characters. Another
survey by Dayang Net, a popular Guangzhou-based news portal, found that 80% of
respondents acknowledged they have forgotten how to write some characters.
Many simply do not have to. The Dayang poll found that 43% of respondents use a
computer all the time for their jobs, and another 43% 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 memorize it.
Characters date back to 1200 BC, 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 memorizing 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% of
pupils only write characters while taking notes in class or when taking exams,
according to Chongqing Daily. Over 75% 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% 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 programs 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