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Chinese Characters Are Futuristic and the Alphabet Is Old News

The QWERTY keyboard was once the envy of the world, but not anymore.

The Atlantic

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A mechanical Chinese typewriter. Photo by Thomas Mullaney.

On a bright fall morning at Stanford, Tom Mullaney is telling me what’s wrong with QWERTY keyboards. Mullaney is not a technologist, nor is he one of those Dvorak keyboard enthusiasts. He’s a historian of modern China and we’re perusing his exhibit of Chinese typewriters and keyboards, the curation of which has led Mullaney to the conclusion that China is rising ahead technologically while the West falls behind, clinging to its QWERTY keyboard.

Now this was and still is an unusual view because Chinese—with its 75,000 individual characters rather than an alphabet—had historically been the language considered incompatible with modern technology. How do you send a telegram or use a typewriter with all those characters? How do you even communicate with the modern world? If you’re a Cambridge-educated classicist enamored with the Greeks, you might just conclude Chinese script is “archaic.” Long live the alphabet.  

But, Mullaney argues, the invention of the computer could turn China’s enormous catalog of characters into an advantage.

Mullaney is the author of two books on the Chinese typewriter and computer, and we discussed what he’s learned while researching them. His argument is pretty fascinating to unpack because, at its heart, it is about more than China. It is about our relationship to computers, not just as physical objects but as conduits to intangible software. Typing English on a QWERTY computer keyboard, he says, “is about the most basic rudimentary way you can use a keyboard.” You press the “a” key and “a” appears on your screen. “It doesn't make use of a computer’s processing power and memory and the cheapening thereof.” Type “a” on a QWERTY keyboard hooked up to a Chinese computer, on the other hand, and the computer is off anticipating the next characters. Typing in Chinese requires mediation from a layer of software that is obvious to the user.

In other words, to type a Chinese character is essentially to punch in a set of instructions—a code if you will, to retrieve a specific character. Mullaney calls Chinese typists “code conscious.” Dozens of ways to input Chinese now exist, but the Western world mostly remains stuck typing letter-by-letter on a computer keyboard, without taking full advantage of software-augmented shortcuts. Because, he asks, “How do you convince a person who's been told for a century and a half that their alphabet is the greatest thing since sliced bread?”

It’s China’s awkward history with the telegraph and the typewriter, argues Mullaney, that primed Chinese speakers to take full advantage of software when it came along—to the point where it’s now faster to input Chinese than English.

* * *

In the beginning, it really was awkward.

When the telegraph came to China in 1871, the Chinese first had to bend their language to Western technology. The solution, devised by a Dutch astronomer and a French customs officer, was to assign a four-digit code to each character, which was then translated into the dots and dashes of Morse. This worked, but it put Chinese at a disadvantage. Numbers in Morse code contain five dots or dashes and letters only one to three, which made Chinese telegrams both more expensive and less efficient. By some accounts, when former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was on the road, sending telegrams was his biggest expense.

The Chinese typewriter was a cumbersome object, too. It had a tray bed of more than 2,000 common characters. A typist selected characters by maneuvering a chassis on top of the tray bed, pushing a lever that struck the chosen character against the page. If you wanted to type an uncommon character, you had to go hunting for it among thousands in a secondary tray bed.

At the same time, dozens of inventors tried their hand on better ways to send telegrams or build typewriters. To do so, they had to come up with new ways of indexing Chinese characters, breaking them into subunits. Take, for example, the “four corner method,” which notes the shape in each corner. Ten different shapes are assigned a number 0 through 9; going around the corners in a clockwise direction gives you a four-digit code to send telegrams or to organize characters in a typewriter. If you don’t write Chinese, this might not seem particularly profound. But in fact, it is a complete rethinking of the Chinese character.

It would be like, if instead of spelling an English word letter by letter, you represent it by noting the number of letters that are ascenders (d b l h), descenders (p y g j), or neither. The idea of choosing characters by inputting an abstract code was part of Chinese technology from the start.

So when the computer comes along, the number of ways to input Chinese just exploded in the “input wars of the 70s and 80s,” says Mullaney. Different input methods require different ways of thinking about Chinese characters. You might do it based on the four corners or three corners or radicals (subunits of Chinese characters) or stroke order. Others experimented with pronunciation-based systems that used the QWERTY keyboard, taking advantage of software to translate letters into characters. And in a real breakthrough, these systems were now predictive. You, might, for example, input a string of characters by typing just the first letter corresponding with each character. In other words, it’s predictive text.

* * *

The Chinese way of inputting text—the software-mediated way—will win out, says Mullaney. Actually, it’s already won out. Our mobile phones now have predictive text and autocomplete. It took the constraint of mobile to get Westerners to realize the limits of the simple what-you-type-is-what-you-get keyboard. But even then, you could only get Americans to go so far.

The introduction of T9—the predictive texting system on early cell phones—illuminates that cultural gap. When the Seattle-based Tegic company first developed T9, it created a new letter arrangement on cellphones. The standard had always been 2 = abc, 3 = def, 4 = ghi, and so on. As T9 users will surely remember, several different words often match the same set of numbers, so you might hit “4663” and have to key through “good,” “home”, and “hoof”, before finally arriving at “hone.” But Tegic had initially developed a new way of assigned numbers to letter—not QWERTY or alphabet-based—optimized to prevent overlaps.

It didn’t fly. “One of our early stage investors said, ‘You are not going to change the letter arrangement on mobile keyboards,’” recalls Tegic cofounder William Valenti. “We had to accept a less efficient input system because we had to be in the constraints of the existing letter arrangement.”  

A phone with the stroke-based Chinese T9 keyboard from 1999. Photo from Tegic Communications.

In China, it was easier to convince users to try something new—because there was no established default to fight. Chinese T9 is a stroke-based system, and different keys represented different strokes. With predictive text anticipating the next character, a typist on T9 averaged just 1.4 strokes per character, says Valenti. For reference, common Chinese characters are made up of nine strokes on average. This is a huge leap in efficiency. (Valenti, by the way, was a Chinese translator during the Vietnam war, listening in on four-digit telegraph codes and turning them in Chinese characters, so he’s familiar with the awkward, pre-software phase of Chinese input systems, too.)

“In China,” says Christina Xu, an independent design researcher and ethnographer, “the proliferation of mobile over the last ten years has meant an explosion of new users learning to type for the first time on a mobile device—they don't have any attachment or experience in QWERTY, so getting them to adopt new input methods is way easier.” The input method families include stroke-based ones like T9, pronunciation-based typing on QWERTY keyboard, or writing on a touchscreen—with numerous variations therein.

“If you took 50 people and say ‘type the exact same thing,’” says Mullaney,” if you actually looked at what they did on their keyboards, you could get 50 different ways of achieving the same outcome.” Experimentation is mainstream. Yet alternative, faster typing methods in English, like ShapeWriter or Swype that let you swipe through the letters of the word in one motion, have struggled to catch on outside of early adopters. Plain old QWERTY is good enough. Who wants to completely relearn how to interact with their phone just to type a little bit faster?

Mullaney’s rhetoric can sometimes be jarring, like when he says, “There is an incredibly self-satisfied culture in alphabetic world.” Personally, I’d identify less as an active alphabet worshipper and more as a passive lazy person who does not want to learn a coded, if more efficient, way of typing. But he’s challenging the primacy of the QWERTY keyboard—challenging the idea of Western technology protocols default.

That language is also jarring because the West as default has gone unchallenged for so long. The telegraph was developed with the alphabet in mind. So was the typewriter. And the computer. And internet protocols. And yes, Chinese speakers spent a century conforming their language to those technologies until computing power transcended them, resulting in a relationship with technology richer and more complicated than in the alphabetic world.

Sarah Zhang is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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This post originally appeared on The Atlantic and was published November 1, 2016. This article is republished here with permission.

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