Character amnesia revisited

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A couple of years ago I wrote a post about the phenomenon of Chinese speakers forgetting how to write characters because of their reliance on Pinyin (i.e., romanization) inputting schemes.  Even those who were once literate in characters notice a distinct regression in their ability to write characters by hand.  For school children who are in the process of learning to write characters, the addiction to electronic devices (computers, cell phones, etc.) that write the characters for them when Pinyin is entered in many cases means that they never do become proficient in writing the characters without the help of their gizmos.

Parents have been agonizing over declining character-writing skills for more than a decade, but now the situation has reached such an alarming stage that educational authorities are beginning to speak of a cultural crisis and are being forced to take decisive action.  Movements springing up in various cities to combat character amnesia / illiteracy are described in articles such as "Literacy drive for gadget-crazy Chinese kids" and "Writing wrongs of 'character amnesia'".
Decrying the loss of cultural heritage that comes from forgetting (or never learning) how to write characters and a consequent alleged estrangement from "the Mother Tongue", these proposals and schemes emphasize two things:  reading texts in Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese) and calligraphy.  Some of the earlier attempts in this direction went by the name dújīng yùndòng 读经运动 ("Movement for Reading Classics").

So, working together, parents and educational authorities do have a plan, but in my estimation it is the wrong plan, one that will only further drive a wedge between children and the Chinese writing system.  Instead of living, vital, contemporary literature, children are being forced to memorize ancient primers in a dead language and pore over texts like the Zhuang Zi and the Analects that are very difficult to understand, even for classical scholars.

To add insult to injury, the students are often being asked to give up time from their noon recess to focus on these extremely painful and boring tasks, which will certainly not endear them to these "traditional" pursuits, especially considering that their days are already jam-packed with more classes and study / memory sessions than most students in the West would ever tolerate.

So what is the solution?  There are several possibilities.  One is simply to succumb to the machines as an inevitable part of modernity.  I still remember when scientists and engineers were adept at using slide rules; it was integral to the profession to be able to use a slide rule.  When hand-held electronic calculators first appeared, at first purists spurned them as being almost immoral, though they soon became ubiquitous.  Does anyone employ a slide rule now?

Another means for coping with character amnesia is to let students insert Pinyin in character texts when they can't remember how to write various characters.  There are two precedents for that already:  Japanese kana and the pedagogical practices of the Zhùyīn shìzì, tíqián dúxiě 注音识字提前读写 (Phonetically Annotated Character Recognition Speeds Up Reading and Writing) program.  See "How to learn to read Chinese".

Of course, there must be many other ways to ameliorate declining character literacy skills in China, but I will leave it for readers to discuss them in the comments.  One thing is certain:  any initiatives that confuse the Mother Tongue(s) with the writing system are doomed to failure.  I would like to point out that the emphasis on calligraphy and classical elements such as chéngyǔ 成语 ("set phrase", but usually mistranslated as "idiom") of the Confucian Institutes is a good example of inappropriate pedagogy being exported to what are meant to be Mandarin language classrooms for non-natives.

[Thanks to Mark Swofford and John Rohsenow]


  1. John Lawler said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 7:30 pm

    This is reminiscent (mutatis mutandis) of the current brouhaha in the US press over the decline of cursive handwriting in favor of typing, texting, or hand-printing.

    This article from the Atlantic is representative, and has links to others.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 9:47 pm

    Yes, John, in a post of April 29, 2011 entitled "Cursive and Characters: Dying Arts" (, we linked these two phenomena together and discussed them extensively. The difference is that — sans the gizmos and gadgets — though American kids might not be able to write a nice cursive hand, they'll still be able to print. In the Chinese case, however, they are often left not being able to produce many characters by hand at all. They frequently just come up empty, even for words that one might think of as very common, such as "sneeze", "egg", or "shrimp" (and there are countless others that trip them up).

  3. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 10:02 pm

    With the exception of modern Hebrew, I can't think of any instance of a government action having the slightest long-term effect on language behavior. Characters may well go the way of Scots Gaelic — beloved by a few enthusiasts, hauled out for special occasions, but irrelevant to the vast majority.


  4. Marcos said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 1:13 am

    Dan Lufkin, what about the surge in Mandarin use in Singapore? The gradual drift of Singlish towards Standard English?

  5. Marcos said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 1:19 am

    …or, for that matter, Chinese character simplification. Government can have a huge impact on language behavior, given that governments often control primary education.

  6. Chris Waugh said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 3:03 am

    And yet many of these modern gizmos have handwriting input, in which one writes the characters on the screen, which when used properly are often much faster than pinyin IMEs.

  7. Simon Martin said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 5:08 am

    This is a Canutian problem – pinyin or something like it will win out over the characters. The characters may well have a higher information density than pinyin and hence be quicker to enter in some cases however pinyin represents the sounds of the words and I suspect that this makes it much, much easier to process in the brain. Language is fundamentally about people communicating with each other and we have evolved to do this very efficiently with spoken words and a few hand and/or face gestures for emphasis i.e. the sound is the important thing. Chinese characters and related forms of communication are about representing the meaning rather than the sounds – it inevitably takes longer for the brain to process (in both reading and writing). Humans almost always take the easiest/quickest method of doing things – hence pinyin wins.

  8. joanne salton said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 5:36 am

    Simon – this merely demonstrates that you don't have to be able to "write" characters perfectly in order to use them – it does not mean they will disappear. They are an integral part of brand China, and brand China is racing ahead.

    Dan – as to the suggestion that governments cannot influence language behaviour, the shelves of "language planning" books in the university library suggest otherwise. Most of mainland China, for example, uses simplified characters most of the time simply because the goverment decreed that they should.

  9. Matt said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 5:56 am

    I would like to point out that the emphasis on calligraphy and classical elements such as chéngyǔ 成语 ("set phrase", but usually mistranslated as "idiom") of the Confucian Institutes is a good example of inappropriate pedagogy being exported to what are meant to be Mandarin language classrooms for non-natives.

    I understand your point here but I also wonder if this is partly because the Confucius Institutes* are about promoting wider understanding of Chinese language and culture. Call me cynical, but I imagine that the latter is probably considered a far more important goal by the Chinese government, and calligraphy and classical catchphrases are evocative and charming in a way that lists of vocabulary, well, aren't.

    * I don't know that there are any truly Confucian institutes any more, o tempora o mores etc.

  10. Lazar said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 7:30 am

    I have to question the applicability of the cursive analogy to something of such daunting scope as East Asian characters. The former is simply a matter of learning a few alternate forms of a 26-letter alphabet, which can easily be done in a single day – more of an esthetic detail than a question of basic literacy. Look at modern-day Serbia, where the choice between Latin and Cyrillic letterforms is a rather unimportant matter of personal preference.

    I'll admit, I'm a bit perplexed when my twentysomething peers say that they learned cursive in school but have completely forgotten it through disuse – I write on paper very rarely these days, but when I do, I have no trouble remembering the cursive forms. I prefer them simply because (in my mind) they take less effort, not requiring me to lift the pen off the page so often.

  11. Alan Gunn said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 9:07 am

    "Does anyone employ a slide rule now?"

    Some pilots still use a mechanical E6B flight computer, one side of which is a circular slide rule. Electronic versions are available, but some people worry about dead batteries.

  12. Cameron said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 9:28 am

    Is there an established Pinyin scheme for representing Classical Chinese in roman characters? Has anyone ever published an edition of the Analects, or any other such classic work in Pinyin?

  13. Peter Nelson said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

    @Cameron If you want to represent Classical Chinese in pinyin, you can just use pinyin. Unfortunately it would nearly unreadable since phonetic changes over the last few thousand years have eliminated many of the contrasts original present. If you want to read a very interesting paper about different schemes for romanizing Classical Chinese, check out Branner's paper:

  14. Duncan said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

    While I have absolutely zero experience writing/reading Chinese (in any form), I certainly sympathize with the kids, and agree with VM.

    As a kid my "fine motor skills" coordination was lacking, and I grew to absolutely HATE writing as a result. Sadly, that translated into despising anything related to composition, or (later) term paper writing, etc. That in turn had serious side effects including a rather serious tendency toward verbosity today, due to the mandatory "two pages, double-spaced" effect, when my natural inclination, greatly reinforced by my hatred for what was to me often physically painful handwriting, was a concise single sentence or at most a paragraph (half a page or less, double-spaced). I had to fill up those pages with over-verbose "filler" content, and unfortunately, that's now habitual. Also, my already large and sloppy handwriting (due to lack of fine motor skills) became even more so, filling the mandatory two pages with larger script and thus less actual content.

    Then I discovered computers. Originally, keyboarding was physically painful as well; I still remember the hand-cramps from typing class, but at least the output was was readable, and hand-printing BASIC code in ALL CAPS BLOCK LETTERS was my only real excuse for writing that wasn't painful!

    But what REALLY changed my life was my discovery of ergonomic "wave" keyboards, preferrably quite large, about a decade after college. Suddenly I had a gadget that allowed me to write (type) BOTH legibly and entirely pain-free, and I discovered for the first time the real joy of writing, not just reading, which I had always enjoyed (well, since I got proper glasses in second grade or so)!

    Unfortunately, a decade after college, my attitudes were pretty much set, and my life course chosen. It has only been with the continued unrolling of time that those attitudes have slowly changed, and I've discovered the real joy that can come with authorship. The over-verbosity (now needing conscious control since it's no longer countered by the pain of actual writing) and earlier life choices stay with me, and chances are I'll never do that "write a novel" contest that comes around every year, but for the first time this year, I actually saw it as a possibility that /could/ be real for me, something I'd never considered before.

    So while my Chinese experience is zero, I can definitely sympathize with the kids for whom their electronic gadgets are the gateway to effective written communication, and who find themselves at quite a loss without them. And all those X-hundred sentences punishments over recess, even more of a punishment for me due to the physical pain of actual writing… yes, VM's right, they will end up *HATING* the topic, and anything even remotely connected to it!

    I've come to accept the fact that in some ways I was (and to some extent remain) physically challenged (non-PC word, handicapped). For paraplegics, technology opens a whole new world that simply wasn't possible a few years ago, and the fact that they need help from their gadgets to function "normally" is accepted. Too bad those with a lesser challenge (only in degree, not being able to do something at all isn't the same as being able to do it, but only painfully, but the effect on an individual's life can be nearly as marked, particularly for those where society doesn't accept and approve of the use of the gadgets necessary to overcome the problem) don't meet with the same approval when they try to use their devices to overcome their challenges.

    So if it takes a gadget to make people comfortable doing something, thereby potentially opening up entirely new avenues to them, better to whole-heartedly endorse their use and let people make of themselves and their now available skills what they will! Any other alternative is simply cruel, distorting people and their development into active contributors to society. Support the gadgets. Don't ban them, or forcibly encroach on a kid's free or recess time in an attempt to remedy a problem that technology already has a ready remedy for. Attempting such a remedy is like depriving a kid with poor eyesight of glasses, the "newfangled artificial gadget" of what, about two centuries ago I guess, and attempting to remedy /that/ by depriving a kid of recess!


  15. maidhc said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 7:54 pm

    This article
    about Jerry Yang's calligraphy collection on exhibit at the SF Asian Art Museum suggests that interest in and support for traditional calligraphy is becoming an indicator of social status, similar, I suppose, to the way old-time tycoons like Huntington used to collect Gainsboroughs.

  16. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 11:27 am

    It occurs to me that Chinese characters were classically written with a soft brush and that the graceful shape of the individual strokes is strongly affected by the quality of the brush. When Chinese is written with a pencil or, worse yet, with a ball-point pen, getting the strokes right must demand considerable fine-motor skill. I know that I'd find putting a dozen little lines artfully into a 5×5 mm square (about right for a postcard or letter?) would be a real challenge. Could this be a factor in the trend to Pinyin? Or are there considerations of basic underlying pattern that make fine control unnecessary? I notice that there are only about two pixels worth of difference between clear and dear or between dam and darn but I have no trouble clistinguishing them.

  17. Josh McNeill said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 7:48 pm

    Simon, Chinese characters also represent sounds but on the morpheme level instead of the syllable or phoneme level. There have also been studies done on how quickly people can process morphograms as compared to alphabetic or syllabic writing but I forget the results. Anecdotally, though, my experience with people who are perfectly fluent with kanji (Chinese characters in Japanese) is that they have a much easier time reading them than they do reading the same thing written purely in the Japanese syllabaries.

    Dan, I don't know but I wouldn't expect fine motor skills to be part of the issue at all as, when writing Chinese characters, you're not necessarily partaking in calligraphy, you could just be writing.

    Professor Mair, the fact that fixes for the problem include learning Classical Chinese make me think that people aren't really concerned with writing as much as they are with a possible loss of appreciation for the traditional culture. I mean, how on earth would writing in a dead language help to remember character strokes?

    I'm not sure why you're against the calligraphy idea, though. If they can instill an appreciation for calligraphy as an art form in students then wouldn't that have the intended effect? For the students, it could be the same as learning how to paint a still life or something but in the process they're also reinforcing how to write characters.

    Along slightly related lines, I'm not sure the suggestion that they insert pinyin when they forget the characters would really work. In a practical sense, I think it would, just as kana work in Japanese. The problem is it would look jarring. Kana evolved out of kanji so they have a similar look, just simplified, to the point where people who don't know the system can't tell them apart for kanji. Pinyin is just from another world, though. It would look terrible and I wouldn't be surprised if the negative aesthetics created a resistance to adopting this method even among those who see the utility in it.

    I would prefer your first suggestion suggestion about letting technology just take hold. These kids aren't illiterate, afterall: they can obviously read the characters just fine; it's only writing that troubles them. That hardly seems like a problem, especially if they can pull out their ubiquitous smart phones in these situations and type in the pinyin to get a reminder for which character to write. Essentially, they're only partially illiterate, in the sense of not being able to write, and only in one specific hypothetical situation where they need to write by hand but aren't allowed to use pinyin and have no electronics in sight to help.

  18. Chris Waugh said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 8:34 pm

    @Simon Martin: " however pinyin represents the sounds of the words and I suspect that this makes it much, much easier to process in the brain."

    Well, no, not really. Pinyin represents the pronunciation of the words in standard Putonghua. Even those who were raised speaking Putonghua as their native language (which seems to be a growing trend) often speak it with the accent of their hometowns, meaning that even if they come from a Mandarin speaking area their pronunciation can differ quite radically from the officially defined standard Putonghua pronunciation. And of course, there are those who grow up speaking some variety or another of Yue, Xiang, Gan, etc, for whom the differences between Pinyin and how they speak are like night and day.

    And handwriting input on these fancy gizmos seems to me to be just about as popular as Pinyin IMEs.

    I also still see plenty of people, and not just the elderly, writing on paper with pens and pencils.

    So no, pinyin does not win, and reports of the death of characters are more than just a little bit exaggerated.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 9:13 pm

    @Chris Waugh

    "And handwriting input on these fancy gizmos seems to me to be just about as popular as Pinyin IMEs."

    So why are so many people complaining about character amnesia and attributing it to these Pinyin IME devices?

    We have tons of graduate and undergraduate students from the PRC here at Penn, and I've never seen one who doesn't use Pinyin inputting. Last year I taught at Tsinghua and Peking University the whole year long, and nearly all the students I saw there were also using Pinyin inputting systems. When I do see someone writing with a stylus or their fingertip, it is rather exceptional, if not sensational. These are my own observations, but statistics I've heard from many sources and reports from my Chinese colleagues indicate that the vast majority of people use Pinyin IMEs.

    "…reports of the death of characters are more than just a little bit exaggerated."

    Who said that the characters are dead? But there are a lot of Chinese parents and educational authorities who are afraid that they might die because of tendencies they are witnessing before their own eyes.

  20. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 10:49 pm

    Josh — My point is that Chinese calligraphy (big scale, proper tool) is easy but Chinese writing is hard (small scale, awkward tool). At least, that's how it looks to someone who admittedly has never done it. I undermined my own argument, I suppose, by offering examples in which slight misplacement of line segments was lexemic and then a counterexample (which no seems to have noticed) to show the clegree to which one's eyes can be cleceived.

    Then there's that Oxford thing where one needs only to get the first and last letters right; what goes on in the miclclle of a word makes little difference. I wonder whether there's a similar effect in Chinese — just get the radical right and squiggle the rest.

  21. T. Zhang said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 1:56 am

    @ Dan Lufkin

    It's the exact opposite. Writing the characters with a pencil is considerable easier than doing it with a brush (but that's just my modern opinion). One thing, the font is smaller and so the components of the words are easier to proportion out and having to write shorter strokes means the lines are less likely to go crooked.

    The really difficult thing about writing with a brush is that any slight shift in pressure would cause a change in stroke width and produce these wobbly lines (furthermore writing some of the strokes purposefully requires you to subtlety change pressure and line width as you go). And the fact that you are writing with your entire arm hovering over the table with no support means that your arm gets very sore very quickly.

  22. Qafqa said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 4:05 am

    I encountered this same phenomenon in Japan. It was always fun to be a JSL guy and know Kanji better than did native speakers since they had learned theirs back in Middle school and mine were fresh in my mind.

  23. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 11:38 am

    @ T. Zhang — Thanks, that makes it clear to me. My own handwriting on the blackboard is much better than on paper and I'd assumed that it was a question of gross arm muscle movement vs. hand muscles.

    I had a classmate in college who took his lecture notes (except for equations) in Chinese with a fountain pen. He said it was easier and faster. I was constantly amazed.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 12:08 pm

    @Dan Lufkin

    It wouldn't be so amazing if your classmate's native language was Chinese.

  25. Josh McNeill said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

    Dan, I'm surprised your writing on a blackboard is better, I experience the opposite.

    I take calligraphy to be more in line with the skills needed to paint a picture than to write. All the problems T. Zhang mentions seem to agree with that idea. On the other hand, when I watch my Japanese teacher jotting down notes it's generally very fast and fairly sloppy (compared to the way she carefully writes characters on the board when we first learn them). Even if the physical constraints were to make them more difficult to use for normal writing, that could be outweighed by the fact that it's not so necessary to write neatly. I guess that's the point you're also making with your first and last letters example (which Language Log has shown to be a pretty exaggerated phenomenon I believe, just FYI).

    And for what it's worth, my own experience is that, if I know a character, it's faster and more convenient in most cases to use it than to write in kana and even more so than to write a Romanized version of the same thing. For instance, if I want to write a formal "I," I could write 私 or わたくし or watakushi. That's 7, 8, and 13 strokes respectively, not to mention the first is way more compact. In fact, Taguchi Ukichi, who was a major proponent of writing Japanese using only the Roman alphabet during the Meiji Era, complained of this exact problem. Ironically, he suggested abbreviating watakushi to just "w," effectively maintaining it as a morphogram. My point being, there's reason to believe that characters could even be easier to write than pinyin.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 1:13 pm

    @Josh McNeill

    "… there's reason to believe that characters could even be easier to write than pinyin."

    Tell that to the Chinese children who are forced to write each character — which have an average of almost 12 strokes — hundreds of times in the evening after school when they'd much rather be out playing ball or surfing the internet, which is what most of them end up doing anyway, and that is one of the major reasons for declining character writing skills, plus the fact that it is easier to enter them in their gizmos and gadgets with Pinyin than writing them out by hand. We may say, in essence, that Chinese children are voting with their fingers.

  27. Josh McNeill said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 1:20 pm

    Professor Mair, on that first point, you're conflating writing characters with learning characters.

    With the second, I wasn't comparing writing with typing. I agree that's it's easier to type, well, basically anything than it is to write but I don't think that supports the argument that it's easier to write pinyin than it is to write characters.

  28. Victor Mair said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

    @Josh McNeill

    "…you're conflating writing characters with learning characters."

    Well, you can't write them until you learn them, and there's the rub!

    On your second point, I can't follow your logic, especially in light of point one and in light of the entire character amnesia phenomenon, which is real, but which you seem to be ignoring.

  29. Josh McNeill said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 8:31 pm

    Professor Mair, I think we're on two different topics. I was going off of Dan's idea about whether the level of physical difficulty of writing characters has anything to do with why people would prefer pinyin. If it's easier to write pinyin (and assuming they're perfectly capable of writing the characters), then it might be leading people to not bother writing characters. My guess is this isn't the case because there are instances when characters can be much more efficient, etc. I wasn't trying to make a statement on anything beyond that, really.

  30. Guy said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 2:20 am

    Is it really such a big deal if people forget how to write characters (once you've left school exams behind)?

    I forget how to write characters all the time. What's more important is that I've never ever forgetton how to READ a character.

    Reading is necessary to function in Chinese speaking societies. Writing by hand…not so much.

    By the way, people in taiwan, hk and macau don't use pinyin input. The widespread use of pinyin input is a choice made by the mainland, and an excellent one at that, but it's absolutely not a necessity for a modern Chinese-speaking society to function.

  31. Victor Mair said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 5:22 am


    "Is it really such a big deal if people forget how to write characters (once you've left school exams behind)?"

    Yes, it is a very big deal, and that is why people in China are making such a fuss over character amnesia. And it's not just about people forgetting how to write characters once they've left school exams behind. It's about children never really learning how to write many of the characters confidently and securely without their pinyin input devices.

    "…people in taiwan, hk and macau don't use pinyin input".

    What I've observed for character inputting in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao: Cangjie / Ts'ang-chieh (a kind of character component entry system; I believe it was invented by a Cantonese person), bopomofo, Jyutping, Hanyu Pinyin, English (believe it or not, some of my friends in Hong Kong use English to input a lot of their Chinese; I don't know about Taiwan), and some use stylus or fingertip on a pad or a mouse. Not sure if they also use Church Romanization in Taiwan, but it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest. I also wouldn't be surprised if some folks, particularly in Taiwan, occasionally resort to kana or romaji. I'll ask my Taiwan friends. I'm also going to check how people in Singapore input Chinese; from living there for several months earlier this year and last year, my distinct impression is that all of the above systems are used, though Pinyin seems to be preferred. I'll check on that.

  32. Josh McNeill said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 12:46 pm

    I'm sort of with Guy on the "it doesn't seem like a big deal" thing. Even if this involves kids not learning *to write* characters, they're still learning to read them and input them electronically, so it doesn't seem detrimental beyond classroom exams. Like Guy, this is the only place I can think of where an electronic device wouldn't be available and writing would be necessary. That's a pretty limited domain for a problem that's being giving so much attention. I could be overlooking a lot, though. I'd love to see a real breakdown on why this is a big problem beyond just that one scenario.

  33. drs said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 2:47 pm

    Classroom exams are a pretty important stage of life though, and fairly conservative.

    Possible outcomes:

    * Somehow returning to the status quo, of widespread full character literacy
    * Phonemic triumph, characters become a quaint literary skill
    * Hybrid: hardly anyone can write characters by unassisted hand, but everything is still printed in them, and people who have to write whip out their devices and copy characters they summon by phonetic typing.

    Of course, even learning to read characters is like becoming bilingual in a second, visual language, albeit it one much more isomorphic to the spoken language than any other.

  34. joanne salton said,

    December 18, 2012 @ 4:45 am

    To my mind the situation with Chinese is something like having every word in the English language being something that might cause a spelling mistake, such as "necessary" or "believe". You have to make an effort with each character to remember it, and forget/get them wrong as often as English speakers do with these kind of not-necessarily intuitively spelled words. It doesn't have a tremendous effect on the ability to communicate because the odd mistake doesn't matter all that much.

  35. leoboiko said,

    December 18, 2012 @ 9:31 am

    @Dan Lufkin: As someone into calligraphy, no, the pen isn’t harder. I disagree with T. Zhang that the brush is harder, once you get used to it, but it’s true that, if you spent your entire life writing with the fingers using a small pen, it will take some practice. Western calligraphers might pick it up quicker, since they already know how to write using the whole arm. Blackboard writing is a good analogy; if you’re used to fine control of arm muscles, you’re halfway there for the calligraphy gestures.

    The pen eliminates the distinction between many gestures; pressure and speed matter much less, and direction not at all (unless it’s a broad-nib or something, but if you write Chinese with that, the balance would be all wrong…). This makes it hard or impossible to reproduce the beauty of traditional stroke-shapes, and also requires characters to be smaller. But it doesn’t make them any harder to write; only plainer. Compare writing italic or cursive on a good fountain pen versus a disposable ballpoint.

    (As an aside, for everyday Chinese and Japanese handwriting I like gel-based rollerballs as a compromise. They’re not as messy as a fountain, but are still more sensitive and ‘inky’ than a Bic. I’ve also been using Japanese brush-pens to great effect.)

    What really bugs me about Chinese handwriting (as opposed to Japanese) is the prevalence of horizontal writing. The characters really aren’t made for horizontal; they finish downwards and connect top-to-down, just like Latin cursive forms finish to the right. Even a small hint of xíngshū becomes awkward, and who wants to handwrite strict kǎishū?

  36. leoboiko said,

    December 18, 2012 @ 9:58 am

    Random musings on why Japanese people hate kana-only writing:

    Japanese writing doesn’t use spaces. With mixed writing (kanji-kana majiribun), Chinese characters tend to be used for lexical roots, while hiragana is most often used for grammatical words and inflected endings. Because kana and kanji are visually distinctive, this makes it easier to distinguish words. If you write only kana without spaces, it all becomes jumbled.
    I think Japanese might have some degree of diglossia. It’s certainly nothing as extreme as Classical Chinese, but it seems to me that written Japanese tends to use a lot more Sinitic vocabulary (kango), which increase homophones a lot. (Does anyone have data on this?) With kanji this isn’t a problem, because the visual information distinguishes them; but if we wanted to write Japanese in a purely phonetic way, we’d have to change the kind of Japanese we write—bring it closer to the spoken language, use more native words etc.
    Japanese is one of the most dense languages, while Mandarin is one of the sparsest—compared to Chinese languages, Japanese needs a lot more syllables to say the same thing. So kanji might save the writer more work than hànzì; while a character used for Mandarin will only substitute a syllable, like lei, in Japanese it could stand for a whole string of kana like kotowari ことわり。 On the other hand, characters have on average a lot more strokes than kana, so the “savings” might be psychological; writing lots of kana could just be felt as more troublesome than a single kanji (why?)…

  37. Victor Mair said,

    December 18, 2012 @ 10:28 am


    "Random musings on why Japanese people hate kana-only writing…."

    On the other hand, not a few people have written texts in rōmaji ローマ字 (Romanization), one of the earliest and most famous being the diary of Ishikawa Takuboku.

    "The novella Romaji Diary represents the first instance of a Japanese writer using romaji (roman script) to tell stories in a way that could not be told in kana or kanji." See

    I suspect that one of the reasons rōmaji-only writing is more acceptable / workable than kana-only writing is because rōmaji writing employs word division.

  38. leoboiko said,

    December 18, 2012 @ 11:43 am

    I'm not too sure about the degree of acceptance of rōmaji texts in modern Japan though… Do you have more info on the part about "to tell stories in a way that could not be told in kana or kanji"? The reason stated inside the diary is that he wrote it in rōmaji because he wanted his wife to be unable to read it…

    One interesting thing that Takuboku does is, he capitalizes noun and noun-like words (meishi). Besides looking like German, this reproduces some of the effect of mixed writing (because nouny words often coincide with the kind of lexical content usually marked by being written in kanji). I’ve been experimenting with this convention in my own blog; it’s a shame that it’s mostly unknown these days (even though, as Matt pointed once, it’s actually sanctioned by the government).

    For comparison, here’s the opening of an Wikipedia article in majiribun:

    > 言語学(げんごがく)は、人類が使用する言語の本質や構造を科学的に記述する学問である。

    A version in kana :

    > けんごがくは、じんるいがしようするげんごのほんしつやこうぞうをかがくてきにきじゅつするがくもんである。

    With spacing:

    > けんごがくは、 じんるいが しようする げんごの ほんしつや こうぞうを かがくてきに きじゅつする がくもん である。

    With current-style Hepburn romanization:

    > Gengogaku wa, jinrui ga shiyō-suru gengo no honshitsu ya kōzō wo kagaku-teki ni kijutsu-suru gakumon de aru.

    WIth capitalization:

    > Gengogaku wa, Jinrui ga Shiyō-suru Gengo no Honshitsu ya Kōzō wo Kagaku-teki ni Kijutsu-suru Gakumon de aru.

    We could also use native tsukau for Sinitic shiyou, avoiding some homophones; and perhaps mark accent like Martin used to (Jínrui, Géngo etc.)

  39. Nathan Hopson said,

    December 18, 2012 @ 12:09 pm

    On kana-only writing.

    Kana-only writing is quite common in Japanese chidren's books, where spaces are employed to facilitate the learning and reading processes.

    Rōmaji-only writing, like Esperanto, was mostly a passing "modern" fad among progressive, internationalist intellectuals in the early twentieth century, Takuboku and fellow Iwate natives Nitobe Inazo and Tanakadate Aikichi among them. Rōmaji-only Japanese was destined to failure because it attempted to encompass the entire spectrum of "adult" Japanese, unlike kana-only Japanese, which is confined to early childhood.

    The high degree of homophony (limited phonetic system) of Japanese makes kanji/hanzi an absolute necessity for efficient reading. It seems unlikely that either Rōmaji-only or kana-only Japanese would ever be able to fully replace the richness and efficiency of the current mixed orthographical system.

    For reference:

    Page from a popular children's picture book, demonstrating the use of spaces between words: (Sorry it's so small)

    The following images are from beginning Japanese readers used in Japanese schools. My guess is that this one (1950) is for first grade:
    Here is a more recent textbook of the same level:
    And another:
    From second grade on, spaces disappear, if I recall correctly (someone please correct me if that's wrong!)

  40. Randy Alexander said,

    December 18, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

    How common are kana-only materials that lack word division? All of the kana-only books that I own have word division. I can't recall ever seeing any that don't. (The ones that I've seen (or own) are either for kids or for Japanese as a foreign language.)

  41. Randy Alexander said,

    December 18, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

    With regard to language input on gizmos, starting around 2003 I've always seen people using handwriting input on mobile phones now and then — I even had a phone starting that year (or thereabouts) that had a dialpad that flipped open to reveal a handwriting pad that I exclusively used when sending Chinese text messages (to help keep me from forgetting characters).

    But now with bigger phones (like the Samsung Galaxy Note 2) I see people writing characters with their fingers all the time. In fact I think it seems more natural to slide your finger around on the glass surface than to press virtual buttons on the surface. You can write characters that way without looking, but with a keyboardful of virtual buttons it's not really possible to "type" without looking.

  42. Victor Mair said,

    December 18, 2012 @ 5:28 pm

    from David Lurie:

    I wrote my undergraduate senior thesis on Takuboku's Romaji nikki and am always glad to see it mentioned. I think you are right about the significance of spacing–in addition to romaji writing, all of the cases of modern all-hiragana writing that I have seen (in children's books, exclusively so I think) have used spaces to divide words. Of course, in premodern and early modern texts there are many many cases of all or almost all hiragana writing with no spacing at all…

  43. Victor Mair said,

    December 18, 2012 @ 6:26 pm

    If homophony were a problem in phonetically written Japanese or Chinese, then it would be a problem in spoken Japanese and Chinese as well. If it were problem in spoken Japanese and Chinese, then people would have a difficult time communicating with each other, but clearly they do not, since hundreds of millions of Japanese and Chinese talk to each other intelligibly every day. Ergo, phonetically written Japanese and Chinese are not only possible, but have actually been used in reality.

  44. Apollo Wu said,

    December 18, 2012 @ 10:07 pm

    homophony in written text maybe a problem as a result of the writer is not around to make clarification, which on the other hand is possible in spoken communication. – Apollo

  45. Victor Mair said,

    December 19, 2012 @ 7:02 am

    from Brendan O'Kane:

    Someone — probably Cindy Carter — once told me about a book by (if memory serves) a Japanese woman in the US in which the author used furigana alongside the characters 黑人 to indicate the pronunciation "brother" (or ブラアザ, I guess) instead of the expected "hakujin." I wonder if anyone has done anything similar with Zhuyin ruby in Taiwan.

  46. Victor Mair said,

    December 19, 2012 @ 7:09 am

    @Randy Alexander

    " In fact I think it seems…."

    Now THAT is a hypothetical mouthful that is almost as ambiguous as some of the scholarly Japanese writing I've encountered that drives me to distraction. I suppose that you are trying to assert the superiority of handwriting pads over Pinyin inputting, but what do you use on a daily basis? If you tell me that you exclusively or mostly use the handwriting pad to enter Chinese on your computer and other electronic devices, I can tell you that you are in a distinct minority. I am going to write a separate Language Log post on this matter that will set the record straight for the PRC, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore.

  47. Victor Mair said,

    December 19, 2012 @ 7:13 am



    Then maybe people should strive to write clearly!

    Indeed, one of the things that makes reading the prose of good writers enjoyable is the clarity of what they have written. Conversely, nothing is more aggravating than reading a mountain of obscure prose, prose which is full of circumlocutions and pedanticisms.

  48. leoboiko said,

    December 19, 2012 @ 7:22 am

    @Apollo: If that was the case, it would be impossible to understand a Japanese speech or lecture without asking questions, which isn’t true.

    It is true, however, that many existing written Japanese texts would be hard to understand only through the sound (unlike spoken Japanese). That’s why I said above that Japanese probably is somewhat diglossic; the written vocabulary must use more homophones (especially kango) than they use in conversation. The reason they do this is because they can; with the visual support of kanji to disambiguate, there’s no reason to avoid homophones.

    Since Japanese is a living spoken language, intelligible even to children and illiterates (like all natural languages), it must be perfectly possible to write it in kana or alphabet—provided that they changed the kind of Japanese they write. But I think it’s fairly clear that the Japanese (save exceptions) wouldn’t want to do anything like that—and that’s their prerogative. They’ve been playing with the complexity of kanji since at least the Man’yōshū (and probably earlier); simplicity was never a feature they looked for in writing systems, or they’d have abandoned kanji for bonji back when they learned it in the 9th century. Even modern manga comics routinely play with characters; for example, by using English-language furigana, which effectively turns characters into semantic annotations to English text. (Similarly, because Edo-era popular literature relied on furigana, it was able to conjure rare or unstandard characters, causing a range of whimsical juxtaposition effects).

    About premodern unspaced hiragana: notice that kana manuscripts, even if lacking word division, still have a number of visual features that are lost in typographical kana and that make them easier to read; there’s more shapes available, and they can link characters in the same word (or word+particle unit, bunsetsu), etc. Compare the jumble of unspaced kana above with the visual rhythm of any manuscript.

  49. leoboiko said,

    December 19, 2012 @ 7:42 am

    @Victor: (That would be kokujin, I think; hakujin is white person, Caucasian). That technique is used all the time in manga, games etc.; once I even saw two levels of furiganakanji, then English, then a translation of the English (it was in a Sailor Moon special; I have to dig it up someday…)

    Sometimes there’s phonetic play into it too: The first anime of my childhood, Saint Seiya (Japanese pronunciation: Seinto Seiya), is written 聖闘士星矢, which usually would be read as seitōshi seiya (so the Sino-Japanese sound somewhat approximates the English). What’s more, the characters mean “Saint Fighter Star Arrow”, but “Star Arrow” = Seiya is the name of the protagonist, who happens to fight with meteors; and he’s also a “Saint”, which is a kind of holy warrior.

    Another interesting case I spotted was a character from Rurōni Kenshin who had been a member of the peasant’s army called Sekihōtai 赤報隊 . In a conversation, the character once said something like “We would never do that”, where the word oretachi “we” was a furigana gloss to Sekihōtai, written in kanji. So kanji where used to resolve an anaphoric reference!

  50. SeekTruthFromFacts said,

    December 19, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

    "When Chinese is written with a pencil or, worse yet, with a ball-point pen, "

    Ball-point pens are rare in China. Almost everybody uses rollerballs. I thought this was annoying until the first time I tried to write Chinese characters…. Since then I've only ever bought one ball-point in China, in order to sign the backs of debit cards.

  51. Victor Mair said,

    December 19, 2012 @ 5:01 pm


    You're certainly right about kokujin. I think that Brendan simply committed a lapsus calami, so to speak (since we're on that topic!).

    I love what you say in your response to Apollo about the intelligibility of spoken Japanese and the somewhat diglossic nature of Japanese. The same could be said of Chinese. The more that phoneticity is operative in Japanese and Chinese writing, the less diglossic they will become.


    I agree with what you say about rollerball pens. They work much better than the hard, stiff ball point pens of old. But my favorite pens for writing Chinese characters are the needle point Pilot Hi-Tec-C gel pens from Japan. They come in a rainbow of colors, plus the tips stay sharp and are fine enough to write even the smallest strokes of characters. I also like the way the ink comes out wet but dries very quickly. I always sign checks and books with one of these pens, and I will always endeavor to use one when writing characters. I think they are called geru no pen ゲルのペン in Japanese, but I don't know what they're called in Chinese.

    Here are some relevant terms in Chinese

    yuánzhūbǐ 圓珠筆 ("ballpoint pen")

    yuánzǐ bǐ 原子笔 ("atomic pen" — the old name for "ballpoint pen")

    gǔnyuánzhūbǐ 辊圆珠笔 ("rollerball pen")

    gāngbǐ 钢笔 ("ink pen" — still my favorite writing instrument for composing manuscripts, especially the Rotring Art Pen, but with a regular nib, not one of the calligraphic nibs)

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