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February 1, 2001

In China, Computer Use Erodes Traditional Handwriting, Stirring a Cultural Debate


Jennifer 8. Lee/ The New York Times
Ye Zi, left, and Li You say computer use is affecting handwriting skills in China.


In China, Computer Use Erodes Traditional Handwriting
Among Chinese speakers, evidence suggests that the use of computers for word processing is mounting a slow but steady assault on their ability to write characters by hand. Many Chinese say that could undermine the written language.

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YANGSHUO, China -- WHEN Li You picks up a pen, he finds that with increasing frequency he can't remember how to write the Chinese characters he learned to write as a child. The delicate strokes scramble themselves in the hazy recesses of his memory, eluding his brain's insistent summons to order.

"There are some characters that I can't write with a pen, but if you give me a computer I can type it out," said Mr. Li, a 23-year-old computer teacher who lives in rural Yangshuo in Guangxi province, in southern China.

It has been more than six years since Mr. Li started using a computer for Chinese word processing. It has been just under six years since the characters started slipping away. He estimates that more than 95 percent of his writing is now done by computer.

"I can go for a month without picking up a pen," Mr. Li said.

Among Chinese speakers, anecdotal evidence suggests that the use of computers for word processing is mounting a slow but steady assault on their ability to write characters by hand. Many Chinese say that could undermine the written language.

"It's a cultural loss," said Ye Zi, a coworker of Mr. Li's. "A long time ago, we all wrote much better."

But Mr. Li waved off the idea of sentimentality. "I have no regrets," he said. "This is the natural trend of societal progress. You use your hands less, but you use your brains more."

The problem faced by Mr. Li and others as old skills yield to advancing technology is nothing new in China or elsewhere. Educators, for example, engage in fierce debates about whether the calculator has decreased or increased students' mathematical skills.

For many people, language and literacy are intimately linked to what it means to be human. For the Chinese, writing has additional cultural weight. Throughout the country's history, written language has played a critical role in China as a symbol of both unification and division. It was used to bridge the hundreds of variations in spoken Chinese, but it has also been a symbol of political division, as evidenced by the different writing systems used by Taiwan and China, one traditional and one simplified. And handwriting is often used to evaluate character.

The slow erosion of writing skills is the frequent subject of conversations, jokes and self-consciousness in China and Taiwan. The characters are not forgotten completely, but the writer often simply needs prompting from a dictionary or a friend. Or the writer's memory is jogged by trial and error. But Chinese writers say that in the last five years or so, their lapses in memory have become more frequent and more annoying.

Complicated and rarely used characters are usually the first to fade from memory, but even common characters are being lost. "My friends will tease me, `How you can forget such a simple character?' " Mr. Ye said.

The Chinese have a name for the written equivalent of having something on the tip of the tongue that translates as "forgetting characters upon lifting the pen."

But many in China take a pragmatic approach to the language, not a sentimental one. "The role of language is communication," said Zhou Liwei, a consultant in Beijing who said he had not written in Chinese without a computer for several years. He carries a laptop with him wherever he goes.

The conflict is a result of forcing the complexities of the Chinese language to conform to a standard Roman-alphabet keyboard. Becoming literate in Chinese requires mastering characters that range from the simple to the intricate. Pupils spend thousands of hours copying character after character for homework. "The task of Chinese characters is enormously complex, more than any other language or any other script," said Dr. Brendan Weekes, a cognitive neuropsycholinguist at the University of Kent in England who has done research on Chinese character recognition.

But Chinese typing requires users only to recognize characters and not construct them from scratch. More than 97 percent of computer users in China type by phonetically spelling out the sounds of the characters in a transliteration system, called pinyin, that is based on the Roman alphabet. The software then either offers users a choice of characters that fit the pronunciation, or it automatically guesses the characters that the user wants, based on context.

As spoken, Chinese is a tonal language, and typing "ma" on a keyboard, for example, will bring up a list of numbered choices for characters that include "horse" or "mother," which have different tones. Entering a number selects one of the characters. On average, there are 17 characters that correspond to each typed pinyin spelling like "ma."

The pinyin system of typing and selection is time-consuming and awkward, but it is popular because it requires less training. Other systems involve a large amount of memorization but are faster.

The Japanese, which also use Chinese- based characters in writing, have long complained about the effect of word processing on their writing abilities. But computers have become widespread in China only in the last five years, although they have had a sizeable presence in Taiwan for almost a decade.

There has been little if any research on the effect of computers on the written language. "Scientifically, we haven't established the phenomenon reliably," said Ovid Tzeng, minister of education in Taiwan, who has done research in cognitive neurolinguistics. "We have heard people anecdotally speaking talking about it, but we need to examine in detail."

It is notable that the Chinese contend that only their writing skills, not their reading skills, are eroding. Neuroscientists have long established that writing and reading are handled separately by the brain. Some patients with brain damage are able to read but not write, and others may have the opposite problem.

"Reading involves recognition," said Prof. Alfonso Caramazza, a Harvard professor of cognitive neuropyschology who has also done research on the Chinese language. "You don't have to generate the parts. They are given to you. The task of the brain is to find the match for the parts that are given to you."

Writing something, whether it is an English word or a Chinese character, involves retrieving the basic elements of the word either letters or brush strokes from memory. It is the recurrent construction of a word or character that reinforces the writing process. "If you were to try to retrieve a word as a whole without going through parts you would not be practicing with letters and strokes," Professor Caramazza said. "You are short-circuiting the process."

Also, since many Chinese characters resemble each other or share a sound, it is easy to mistake one for another.

It is not just the Chinese who are vulnerable to having the computer usurp some of their skills. American children growing up with word-processing aids like spelling checkers are also becoming dependent on computers for literacy.

"My mom tells me all the time: `Spellcheck has made you not be able to spell,' " said Ehren Fairfield, a 22-year-old senior at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., who spent a year studying in Beijing. "Chinese people will ask me how to spell something, and I'll say: `I don't know. Give me a computer, and I'll tell you.' "

This is not the first time that Chinese writing has come under assault. Until the 20th century, the calligraphy brush was the dominant writing instrument. With its rich cultural undertones, calligraphy took many years to master, an investment that also meant that the vast majority of Chinese remained illiterate.

When the pen became popular in China after the turn of the 20th century, it was furiously attacked, accused of undermining the country's cultural heritage. While the characters written were identical, critics said that it removed the expressiveness found in traditional calligraphic writing. But now calligraphy has largely retreated to an aesthetic form that is practiced by only a small segment of people.

In the same way that the pen increased literacy in China, computers may help pull down barriers. "Why would you still spend so much time on handwriting Chinese characters when you are eventually going to use computers?" asked Ping Xu, a professor of Chinese language at Baruch College. Professor Xu has obtained a federal grant from the Department of Education to develop a penless approach for students learning Chinese as a foreign language. Students start using computers for writing almost immediately.

Professor Xu says that the approach can be extended to pupils in China.

"In spite of the opposition against the pen, why did the pen prevail?" Professor Xu asked. "Because the pen is much easier to use and much easier to carry around." He extrapolated the idea to the historical inevitability of the dominance of the computer. "If the computer can provide an easier way of learning Chinese characters and all the Chinese language skills, eventually it will prevail."

Some parents are already criticizing schools for not adapting quickly enough to the educational advantages of the computer.

Li Li-Chuan, who teaches at an elementary school in Taiwan, said that a parent had recently complained about the many hours her child spent practicing characters. "She asked, `What's the point of making students practice characters, when now, with computers, they only need to recognize them?' " said Ms. Li, who says she herself often hesitates before writing some characters.

Ming Zhou, a Microsoft researcher based in Beijing, also takes a more neutral view of the tension between modern technology and traditional skill. "You can't say it's a cultural tragedy," Mr. Zhou said. "It's just the way it is."

Mr. Zhou has worked on sophisticated Chinese typing software that even eliminates the need to choose characters. The computer can automatically convert entire sentences from phonetics into characters using the context.

"If people use this system, they will forget how to write even faster," Mr. Zhou joked. "What we are chasing is speed. When culture and speed come into conflict, speed wins."

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