ANGSHUO, 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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
Professor Xu says that the approach can be extended to pupils
"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
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."