Imagine a keyboard with thousands of keys because the language you speak has thousands of characters. It turns out the most natively spoken language in the world, Mandarin Chinese, does have thousands of characters. But how do Chinese speakers enter characters on their PCs and phones without pulling their hair out in frustration? Let's explore the fascinating history and methods behind Chinese typing.
The Double Pigeon Typewriter
Back in the mid-1970s, before word processing was widespread, there was a rather popular typewriter called the Double Pigeon. Unlike the typewriters you're probably used to seeing, it didn't even have keys. Instead, it had well over 2,000 pieces of movable type, with each piece containing either a character or part of a character. To select a character, users had to move a lever above the character they wanted and then press down, causing the arm to flip up and punch the character onto the paper. While the pieces of type were arranged logically, it was still quite a tedious process.
The Birth of the Kung Ji Input Method
In 1976, inventor Chu Bong Fu developed what's known as the Kung Ji input method for keyboards. This system used a standard QWERTY keyboard, which was a significant breakthrough. Named after the mythological inventor of the Chinese writing system, the Kung Ji system made it much easier to type Chinese characters.
A few years after Chu's invention, he released his patent rights, making the Kung Ji system open source. This move contributed to its popularity, and it remains a widely used input method to this day.
Reducing Thousands of Characters to 87 Keys
Even if you're not trying to create a keyboard featuring every Chinese character in existence, it's estimated that an educated Chinese speaker knows between three and eight thousand characters. So how can you reduce all that down to just 87 keys?
Chinese characters are not constructed at random; they are often made up of elements, sometimes referred to as radicals. On a kanji keyboard, each Latin character matches up to a common radical. They are sorted according to the order of the Latin alphabet. For example, the keys for A through G roughly correspond to classical elements of nature, such as water or fire. Once you've decided which character you want to type, you build it up from these radicals, going from the top of the character to the bottom, left to right, and outside to inside. This allows you to construct a large number of characters from 3 or 4 key sequences, called kanji codes.
Modern Chinese Typing Methods
These days, there are plenty of software-based tools to make typing easier for the average Chinese speaker. Similar to how English speakers get word suggestions as soon as they press the first key, Chinese speakers receive suggestions based on the radicals they input. This is particularly useful as many Chinese words are composed of multiple characters.
While kanji remains widespread, it has been supplanted in popularity by other methods, such as Wubi, a faster shape-based system more geared towards simplified Chinese, and Pinyin, which involves typing in a romanized version of a Chinese word and having software convert it to a Chinese character.
When you think about it, the challenge of typing thousands of characters with just 87 keys is not all that different from forming tens of thousands of English words from just 26 letters. While the methods have evolved over time, the ingenuity of inventors like Chu Bong Fu has paved the way for efficient Chinese typing methods, ensuring that the Chinese language keeps pace with technological advancements.