Fewer people in China are regularly writing

Are Chinese people forgetting how to write?

May 21, 2019

Writing Chinese is hard, even for people who grew up learning how to read and write it.

Almost everyone has an embarrassing account of how they started writing a sentence on paper only to stop in the middle because they forgot how to write a certain character.

The problem is not unique to Chinese. Any English speaker can recall moments when they forgot how to spell a specific word.

But with over 8,000 characters to memorize—the majority of which aren’t used in everyday life—Chinese people are increasingly suffering from “character amnesia.”

Biang, considered the most complex Chinese character still in use. It refers to a type of flat noodle from Shaanxi Province.
Biang, considered the most complex Chinese character still in use. It refers to a type of flat noodle from Shaanxi Province.

This is especially the case now that smartphones have replaced pen and paper in most written communication. Many people write by typing Pinyin, the official romanization of Chinese words, or by speaking into their phones.

For example, instead of writing the strokes for hello—你好—people type the pronunciation—“ni hao”—and choose the characters from a list.

In one survey of more than 2,000 people, over 80% of interviewees said characters sometimes slipped their minds while they wrote.

This isn’t to say people are becoming illiterate—many can still identify a majority of the 3,500 most common characters used in daily life. Writing is just another matter.

(Read more: The emojis you use don’t mean the same thing in China)

Character amnesia has become so prevalent that it’s even been turned into entertainment.

One television show challenges audience members to write complicated characters, similar to spelling bees in the United States.

On one episode, 70% of audience members failed to write the characters for “toad” (癞蛤蟆).

Other common words that trip people up include “ironing” (熨帖), “viscous” (黏稠), and “sneeze” (喷嚏).

(Read more: Why parents are buying calligraphy brushes made with baby hair)

And it’s not for lack of trying. Kids in China start learning how to write at a young age by repeating the strokes in exercise books.

But students may be one of the few remaining demographics who have to write every day.

“I haven’t written with a pen in ages.”

Some even try to outsmart the system. Earlier this year, a student made headlines when she was busted for using a handwriting robot to do her assignments.

(Here’s a video of a similar machine in action.)

A handwriting robot on sale on Taobao.
A handwriting robot on sale on Taobao. / Photo: Taobao

Her mom reportedly smashed the machine, which had cost the student $120. The story sparked a national debate about the value of writing, as well as rote learning.

While writing is no longer as prevalent in everyday life, it also means the value of a handwritten letter has increased.

Like in the West, a handwritten note is a way to show sincerity in modern Chinese society—and you get extra brownie points if your handwriting is elegant.

(Watch: The calligrapher who writes giant words you can see from the sky)

Because the Chinese believe a person’s handwriting reflects one’s personality, bad penmanship is still a source of shame for some.

“I haven’t written with a pen in ages,” reads one product review for a handwriting exercise book on Taobao, China’s Amazon. “When I had to do it one day, I realized my handwriting was crap. It’s so embarrassing.”

The exercise book—which is targeted to adults, by the way, not kids—has sold over 70,000 copies.

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