20080223-Large_chinese_keyboard experimenbtal for computers.jpg
Experimental Chinese keyboard

China adopted the QWERTY keyboard to input Chinese characters some time ago and improvements and technology now make it easy, fast and efficient to enter Chinese characters into computers and phones. David Moser, the author of “A Billion Voices,” a book about the creation of modern Chinese, told the New York Times: “We have the godsend of word-processing and the World Wide Web, a computer literacy system that I think saved the life of Chinese. Programmers got clever with inputting Chinese characters and nowadays they are functional. The future of Chinese is people just talking into their phones and the characters coming out automatically.” [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, Sinosphere, New York Times, May 27, 2016]

The most popular word processing programs allow users to type in Romanized Chinese and the computer translates them into Chinese characters. The problem with these programs initially was that many Romanized spellings produced a multitude of Chinese characters (the word ji for example brought up 122 different characters on the screen). Many of these issues have been ironed out. Others systems allow users to "stroke" Chinese characters (very slow and tedious) and code each character with a number (requires a lot memorization). Billions of dollars have been spent in Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong to come up with a replacement keyboard but thus far none have been widely adopted.

Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times: hundreds of millions of Chinese speakers type — on desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones. The most common way is by “spelling” the word using a typical Qwerty keyboard. So if you want to type “hello,” or ni hao, you enter n-i-h-a-o. A menu then appears with a list of characters that are pronounced ni and hao, and you must select the right ones. Another way is to draw the character you want on the device’s touchscreen; again, a menu will pop up with a selection of characters that most closely resemble what you sketched. Once you recognize the one you want, click it, and move on to drawing the next character. Both these systems, though, require a two-step process of inputting and selecting that’s impossible without software. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, September 3, 2016]

Mandy Zu wrote in the South China Morning Post, “Today's computers and mobile devices offer many ways to input Chinese characters, or hanzi. Some allow characters to be physically written using a stylus or finger. The most popular, however, involved typing pinyin and choosing the appropriate character from a list of others with the same pronunciation. It is believed that the convenience of this system, which requires only knowledge of a word's sound, is eroding people's memory of certain characters, especially the more complicated or less commonly used. Like everywhere else, Chinese are falling out of the habit of writing with pen (or brush) and paper.” [Source: Mandy Zu, South China Morning Post, August 20, 2013]

Tom Mullaney wrote in Tea Leaf Nation: “Chinese characters are not only going strong in the 21st century — they are one of the fastest, most widespread, and successful languages of the digital age. Not only was China home to arguably the first widespread implementation of “predictive text” technologies, but China today is an IT giant in which Chinese characters have evidently failed to prevent a social media boom, the growth of a smart phone industry so robust that it has begun to set its sights globally, and even the rise of peculiar new social media-cum-movie-theater hybrids in which patron-generated Chinese text messages are projected on-screen as part of the movie-viewing experience. For better and for worse, none of these outcomes, it turns out, depended upon China going the route of wholesale alphabetization. [Source: Tom Mullaney, Tea Leaf Nation. Foreign Policy, May 12, 2016]

Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese ; Learning Chinese Chinatown Connection ; Omniglot ; ; Pleco Chinese dictionairies ; Haiwang Yuan homepage Romanisation ay Pinyin Info: Chinese Pod; etymological dictionary character etymologies

Mythological Chinese Typewriter with a Four-Meter Keyboard

One problems with written Chinese was that the character system is not very adaptable to movable type printing and computers. Printing books has traditionally been a problem because it is more difficult to categorize and find 5,000 characters than 26 letters in an alphabet. Computer engineers developed sophisticated software programs that displayed thousands of Chinese characters on the screen but they had difficulty producing a keyboard system that allowed the characters to be typed in. A single character required up to five strokes on a typewriter. The character for "gold" could be written in four strokes on a typewriter as opposed to eight strokes by hand.

Tom Mullaney wrote in Tea Leaf Nation: “In January 1900, a cartoon appeared in the pages of the San Francisco Examiner that sought to show Chinese script “incompatible” with the typewriter, as well as with other modern information technologies. Reported to occupy the back room of a newspaper office on Dupont Street, this (purely mythological) Chinese typewriter boasted a 12-foot keyboard complete with 5,000 keys. “Two rooms knocked into one apartment afford shelter for this remarkable contrivance,” the author explained, describing a machine so large that the “typist” was something akin to a general commanding forces over a vast terrain. An accompanying cartoon showed the caricatured inventor perched atop a stool, shouting Cantonese-esque gibberish at “four muscular key-thumpers through a large tin megaphone.” [Source: Tom Mullaney, Tea Leaf Nation, Foreign Policy, May 12, 2016]

“In 1903, a name was at last given to the imaginary inventor of this apocryphal machine. Photographer and columnist Louis John Stellman christened the inventor “Tap-Key,” a deft pun that played upon faux Cantonese and onomatopoeia. “I see by one of the papers that a Chinaman has invented a typewriter which writes in the Celestial language,” Stellman wrote, his description augmented by a drawing of yet another absurdly large contrivance. No fewer than five Chinese operators clacked away simultaneously at this massive keyboard, whilst five more fed immense sheets of paper through a platen of industrial proportions. (Evidently, the number of personnel needed to operate a Chinese typewriter had doubled since the machine first debuted three years earlier.)

IBM’s 5,400-Character Chinese Typewriter from the 1940s

In the 1940s, Kao Chung-chin, an engineer, invented IBM’s 5,400-character Chinese typewriter. The heart of it was an oversized internal rotating drum that made machine massive compared to its western counterparts. The 5,400 characters — the most commonly used of the 80,000 in the Chinese language — were mounted on a drum. It took about two months for an operator to learn to write simple sentences and four months to achieve the machine’s top speed—45 words a minute (equivalent 120 words in English, very fast for a typist). [Source: Thomas S. Mullaney, Fast Company, May 17, 2021]

Thomas S. Mullaney wrote: “The IBM Chinese typewriter was a formidable machine. On the keyboard affixed to the hulking, gunmetal gray chassis, 36 keys were divided into four banks: 0 through 5; 0 through 9; 0 through 9; and 0 through 9. With just these 36 keys, the machine was capable of producing up to 5,400 Chinese characters in all, wielding a language that was infinitely more difficult to mechanize than English or other Western writing systems. To type a Chinese character, one depressed a total of 4 keys—one from each bank—more or less simultaneously, compared by one observer to playing a chord on the piano. Just as the film explained, “if you want to type word number 4862 you would press 4-8-6-2 and the machine would type the right character. ”

“Each four-digit code corresponded with a character etched on a revolving drum inside the typewriter. Spinning continuously at a speed of 60 revolutions per minute, or once per second, the drum measured 7 inches in diameter, and 11 inches in length. Its surface was etched with 5,400 Chinese characters, letters of the English alphabet, punctuation marks, numerals, and a handful of other symbols.” The machine drew considerable attention during tours of the U.S. and China. “For all the excitement over Kao’s invention, as the 1940s drew to a close it became increasingly clear to him that his venture had failed. No matter the success of the Chinese tour, and the American tour before it—and, above all, Lew’s stellar performance throughout—Kao simply could not convince the wider world that his coding system was practical.

“In the end, however, it was geopolitics that would kill Kao’s project. “The Communist takeover in China was well underway at the time,” a 1964 retrospective article explained, “and was completed before the typewriter had a chance to achieve significant sales in an understandably nervous Chinese market.” Not only did Mao’s victory in mainland China push IBM’s anxieties to the breaking point, it also threw Kao’s national identity into turmoil. He became a man without a country, being issued a special Diplomatic “Red” Visa by the United States. The IBM Chinese Typewriter never made it to market, leaving the challenge of electrifying—and eventually computerizing—the Chinese language to later inventors in the second half of the twentieth-century (a topic I’ve written about elsewhere, including in a forthcoming book on MIT Press called, unsurprisingly enough, The Chinese Computer).

Lois Lew, Master of IBM’s 5,400-Character Typewriter

Lois Lew, an attractive Chinese-American woman, was the master of IBM’s 5,400-character typewriter. In the 1940 she toured the U.S. and China and elsewhere using her skills to promote the machine. Thomas S. Mullaney wrote: “She began her job memorizing the codes for Kao’s machine After her first stressful encounter with Kao, Lois spent a week poring over his code book, vying to memorize the four-digit codes for the first probationary set of one hundred characters. She succeeded, and landed the job. And so began an unforeseen journey, one that would take her across the United States and back across the Pacific. The probationary period gave way to the real training regimen. In the span of three weeks, Lew would need to learn by heart—or, more accurately, by body—the four-digit codes for 1,000 of the most commonly used Chinese characters. [Source: Thomas S. Mullaney, Fast Company, May 17, 2021]

“All of this practice paid off. After completing the training procedure, Lew became Kao Chung-Chin’s main demonstrator for the machine, in shows held across Boston, New York, and San Francisco. The striking young Chinese women made an impression. “My fingernails were red,” she recalls. “I had nylon stockings. They’d never seen anything like that.”

“Lois Lew and IBM’s typewriter were cover-story material for Chinese magazines “In China, the reception was thrilling. In Shanghai, the mayor of the city was waiting for them at the docks, along with photographers. An audience of 3,000 people gathered to watch Kao Chung-Chin, the machine, and Lois Lew in Nanjing. like a veteran Hollywood performer. In front of those 3,000 onlookers and one exquisitely nervous Kao Chung-Chin, Lew was handed one newspaper article after the next, one letter after the next, which she then had to transcribe on the Chinese typewriter.In other words, Lew had to: 1) Translate multiple passages, each containing hundreds of Chinese characters, into their corresponding four-digit codes; 2) Perform these translations entirely in her mind; 3) Input these codes into the machine (without delay or typo); 4) Maintain grace, composure, even a smile, the entire time.

Kao and Lew had prepared for this, however. During the training regimen, Lew was drilled on a variety of letters, in different, common styles. She had memorized all of them. Coverage of Lew’s and Kao’s demonstrations in China were extensive, and overwhelmingly positive. Stories appeared in Science, Signs of the Times, Municipal Affairs Weekly, Science Pictorial, Science Monthly, and many other outlets. On top of this, publishers were clearly enamored of Lew’s beauty. Her face soon appeared in Zhong-Mei Huabao, IBM promotional brochures, and the 1947 film, among other venues.

Chinese Typewriters

Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times:“On “The Simpsons,” smarty-pants Lisa was confounded by an imaginary one that featured countless buttons covered in complicated-looking characters. One of hip-hop artist MC Hammer’s frenetic, high-stepping dance routines was nicknamed the “Chinese Typewriter” because its furious moves supposedly mimicked the flailing that would be required of a Chinese typist trying to quickly hop about a massive keyboard. Tom Mullaney, an associate professor at Stanford University, But actual “Chinese typewriters are exquisite machines. They are very different. They are typewriters without a keyboard, and that often confounds peoples’ imaginations.” [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, September 3, 2016]

“Chinese typewriters look something like a cross between a deli-meat slicer and a small printing press. There are no keys, just thousands of little metal characters arranged in a grid system. Because Chinese has no alphabet and no alphabetical order, the operator must essentially memorize the location of each character — about 2,500 on a typical machine. “They’re heavy — roughly 30 to 40 pounds.

“The tinkerers and inventors who struggled for decades to develop a Chinese typewriter were taking on a fascinating engineering puzzle, Mullaney said. The various solutions they came up with — even those that never won commercial popularity — may hold valuable lessons for today’s IT engineers. “With the Chinese typewriter, there was a constant process of optimization, and some of the most brilliant and penetrating analysis of human-machine interaction, data structuring,” he said. “This is a machine whose history is a repository of design inspiration.”

“Mullaney has delved so deep down the rabbit hole he has not one but two related books in the works: “The Chinese Typewriter: A Global History of the Information Age, Part I,” will be published next year, followed by “The Chinese Computer: A Global History of the Information Age, Part II.” Like Mullaney, Jackson Lu is a typewriter geek. He started collecting in Europe and opened the Lu Hanbin Typewriter Museum in Shanghai in 2010. Though he personally has over 500 typewriters from across the world, he has just three from China. “Fewer were produced and there’s not the same amount of variety,” Lu said. “Many of them were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.”

History of Chinese Typewriters

Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times:“Starting in the late 1800s, various systems were pioneered — and a lot of the work was done by students and academics from American institutions, including MIT and New York University. Companies such as IBM and agencies including the CIA also worked on developing Chinese typewriters.

Japanese manufacturers dominated the Chinese typewriter market during the 1930s and '40s. A Matsuda Japanese kanji typewriter from 1950, with characters on a spool that the user would spin. The Chinese-manufactured models that were commercialized most widely, under brands with names such as Double Pigeon and Seagull, had a tray of about 2,500 commonly used Chinese characters arranged in a grid; typists would move a selector-lever over the tray to hunt for the character they needed, then press a bar, which would trigger a lever to pick up the character, ink it, type it and return it to its place. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, September 3, 2016]

“Yet in a language with no alphabet, and thus no alphabetic order, how to arrange the characters in the tray became a question. Traditional organizational methods, such as by number of strokes in the character, or general frequency of use, were inefficient — even the fastest typists could manage just 20 or 30 words a minute.

“Typists started reorganizing their trays to suit their needs. One who worked in an office dealing with agriculture might put characters used to make words such as “farm,” “crops” and “harvest” near the top of the tray because those words were used frequently; a typist in a police station would have a totally different arrangement, with characters used in words such as “officer,” and “crime” close at hand. Given that communist leaders’ names were typed often, the character for “Mao” was put near those for his given name, “Ze” and “Dong.” The characters for “chairman” were situated near “Mao” as well. In this sense, these trays anticipated what characters the typist was most likely to need along with “Mao.”

“Cutting the distance between characters that were often used together allowed typists to increase their speed to as many as 80 words per minute. Today’s smartphones do much the same thing — suggesting “Washington” as the next word to follow if you type “George,” for example.

“In China, typewriters were never common objects. While American authors such as Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac and even Hunter S. Thompson had their Remingtons, Underwoods and IBM Selectrics, their Chinese counterparts were still writing by hand. One issue was price — a Chinese typewriter would cost 20 times what an average worker would make in a month. And once the Communist era began, even if an individual wanted to buy a typewriter, it wasn’t allowed. “Only institutions could have them, and they had to be registered with police,” Lu said. In addition, he said, typists (along with locksmiths and rubber-stamp makers) had to have a license and be “politically reliable.”

Chinese Typewriter as Honored Guests and Partners in Crime

Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times:“Zhang Haiyan still remembers the frenzy that ensued at her state-owned company in the 1980s when one of its subsidiary factories asked to borrow a typewriter from the Beijing headquarters to draft some business letters in Chinese. The factory director had to collect lots of approval stamps from different departments and even the [government] ministry,” the 59-year-old retired clerk said. The rare and expensive contraption, she recalls, was normally kept in a locked office, and only two big bosses had the key. She had never really laid eyes on one. “Everything in that room was mysterious to us … so I was always very curious and tried to take a peep when the door was unlocked.” [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, September 3, 2016]

“When the loan was finally approved and workers came to collect the machine, Zhang figured she’d finally get to see it. “Unfortunately, it was put in a big box, and covered with a piece of cloth, so even today I still didn’t know what exactly it looked like,” she said. “It was gently put in a car… just like a VIP guest.” “It wasn’t for people like us, clearly.”

“The government controlled typewriters like they controlled guns,” Lu said. Such rules aimed to keep the state firmly in control of information. In 1959, Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, received an anonymous, typed letter from someone scolding her over humiliating details of her romantic history. The missive was so distressing to Jiang, it reportedly caused her to faint. More than 20 investigators from the Ministry of Public Security were tasked with tracking down the author.

“Experts concluded that the letters were typed on a Baoshi-brand typewriter that was at least 10 years old, and the typist was not a professional. Other details such as the paper and glue quickly led them to the East China Sea Fleet, which had such a typewriter registered to it. A disgruntled navy lieutenant, Jin Bolin, was fingered as the perpetrator, and sent to prison for several years for leaking state secrets.

Amusing NBA Chinese Tattoos

In recent years it has become common for Americans — most visibly on pop stars and NBA basketball players who reveal a fair amount of upper body skin — to have Chinese characters tattooed on their arms and shoulders. Marcus Camby of the Denver Nuggets has one that reads the equivalent of ‘strive to be the best.” He had his made in 1996 and claims to be first NBA player to get a Chinese character tattoo. Larry Hughes of the Cleveland Cavaliers has a character that means “loyalty” emblazoned on a basketball. When a New Jersey Nets guard decided to get a tattoo to commemorate the birth of his son Jeff with a character that read “state of bliss” he checked with Yao Ming to make sure symbols meant what he was told by the tatto artist they meant.

Other people have not been so careful. Britney Spears got a Chinese character tattoo that she thought said “mysterious” but in reality it read ‘strange.” Marquis Daniels of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks thought his Chinese character tattoo were representations of his name but in actuality they said “healthy woman roof.” There is also a story of one man who got a tattoo thinking it said “one love” only to be informed by a clerk of Chinese decent at a Staples store that it really said “love hurts.”

Few of the American tattoos artists that make the tattoos know Chinese. They simply follow templates often of dubious origin. Hazni Smatter ( ) is a website devoted to humorous tattoos. One tattoo listed on the site read “power piglet.” Another found on a woman’s lower back read “motherly beast blessing.”

The Chinese character tattoos craze began in earnest in the late 1980s and early 1990s and has it origins in the turn of the 20th century when sailors traveling to Asian ports picked up tattoos, sometimes with Chinese characters on them.

Chinese Character Tattoos on World Cup Soccer Players

Jennifer Hui of Shanghaiist wrote: On the eve of the 2014 World Cup, “footie fans in China have been especially observant of the Chinese characters splashed across the, ahem, hard-to-miss muscles of several players, and many netizens have taken to forums to ponder the intended meaning of each player's ink. We've picked out a few to oglebreak down. The Greek striker Theofanis Gekas has a tattoo of five Chinese characters on the inside of his right arm — which would translate to "cold-blooded killer" or "cold-blooded killing demon". If tattoos really represent one’s personality, we're hoping Theofanis is telling us that he is a cool killer for his impressive scoring skills and not satan incarnate.” [Source:Jennifer Hui, Shanghaiist, June 27, 2014]

“Spanish defender Sergio Ramos also has a Chinese character tattooed behind his ear which simply means "wolf". The tattoo seen on the right arm of Fredy Guarin from Colombia is a bit more inexplicable. The characters, as Kotaku's Eric Jou points out are most likely meant to be read phonetically as the Chinese name Danny Zong. So, should he be called Fredy or Danny? It's all very unclear. The most baffling Chinese character tattoo might belong to the former Germany midfielder Torsten Frings. The five characters across his right arm read: "dragon, snake, fortune, brave, sheep". He also said that he has a tattoo on his back, meaning "sweet and sour duck 7.99 euro". We can only imagine the significance attached, but we don't want to.

“Still, we mustn't ignore the many meaningful tattoos scrawled across Western football players, those appearing in this 2014 World Cup or those who do not. Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic has a Chinese character tattoo signifying “great strength, luck, family and faith”. Dimitar Berbatov from Bulgaria,” whose team didn’t make it to 2014 World Cup, “has a tattoo reading “no holds barred” ("no restrictions"). Kevin Prince Boateng also has five words inked across his right side, meaning "family, health, love, success and trust". Indeed, the world-famous English former footballer David Beckham is well-known in China for his ink. During a talk at Peking University in 2013, he lifted his shirt to show students the tattoo on his left flank, a famous Chinese saying translated to: “Life and death are determined by fate, rank and riches decreed by Heaven” .

Overseas Protest Signs in Chinese

Victor Mair wrote in the Language Log: “During the Arab Spring earlier this year, we noticed some demonstrators holding signs in Chinese that were not always idiomatic or were written incorrectly. In the "Occupy Wall Street" actions, one marcher was likewise seen with a Chinese sign of dubious credentials. Any fluent speaker of Chinese is going to smile at that sign, because it is like Chinglish in reverse. You can figure out what was intended, but it just doesn't sound right. With some Chinglish, it takes a huge amount of effort to decipher what was meant, but that's not the case with this specimen of Englishy Chinese, whose message is fairly obvious, despite the unidiomatic expression. [Source:Victor Mair, Language Log, October 7, 2011]

To a Chinese reader, this sign seems at first glance to be saying "There isn't any more corruption." The fact that the first two segments of the sentence are incorrectly worded throws into question the interpretation of the last part, fu(bài , which, depending upon the circumstances, might mean any of the following: "corruption, rottenness, decay, decomposition, putrefaction, putridity, putrescence, putridness, canker, depravity, staleness, leprosy", as well as their verbal and adjectival forms. [Ibid]

“Let us first determine how the translation came about. If we enter "No more corruption" in popular online translating services, we get: Google Translate: méiyo(u gèng duo- de fu(bài (identical with what's on the Occupy Wall Street sign) Baidu Fanyi: méiyo(u gèng duo- de fu(bài (identical with what's on the Occupy Wall Street sign) Babel Fish: méiyo(u fu(bài ("there is no corruption")

We have demonstrated many times how Google Translate has now become the standard online translation service for Chinese speakers who know little or no English, but want an English version of something in Chinese. It is now beginning to emerge that Google Translate has also become the choice for speakers of English who know little or no Chinese, but want a Chinese version of something in English. So we can't blame the wording of this Occupy Wall Street sign on the imperfect Chinese of an elementary or intermediate American learner. It is, rather, most likely to be attributed to Google Translate (or, far less likely, to Baidu Fanyi or similar service). [Ibid]

“Enough of what the Englishy Chinese means to a Chinese speaker and how it came about. What should have been written on the sign instead? Expansive, more vernacular versions might be something like these: (wo(men) bùyào ta-nwu- "Don't be corrupt" (or "Let's not be corrupt" with the optional wo(men at the beginning) (wo(men) bùyào fu(bài); "Don't be corrupt" (or "Let's not be corrupt" with the optional wo(men at the beginning) Succinct, more literar, formal versions might be something like these: dùjué fu(bài "Put an end to corruption" ; xia-omi( ta-nwu- / fu(bài / "Eliminate corruption"; (qi(ngqiú) ge-nzhì fu(bài "Eradicate corruption" (the optional qi(ngqiú at the beginning indicates that a request is being made)

Note that, in English "No more corruption", as in the numerous possible Chinese versions, what is being expressed is an injunction or exhortation — whether or not there is an explicit verb at the beginning of the sentence. What's most amazing to me about this sign, though, is that the calligraphy is quite impressive! Of course, I've known plenty of Americans who don't know a single word of Chinese who yet become rather proficient at writing Chinese characters purely as an art form. [Ibid]

Image Sources: 1) Early characters, Nolls China website ; 2) Later characters, omniglot ; 3 Oracle bone, United College Hong Kong ; 4) Making an oracle bone, British Museum; 5) Experimental keyboard, wikipedia

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2021

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.