Wired youth forget how to write in China and Japan

Like every Chinese child, Li Hanwei spent her schooldays memorising thousands of the intricate characters that make up the Chinese writing system.

Yet aged just 21 and now a university student in Hong Kong, Li already finds that when she picks up a pen to write, the characters for words as simple as "embarrassed" have slipped from her mind.

"I can remember the shape, but I can't remember the strokes that you need to write it," she says. "It's a bit of a problem."

Surveys indicate the phenomenon, dubbed "character amnesia", is widespread across China, causing young Chinese to fear for the future of their ancient writing system.

Young Japanese people also report the problem, which is caused by the constant use of computers and mobile phones with alphabet-based input systems.

There is even a Chinese word for it: "tibiwangzi", or "take pen, forget character".

A poll commissioned by the China Youth Daily in April found that 83 percent of the 2,072 respondents admitted having problems writing characters.

As a result, Li says that she has become almost dependent on her phone.

"When I can't remember, I will take out my cellphone and find it (the character) and then copy it down," she says.

Zeng Ming, 22, from the southern Guangdong province, says: "I think it's a young people's problem, or at least a computer users' problem."

One notoriously forgettable character, Zeng says, is used in the word Tao Tie - a legendary Chinese monster that was so greedy it ate itself.

Still used as a byword for gluttony, the Tao Tie is one of many ancient Chinese concepts embedded in the language.

"It's like you're forgetting your culture," Zeng says.

Character amnesia happens because most Chinese people use electronic input systems based on pinyin, which translates Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet.

The user enters each word using pinyin, and the device offers a menu of characters that match. So users must recognise the character, but they don't need to be able to write it.

In Japan, where three writing systems are combined into one, mobiles and computers use the simpler hiragana and katakana scripts for inputting - meaning users may forget the kanji, a third strand of Japanese writing similar to Chinese characters.

"We rely too much on the conversion function on our phones and PCs," said Ayumi Kawamoto, 23, shopping in Tokyo's upscale Ginza district.

"I've mostly forgotten characters I learned in middle and high school and I tend to forget the characters I only occasionally use."

Tokyo student Maya Kato, 22, said: "I hardly hand-write anymore, which is the main reason why I have forgotten so many characters.

"It is frustrating because I always almost remember the character, and lose it at the last minute. I forget if there was an extra line, or where the dot is supposed to go."

Character amnesia matters because memorisation is so crucial to character-based written languages, says Siok Wai Ting, assistant professor of linguistics at Hong Kong University. Forgetting how to write could eventually affect reading ability.

"There is no way we can learn the writing systematically because the writing itself is not systematic - we have to memorise, we have to rote learn," she says.

"Through writing, we memorise the characters. Reading and writing are more closely connected in Chinese."

Chinese reading even uses a different part of the brain from reading the Roman alphabet, Siok's research has found - a part closer to the motor area, which is used for handwriting.

Chinese characters are so complex that the country's revolutionary leader Mao Zedong told the US journalist Edgar Snow in 1936: "Sooner or later, we believe, we will have to abandon characters altogether if we are to create a new social culture in which the masses fully participate."

Instead, Mao eventually chose to simplify many characters into forms now the standard in mainland China.

Victor Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, said character amnesia is part of a "natural process of evolution".

"The reasons why characters are innately difficult to enter into computers and mobile phones are innate to the character-based writing systems themselves," he said.

"There are no magic bullets that will make it easy to input characters," he added.

The Wubi input system - available on some Chinese computers and backed by the government - uses character strokes as handwriting does. But the system itself is so difficult to learn that it has failed to gain mass appeal.

However, iPhones and other smartphones now offer an option in which users can input characters by drawing them onto the touch screen.

And in Japan, kanji kentei - a character quiz with 12 levels - has become a widespread craze among schoolchildren, housewives and retirees, according to Yoshiko Nakano, associate professor of Japanese at the University of Hong Kong.

Some argue that the perceived decline in character knowledge is, in fact, nothing to worry about.

A survey by the southern Chinese news portal Dayang Net, found that 80 percent of respondents had forgotten how to write some characters - but 43 percent said they used handwritten characters only for signatures and forms.

"The idea that China is a country full of people who write beautiful, fluid literature in characters without a second thought is a romantic fantasy," wrote the blogger and translator C. Custer on his Chinageeks blog.

"Given the social and financial pressures that exist for most people in China... (and) given that nearly everyone has a cellphone, it really isn't a problem at all."

The explosion of internet and phone technology has itself led to the creation of new words and forms of writing. In 2008 Chinese people were sending 175 billion text messages each quarter, according to the Xinhua state news agency.

Still, both Li Hanwei and Zeng Ming have become so concerned about character amnesia that they keep handwritten diaries partly to ensure they don't forget how to write.

If it weren't for this, would they actually need to remember how to write characters with a pen?

Li is almost stumped, but says she uses one "when I have to sign the back of my new credit card". "That's almost all," she says.

Arts & Entertainment
Ricky Gervais at a screening of 'Muppets Most Wanted' in London last month
tvRicky Gervais on the return of 'Derek' – and why he still ignores his critics
Sport
Vito Mannone fails to keep out Samir Nasri's late strike
sportMan City 2 Sunderland 2: Goalkeeping howler allows Man City to scrap a draw – but Premier League title is Liverpool's to lose
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Life & Style
Infant child breast-feeding with eyes closed
scienceTo stop mummy having any more babies, according to scientists
VIDEO
News
news
Life & Style
Going down: Google's ambition to build an elevator into space isn't likely to be fulfilled any time soon
techTechnology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
News
David Cameron sings a hymn during the enthronement service of The Most Rev Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury, at Canterbury Cathedral last year
news
Life & Style
From long to Jong: Guy Pewsey gets the North Korean leader's look
fashionThe Independent heads to an Ealing hairdressers to try out the North Korean dictator's trademark do
Extras
indybest10 best smartphones
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
News
peopleRyan Gosling says yes, science says no. Take the A-list facial hair challenge
Arts & Entertainment
tvCreator Vince Gilligan sheds light on alternate endings
Life & Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 63rd anniversary of the Peak District National Park
tech
News
Paul Weller, aka the Modfather, performing at last year’s Isle of Wight Festival in Newport
people
Life & Style
Michael Acton Smith founded Firebox straight out of university before creating Moshi Monsters
techHe started out selling silliness with online retailer Firebox, before launching virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
News
Ethical matters: pupils during a philosophy lesson
educationTaunton School's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success
Arts & Entertainment
Play It Forward: the DC Record Fair in Washington, US
musicIndependent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads on Record Store Day
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Resourcer

    £18000 - £22000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Resourcer Reports...

    B2B Bids and Tenders Pricing Specialist

    £35000 - £45000 per annum + excellent company benefits : Pro-Recruitment Group...

    Projects Financial Analyst - Global Technology firm

    £55000 - £62000 per annum + outstanding benefits and bonus: Pro-Recruitment Gr...

    SharePoint Administrator/Developer (C#, VB.NET, VISUAL STUDIO 2

    £35000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SharePoi...

    Day In a Page

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal