Writing Chinese characters by hand is a confusing task of memorizing strokes and characters, but the use of computers has made it slightly easier- perhaps an unfortunate blessing since I’ve heard time and time again from local coworkers how their grasp of writing out Chinese characters has regressed because they only now need to recognize characters due to their constant use of Chinese input methods. There are many types of input methods available; some which are based on pronunciation, while others on character structure, character set or a combination of pronunciation and character structure. I’d like to talk about two of the popular Chinese character input method editors (IME): Pinyin and Wubi.
The Pinyin IME (拼音输入法 pin1yin1 shu1ru4fa3) allows users to input Chinese characters by typing in the pinyin of a Chinese character, and the Pinyin IME then presents the user with a list of characters with that pinyin pronunciation. The advantage of the pinyin input method is that it’s very easy to learn for Mandarin speakers, since those who are familiar with pinyin will already be able to input Chinese characters with almost no training, which is not the case with other input methods. The Pinyin IME is very popular in mainland China, since children are already required to learn pinyin in school. However the Pinyin IME was created based on the pronunciation of standard-Mandarin so native Mandarin speakers who speak with accents will have a hard time distinguishing a number of similar sounding syllables, such as c and ch, s and sh, z and zh, n and ng, h or hu and f, or n and l. Moreover, Chinese dialect speakers who don’t know pinyin, or speak Mandarin, will not be able to use this input method at all.
The Wubi IME, short for The Wubizixing (五笔字型输入法 wu3bi3zi4xing2shu1ru4fa3) allows users to input Chinese characters based on the structure of characters rather than their pronunciation, making it possible to enter Chinese characters even when the user doesn’t know the pronunciation, or if the user speaks a dialect of Chinese. As the name suggets, the Wubi 五笔 (wu3bi3) IME divides the keyboard into five regions, which is assigned a certain type of character stroke, which allows for the user to efficiently write characters with at most 4 keystrokes. Another efficiency in using Wubi over phonetic character input methods, is that users don’t have to select characters from a list of similar homo-phonic choices, and so there’s a greater ability for a Wubi typist to ‘touch’ type without having to look at the computer screen. However, a major drawback to learning Wubi is that it has a high learning curve, and requires memorization and practice for a user to use it proficiently.
Which Input Method?
My recommendation for choosing between these two Chinese character input methods would be to consider your goal for typing Chinese. If you aim to be a professional Chinese typist, and need to input Chinese characters at a high rate, then it may be well worth your time to learn the Wubi IME system. However, if you are a standard-Mandarin speaker, and only need to input Chinese for casual computer use such as online chatting and surfing, then the Pinyin IME system will be more than sufficient for your needs.
Are you a well versed Chinese typist? Share your views on these two Chinese character input methods, or any other input method that you may be using already, in the comments below.