Aug 14, 2020

The Wubi Effect


JAD ABUMRAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad. This is Radiolab. To start things off today, a couple months ago ...

JAD: You want some coffee? Two small?

SIMON ADLER: I'm gonna need an Americano.

JAD: ... in that magical forgotten time before the coronavirus, our reporter Simon Adler, somewhat mysteriously walked me a few blocks from our office, mic in hand, to a coffee shop.

SIMON: Okay, with our coffee purchased, let's go stand in the corner where it's maybe a little less loud.

JAD: Sort of a fancy one—exposed brick, bare Edison bulbs.

SIMON: So let's—let's gaze out upon the hipsters of Lower Manhattan.

JAD: Let's survey and count the number of laptops?

SIMON: Yeah, so how many laptops do you think are in here?

JAD: Okay, starting from the left, we're gonna circle around. We got one, two, three, four, five, six.

SIMON: Two more on the bar.

JAD: Two more on the bar.

SIMON: And they're all typing the same way, right? They're all using a QWERTY keyboard.

JAD: Yes.

JAD: And the reason he dragged me there, as I now know ...

SIMON: Now let's imagine we're in Shenzhen in a Chinese Starbucks.

JAD: ... was to point out a massive cultural difference hidden in plain sight, and to propose a bit of a reporting trip.

JAD: Are you gonna send somebody to Starbucks in Shenzhen?

SIMON: Well, that's my hope, that I will be the one sent to a Starbucks in Shenzhen.

JAD: [laughs] Well played, Adler.

SIMON: Now you did not bite on that reporting trip.

JAD: No.

SIMON: Plus, pretty soon thereafter, traveling to China became a lot more difficult. So ...

YANG YANG: Okay, I'm in this big Starbucks shop here in Hong Kong.

SIMON: ... to play out this comparison I had in mind, instead we hired and sent local reporter, Yang Yang, to scope it out for us.

YANG YANG: There are about 50 people here, maybe 30 laptops or tablets open.

SIMON: Because, and here is where we get to the point, everyone in this Starbucks ...

YANG YANG: You know, typing and writing and browsing on the internet.

SIMON: ... were all using their keyboards in a different way.

JAD: What do you mean? So using it in different ways in the way that they use the keyboard or that the keyboard that they're using themselves are different?

SIMON: The physical keyboard is going to be the exact same thing. They're QWERTY keyboards, just like here in New York.

JAD: Oh, okay. I didn't know that.

SIMON: But, like, even if everybody in this Chinese Starbucks was really into dogs, it was a dog convention, and so they were all typing the word "Gǒu," which is dog in Mandarin, no two people would be typing the word "Dog" the same way.

TOM MULLANEY: That's right. There could be 50 different ways that that keyboard is being used to type the Chinese language.

SIMON: This is Professor Tom Mullaney.

TOM MULLANEY: I'm professor of Chinese history at Stanford University.

SIMON: Okay, and this is the doorway into the grand mystery, it would seem.

TOM MULLANEY: Yeah, because I mean, in theory, there are an infinite number of different ways to type Chinese with the QWERTY keyboard.

JAD: I don't even know what that means. How is that possible?

SIMON: Well, it turns out that figuring out how to type in Chinese on a keyboard ...

TOM MULLANEY: Was one of the most complex engineering, linguistic and conceptual puzzles of its time.

SIMON: It's a puzzle that threatened to erase an entire culture, nearly prevented China from becoming the technological superpower that it is today, and says a whole lot about where all of our communication is headed. All right. So before we get into why typing in Chinese is such a crazy, difficult problem to solve, let me introduce you to one of the guys who actually set out to solve it.

WANG YONGMIN: Hello, [speaking Mandarin].

YANG YANG: Hello, Simon. Hi.

SIMON: Hello. Is everybody here? Can you all hear us?

SIMON: Professor Wang Yongmin.

YANG YANG: Yes. Professor Wang is here. You can talk to him.

SIMON: My interpreter, fixer and really co-reporter on the China side of this, Yang Yang and I spoke with him a couple months back.

SIMON: Professor Wang, I think of you as sort of almost like the Chinese Steve Jobs. Is that a fair way to think of you?

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: He says that he's nowhere close to the wealth Steve Jobs held, but in terms of his fame and reputation, yes, it's a fair comparison.

SIMON: Professor Wang was born in the 1940s in a small rural village.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: Growing up in this village, they had wheat and corn.

SIMON: His family farmed and his dad was also a carpenter, but it was a hardscrabble existence.

YANG YANG: His family was so poor that they couldn't afford any clothes for him.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: And because they were dirt poor, he understood at a very young age that going to school was not a small thing. So he studied extremely hard.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: He said that from the first grade all the way to university ...

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin] Always number one, okay?

YANG YANG: "I am always the number one."

WANG YONGMIN: [laughs]

SIMON: And all that hard work paid off. He was selected to attend the University of Science and Technology of China, which is basically the equivalent to MIT.

YANG YANG: And after graduating from college, he was assigned by the government to a research institute located in this remote district.

SIMON: And this wasn't just any research institute.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: It was a top secret, highly classified, national defense research institute. Even the locals didn't know what these people were doing there.

SIMON: And the top secret, highly classified work that was going on there was building computers, which in China wasn't just an engineering question, it was much deeper. Keep in mind this was the early 1970s.

TOM MULLANEY: And everyone that was paying attention knew that computing was going to change the fabric of economy, warfare ...

SIMON: Again, historian Tom Mullaney.

TOM MULLANEY: ... communication, everything.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: But at that time, China was just starting to enter this field, and was lagging behind.

SIMON: I mean, the best estimates I could find say that around that time in the entire country, with a population of nearly a billion people, there were only 3,000 computers in use.

TOM MULLANEY: Why is that? Well, the simple reason is the Chinese language could not fit inside a computer.

JAD: Meaning what?

SIMON: So in English, we put our words onto the page or the screen by shuffling around these 26 letters, right?

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Say them with me. A, B, C.]

SIMON: Each one representing a sound in the word.


SIMON: And the writing, in fact, tells you how to say the word.


SIMON: But Chinese writing is completely different.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: The person character is placed next to a tree to convey the idea of resting.]

SIMON: When you write in Chinese, you aren't writing down the sounds of the words so much as you're drawing a picture of each word.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Three trees here are combined in the character for Sēnlín to mean a forest.]

SIMON: This Chinese writing goes back at least 3,000 years. And in fact, some of the earliest known examples of it were found on artifacts in Professor Wang's home province.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: In this writing system, these characters grew out of an attempt to represent the actual things in the world around us: water, stars, animals, actions, feelings.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: You can see a thing, see a picture. A long history in a Chinese character.

SIMON: So that today there are more than 70,000 of these Chinese characters, each a unique visual representation of a word or an idea. And so the problem was in the 1970s, computers had only a few bytes of memory. Not even enough to store a single email message.

TOM MULLANEY: And so the available memory on most of these—on all of these computers, commercially-available computers, couldn't even store the Chinese character set.

JAD: Huh.

SIMON: Or display them on a screen or even print them. Like again, back in the day, the 1970s, the way we're printing things is with dot matrix printers, right?

JAD: Oh, I remember, yeah.

SIMON: Okay.

TOM MULLANEY: Where these tiny needles strike the paper, composing letters out of a set of little dots.

SIMON: Paper pixels.

TOM MULLANEY: Paper pixels, exactly. It takes way more pixels to produce a Chinese character than it does to produce a letter of the Latin alphabet.

SIMON: And so inside these printers, those little needles weren't packed densely enough to tattoo a legible character onto the page.

TOM MULLANEY: And if you take those pins and shrink them to get more paper pixels in a pinhead, well what happens is they bend and break because they are not tuned, metallurgically they're not tuned to being that size. So it's not as if China could simply just buy these computers wholesale, because the English language or the Latin alphabet was in effect being baked into the architecture. In some cases, the very matter and materiality of these machines.

JAD: Whoa. That's funny, you know, we talk sometimes about algorithm bias, but I had never realized there was this huge cultural barrier in the basic hardware of the computer.

SIMON: Totally. And I mean for China, this was seen as an existential threat. Like, consider the fact that because of these limitations, into the '80s they were forced to conduct and tabulate their census with pencil and paper.

JAD: No [bleep]

TOM MULLANEY: And so by Lord, if China couldn't figure out a way to computerize Chinese or to Chinese-ize computers, then it was going to be on the outside looking in.

SIMON: So this was the problem they were trying to solve at that top-secret research institute.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: And the full magnitude of it, of this problem really smacked Professor Wang in the face when he saw his first fully formed Western computer, which amazingly because he'd been focused on such hyper-specific electrical problems didn't happen until about eight years into his research.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: He remembers seeing it in a local printing shop.

YANG YANG: The first ever in real life.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: He was totally amazed.

*WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: Yeah. I mean, that was incredible.

SIMON: But then, he says, he looked down at the keyboard attached to the computer and saw the Latin letters and he thought, like, "Wait, how am I supposed to type 70,000 characters with just those 70 keys? Like, how are we gonna fit the Chinese language on this thing?"

TOM MULLANEY: That would be the equivalent of trying to get all 26 letters of the Latin alphabet onto less than one key.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: And as Professor Wang began looking into this, he found that the consensus at the time was it simply couldn't be done.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: At that time, there was the saying that ...

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: ... computers are the gravediggers of Chinese characters.

JAD: Gravediggers.

TOM MULLANEY: Oh, totally. People were making very loud calls for the absolute abolition of character-based writing.

JAD: You mean like throw out Chinese characters all together?

SIMON: Yeah.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: It was like a doom day.

JAD: Because of this very thing.

SIMON: It was a big part of it. And so tons of folks in the field of computing were arguing ...

TOM MULLANEY: We've got to replace Chinese with Esperanto or with English or with something else so that we can participate in global modernity.

[NEWS CLIP: Behind the plans is the realization that China must modernize or starve.]

SIMON: There was even a government body, the State Commission on Language Reform, that was looking into how to do this. However ...

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: Wang wasn't convinced.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: He thought there has to be a way to type in Chinese and save the Chinese character.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: He called it destiny. He felt like it was fate.

SIMON: And he was convinced that if he couldn't do it, if he couldn't find a way to save the character ...

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: Chinese culture would be over with it, too.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: So I didn't know if I would succeed. I didn't know if I would fail. There was no return, regardless of life and death.

JAD: Whoa!

SIMON: So dramatic, it's so dramatic!

YANG YANG: [laughs] But it was. It was really pressing for him, yeah.

SIMON: And for a good reason because, in fact, Chinese writing had nearly been wiped out once before. And we're gonna get into that right after this break.

JAD: Okay, three, two, one. Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

SIMON: And I'm Simon Adler.

JAD: This is Radiolab. And today, China's technological twist of fate.

SIMON: Yeah, so when we think about China today, we think of a technological superpower. But that wasn't always the case, and in fact, it nearly wasn't the case at all because of a very mundane yet profound puzzle, that being: how do you fit the massive Chinese character set onto a QWERTY keyboard?

JAD: And before the break, Simon, you introduced us to a guy named Professor Wang, the man who was tasked with solving this problem, which it sounds like he took pretty seriously.

SIMON: Yeah, and for good reason because the Chinese writing system had almost disappeared once before. To set the scene, it's the 19-teens, China is emerging as a nation out onto the world stage, and they're noticing technological advancements in the West.

MARTIN HOWARD: A Chinese visitor to the US, let's say he goes to the Ford company corporate headquarters.

SIMON: Historian and collector, Martin Howard.

MARTIN HOWARD: Well, walking in through the front door and down the halls to the administrative area, what they're gonna hear is a cacophony of sound.

SIMON: Okay.

MARTIN HOWARD: It's gonna get louder and louder, and then he's gonna turn the corner and he's gonna be faced with rows and rows of hundreds of typists typing away.

SIMON: And these typewriters in businesses across the United States were literally remaking English communication.

MARTIN HOWARD: Simon, it was a revolutionary machine, a paradigm shift.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Typewriter speed queens are lined up to show the world how fast they are.]

SIMON: For three basic reasons.

MARTIN HOWARD: Number one ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP: And they're off.]

MARTIN HOWARD: ... speed.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Tap tappers setting the keyboards on fire.]

MARTIN HOWARD: One could type four times faster than a clerk could write with a pen.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: 149 words a minute.]

SIMON: Number two ...

MARTIN HOWARD: Do you know what it's like reading other people's handwriting? Some people's handwriting is goddamn awful!

SIMON: [laughs]

SIMON: ... legibility.

MARTIN HOWARD: Awful to read.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Such a tremendous step forward in business efficiency.]

MARTIN HOWARD: The third reason, making copies. Think about that. If it's four times faster and you're producing 10 copies at the same time, one could argue that's 40 times faster. I think my math is right there.

SIMON: I think so.

MARTIN HOWARD: If it's 20 copies, then it's 80 times faster. That's mind tingling, right?

SIMON: And so China's like, "We have to have that speed, that efficiency."

TOM MULLANEY: We have to have these machines.

SIMON: And so some 50 years prior to Professor Wang's problem, you had people saying ...

TOM MULLANEY: We've gotta get rid of Chinese.

SIMON: I mean, Mao himself advocated for either throwing the Chinese character out completely, or at a bare minimum adopting an alphabet so that they could spell out the way characters sound.

TOM MULLANEY: Yeah, he was one of the chorus.

JAD: And so the thought there was that if you alphabetize the Chinese characters, you could then lay it out on a keyboard and the problem goes away?

SIMON: Exactly.

JAD: Okay.

SIMON: Now obviously, Chinese writing did not disappear. And there was actually a Chinese character typewriter—several of them, in fact. And what's striking about it, the model that won the day, is just how untypewriter-y it is.

MARTIN HOWARD: This is a typewriter with no keyboard.

SIMON: It's this clunky yet eloquent device with just two levers—one for your left hand, one for your right—and then this big tray bed full of metal characters. And using those levers you move the tray bed vertically and horizontally to line up the character you want.

MARTIN HOWARD: And then press down on the lever that your right hand is holding, and in one fell swoop sort of bup bup bup, the metal character gets sucked into the type chamber.

SIMON: The character swings further up towards the page on this metal arm.

JAD: Like a jukebox the way it reaches in and lifts up a record?

SIMON: Exactly. And on its way up ...

MARTIN HOWARD: Rubs against an ink spool, and then strikes the paper, printing the character onto the page.

SIMON: Before finally ...

MARTIN HOWARD: The arm swings back down, and the force of it doing so ...

SIMON: Spits that metal character back into the tray bed.

JAD: Dang!

SIMON: And while you could only type about half as fast on one of these as you could on a QWERTY English typewriter, I mean, it worked. It was enough to stave off the death of the character.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: And for Professor Wang 50 years later, it was a sign.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: A sign that, instead of forcing the Chinese language to bend to the will of technology, technology could be bent to the will of the Chinese language, the Chinese character.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: And so to do that, he actually started by breaking down the Chinese characters themselves.

MARTIN HOWARD: Because let's face it, even though Chinese doesn't have an alphabet, that doesn't mean that every character in Chinese is absolutely unique and singular and a snowflake. There are pieces and components and shapes that reappear over and over in these different characters.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: Just imagine this is chemistry. There are tens of thousands of molecules in chemistry, but there are only 100 or so atoms.

SIMON: Professor Wang believed that if he could just figure out what the atoms of Chinese characters were ...

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

MARTIN HOWARD: The components of characters, like a shape alphabet.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: ... that he could put those on the keyboard, and that people could then ...

MARTIN HOWARD: Quote-unquote, "Spell Chinese characters not by sound, but by shape."

SIMON: Now to help visualize this, let's take the character for river, Jiāng, which looks like a capital I with three dashes to its left, two near the top and one near the bottom.

JAD: Got it.

SIMON: Now this character, Jiāng, contains two components. The first is that capital letter I, and the second is those three dashes. Now on its own, that capital letter I is actually the character for work, and those three dashes actually represent water.

JAD: Huh. So work plus water equals river?

SIMON: Correct. And just as with this character, Jiāng, these quote-unquote "work and water components" often appear in combination with other components. So for example, those three dashes, the water component, are present in the characters for "juice" and "sweat" and "soup." Anyhow, so what we just did, taking a character and breaking it into its parts ...

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: ... is what Professor Wang began to do as he searched for the most common and fundamental of these components. He got himself a room, emptied it out of everything but a couple desks.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: And with a small staff he'd assembled, he took 10,000 characters and began breaking them apart and making notecards.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: Yeah, notecards.

SIMON: One notecard for each component of each of the 10,000 characters he was dissecting. So like Jiāng, river, would get two notecards, one with the I on it, one with the three dashes on it.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: When this was all said and done, what he had laying out on these various desks ...

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: Were 120,000 cards. If you stack them all together, they were like 12 meters tall.

SIMON: About the height of a three-storey building. But of these 120,000 cards, many of them were duplicates or triplicates or quadruplicates. Like, there would be at least four cards with the same "water" component on them, right? One from the character for "river," another from "soup," and two more from "sweat" and "juice."

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: So from there, what he did was sorted all of the common components together. All of the water components on that table, the work components over there, leaving him now with just several thousand piles, several thousand components.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: Clearly still way too many to put onto a keyboard. So he did it again. Broke each of those components apart and made more notecards and regrouped and re-piled the new common components.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: And he did this again.

YANG YANG: Boiling down, lower.

SIMON: And again.

YANG YANG: And lower.

SIMON: And again and again.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: Lower and lower.

SIMON: Re-stacking pieces of paper.

YANG YANG: [laughs] Yeah, just passing cards.


SIMON: Professor Wang did this for five years until he had it down to 125 components.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: The periodic table of Chinese as he referred to it.

JAD: And then how would you type with this periodic table?

SIMON: Well, just like texting on a flip phone. You remember texting on a flip phone, where each number key represents three different letters, so that to type, say, the word "Dad," you'd just type 3-2-3? Well, just like that ...

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: ... Professor Wang placed five or so of these components on each key of the QWERTY keyboard, so that by typing in the component pieces of a character ...

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: ... the computer would sum them up for you and generate it on the screen. He named his creation the Wubi Method.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: And described the Wubi as a sacred invention.

SIMON: All he had to do now was convince the rest of the world. He got that opportunity in 1984.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ronald Reagan: Mr. Secretary General, thank you for granting me the honor of speaking on this first day of the 38th session of the General Assembly.]

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: He was invited to the United Nations to present his invention.

SIMON: When he arrived, he sat down, set up his computer, you know, to demo it. And with a bunch of people watching him, he took a deep breath and started typing. And immediately ...

YANG YANG: The Deputy Secretary ...

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: ... who was standing over his shoulder watching ...

YANG YANG: Was astonished to see Chinese characters rapidly appearing on the screen.

SIMON: In fact, she was incredulous.

YANG YANG: You know, they thought Wang had played a trick on them.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: They asked him to stand up and step away from the computer.

YANG YANG: And they flipped the keyboard.

SIMON: Looking for some hidden piece of hardware.

YANG YANG: Another time, Wang replied, "What? It's just your keyboard. It's the same keyboard." And after this, he and Wubi went viral. He became one of the top 10 biggest names in China.

SIMON: He and Wubi were on the front page of newspapers. He was licensing Wubi all over the world. This sound is actually from an infomercial for Wubi filled with flying photos of Professor Wang sitting next to important people. I mean, for China's version of July 4 ...

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: China's National Day. He was chosen as the head of ceremonies of Hunan Province.

SIMON: I'm imagining him as, like, the leader of the parade with his baton in hand, marching down the street.

YANG YANG: Totally. Totally, yeah.

SIMON: And then that same year, his crowning achievement.

[NEWS CLIP: Dramatic political and economic changes are taking place in the world's most populous country.]

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: April the 4th, 1984.

[NEWS CLIP: A new leader, Hu Yaobang.]

YANG YANG: Hu Yaobang, the head of the Communist Party came to visit Professor Wang.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: And sitting down with him, the most powerful man in China at the time ...

YANG YANG: After Wang explained his invention, Hu Yaobang stood up ...

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: ... and asked, "Comrade Yongmin, do we still need to forsake Chinese characters?" And Wang replied ...

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: "No, no. Chinese characters don't need to be replaced. They can be efficiently input just like English."

SIMON: Hu Yaobang went back to Beijing, and according to Professor Wang, not long after ...

YANG YANG: The State Commission for Language Reform ...

SIMON: That government body looking into how to do away with the Chinese character ...

YANG YANG: ... was closed, shut down.

SIMON: In no small part ...

YANG YANG: Because of Wang's invention. Companies were using Wubi. Students were taught to use Wubi. Learning Wubi became synonymous with learning how to use the computer.

SIMON: He had saved thousands of years of the Chinese language and given it a place in the modern world. And as far as Professor Wang was concerned ...

MARTIN HOWARD: To be this person was to be placed alongside, I don't know, Ford, Thomas Edison.

SIMON: Steve Jobs, perhaps?

MARTIN HOWARD: Steve Jobs. Yeah, the sort of singular genius inventor.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: So he sort of at this point has slayed the dragon. He is the victor.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: He was, or he thought he was. The battle hasn't finished. [laughs]

SIMON: In fact, it was only beginning.

JAD: When we come back from break, Chinese typing gets predictive, and the keyboards start directing us.

JAD: Jad. Radiolab. Back to producer Simon Adler.

SIMON: So before the break, Professor Wang had seemingly solved this massive technological linguistic challenge and saved the Chinese character. He'd found a way to type Chinese with a plain old QWERTY keyboard.

JAD: But thinking back to the beginning, when you took me to that cafe, Simon, and we heard about all the different ways people were using the keyboard in that Hong Kong Starbucks, how did we get from Wang doing—making his method to suddenly, like, infinite ways of typing?

SIMON: So first of all, while Professor Wang really cracked this thing open, he wasn't alone. I mean, there were others who had been hammering and chipping away at this problem as well. So from the beginning, you had a few variations, a few different ways to type. However, after Wubi, things do really explode because underlying Wubi was this subtle but spectacular departure.

TOM MULLANEY: The keyboard changed from something where what you typed was what you got, to a system where you were telling the machine certain features or characteristics of the Chinese character that you wanted on the page or I guess on the screen.

SIMON: Again, historian Tom Mullaney.

TOM MULLANEY: It seems like a minor distinction when you say it, but once you do that, once you have entered into a reality in which A is not equal to A—I push the button that has the little symbol A on it, and I no longer expect that symbol to appear on the paper or the screen, effectively, I can set the letter A equal to any property of the Chinese character that I want.

SIMON: A could equal that water component or that work component or something far more abstract.

TOM MULLANEY: Anything goes, and so in the early 1980s, different ideas about how to do this started to flood in.

JAD: Oh, you mean beyond Wubi?

SIMON: Oh, yes.

ZHOU MING: At that time, many people and companies developed their own means.

SIMON: This is Zhou Ming.

ZHOU MING: Zhou Ming, computer scientist in methods of research in Asia.

SIMON: And he was really on the front line of this development.

ZHOU MING: Immediately, there are over 1,000 methods developed and put into use.

SIMON: So just a couple of quick examples here: some of these broke the characters into components that looked like English letters.

JAD: So does that mean look at the characters and be like, "I think there's a D in that picture."

SIMON: Exactly. And then placed those components on their English lookalike key. So A represented a mountain peak-looking component.

JAD: Wow!

SIMON: Others looked to English spelling. So the component for "Tree" was represented by the letter T. Others had you input just what was present in, like, the four corners of the character. And then going even further afield ...

TOM MULLANEY: Some of these don't even use letters at all, they just use the numeral bank of the keyboard.

SIMON: You know that square number pad on the right side of most keyboards? In essence, every character was given its own numeric code that you would tap in there: 4303, "Dog," 9080, "Fire." Almost like a clerk ringing up vegetables at a grocery store checkout. And we're just scratching the surface here.

JAD: It's starting to dawn on me what you mean when you say if we go to that Starbucks ...

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

JAD: ... everybody would have their own preferred way of going from those 26 Roman letters to the thousands of different Chinese characters.

SIMON: Right. And I'll say that the competition between these methods got heated.

ZHOU MING: Yeah, people are actually fighting each other.

SIMON: Oh, really?

ZHOU MING: Really. For example ...

SIMON: Ming says at one conference he attended, someone actually had to be thrown out ...

ZHOU MING: [laughs] Yeah.

SIMON: ... because of a fight.

ZHOU MING: This kind of thing happens.

SIMON: And what they were fighting and arguing over was just like with the typewriter way back when: speed.

TOM MULLANEY: Every single new input system, the inventor claimed, "We haven't achieved maximum speed yet, and that my system, it's easier to use and faster."

SIMON: And one way they went about this, pushing the limits of the speed, was by trying to predict what it was the typist was trying to say.

TOM MULLANEY: Both predictive text and auto completion were anticipated in Chinese information technology decades before they were in English language computing and new media to get to the character you want faster and faster.

SIMON: So the way this began was you'd be typing in the components of the character, but before you'd finished typing them all in, it would guess what it thought you were going for and offer you a couple of options.

TOM MULLANEY: And they would give you those options ranked by the probability that this is the one you want.

SIMON: But then even that wasn't fast enough.

TOM MULLANEY: Almost immediately, people started to think about next character suggestions.

SIMON: So predicting and suggesting not just the character you were trying to type, but also the next character, the next word you were going to type.

TOM MULLANEY: And so if someone types in the character "Bei" meaning "North," it is a very high likelihood that the very next character is going to be "Jing" for "Beijing," or maybe "Běifāng" for "Northern." So I'll give you that as a suggestion.

SIMON: And keep in mind this is the 1980s, a full decade before we had anything comparable here in the United States. Anyhow, right as all these technological changes were taking place, the Chinese language itself changed.

[NEWS CLIP: Tomorrow, ABC News will begin conforming to the Chinese standardization of its languages, spelling and pronunciation. Pinyin it's called.]

SIMON: China went all in on Pinyin.

JAD: Pinyin?

SIMON: Pinyin.

TOM MULLANEY: Pinyin is a way of using the Latin alphabet to spell out the sound or the pronunciation of Chinese characters and words.

JAD: Interesting. So it's an aural—oral, aural.




JAD: It's an aural translation?

SIMON: Correct.

[NEWS CLIP: The big advantage of Pinyin is that it more accurately reflects the actual Chinese pronunciation of a name or a place.]

SIMON: So for example "Beijing." B-E-I-J-I-N-G is Pinyin for the two characters "Bei" and "Jing." Now Pinyin had been around for awhile, but in the 1980s, right around the time Professor Wang saved the Chinese character from the threat of computers, the Chinese government started to prioritize Pinyin in the classroom.

TOM MULLANEY: So that when a Chinese kindergartner begins developing literacy and reading and writing, they learn Pinyin at the same time or even earlier than they start to learn Chinese characters.

SIMON: Really?


SIMON: And so these computer scientists who had spent years trying to figure out how to visually relate Chinese characters to the letters on a keyboard ...

TOM MULLANEY: They think to themselves, "Basically, we have the Chinese educational system teaching a way of relating the Latin alphabet to Chinese characters."

SIMON: Right.

TOM MULLANEY: So it would be kind of foolish not to exploit that.

SIMON: Like, we should start inputting characters by typing their sounds in Pinyin. And now of course, Professor Wang ...

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: ... was staunchly opposed to this.

YANG YANG: When we use Pinyin to type ...

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: ... we lose sight of the Chinese characters' form. And the form is the soul of a character.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: It's like you're grabbing hold of a person and doing away with their flesh.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: And you can't express the meaning of a Chinese character by its sound.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: And the more people use Pinyin, the more screwed Chinese characters are.

SIMON: Nonetheless, beginning in the early 1990s ...

TOM MULLANEY: Chinese input moved to phonetic Pinyin input.

SIMON: Replacing character-shaped systems like Professor Wang's.

YANG YANG: Actually at the moment, I don't know if you can hear me clearly ...

SIMON: I mean, to the point that, as Yang Yang told me, if you go into a Starbucks in China today, yes, people will be typing using different methods, but ...

YANG YANG: Most chances are they are typing with Pinyin.

SIMON: Some sort of Pinyin editor.

YANG YANG: Yeah. And I mean, that's—that's one of the things that actually saddens me after this interview, and because by all means Professor Wang, he is right about it, that you do forget how to write Chinese if you are so used to typing in Pinyin. And that happens to me.


YANG YANG: You know, it's throughout our interviews that lasted so long, I didn't have the heart to tell him that I couldn't type in Wubi. [laughs] Which just to confirm that young generation has no hope in preserving the Chinese culture anyhow.

SIMON: But even as young Chinese people, I don't know, as they sit down at their computers or stare down at their phones, are being drawn away from this long, rich history of Chinese characters and towards this Pinyin phonetic future, the allure of speed and the search for the fastest way to type continues.

TOM MULLANEY: Absolutely. The question still remains: what is the best, fastest way to do this?

SIMON: And so what you have today in China are these typing competitions.

TOM MULLANEY: Yeah, there are typing competitions in Chinese.

SIMON: Where these different methods and different typists face off. And these things are sort of a big deal.

TOM MULLANEY: They take place at the local level, at the national level.

SIMON: They're sometimes even televised.

TOM MULLANEY: In a certain sense, it's like America's Got Talent for input.

SIMON: This audio is from the finals of a competition back in 2016. Took place at China's Esports Hall in Beijing. And the broadcast opens with the audience looking down towards a young lady MC who's standing in front of 10 or so desks, each with a computer on them. And before the race can begin, she invites the contestants out to stand with her on the front of the stage, this crew of lanky glasses and t-shirt wearing Han Chinese folks. They introduce themselves one by one, and then also ...

TOM MULLANEY: This is a little bit like sponsoring race car drivers for your—you know, for your brand.

SIMON: They declare which input method they'll be using, because oftentimes the folks who designed the input methods have actually hired and trained these super-speedy typists to use their input method.

JAD: Huh.

SIMON: With the introductions done, the MC sends the typists back to their keyboards, some of which are interestingly blank. Like, they have no script on them at all.

TOM MULLANEY: And in essence, what happens is a text appears on the screen that no one in the competition has seen, the same text for everyone in the competition. And then, you know, the stopwatch starts and the race is on. Just like ba-da-da-da-da-da. I mean, they're just like—it's, like, unbelievable the speed at which they're going.

SIMON: The room is totally silent other than the clacking of keys. The cameras cutting between contestants, capturing these over-the-shoulder shots of their screens just filling with text. And when they do linger on one typist's screen long enough—and really, you'd need to almost go frame by frame to catch this—but what you see is a typist inputting a string of sort of nonsense letters, which prompts a little tiny box to pop up with five or so options which they then select from with one final keystroke.

JAD: How many, like, words—characters per minute can they type?

SIMON: 244 was the winning.

JAD: What?

SIMON: Yeah.

JAD: That's insane. [laughs] That's insane. I didn't understand. I did not understand, Simon. That's so fast. Oh, my God. My dad, who's the fastest typist I know, he could only do like 80. That's—that's—that is kind of wild!

SIMON: And while they're still in this competition, the winning typist was using ...

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: ... Wubi.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

JAD: Really?

SIMON: Yes, the guy who typed 244 characters a minute was using Professor Wang's Wubi.

JAD: Wow! Whoa!

SIMON: Yeah.

JAD: So they're clobbering us for speed, but also able to do that in a way that preserves character writing.

SIMON: And this is not uncommon. Like, oftentimes in these competitions, it's these older Wubi-like input methods that win.

TOM MULLANEY: Ironically, by all accounts, their top speeds are faster than the top possible speeds of phonetic input.

JAD: Wow! So wait, but then if he's made this thing that is, like, so blazingly fast, and also is able to sort of preserve Chinese way of writing, goes back thousands of years, why is it that these other input methods, these phonetic-based methods, are winning in terms of usage?

SIMON: Right. Well, the reason there is pretty much the Chinese government.

TOM MULLANEY: The Chinese state promotes the idea of phonetic-based input systems, really for one major reason.

SIMON: One of the same reasons they prioritize teaching Pinyin in school.

TOM MULLANEY: The unification of the Chinese language.

SIMON: Because, although when we think of the Chinese language, we think, oh, there's Mandarin and Cantonese. In reality, when it comes to speaking, there are dozens of different Chinese languages: Cantonese, Shanghainese, Fujianese. Languages that sound totally different, but on the page look the exact same because they're all using the same characters. Now with a structured, shape-based input like Wubi, where you're describing what the character looks like, you can type and still maintain your spoken language.

TOM MULLANEY: It doesn't care if you speak Cantonese or Fujianese or something or so forth, because you're typing it based on what the character looks like, not how you pronounce it. But if you get people having to learn phonetic-based input systems, they have no choice really but to learn to type and speak the standard pronunciation of every character.


SIMON: And so now in a sense, the ubiquity of the QWERTY keyboard is being deployed to erase difference and quiet dissent.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

SIMON: Look no further than Wubi.

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: The very commission that was closed down by Wubi ...

SIMON: The Commission on Language Reform ...

WANG YONGMIN: [speaking Mandarin]

YANG YANG: They came back to life, and they kicked the Wubi method out of schools.

SIMON: And you can argue that which typing method you use, how you type, has a real impact that goes beyond the death of the Chinese character or beyond the government's desire for unification of the language, beyond China itself. And so let me give you an admittedly small example of this. There's this aptly-named thing called the QWERTY effect.

JAD: Hmm.

SIMON: Have you heard of the QWERTY effect?

JAD: Go for it.

SIMON: So this is an English study. It was initially done here in the States in the early 2000s. They did a bunch of tests on people trying to find what feelings they associated with words.

JAD: Huh.

SIMON: And what they found was that people like words that have more letters in them typed from the right hand of the QWERTY keyboard than not.

JAD: No way!

SIMON: Yeah.

JAD: So the Us and the Ls and the Ps and the Ks and the Ms and the Js, those are having more positive associations than the Qs, Ws, Xs, Zs, Rs.

SIMON: Yeah. People like O more than they like E. This has been found in English and Spanish and German and in Dutch, both for right-handed people and left-handed people.

JAD: But couldn't that just be that the keyboard was designed so that the letters that we like happen to just be on the right side. Do you know what I mean? Like, is it a chicken or the egg type of situation?

SIMON: It likely is not that. It's likely not that those letters were intentionally placed there. And there are a variety of stories about how the layout of the QWERTY keyboard happened. But sort of one of the indisputed facts is if you look at the top row of your keyboard, QWERTY row, it has all of the letters of the word "typewriter" in it.

JAD: T-Y-P-E-R-I-T—yeah!

SIMON: They're all there. The story goes that the reason it was laid out this way is because you had these salesmen who would show up and want to demo the product, demo this typewriter, but these guys didn't know how to type, so they put all the letters for "typewriter" on the top row so they could very quickly punch out the word "typewriter" in their demo.

JAD: Oh wow. So it's totally arbitrary. Like, they didn't—it was put in the order it was put for reasons that have nothing to do with anything we're talking about.

SIMON: Yes. Correct. And there is some evidence that the layout of the keyboard created those left-right preferences rather than the other way around. So just a couple of years ago, researchers asked okay, has our feeling towards letters changed over time?

JAD: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: And so what they did was they got social security records from the 1960s through 2012, and they looked at names of babies being born. And they decided we're gonna pick 1990 as our year that the QWERTY keyboard became ubiquitous.

JAD: Huh.

SIMON: And let's look at the prevalence of names with more right-handed letters than left before 1990 and after it.

JAD: Oh my God.

SIMON: And it spikes after 1990.

JAD: No way!

SIMON: It's crazy!

JAD: So suddenly a lot of Pauls and a lot of, like, Leahs starts to appear?


JAD: That is bizarre!

SIMON: So, like, Simon is four right-hand, one left-hand. Jad is one right hand, two left hand.

JAD: Mm-hmm?

SIMON: So you and I bear out the idea.

JAD: Yeah. You know, it's funny, it's like there's—who was it? Was it Wittgenstein? I don't think it was Wittgenstein. Heidegger, was it a Heidegger thing? Somebody, one of those nihilistic German philosophers had this idea that the hammer isn't just a tool, the hammer actually feeds back. The hammer changes the hand.

SIMON: Right.

JAD: And it's interesting to me that this arbitrary leftover, arguably outdated QWERTY keyboard that we're all stuck with is actually influencing our preferences when it comes to naming our offspring. I mean, who knows what else it's doing?

SIMON: [laughs]

JAD: It's probably doing all kinds of weird things to us. Wait, do we know—sorry. Just to get back on track. Do we know if this QWERTY-naming thing is influencing the way Chinese people name their kids?

SIMON: Right. Well, so with the QWERTY effect in general, the lab that I spoke to looked into studying it in China. They had some Chinese grad students actually who wanted to see if it applied back in China, but in part, I think, because there are so many different ways to type, they weren't methodologically able to figure out how to do it.

JAD: Hmm.

SIMON: But I will say the idea you bring out or you bring up of the hammer changing the hand, like, where Chinese typing is going, I think is the hammer changing the hand on steroids.

JAD: What do you mean?

TOM MULLANEY: Now we've got this new phase of this era of input, which is cloud input.

SIMON: Typing that uses artificial intelligence.

TOM MULLANEY: In the United States, I would say the way that people are most familiar with this is the Google search bar, that when you start to type, it will give you suggestions not based on the absolute mathematical probability of the frequency of a word that you might be doing, but really what's hot in the news and what other people are searching for.

SIMON: However, in China, this goes way beyond search engine suggestions.

TOM MULLANEY: In Microsoft Word—this is not a search field, this is Microsoft Word—and you say, "Okay, in the news today, some star has done something terrible and fallen from grace." And so some input user is starting to enter the name of this befallen pop star. The system is smart enough to say, "Okay, this user has never entered this person's name before, but up in the cloud, millions of people are entering this particular person's name. Let's give this local user that suggestion based upon what users elsewhere in the cloud are doing."

SIMON: And so with this cloud-based input, like, everything you write, every keystroke, every word is being in some way influenced by what everyone else is typing.

TOM MULLANEY: It is totally unparalleled in the Western world. There is nothing even close to this. And in fact now, arguably over the last two decades, there has been an inversion in which Chinese in the computational world is arguably the fastest language in the realm of typing.

SIMON: And so we're the ones now looking East, seeing these technologies and wondering like, shit, how do we catch up? Like, in the course of 40 years, China, they've leapfrogged us.

JAD: That's what it is. It feels like a crazy leapfrog. Yeah.

SIMON: But with this cloud input, there's also a question of, like, do we want to catch up to that?

TOM MULLANEY: It's both invigorating, exciting, strange and also eerie and, you know, post futuristic, because right now it's guessing what the writer already wants to say. But what happens when the speed of suggestion outstrips the speed of thought and the speed of intention? And what it says is, "You know, Simon, what if you did this?" And you say, "Wow, actually, that's a really good suggestion. Thank you. Yes, I will do that." At that point, we have co-writing. And once we move—once we move into the stage of—further into the stage of suggested writing, then we're not—it's kind of like a writing partner that's giving you a good suggestion, but of course it's a writing partner who's also the writing partner of thousands of other writers at that exact moment. And that is, from my way of standpoint, a pretty terrifying scenario.

SIMON: Well, right because it's a writing partner with an agenda, potentially.

TOM MULLANEY: Mm-hmm. It is a writing partner—and not perhaps, it has—there is agenda. Absolutely.

SIMON: I bet you will never type quite the same way again, Jad Abumrad.

JAD: No, I definitely am looking at my QWERTY right now and I'm very—I don't trust you.

SIMON: [laughs]

JAD: Got my eye on you, QWERTY.

SIMON: It's watching you, too.

JAD: [laughs] Apparently.

JAD: Producer Simon Adler! This story was reported and produced by Simon with reporting assistance by Yang Yang. Original music throughout the piece by Simon. Special thanks again to Yang Yang. Without her, this story would not have happened. Also to Tom Mullaney for his years of research on this topic and for sending us down this path to begin with. And to Daniel Costa Santo for teaching us about the QWERTY effect. Joshua Souter, Marion Reneau, David Mosher, Chen Gao, Ree Uncle Chang, Martian Wickery and Ying Ying Liu. Next week, we're gonna stay international, but in a very different part of the world. I'm Jad Abumrad. Thanks for listening.

[LISTENER: Hi, this is Verity calling from Bristol in the UK. Radiolab is created by Jad Abumrad with Robert Krulwich and produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Tobin Low, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Sara Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee, Sarah Sandbach and Russell Gragg. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.]


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