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. You want some coffee? Too small?

Simon Adler: I'm going to 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: Let's gaze out upon the hipsters of Lower Manhattan.

Jad: Let's survey and count the number of laptops.

Simon: How many laptops do you think are in here?

Jad: Starting from the left, we're going to circle around. We got one, two, three, four, five, six.

Simon: Two more on the bar.

Jad: Two more on the bar.

Simon: They're all typing the same way. They're all using a QWERTY keyboard.

Jad: Yes. 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.

Simon: Are you going to send somebody to Starbucks in Shenzhen? Well, that's my hope, that I will be the one sent to a Starbucks in Shenzhen.

Jad: [laughs] We'll 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.

Yang Yang: 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: 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: -typing and writing and browsing on the internet.

Simon: -were all using their keyboards in a different way.

Jad: What do you mean? 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: Even if everybody in this Chinese Starbucks was really into dogs, it was a dog convention, and so they were all typing the word [Mandarin word] which is dog in Mandarin. No two people would be typing the word dog the same way.

Jad: 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: This is the doorway into the grand mystery, it would seem.

Tom: Yes, 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-

Jad: -was one of the most complex engineering, linguistic and conceptual puzzles of its time. 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. Simon: All right. 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.

Professor Wang Yongmin: Hello, [Mandarin language]

Yang: Hello Simon, Hi.

Simon: Hello. Is everybody here? Can you all hear us? Professor Wang Yongmin?

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

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

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.

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

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: His family was so poor that they couldn't afford any clothes for him, 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. He said that from the first grade, all the way to university, "I am always the number one."

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

Simon: This wasn't just any research institute.

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

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: 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: Everyone that was paying attention knew that computing was going to change the fabric of economy warfare-

Simon: Again, historian Tom Mullaney-

Tom: -communication, everything.

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

Yang: At that time, China was just starting to enter this field and was lagging behind.

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

Jad: Meaning what?

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

Unnamed Speaker: Say on with me, A, B, C.

Simon: Each one representing a sound in the word. The writing in fact tells you how to say the word.

Unnamed Speaker: B-I-G. Big.

Simon: Chinese writing is completely different.

Unnamed Speaker: 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.

Unnamed Speaker: Three trees here are combined in the character [Mandarin language] to mean a forest.

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

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

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.

Female: 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. The problem was, in the 1970s, computers had only a few bytes of memory. Not even enough to store a single email message.

Unnamed Speaker: The available memory on most of these-- On all of these computers, commercially available computers, couldn't even store the Chinese character set.

Simon: Or display them on a screen or even print them. Again, back in the day, the 1970s, the way we were printing things is with dot matrix printers, right?

Jad: I remember, yes.

Unnamed Speaker: Where these tiny needles strike the paper, composing letters out of its set of little dots.

Simon: Paper pixels.

Unnamed Speaker: 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: Inside these printers, those little needles weren't packed densely enough to tattoo a legible character onto the page.

Unnamed Speaker: 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. 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.

Unnamed Speaker: Wow. That's funny, 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. I mean, for China, this was seen as an existential threat. Consider the fact that because of these limitations into the 80s, they were forced to conduct and tabulate their census with pencil and paper.

Unnamed Speaker: No [beep]

Unnamed Speaker: By Lord, if China couldn't figure out a way to computerize Chinese or to Chinesise computers, then it was going to be on the outside looking in.

Simon: This was the problem they were trying to solve at that top-secret research Institute.

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

Simon: The full magnitude 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.

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

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

Yang: The first ever in real life.

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

Yang: He was totally amazed.

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

Yang: That was incredible.

Simon: 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 going to fit the Chinese language on this thing?"

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

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

Simon: As professor Wang began looking into this, he found that the consensus at the time was it simply couldn't be done.

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

Yang: At that time, there was the saying that-

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

Yang: -computers are the gravediggers of Chinese characters.

Jad: Gravediggers.

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

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

Simon: Yes.

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

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

Unnamed Speaker: Behind the plans is the realization that China must modernize her style.

Simon: There was even a government body, the state commission on language reform that was looking into how to do this. However--

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

Yang: Wang wasn't convinced.

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

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

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

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

Simon: He was convinced that if he couldn't do it, if he couldn't find a way to save the character--

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

Yang: Chinese culture would it be over with it too.

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

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."

Simon: Whoa. It's so dramatic.

Yang: It was really pressing for him. Yes.

Simon: For a good reason because, in fact, Chinese writing had nearly been wiped out 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: -walking in through the front door and down the halls to the administrative area, what they're going to hear is a cacophony of sound. It's going to get louder and louder and then he's going to turn the corner and he's going to be faced with rows and rows of hundreds of typists typing away.

Simon: In these typewriters in businesses across the United States were literally remaking English communication.

Martin: Simon It was a revolutionary machine, a paradigm shift.

Announcer: Typewriter Speed Queens are lined up to show the world how fast they are.

Simon: For three basic reasons.

Martin: Number one-

Announcer: Then there are-

Martin: -speed.

Announcer: -tap tappers setting the keyboards on fire.

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

Simon: Number two-

Martin: Do you know what it's like reading other people's handwriting? Some people's handwriting is goddamn awful.

Simon: -legibility.

Martin: Awful to read.

Announcer: Such a tremendous step forward in business efficiency.

Martin: The third reason.

Simon: Making copies.

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

Simon: China's like, "We have to have that speed, that efficiency."

Jad: We have to have these machines.

Simon: Some 50 years prior to Professor Wang's problem, you had people saying.

Martin: "We've got to get rid of Chinese."

Simon: 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: Yes, he was one of the chorus.

Jad: 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. Now, obviously, Chinese writing did not disappear. 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 untypewritery it is.

Martin: 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, then this big tray bed full of metal characters. Using those levers you move the tray bed vertically and horizontally to line up the character you want.

Martin: 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 lift up a record?

Simon: Exactly, and on its way up-

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

Simon: Before finally-

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

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

Simon: For Professor Wang 50 years later, it was a sign. 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. To do that, he actually started by breaking down the Chinese characters themselves.

Martin: 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.

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

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--

Martin: The components of characters like a shape alphabet.

Simon: -that he could put those on the keyboard and that people could then--

Martin: "Spell Chinese characters, not by sound, but by shape."

Simon: Now, to help visualize this, let's take the character for river Jiang, 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 Jiang 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: Work plus water, equals river?

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

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

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 of desks. With a small staff he'd assembled, he took 10,000 characters and began breaking them apart and making notecards.

Yang: Yes, notecards.

Simon: One notecard for each component of each of the 10,000 characters he was dissecting. Like Jiang, river would get two notecards. One with the I on it, one with the three dashes on it. When this was all said and done, what he had laying out on these various desks-

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. Of these 120,000 cards, many of them were duplicates or triplicates or quadruplicates. There would be at least four cards with the same water component on them, like one from the character for river, another from soup and two more from sweat and juice.

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

Simon: 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.

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

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.

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

Simon: He did this again.

Yang: Boiling down, lower.

Simon: And again.

Yang: And lower.

Simon: And again and again.

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

Yang: Lower and lower.

Simon: Re-stacking pieces of paper.

Yang: Yes, just passing cards.

Unnamed Speaker: Wow.

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

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

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

Unnamed Speaker: 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 just type three, two, three? Just like that-

Professor Wang: [Mandarin language]

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, the computer would sum them up for you and generate it on the screen. He named his creation the Wubi method.

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.

Unnamed Speaker: Mr. Secretary General, thank you for granting me the honor of speaking on this first day of the 38th session of the General Assembly.

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

Simon: When he arrived, he sat down, set up his computer to demo it. With a bunch of people watching him, he took a deep breath and started typing, and immediately-

Yang: The Deputy Secretary-

Simon: -who was standing over his shoulder watching-

Yang: -was astonished to see Chinese characters rapidly appearing on the screen.

Simon: In fact, she was incredulous.

Yang: They thought Wang had played a trick on them.

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

Yang: They flipped the keyboard.

Simon: Looking for some hidden piece of hardware.

Yang: Another time, Wang replied, "What? It's just your keyboard. It's the same keyboard." 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. The 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 4th.

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

Simon: I'm imagining him as the leader of the parade with his baton in hand, matching down the street. [chuckles]

Yang: Totally. Totally. Yes.

Simon: Then that same year, his crowning achievement.

Reporter: Dramatic political and economic changes are taking place in the world's most populous country.

Yang: April the 4th, 1984.

Reporter: A new leader, Hu Yaobang.

Yang: Hu Yaobang, the head of the communist party came to visit Professor Wang.

Simon: Sitting down with him, the most powerful man in China at the time.

Yang: After Wang explained his invention, Hu Yaobang stood up and asked, "Comrade Yongmin, do we still need to forsake Chinese characters?" Wang replied, "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: The state commissioned for language reform.

Simon: That government body looking into how to do away with the Chinese character-

Yang: -was closed, shut down.

Simon: -in no small part.

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. As far as Professor Wang was concerned, to be this person was to be placed alongside, I don't know, Ford, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs perhaps. Steve Jobs, yes, the sort of singular genius inventor. He sort of at this point has slayed the dragon. He is the victor.

Yang: He was or he thought he was. The battle hasn't finished. [chuckles]

Simon: In fact, it was only beginning.

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

Rachel: Hi, my name is Rachel Muluva and I'm calling from Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. For more information about sloan, at

Jad: Science reporting on Radiolab is supported in part by science sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science. Jad, Radiolab. Back to producer Simon Adler.

Simon: 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: 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 making his method to suddenly infinite ways of typing?

Simon: First of all, while Professor Wang really cracked this thing open, he wasn't alone. There were others who had been hammering and chipping away at this problem as well. 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: 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: 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 pushed a button that has a 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: Anything goes, and so in the early 1980s, different ideas about how to do this started to flood in.

Jad: You mean beyond Wubi?

Tom: Yes.

Zhou Ming: At that time, many people and companies developed their own means .

Simon: This is Zhou Ming.

Zhou: Zhou Ming, computer scientist i n methods research in Asia.

Simon: He was really on the front line of this development.

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

Simon: Just a couple of quick examples here. Some of these broke the characters into components that looked like English letters.

Jad: Does that mean you could look at the characters and be like, "I think there's a D in that picture."

Simon: Exactly. Then placed those components on their English look-alike key. A represented a mountain peak looking component. Others looked to English spelling. The component for tree was represented by the letter T. Others had you input just what was present in the four corners of the character. Then going even further afield, some of these don't even use letters at all, they just use the numeral bank of the keyboard. 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. We're just scratching the surface here.

Jad: It started to dawn on me what you mean when you say if we go to that Starbucks. Everybody would have their own preferred way of going from those 26 Roman letters to the thousands of different Chinese characters.

Simon: Right. I'll say the competition between these methods got heated.

Zhou: Yes, people are actually fighting each other.

Jad: Really?

Zhou Ming: Really.

Simon: Ming says at one conference he attended, someone actually had to be thrown out because of a fight.

Zhou Ming: This kind of thing happens.

Simon: What they were fighting and arguing over was just like with the typewriter way back when, speed. 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. 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: 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: The way this began was you'll 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: They would give you those options ranked by the probability that this is the one you want.

Simon: Even that wasn't fast enough.

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

Simon: 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: 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 beifang for northern. I'll give you that as a suggestion.

Simon: 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.

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

Jad: Interesting. It's an aural, A-U?

Simon: Yes. A-U.

Jad: It's an aural translation?

Simon: Correct.

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

Simon: For example Beijing, B-E-I-J-I-N-G is pinyin for the two characters Bei and Jing. 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: 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?

Tom: Yes.

Simon: These computer scientists who had spent years trying to figure out how to visually relate Chinese characters to the letters on a keyboard-

Tom: -they think to themselves, basically we have the Chinese educational system teaching a way of relating the Latin alphabet to Chinese characters. It would be kind of foolish not to exploit that.

Simon: We should start inputting characters by typing their sounds in Pinyin. Now of course, professor Wang was staunchly opposed to this.

Yang: When we use Pinyin to type, we lose sight of the Chinese characters form and the form is the soul of a character. It's like you're grabbing hold of a person and doing a way with their flesh. You can't express the meaning of a Chinese character by its sound. The more people use Pinyin, the more screwed Chinese characters are.

Simon: Nonetheless, beginning in the early 1990s-

Tom: Chinese input moved to phonetic Pinyin input.

Simon: Replacing character shaped systems like professor Wang's.

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

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

Simon: Some sort of pinyin editor.

Yang: 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. Throughout our interviews that lasted so long, I didn't have the heart to tell him that I couldn't type in Wubi, which just to confirm that young generation has no hope in preserving the Chinese culture anyhow.

Simon: 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 towards this Pinyin phonetic future. The allure of speed and the search for the fastest way to type continues.

Tom: Absolutely. The question still remains, what is the best fastest way to do this? What you have today in China are these typing competitions.

Jad: Yes. There are typing competitions in Chinese.

Simon: Where these different methods and different typists face off. These things are a big deal.

Tom: They take place at the local level, at the national level.

Simon: They're sometimes even televised.

Tom: 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 e-sports hall in Beijing. 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. 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: This is a little bit like sponsoring race car drivers 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. With the introductions done, the MC sends the typists back to their keyboards, some of which are interestingly blank. They have no script on them at all.

Tom: 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. Then the stopwatch starts and the race is on. Just like [typing noise] . It's 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. 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. What you see is a typist inputting a string 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.

Tom: How many characters per minute can they type?

Simon: 244 was the winning.

Tom: What? 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 wild.

Simon: While they're still in this competition, the Winning typist was using Wubi.

Tom: Really?

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

Tom: Wow, whoa. They're clobbering us for speed but also able to do that in a way that preserves character writing.

Unnamed Speaker: This is not uncommon. Oftentimes in these competitions, it's these older Wubi-like input methods that win.

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

Tom: Wow. Wait, but then he's made this thing that is so blazingly fast and also is able to 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. The Chinese state promotes the idea of phonetic based input systems, really for one major reason. One of the same reasons they prioritize teaching Pinyin in school.

Jad: 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 structure shape-based input like Wubi where you're describing what the character looks like. You can type and still maintain your spoken language.

Jad: 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. 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: Now, in a sense, the ubiquity of the QWERTY keyboard is being deployed to erase difference and quiet dissent. Look no further than Wubi.

Yang: The very commission that was closed down by Wubi-

Simon: -the Commission on language reform.

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

Simon: 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. Let me give you an admittedly small example of this. There's this aptly named thing called the QWERTY effect. Have you heard of the QWERTY effect?

Jad: Go for it.

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

Jad: No way. The Us and the L's and the Ps and the K's and the M's and the J's, those are having more positive associations than the Qs, Ws, Xs, Zs, R's.

Simon: Yes. 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: It could not 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? 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. There are a variety of stories about how the layout of the QWERTY keyboard happened. 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. Yes.

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. They put all the letters for typewriter on the top row so that they could very quickly punch out the word typewriter in their demo.

Jad: It's totally arbitrary. 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. There is some evidence that the layout of the keyboard created those left-right preferences rather than the other way around. Just a couple of years ago, research has asked, okay, has our feeling towards letters changed over time? What they did was they got social security records from the 1960s through 2012 and they looked at names of babies being born. They decided we're going to pick 1990 as our year that the QWERTY keyboard became ubiquitous. Let's look at the prevalence of names with more right-handed letters than left before 1990 and after, and it spikes after 1990. It's crazy.

Jad: So suddenly a lot of Paul's and a lot of Leah starts to appear. That is bizarre.

Simon: Simon is four right hand one left-hand. Jad is one right hand to left hand. You and I bear out the idea.

Jad: It's funny. 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. 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. Who knows what else it's doing? It's probably doing all kinds of weird things to us. 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: Well, 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, 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: Now we've got this new phase of this era of input, which is cloud input.

Simon: Typing that uses artificial intelligence.

Tom: 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: 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." So some input user is starting to enter the name of this befallen popstar. 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: With this cloud-based input, everything you write, every keystroke, every word is being, in some way, influenced by what everyone else is typing.

Jad: It is totally unparalleled in the Western world, there is nothing even close to this. 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: We're the ones now looking East seeing these technologies and wondering like, shit, how do we catch up? In the course of 40 years, China, they've leapfrogged us.

Tom: That's what it is, it feels like a crazy leapfrog.

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

Tom: It's both invigorating, exciting, strange and also eerie and 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, "Simon, what if you did this?" 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 further into the stage of suggested writing, then it's 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.

Jad: It is a writing partner and not perhaps, 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. Got my eye on you QWERTY.

Simon: It's watching you too.

Tom: 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 through 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 going to stay international but in a very different part of the world. I'm Jad Abumrad. Thanks for listening.

Verity: 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, Rachel Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracy 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.


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New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.


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