Just How do you Type in Chinese… On a Phone?

Last week, I asked the question of the computer age: ‘how to type Chinese characters into the Computer?’ This week, we go another step further, into the age of iPhone and Tablets (not the stones…): ‘how to type Chinese characters on mobile?’

We’ll jump immediately to the current answer: exactly the same way as on a computer. Since the magical smartphone screen can now conjure up the entire computer keyboard at will, the phonetic and root-shape based methods described in the last article are now available for the mobile user. However, mobile devices are blessed with a smart touchscreen that enables a few other facilitating methods too!

However, in the good old days when Nokia bricks reigned supreme, when Motorolas were popular and iPhone merely a whisper a the technological corner, typing on mobile was not nearly as simple.

On mobile, a third input method (other than phonetic and root-shapes) is also popular: stroke order. What is stroke order? How does it work?

Let us begin with ‘history’ of Nokia brick phones. To counter the fact that there are only 12 buttons in disposal, English texters group different letters on the dial pad (e.g. 1 represents A, B, C and D), and you type out the individual letters in a word by… mushing the dial pad repeatedly. When you must press four buttons just to obtain ONE LETTER D, this cannot be the quickest method.

Confronted with a similarly limiting dial pad, Chinese engineers has decided to respond by breaking up the characters and create an input method based on something called ‘stroke order’.

Quick explanation: all Chinese characters are basically ‘pictures’ constructed from roughly 5 components (or ‘strokes’, referring to the movement of the pen on paper). Once you have all these components listed, creating characters becomes a mix-and-match job as if in a sweetshop: you simply pick out all the ‘bits’ required to form a character!

The five components are:

  1. Straight horizontal line 一
  2. Straight vertical line 丨
  3. Diagonal downward stroke 丿
  4. Diagonal dot 丶
  5. Lines that changes direction 乛 (aka everything else)

On your old Nokia bricks, each of the above strokes is designated a dial pad key (the straight horizontal line is 1, and so on…) As the commonest characters tend to have fewer strokes, with the aid of predictive text the stroke order method seems easy and speedy… but for a catch:

Stroke orders: there is a ‘correct’ order to write out a Chinese character, the purpose of which is the minimise the strokes needed (thus hasten the speed of writing), and to maintain the ‘shape’ of the characters: we were taught as children that stroke order allows us to write a character ‘more beautifully’.

I wanted to tell you that the rules are simple, or that they are not strictly observed, but unfortunately, neither is true. Wikipedia provides NINE introductory guidelines just to cover the basics, not to mention that each country that uses Chinese characters have their own standardised order (so, a Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese and Hong Kong order, at least). To lift from Wikipedia, the darkest lines written first:

1. Write from top to bottom, and left to right. 三-order.gif

2. Horizontal before vertical 十-order.gif

3. Character-spanning strokes last 聿-order.gif

4. Diagonals right-to-left before diagonals left-to-right 文-order.gif

5. Center before outside in vertically symmetrical characters 水-order.gif

6. Enclosures before contents 回-order.gif 国-order.gif

7. Left vertical before enclosing 口-order.gif

8. Bottom enclosures last 道-order.gif

9. Dots and minor strokes last 玉-order.gif

Yep, that’s nine general rules before all the logic-defying exceptions and four separate standards. It is just one of those things that come naturally to native speakers while being (fairly) pointless for learners.

Returning to inputting Chinese, just to remind ourselves on the 5 available keys on a Nokia brick:

Let’s say you wanted to type the word 水-order.gif “water”. Since all three strokes in the word change directions, all of them are grouped under 5 – and therefore you input the character by typing 555!

(Of course, all you have effectively told your phone is that the first three strokes all changes directions, a criterion that thousands of characters would fit. This is where predictive texts help…)

As mobile technology improves, stroke order has become less important: after all, they are only really relevant when you’re writing out a character. However, with a high-tech touchscreen how available to most mobile users, arguably the simplest input method ever emerged: handwriting.

Back when I was a child and computers were unmovable giants in the school IT lab, one of the hardware available was the handwriting pad – akin to the ones used by artists and architects nowadays, but specifically for the purpose of recognising Chinese characters.

These days, you can recreate the same process on your smartphone screen, writing out every individual character – following the stroke order – for the phone the respond. It might be slow, but at least there is a method that requires no learning – other than the language itself!