The fascinating story of Wubi

Those of us who use the English alphabet take for granted the QWERTY keyboard on our computers. But what about people who use other alphabets? Do they need their own keyboards? This problem becomes particularly acute with languages like Chinese that uses more than 70,000 characters that are symbolic representation of the objects, that are pictures rather than words made up of an alphabet.

In an utterly fascinating episode of Radiolab, the show discusses the crisis faced by China in the 1980s when it was becoming clear that computers were the way of the future and that their written language could not be represented on the limited QWERTY keyboard. Since China had ambitions of being a major player in the scientific and technological revolution that would be driven by computers, they had to adapt to the constraints of the computer keyboard. It appeared that they might have to abandon the written form of the language that had endured for thousands of years and had formed such an integral part of its culture, something that horrified many people. An entire institute was even set up to develop new forms of the written language.

But then a computer programmer named Wang Yongmin came up with a method called Wubi that used the standard keyboard to produce the traditional characters. It seemed to have saved the day and it took the Chinese-speaking world by storm. The institute to develop a new written language was even shut down. But then a new challenge emerged when the Chinese government decided that it wanted to standardize the language across all regions. Up to that point, while the written characters were the same, the spoken form varied widely from locality to locality. The Chinese government decreed that what was known as the pinyin form of the pronunciation of the language would be the standard. This was the change that resulted in names that used to be written in English when I was young as Peking and Mao Tse-Tung becoming Beijing and Mao Zedong.

The race was back on to find a keyboard system that corresponded to this new system that would tell people how to pronounce the word in addition to just showing it. A key requirement was speed, because the faster one was able to type things, the greater the productivity. There were game-show style TV programs in which typists for the competing systems would be pitted against each other to see which one could type a passage the quickest.

I cannot do justice to all the twists and turns of this fascinating story of the evolution of the Chinese language and its integration with the standard keyboard. You have to listen to it for yourself.


  1. jrkrideau says

    Fascinating show. I have seen a former boss typing in Chinese but I had no idea of how sophisticated the systems are.

  2. says

    Taiwan writes in Traditional Mandarin, not Simplified like the mainland, so there are many more charavters to learn. However, in the 1910s the Republican Government (what would become Taiwan’s government, after exile by the communists) created the Bo Po Mo Fo system of writing. Because it was made by the rival government, the communists refused to adopt it.

    Bo Po Mo Fo is phonetic, and is how children here first learn to write. I don’t know if it was influenced by Korea’s hangeul script (Ga Na Da Ra) and Japan’s Hiragana and Katakana, but it may be. (Taiwan was under Japanese rule at the time.) Because it is a limited number of sounds, it was easy to place on a keyboard. I have never seen a Bo Po Mo Fo typewriter, but EVERY keyboard here (laptop or external) has the characters on it. People type in words on a computer or phone using Bo Po Mo Fo, then select the Traditional character they desired.

    A tutorial video of the Bo Po Mo Fo script.

    A video explaining the Taiwanese keyboard.

  3. John Morales says

    Like learning Morse code, only more complicated. Interesting that it’s so widespread.

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