Is “Character Amnesia” a Problem?

Via ESWN, I came across Victor Mair’s most recent Language Log post earlier this afternoon. It deals with what Mair calls “character amnesia”, the phenomenon of Chinese people forgetting how to write the characters for commonly spoken words by hand. This, Dr. Mair asserts, is “a big problem”.

Before going further, I should make it clear that I have nothing but respect for Dr. Mair’s scholarship. His translation of the Zhuangzi is one of my favorites, and as a star-struck undergraduate, I even met him he came and gave a guest lecture to a small seminar class I was taking on Daoism. I feel quite certain that he doesn’t remember me — why would he — but I was impressed by the incredible breadth and depth of his knowledge.

That said, I completely disagree with Mair’s take on “character amnesia”. Let’s go to the videotape:

Pessimists and alarmists have long been lamenting the negative impact of computers upon the ability of Chinese to write characters by hand. See, for example, Jennifer 8. Lee‘s article entitled “In China, Computer Use Erodes Traditional Handwriting, Stirring a Cultural Debate” in the Technology section of the New York Times for February 1, 2001.

If the situation was bad already a decade ago, it is far more grave now that short text messaging is so wildly popular. In “China worries about losing its character(s),” Los Angeles Times (July 12, 2010), Barbara Demick provides graphic evidence of the starkly diminishing powers of supposedly literate Chinese to produce many characters that are essential for daily usage.

Certainly, most students of Chinese have witnessed occasions when Chinese friends (or even teachers) had to pull out their phones to check a character or two before writing them down. But is this a huge problem? Skipping ahead a bit in Mair’s piece:

Demick’s article ends thus:

“It will take a lot of effort to preserve our Chinese characters. It is the same way they try to preserve these old hutongs,” said Zhu Linfei, 24, a Beijing graduate student, referring to the traditional Beijing alleys, now rapidly succumbing to the wrecking ball.

Zhu, who was touring the old bookstores of Liulichang with her classmates to buy calligraphy books, estimated that she had already forgotten about 20% of the characters she knew in high school.

“But it’s not such a big problem,” she said. “If I don’t know a character, I take out my cellphone to check.”

Zhu Linfei is mistaken. It is a big problem that she cannot write 20% of the characters she knew just 5 or 6 years earlier. By relying on her cellphone to check those characters she can’t recall, that percentage will increase with each passing year. Furthermore, every time Zhu Linfei has to stop to take out her cellphone crutch to remind her how to write a character, she is wasting time, and that in itself is a problem.

While Mair may be right that if she keeps using her phone, she’s likely to keep losing characters, it strikes me as a bit presumptuous of him to suggest that something she doesn’t think is a problem in her own life actually is one. His point seems to be twofold. First, her reliance on her phone will cause her to lose more characters as time passes; second, her reliance on her phone wastes time.

In response to the first point, he’s probably right, but only up to a point. Some characters are used frequently enough that it’s nearly impossible to forget them. No matter how often she uses her phone, Ms. Zhu is never going to forget “我” or “是” or “晚上”. Why? These, and a lot of other characters, are things she probably has cause to write by hand at least once or twice a week. “噴嚏” (sneeze, an example Mair borrows from an article by David Moser), on the other hand, is probably not something she has to write often by hand. When was the last time, after all, that you wrote “sneeze” by hand in English? Can you remember a time when you needed to do that?

I would suggest that all the characters a person need to be able to hand-write for frequent, practical use are not going to be lost to this process. While Ms. Zhu may continue to forget how to handwrite characters she learned in high school, the decline will not be constant. At some point, she will have forgotten how to hand-write everything save what she frequently uses when writing things by hand. When she has occasion to write a less common word by hand, she will look it up on her phone. Where is the problem here?

Mair’s second point is that using the phone to look up characters is a waste of time, and it certainly does take time. For each character Ms. Zhu forgets, it will probably take her between 2 and 15 seconds to check on her phone, depending on the model of phone she has and whether or not it’s in her pocket or purse when she realizes she needs it. How often does this happen? I have no scientific data, but given how infreuently one is even required by circumstances to write by hand these days, I suspect it happens at most once or twice a day, and more likely significantly less often than that.

But, coming back to an earlier part of Mair’s piece,

Because of their complexity and multiplicity, writing Chinese characters correctly is a highly neuromuscular task. One simply has to practice them hundreds and hundreds of times to master them. And, as with playing a musical instrument like a violin or a piano, one must practice writing them regularly or one’s control over them will simply evaporate.

That, it strikes me, requires an awful lot more of a time commitment than occasionally pulling out a phone to check a character you’ve forgotten. So why is that not a waste of time when checking on a phone, which takes way less time, apparently is?

Computers, cellphones, smartphones, and all other such electronic gadgets are wonderful tools for communication, but they all exacerbate the predicament of declining ability to write characters among the Chinese population, and they are hastening reliance on alphabetical access to literacy, instead of a direct approach through the 11 or so basic strokes, the 200 or so radicals, and the 850 or so phonetic components. Are these worrisome trends? Can anything be done to stanch the hemorrhaging of active character proficiency at the hands of cellphones and computers? Finally, is romanization inevitable? That is a question to which I shall return in a future post.

While I look forward to Mair’s future post, it seems pretty clear what his take on the subject is, even if he doesn’t want to come out and say it. “Hemorrhaging” is rarely a good thing. And Mair has already told us he thinks that forgetting characters and relying on computers is “a big problem”. He also compares the “character amnesia” to aphasia, a linguistic disability that is caused by brain damage. And one of his comments in the lengthy and worthwhile discussion on the site sheds even more light on his position:

One of my very best friends in China, Xu Wenkan, a senior editor of the Hanyu Da Cidian (China’s equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary) knows how to write Chinese texts on a computer or a cell phone, but he almost never does so. Instead, he writes everything out by hand. If he needs to submit a manuscript somewhere, he can always hire a WUBI drone who will do the typing cheaply and thoughtlessly. When he sends me messages, he always writes them out longhand (and a very beautiful, exacting hand it is) on a piece of paper. In the past he would fax the messages to me, but now he scans them as a pdf and attaches them to an e-mail that has just these words:


Please to read the attachment.


It was a conscious decision on Mr. Xu’s part NOT to type things with a computer so that he would retain his wonderful ability to write by hand. It is sort of like the samurai Giving up the Gun [: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879 — Noel Perrin’s great book] or Middle Easterners rejecting the wheel in favor of their tried and true ship of the desert, the camel (see Richard Bulliet’s seminal social history on that topic).

That Mr. Xu has opted to maintain his handwriting by forgoing modern technology (or hiring “drones” to do his typing) is perfectly fine. And I can imagine how nice it must be, especially for a linguist, to receive emails written by hand. But it seems rather romantic, and frankly also pretty absurd, to expect most Chinese people to “give up the wheel” like Middle Easterners did ((I also don’t think that’s a very apt analogy, but admittedly I haven’t read Bulliet’s book so I won’t argue the point.)). Surely Dr. Mair is aware that most Chinese people do not have the time or the money to “hire drones” whenever they are required to type something. And even if they did, it’s would be a colossal waste of time.

The idea that China is a country full of people who write beautiful, fluid literature in characters without a second thought is a romantic fantasy, and it’s unrealistic and unfair to expect Chinese people to dedicate massive amounts of time to maintaining an “educated”-level vocabulary of characters so well that they can be written by hand. Those like Mr. Xu who feel that approach serves them are certainly welcome to practice writing by hand often, and I applaud them, but given the social and financial pressures that exist for most people in China, not being able to write “sneeze” isn’t “a big problem.” In fact, given that nearly everyone has a cellphone, it really isn’t a problem at all.

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0 thoughts on “Is “Character Amnesia” a Problem?”

  1. I have to agree. There are a number of words I know how to say in English but do not know how to write. I think a bigger problem is the bad handwriting.


  2. I suffer from this Character Amnesia problem myself. With the advancements in technology I think it’s becoming much less of a deal. Other than signing my name, I can’t remember the last time when I actually had to write multiple sentences by hand in any language. Most of the formal communications nowadays are being done on laptops via email, I use my phone to keep personal notes. All of this is done by PinYin because it’s much quicker (for me at least).

    Because of technology advances we are all changing the way we communicate. Certainly we have evolved in this area. But as long as we can maintain our ability to communicate efficiently and accurately I don’t see anything wrong with future generations losing their ability to say, have beautiful handwriting.


  3. I’m not sure why Dr. Mair thinks alphabetization is a bad thing.

    *Every* major East Asian society that once used Hanzi, except China, has alphabetized at least partially. North Korea is almost completely Hangul. South Korea is like 90% Hangul, and Hanja is only used for some specific purposes. Japan has only a few hundred Kanji, and everything else is in one of the three alphabetic scripts. Vietnam is 100% alphabetic.

    Even the Communists used to be in favor of eventual alphabetization, too, back in the 1950s. And then the Cultural Revolution happened, and the backlash basically froze any further attempt at language reform. The last round of character simplifications was withdrawn, and alphabetization became a taboo subject.


  4. Tom, I think you’ve misunderstood Mair’s point. The question, “Finally, is romanization inevitable?” in is Language Log post reinforces my impression that he is very much for romanisation. That seems to me to be why he’s making such a big deal of this problem.

    And I’m not sure Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese are very good examples. Those languages aren’t even related to Chinese.

    But I do have to agree with Mair and Moser that there is quite a big difference between highly educated Chinese not even knowing which stroke to start with to write 噴嚏 and an equally educated native English speaker not being able to figure out that sneeze most likely starts with an s, then an n, then…

    And just to try that out, I just asked my wife to write 噴嚏. She did say, “我想一想…”, but put pencil to paper and got both characters correct easily without hesitation. However, with a sample size of one, I will hesitate to draw any conclusions from this little experiment.


  5. “japan has only a few hundred kanji”

    Tom you are clearly misinformd. One of the requirements for Japanese junior high is to learn 1000 kanji characters. By high school most Japanese learn over 2000 kanji. If you read any Japanese newspapers you will see that most are written in kanji.

    The problem isn’t the usage of chinese characters which will always be popular because they take less than roman alphabets when published in texts, but rather the fact that people can recognize the characters but forget how to write them.


  6. lolz is right, but every language is facing these problems. pundits often complain that kids rely too much on spell-checkers these days. the difference is that in english you can usually guess which word people want to write even if they’ve spelled it incorrectly, but this isn’t the case in chinese. you’d have to ask a psychologist or some other kind of expert if this is actually a problem, however.


  7. I’d like to know how many characters a typical person forgot after high school prior to computers and phones being widely used for communication and what was done about it when it happened? Did the person just write the character to the best of their ability in spite of errors? Did they look it up in a paper dictionary? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I would like to know before I decided that technology is the enemy on this one… I hear plenty of ravings about how spellchecker ruins the ability to spell but I have found the opposite to be true in my case. I get instant feedback and correction when I misspell a word. Predictive text is even better because I have to spell the word correctly to get the phone to know what I want to say. I could see the same thing being true of characters.
    I also think comparing “sneeze” and “喷嚏” is a false dichotomy. Sneeze is fairly easy to spell regardless of how infrequently it is used, while 喷嚏 is a comparatively complex set of characters. Definition and ease of writing have absolutely nothing to do with each other.
    Very interesting article. Something to ponder a bit.


  8. If I were a betting woman, I’d bet that the punch line of Victor Mair’s follow-up post will go something like this: the ability to remember Chinese characters depends heavily on your muscle memory of the hand motions. As people rely more on computers to write, and on Pinyin lookup to remember forgotten characters, their memory of the details of the characters will become weaker while their knowledge of Pinyin will improve. Therefore, IF current trends continue, Pinyin will be able to stage a takeover of the writing system from within. (And, Dr. Mair being a Pinyin advocate, he will probably suggest that we should help this coup along.)


  9. Chris, thanks for correcting my misimpression. It’s weird, because I’ve read some of his other writings — and never got the impression that Dr. Mair was a strong advocate of Romanization. Did he ever write a “China should go Pinyin” article? The Language Log post was largely open-ended.

    I do not mean to suggest that Korea or Vietnam provide examples for how China could alphabetize, today. If anything, the time to do it would’ve been 1919, as Classical Chinese was giving way. The other cultures had also transitioned away from elite literacy based on Classical Chinese, to a broader literacy based on an alphabetized vernacular.

    I completely mixed up my examples. Japanese is not a good example of the decline of characters — yet. Clearly there are more than a few hundred Kanji, and the dictionaries are almost as long as the Chinese dictionaries.

    I was actually thinking of the decline of hanja in South Korea. The official list that they’re supposed to learn in school is just as long as the list in Japan — about two thousand by the end of high school. But people barely retain hundreds. It’s just not reinforced by constant use, because you can live your life in hanggul.

    When you start seeing Pinyin casually mixed in with characters, then you know creeping Romanization is occurring. But for now, people feel they have to choose a character — sometimes the wrong character!


  10. Interesting theory.

    On one side, the change happening in the language is something relevant.

    But I couldn’t help thinking of how everybody relies on calculators to perform the most basic arithmetic operations. When I was a kid I found that so weird, but it doesn’t seem to affect our lives so much.


  11. I put the question forgetting characters to my partner, which was not as easy as I thought. First she answered that she would just another person. (it always amazes me how my students also think that a classmate must know the answer when they don’t and the classmate never does.) Then after I reasked, she said that she would search in her mobile phone for the proper character. Finally, after posing the question yet again, she said that she would have to leave a blank and hope that the recipient might understand what is missing in the text. This is interesting in itself in that it shows a common sense amongst Chinese writers as to which characters can cause the most confusion and the importance of context.
    Does anybody suspect that the issue of character usage might become more pronounced ad lead to schisms within Chinese society? I refer to the following news item:
    The part that intrigued me was a T-shirt using characters principally used to express yueyu. Of course, the only reason that they must use such obscure characters is due to the primacy of the northern dialect reinterpreted as the putonghua.


  12. I find it funny that he uses camels and samurai as his points of comparison. Camels are used in the desert for practical, not nostaglic, reasons. And the samurai class didn’t survive to the present day.

    When I write Chinese by hand (and I do that very poorly), I just fill in missing characters with pinyin. I wonder if Chinese that think it is irritating to look up characters on their cell phones will begin to do this as well.







  14. google: LU XUN

    LU XUN: if the HANZI characters do Not die…china is doomed.

    mao zedong, lu xun.. deng xiaoping hated the ugly barbaric characters… old and going way of dinosours.



  15. FUTURE

    CARS AIRPLANES cell phones internet

    spell-check free internet
    $1 calculators free
    google search
    internet search
    future is good… let’s embrace the future.
    imagine a future where Hanzi will completely disappear from earth.
    A world without Hanzi… NO characters.
    It will be done in our lifetime.
    famines in china…..
    China will finally be free free free of the barbaric-characters.


  16. Information age
    Digital age
    Computer age.
    Internet age… Hanzi / Pinyin

    Humans moved from Farms to Industry to Information.
    Information Age.
    Computers have Digital Memory: Hanzi is Dinosour in Digital age.
    Hanzi / Pinyin: Hanzi will be gone by 2020 2030




    3. CIVIL war in 1949.

    4. 80% 90% are peasants for all history.

    5. workers Now making 25 cents

    6. china has a fedual (backward) primative barbaric past

    7. china did Not sail worldwde like Columbus. Magellan nor first flight at kitty hawk 1903 to moon landing. 1969.

    8.. china “center of word” is still stuck in century think it is “center of world” when it a poor, backward, 3rd world nation.


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