China’s spelling bees aim to punctuate written word; If you think digital devices and predictive text are hurting Americans’ writing skills, consider the Chinese, who must master 4,000 complex calligraphy-style characters to be considered functionally literate

China’s spelling bees aim to punctuate written word

Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY12:46 p.m. EDT October 12, 2013

If you think digital devices and predictive text are hurting Americans’ writing skills, consider the Chinese, who must master 4,000 complex calligraphy-style characters to be considered functionally literate.


Two hit TV shows test ability to write Chinese characters

Smartphones, computers have left many Chinese forgetting how to write common words

Chinese tripped up by characters for sneeze, chin, lizard, toad

BEIJING — China is feeling embarrassed — but just can’t spell it. In one episode of China’s latest hit TV show, a handwriting version of America’s Scripps National Spelling Bee, only one-third of the studio audience correctly wrote the Chinese characters for “gan ga,” meaning embarrassed, the Beijing Review magazine reported. Almost 99% admitted to forgetting how to write words in a survey reported by the China Youth Dailynewspaper in August. For many Chinese, proud of their ancient and complex writing system, such amnesia spells crisis.The culprit appears clear in a country increasingly hooked on digital devices. Instead of writing out by hand the many strokes they learned through endless repetition at school, most Chinese these days write characters on cellphones and computers by typing in pinyin, the system that uses Roman letters to write Mandarin based on pronunciation.

Even Chinese teachers are not immune.

“I myself also forget how to write some hard words” in the TV show, says Cui Shuang, 30, a teacher of Chinese at Beijing No. 56 Middle School, whose 14- and 15-year-old students are similar in age to the contestants.

“Most of my students have iPhones, some even bring them to class, and they input using pinyin,” which leads to forgetting how to write, she says.

Anxious educators and editorials draw somber conclusions.

“This kind of writing dilemma occurs frequently, it has already become a type of social disease,” whereby the art of traditional Chinese characters and China’s language culture are fading away, warned a recent commentary in the Yanzhao Evening News, a newspaper in north China’s Hebei province.

The government response includes a drive to increase calligraphy classes in schools, and calls for less English to be used in media and government reports. Some experts have suggested canceling English classes in primary schools.

New television shows are having an impact. With surprising drama, and a clunky name, Chinese Characters Dictation Competition has become a prime-time favorite on state broadcaster CCTV every Friday and Saturday. The government-backed show follows the equally popular Chinese Character Heroes, which aired this summer by Henan Satellite TV.

Copycats are springing up nationwide, both on local TV stations and in the workplace. Some companies have begun asking job applicants to complete a dictation test at their interviews, reported state news agency Xinhua. In remote Gansu, in northwestern China, a forest-based branch of the people’s armed police held its own contest last month based on the CCTV show, Xinhua reported.


Like their U.S. counterparts, the teenage contestants on Chinese Characters Dictation Competition devour dictionaries in preparation and perform better than most folks watching at home. Yet some fail to recall the many strokes needed to write everyday words such as “sneeze,” “chin” and “lizard.”

Not Li Xiangyue, 15, the smiling schoolgirl from Inner Mongolia who has become a fan favorite ahead of the final later this month. Piano-playing and literature-loving, this model student survived 12 ever-harder questions during an earlier round.

For her 13th question, the bespectacled Li heard the two characters “gua rang” precisely pronounced by a famous newscaster. Their English equivalent, “melon pulp,” is easy to write — but the complex Chinese character for “pulp” requires 22 separate strokes.

She tried out two versions as the clock ticked down. Some audience members anxiously pulled their hair, others checked online dictionaries. Then Li chose wrong, the nation groaned, and she was out, although many viewers later argued that her answer was also correct.

On prime time this weekend, hope soared again, as the magic of television allowed Li and others who had been ousted to compete in an extra qualifying round for the Oct. 25 final. Li, however, was defeated in the show Saturday by the four-character name of an ancient medical text.

One of the world’s oldest writing systems, Chinese characters are so rich in individual meaning that microbloggers can pack far more content into short messages than English language Tweeters. The drawback for all students, Chinese and foreign, is their complexity, and the need to know up to 4,000 characters for functional literacy.

Chinese educators have worried for more than two decades that growing computer use would hurt the written word.

Despite China’s passion for smartphones, some experts downplay talk of crisis. Predictive text makes Chinese characters easier to type than ever, says Zhang Yiwu, a professor at Peking University and a judge on Chinese Character Heroes.

“As long as the culture flourishes, Chinese characters will find a way to adapt to the modern, computerized world,” he told the China Daily newspaper.

CCTV encourages the audience at home to write down each character along with contestants. One side effect is the resurgence of character copybooks, long hated by schoolchildren, in which to practice.

“Sales have jumped because of the TV shows; customers buy both for themselves and their kids,” says Xi Xiangli, a salesman at Beijing’s Wangfujing Bookstore who is rooting for Li Xiangyue to win. “All her classmates were knocked out, but she bravely and calmly continued.”

At teacher Cui’s school, “many students think learning Chinese characters is boring; they don’t like dictation,” she admits. “I will ask them to watch the TV shows, but not to feel any pressure after watching it.”

Cui hopes the government will emphasize handwriting, but insists her country should be confident.

“Chinese language and culture are strong enough to survive, adapt and thrive,” she says.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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