Since its debut in August, the “Chinese Characters Dictation Competition” has exploded in popularity. The show has touched a nerve in China, where purists complain that smartphones are eroding language skills

Chinese TV’s Latest Hit Features a Character-Driven Plot

Show Aimed at Reviving the Country’s Written Language Explodes

ISABELLA STEGER

Updated Oct. 19, 2013 12:32 a.m. ET

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A hit Chinese game show is revealing a startling fact: Chinese youth are losing their writing skills. Photo: CCTV

The word “toad” would be a snap in an English-language spelling bee, but not in a nationally televised contest in China. In Chinese, toad has three characters that are made up of 46 individual strokes. Yu Shuang, a 14-year-old contestant, came close in an early round. As her teammates squealed and drew out the word in the air, Miss Yu quickly wrote the characters on a screen that projected her effort on a big display above her head. When she finished, one of three judges hit the buzzer signaling a correct answer, bringing cheers. But the other two didn’t agree, pointing out that the young girl had missed a single dot in the third character. “You were obviously very nervous just now,” said the judge, as Miss Yu’s teammates groaned in disappointment backstage. Miss Yu wasn’t alone. The show tested a group of adults in the audience, and just 30% of them could write toad correctly, state media lamented after the broadcast. “It’s a word that everyone knows,” said the Xinhua News Agency.Since its debut in August on a minor TV channel dedicated to educational programming, the “Chinese Characters Dictation Competition” has exploded in popularity.

The show shifted to a Friday evening time slot on CCTV1, even challenging the popularity of the country’s most-watched shows, including China’s version of “The Voice.”

Friday night’s final was a must-watch contest all over China that came down to two secondary-school girls from the same school in the affluent city of Hangzhou.

The show has touched a nerve in China, where purists complain that smartphones are eroding language skills, thanks to the frequent use of emoticons and software that lets people write faster using the pinyin system, where Chinese words are written phonetically in Latin script.

Its creator, Guan Zhengwen, said his inspiration came from the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the U.S. In particular, he said he was touched by watching a grandfather who had taken part in the spelling bee 50 years ago and then prepared his grandson to compete.

“In a diverse country like America, the spelling bee allows people from different backgrounds to find common ground in an American dream that they share in,” said Mr. Guan.

Mandarin has been an important part of the government’s strategy to unify a vast country that spans the Uighur-speaking Muslims of the far West, and the dialects of Cantonese and Fujianese in the south. Contestants from various ethnic minority groups in China also took part in the competition in their ethnic dress, underscoring the idea that Chinese language brings the country together.

Some have been extremely outspoken on the issue. Wang Xuming, a former spokesman of the Ministry of Education, launched a campaign on his Weibo microblogging page, calling for the abolishment of English classes in primary schools and for putting more emphasis on studying Chinese.

“Save the children, save the Chinese language, save our culture!” he tweets frequently on his account, which has about 1.8 million followers.

The hope is that the show could reinvigorate enthusiasm for the language, which is “one of the most spectacular treasures of Chinese civilization” and “the fifth big invention the Chinese people have given to humanity,” according to the show’s mission statement. The so-called “four great inventions” from China typically are listed as paper, gunpowder, the compass and printing.

One paradox not lost on some viewers is that the characters being tested are themselves simplified Chinese, which was made the official script in China by the Communist Party in the 1950s to improve literacy. Hong Kong and Taiwan retained traditional Chinese, which usually has more strokes per character.

After eight qualifying rounds and two semifinals, 160 entrants were winnowed down to 15 for Friday night’s final. Words such asYili He, referring to a river that runs through Kazakhstan and China, and the word for chaff, brought the final down to two 14-year-old female classmates, who spend much of their days studying English at the Hangzhou Foreign Languages School.

The girls’ coach said that while English is important, the school does teach Chinese, especially reading. “Most people think that our school is only good at foreign-language teaching,” said Su Yunsheng, a teacher of Chinese at the school, in Hangzhou, about 110 miles from Shanghai. But she adds that students focus on English, and many go abroad for college. “Our students are very good at English, especially English speaking,” Ms. Su said.

After about an hour and 15 minutes, there were four contestants remaining, including three girls from the Hangzhou school, wearing matching outfits of loose white T-shirts and three-quarter-length gray pants.

And then there were two. Lu Jialei and her teammate Yu Jiamin battled it out, but the two mouthed words of encouragement to each other in the background, their eyes lighting up when a word came up that they knew. In the fifth round, Miss Yu finally faltered on an obscure term, yang chen, which means to pretend to be angry.

The victor attributes her success to time spent in her family’s bookstore in Hangzhou. “I like reading in the store even though it is very noisy, because it forces me to calm down and read really carefully,” she said.

Her literary tastes are eclectic, ranging from controversial Chinese writer Yu Hua to American author O. Henry. Mr. Yu is best known for violent depictions of the Cultural Revolution and because the movie of his book “To Live” was banned in China.

“I think English and Chinese are not conflicting,” Miss Lu said. “They are each beautiful in their own way.”

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 (www.heroinnovator.com), 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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