What is Wubi?
If you have any experience whatsoever with typing Chinese characters on a computer or a phone, chances are, you know how to use pinyin to do it. If you are still wondering whether Chinese keyboard has thousands of keys, the answer is no, the majority of Chinese use pinyin to input Chinese characters. That is, if you need to type 十 shí which means ‘ten’, you type ‘shi’ and select the right character. This also works for whole words, therefore, if you need to type 试试 shìshì which means ‘try’, you type ‘shishi’ and then again, you choose the right characters. Smart technology of today is ever so smart, you can easily go for whole sentences too, just input ‘woshinongmindeerzi’ and “我是农民的儿子” will appear for you to select!
However, we will be talking about an alternative, a completely different input method, which is based on how the character is written rather than how it is pronounced, called Wubi 五笔, where “五” stands for ‘five’, and “笔” stands for (writing brush) strokes (which form the character), because there are five basic kinds of strokes, according to which the keybord is divided into five regions (Please, feel free to stay confused for now, as I will explain the entirety of logic in detail in subsequent posts). It is not the first or one of a kind, but because it was developed in Mainland China in 1986, it is the most well-known, and coincidentally the easiest to understand and use. Also, there exist different versions of Wubi, but I will introduce the original 1986 version, which exceeds later versions in popularity even today.
Is it difficult to learn?
Unlike pinyin that you already know even before you learn characters (unless, say, you have Japanese background), Wubi requires dedicated time and effort to learn. Also, when you encounter it first, the learning curve seems quite steep. However, the underlying logic of the method is surprisingly clear, and it takes only about two weeks of thorough contemplation to make basic sense of it, and the rest is practice and practice until you familiarise yourself with it. The exact amount of time since the beginning of practice until you feel absolutely comfortable typing and never again want to use pinyin varies, if you need to type a lot of Chinese text on a regular basis, you will grasp it as well as enjoy its benefits sooner.
Why is it worth the effort at all?
If you have ever been frustrated with searching for a single ‘shi’ character that you need for 30 seconds, I am sure that it is not you who is asking this question. Workarounds for this do exist, if you need 弑, you can type 弑君 and delete the second character, but what if you don’t know any words with this character? Or forgot how to pronounce it? And even when you know the characters, you have to type a lot, and to search a lot. In Wubi all you need to remember is how to write a character (usually, only the beginning is crucial). Then, in 5 keyboard strokes or less you are guaranteed to have your exact character. No more making up words, no more deleting, no more searching.
“But I can totally use abbreviations while typing pinyin!” Of course you can, but what you gain from less typing you immediately lose with more searching. Technically, typing ‘xx’ for 谢谢 is faster than ‘ytyt’ (yes, Wubi can do whole words too, more on that later!), but for example on my phone it’s only the 12th variant in a row, and I have to press an additional button to scroll past the first 6, while ‘ytyt’ (Wubi code for 谢谢) has only 6 variants, and most codes even fewer. The string ‘shishi’ in pinyin corresponds to 34 variants while ‘puvt’ in Wubi (if I was going for 实施) has only 2 variants, and ‘rran’ (Let’s say you need not so frequently used 逝世, for which you’d definitely had to scroll) has only 1. Also, Wubi code simply cannot be longer than 4 letters, so if you want to type a lengthy 中华人民共和国, you still only have to input ‘kwwl’ (which coincidentally also corresponds to only that single word). With pinyin I had to go all the way up to ‘zhonghuarenm…’ which is 8 characters longer or an awkward to remember ‘zhrmghg’ which is 3 characters longer.
All this makes Wubi suitable for faster typing, and you can even touch type with it easily, but I’d like to point out a couple of more subtle benefits that you can obtain from learning it. First of those is forming a more intimate relationship with Chinese writing. It can help you remember better how to write characters, which characters are used in which words, thus resulting in better command of written Chinese. And another benefit I found is my own subjective impression that the logic behind Wubi is much more Chinese, deeper entrenched in Chinese traditional way of thinking, and when you make yourself comfortable with it, it can contribute to a more comfortable feeling with other aspects of Chinese society and culture. And last but not least, if you have to deal with rare characters on a regular basis (for example, you have to write about Traditional Chinese Medicine or Chinese history), you will certainly love Wubi more than other input methods. This last bit is true even if Chinese is your mother tongue – I was first inspired to use Wubi by my teacher of Chinese Legal History. Also, if you dream of using colloquial written Cantonese or Traditional characters occasionally without the need to switch to another input method, you will love Wubi too – your favourite ‘唔’, ‘啲’, ‘後’ or ‘買’ are with you any time you need them, still not more than 5 keyboard strokes away.
How can I start using it then?
I will write a complete series on learning and using Wubi, but please be patient, it’ll take some time.
The first thing to do however, is to find a nice Wubi input method for your operating system. On Android and iOS I found Sougou Keyboard to give the best results. On macOS there’s a preinstalled Wubi Xing input method, but there is a much better alternative called 清歌输入法 which is perfect, and it even allows you to add your own custom codes for your convenience. On Linux, Fcitx has Wubi support and is highly customisable as well, as is Linux itself. As for other operating systems, we can omit them.
The first chapter of the series: Character codes, Root Shapes, and Regions