Now that we learned the root shapes, we can try some of the real Wubi goodness!
Let’s meet the heart of Wubi, the character composition rules. This is the very origin of Wubi – forming the character according to its structure. Basic rules are very simple:
- Characters are input radical by radical, in the order you write them.
- When a character code would become longer than 4 letters, use the first three, and then the last one.
Of course, those are only general rules, and you already know one exception: if a character is a root shape, quadruple its key to get the code. There are other exceptions as well, but let’s try what we have just learned.
With the first rule we can easily create characters using root shapes as building blocks. If you need a character that consists of a repeated root shape, you just repeat the corresponding letter: 昌 is two times 日, or jj. 鑫 is three times 金, or qqq. If you need the character that consists of different shapes, just use each letter as if you were writing the correspoding radical. For 明 you need 日+月, so it’s je. When you write 坐, you write a 人, then another 人, and then a 土, therefore the Wubi code is wwf.
Let’s try something more difficult and also dispel the myth that Wubi is not well suited for traditional characters, or that you have to to input simplified and output traditional as your only option. In fact, all modern Wubi implementations treat traditional characters by the same principles as are used for the simplified. When you only need a single traditional character, you don’t have to switch to anything else. Now, let’s try the traditional character for 孪, not the most frequently used but good for demonstration. Remember that root shape 纟? Turns out, it also stands for its traditional version 糹. Now we have exactly four radicals, so let’s type xyxb, and we get 孿!
Sometimes though, the character consists of more than four radicals. But as you already know, Wubi was designed with fast typing in mind, so you can’t really ask the typist to go all the way down, can you? There’s where the second rule comes into place: when the resulting code would be too long, you only input the first three and then the last letter of the code. Let’s say you want to input 燥. You would think of okkks, but it is too long, so you go for okks and there you are.
This rule also has a drawback. It is the sole reason why some codes have several characters associated with them, and there’s one case when it got really nasty. Do you know any characters that consist of more than four radicals, but only differ in second to last? This will require you to know of more radicals than just the root shapes, and we’ll get there in a moment, but let me tell you about the most unlucky Wuby code: ynky. This is apparently the only Wubi code that corresponds to eight characters! All because of the second rule, as they all fit the description I gave just perfectly. But this is as rare as it is curious. Most of time when you really need those number keys with Wubi is when you go for whole words instead of single characters.
By this time you got a taste of real Wubi input, and what you are probably saying right now is: “Wait, but there are many more radicals! Twenty five is clearly not enough!” and you are as right as your right hand is. That’s why there is more to memorise than just basic Wubi shapes, and there are quite a few remaining, but let me tell you something: they are placed and grouped really well, so you’ll get comfortable with them in no time. Simply allow me to guide you patiently through this big block of information.
So, each root shape shares the key with secondary shapes. They represent common radicals or parts of radicals that constitute Chinese characters. Each shape tries to be mnemonically related in some way to its root shape or to nearby shapes, soothing your pain from hard memorisation, but in any case, you should spend enough time so that you know it is there when you are looking for it.
Now let’s go through all the shapes. There are quite a few, so this time I’ll only go through Region 1 shapes.
First of all, this key has the simplified version of the root shape 钅. Then it also has its top part ⺈ and everything similar like 勹 and starting elements of 猫、留、鱼 as well as the radical 夕. For future reference, you might note that when you need the whole 犭 it’s qt, when you need 饣it’s qn, and when you need that starting element of 留 or 贸, you go qy. As for a standalone 夕, all secondary shapes that are also characters in their own right are governed by special rules that we will cover further in the series. Finally, it is also home to ‘legs’ 儿, their three-legged version you can find at the bottom of 荒, and 㐅.
This key includes just a few secondary shapes – a radical version of its root shape 亻 and a couple of shapes that go left and right, 八 and 癶. Don’t skip it though, you will use it often enough due to the sheer number of 人 and 人-related characters in all kinds of texts.
This key naturally has radicals corresponding to the root shape (Wubi does not distinguish between ‘moon’ and ‘meat’ ones), and some visually similar ones, namely the bottom part of 舟 (save for the dot), 用, and 乃. It also contains the claws ⺤, pig 豕 and somewhat visually similar bottom part of 衣 and 艮. Last but not least, it also holds 彡, and this requires telling a separate story about stroke keys.
A Separate Story about Stroke Keys
From the first part you might remember that Wubi keyboard is divided into five regions corresponding to five basic strokes. In addition, the key in each region that is closest to the center of the keyboard represents the stroke itself. Therefore, in addition to other secondary shapes, T has 丿, Y has 丶, G has 一, H has 丨, and N has 乙. Although only two of those are used as separate characters, you can actually input all the strokes by repeating the key twice and adding ‘ll’ – ttll for 丿, nnll for 乙, and so on. The key further away from the center of the keyboard in each region (R, U, F, J, and B respectively) in addition to other secondary shapes includes the doubled version of the stroke, and the key even further (E, I, D, K, and V) includes the tripled version. That’s how E got 彡, while D got 三, and K got 川 (note that it’s not strictly a tripled 丨, but when you learn Wubi rather than being strictly logical it’s better to think in more visual, more Chinese way). Also, these keys are used as isolation keys which will be explained later in the series.
Now we are back with our secondary shapes. 白 does not have many radical variants, so this key hosts an unrelated 手 and all of its forms, visually simlilar 斤 and its severed to part, doubled 丿, and a top part of 失 ri, 朱 rw, 缶 rm or 無 rljo (you might memorise this three characters as a special case, or think of it as of curiously ‘doubled’ version of 𠂉).
The last key in this region which is also its stroke key, explained above. It has a radical form of 禾 as well as full and radical forms of 竹, which is another plant that starts with a 丿. Aside from that, it has 𠂉、攵 and 彳.
You might be a little confused and wondering, why 失 is not described as 𠂉+大 and 朱 is not 𠂉+木 as they are written. The answer to this is, Wubi tries to consume as much as possible of a character with a single shape, therefore 鱼 is qgf (f here is an isolation key that will be explained after we’re done with the secondary shapes) and not ⺈+田+一 as might look more natural at first; but overlapping should be evaded as much as possible. To illustrate this with an example from the future, 于 is not described as 二+亅 but rather as 一+十 or gf.
Don’t Forget to Practice
Now you have a better selection of shapes to form your characters, so don’t be afraid to try them! It’s only with practice that you can really make yourself comfortable with Wubi. Think of the characters you know that consist of the root shapes and the secondary shapes that we learned. How about 多? You’d guess it’s qq. 欠 is qw. 角 is qe. All those are very useful characters! Now, maybe you have not learned the keys for all shapes in 你, but start typing those you know, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised! Remember, you don’t have to know the whole four-letter code as long as there are no ambiguities.
In the next chapter we’ll continue learning secondary shapes from more regions.