When Chinese children forget how to write

Celia Hatton on the struggle to remember thousands of characters

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In China, it takes blood, sweat and months of studying dictionaries to become a Character Hero.

Millions tune in every week to watch teenagers compete for the title. Character Hero is a Chinese-style spelling bee, but in this challenge, young contestants must write Chinese characters by hand.

Every stroke, every dash must be in the correct spot.

After two tense rounds, Wang Yiluo is bumped from the contest. She bows to the panel of celebrity judges and quickly exits the bright lights of the television studio.

Backstage, she admits that she spent months studying dictionaries to prepare for the contest. The stakes were high; at 17, this was the last year she could appear on the show.

"I wanted to compete before I was too old," she explained.

Perhaps the show's popularity should not be a surprise. Along with gunpowder and paper, many Chinese people consider the creation of Chinese calligraphy to be one of their primary contributions to civilisation.

TV still of Chinese television show Character Hero Millions watch Character Hero, where teenagers compete to write Chinese characters

There's no Chinese alphabet. Instead, each word is represented by a character, or a compound of two or three characters.

A respected Chinese dictionary lists more than 85,000 characters. An estimated 7,000 are in daily use.

But the knowledge of how to compose those characters is in danger.

All over the country, Chinese people are forgetting how to write their own language without computerised help.

Software on smart phones and computers allows users to type in the basic sound of the word using the Latin alphabet. The correct character is chosen from a list.

The result? It's possible to recognise characters without remembering how to write them.

But there's still hope for the humble paint brush. China's Education Ministry wants children to spend more time learning how to write.

In one Beijing primary school we visited, students practise calligraphy every day inside a specially decorated classroom with traditional Chinese paintings hanging on the walls.

Soft music plays as a group of six-year-olds dip thick brushes into black ink.

They look up at the blackboard often to study their teacher's examples before painstakingly attempting to reproduce those characters on thin rice paper.

TV still of Beijing children practising Chinese calligraphy Rather than an alphabet, characters are used to represent words in China
TV still of Beijing children practising Chinese calligraphy China's Education Ministry wants children to spend more time learning how to write by hand

If adults can survive without using handwriting, why bother to teach it now, we ask the bespectacled calligraphy teacher, Shen Bin.

"The ability to write characters is part of Chinese tradition and culture," she reasons. "Students must learn now so they don't forget when they grow up."

But even Ms Shen can't avoid the effects of modern technology.

"It's common even for teachers like me to forget certain words," admits the calligraphy teacher with a laugh.

"Here, we're all remembering how to write together."

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