Chinese Input Methods

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .

Here is how to type Chinese, and intro to Chinese input methods.

Chinese Keyboard

First, lets look at a keyboard used in Taiwan.

Apple keyboard taiwan 06885
Apple Keyboard Taiwan.

The key labels show 2 different input methods for Chinese. The labels on the upper right of each key is the Chinese phonetic alphabet Zhuyin (aka bopomofo). The lower right of each key is label for Chinese input method called Cangjie (倉頡).

zhuyin layout 2020-05-07 8w4r3
Zhuyin layout.

zhuyin symbols: ㄅㄆㄇㄈ ㄉㄊㄋㄌ ㄍㄎㄏ ㄐㄑㄒ ㄓㄔㄕㄖ ㄗㄘㄙ ㄚㄛㄜㄝ ㄞㄟㄠㄡ ㄢㄣㄤㄥ ㄦ ㄧㄨㄩ

Cangjie layout 2020-05-07 tkhy9
Cangjie layout

Chinese has thousands of characters. You need to know 3 thousands of them to read newspaper.

Chinese Input Methods

To type Chinese, you need to use what's called “input method”.

There are more than ten input methods for Chinese, invented at different times by different people in China and Taiwan.

chinese input methods menu 2017 07 19
Chinese input methods, offered by Google's browser as of 2017-07-19.
mac zhuyin 2019-12-26 vszg7
MacOS Chinese input methods 2019-12-26

Chinese input methods can be roughly devided into 2 categories.

Sound based methods are used by most Chinese, probably greater than 95% of all Chinese speakers, because it's a system anyone who speak standard Chinese can learn in a day.

For each character, there are usually more than 10 homonyms (different characters with the same sound), so sound based system pop up a selection to let you pick the right character. This makes sound based system slow. (but input systems today have statistical data that lets you input the sound of several characters such as a word or a phrase, and the system can often correctly guess which word/phrase you want, so you don't have to manually chose each character.)

emacs chinese input 2015
pinyin input, in emacs
[see Emacs Chinese Input]

Character shape based methods require learning, but is in general faster and more precise, because you don't have the homonym problem.

(but as time goes by, sound based might actually be faster due to guessing at whole phrases with Artificial Intelligence tech, for inputting the type of text that's everyday speech. For poetry, academic writing, or any text that's not commonly used daily by average people, character based is much better.)

Sound Based Systems: Pinyin, Zhuyin

The most popular input methods are:

Zhuyin is almost the same as pinyin, except that it uses special symbols instead of English alphabets. (e.g. here's first 4 zhuyin alphabets: ㄅ ㄆ ㄇ ㄈ, they correspond to pinyin's b p m f.) Any USA keyboard can also type zhuyin, but if the keys don't have zhuyin labels, you'll have to know which keys are what zhuyin characters.

For example, to type the character

(meaning “I, me”, pronounced “wo”)

in pinyin, you press w o.

chinese pinyin input 2017 8299f
Chinese pinyin input, character choice menu

in zhuyin, you press j for and press i for .

Character Based Systems: Wubi, Cangjie

in China, the second most popular Chinese input method is Wubi. Its a shape based system.

In Taiwan, the second most popular Chinese input method is Cangjie. Its a shape based system.

In Hong Kong, the most popular Chinese input method is Cangjie. (because Hong Kong people speaks Cantonese, they do not know standard Chinese pronunciation well, so they use shape based input.)

Both of wubi and cangjie require labels on the keys to learn it.

But in China, there is no keyboard with wubi labels, because most people using this method just memorized it. (keyboards in China are just USA keyboards without any special label on the keys.)

In Taiwan, most keyboards have dual labeling, of Zhuyin and Cangjie. Actually, most keyboards have another label for the Dayi system. So, a key usually has 4 labels: English, Zhuyin, Cangjie, Dayi.

taiwan keyboard layout kc7rt
Taiwan keyboard layout. 4 labels for each key. (1) English. (2) upper right: zhuyin. (3) lower left: cangjie. (4) lower right: Dayi.

The Most Popular Chinese Input Method

  1. pinyin → (sound based) used in China and around the world. Used by perhaps 90% of ALL Chinese speakers.
  2. zhuyin → (sound based) used mostly in Taiwan.
  3. wubi → (shape based) used mostly in China by some people.
  4. cangjie → (shape based) used mostly in Hong Kong, and by some people Taiwan.

Note: pinyin input method has lots variations, that use shortcuts and artificial intelligence to guess, to increase efficiency.

Turn on Chinese Input

Microsoft Windows, Mac, Google gmail, all support many Chinese input methods.

Just go to your system preference or control panel, usually in the “international” or “languages” section.

Chinese input

International Layouts

Western Layouts