Chinese Input Methods

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .

How is it possible for Chinese to type thousands of possible character characters?

Here's how to type Chinese, and intro to Chinese input methods.

First, lets look at a keyboard used in Taiwan.

Apple Chinese Keyboard

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 Zhuyin (aka bopomofo). Look at left column, keys 1 Q A Z, we have ㄅ ㄆ ㄇ ㄈ.

The lower right of each key is label for Chinese input method called Cangjie (倉頡).

chinese keyboard layout cangjie
Cangjie keyboard 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”, because there are not enough keys for each character to have 1 key.

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.

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 five 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 correct character.)

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

Character shape based methods require learning/training, but is in general faster and more accurate, 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 System: Pinyin and Zhuyin

The most popular input methods are:

Both are sound based.

Pinyin input method is mostly used in China. Pinyin is a phonetic system, using English alphabets as phonetic symbols. Any USA keyboard can type pinyin. No special label is necessary on the keys.

Zhuyin input method is mostly used in Taiwan. Zhuyin is a phonetic system. It is almost the same as pinyin, except that it uses special symbols instead of English alphabets. (For example, 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 07 19
Chinese pinyin input.

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

Character Based System: Wubi and 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.

Both of these require labels on the keys to learn it.

But in China, there's 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
Taiwan keyboard layout. 4 labels for each key. ① English. ② upper right: zhuyin. ③ lower left: cangjie. ④ lower right: Dayi. 〔png image taiwan_keyboard_layout.png

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 Taiwan by some people.

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

Turn on Chinese Input

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

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

See also: Emacs Chinese Input

Pinyin Letter Frequency and Keyboard Layout 拼音字母頻率 鍵盤佈局

Pinyin Letter Frequency and Keyboard Layout 拼音字母頻率 鍵盤佈局

Pinyin 拼音, Zhuyin 注音, IPA Comparison

Pinyin 拼音, Zhuyin 注音, IPA Comparison

See also: Book: The Chinese Typewriter: A History

Keyboard Layouts

  1. qwerty heatmap  to build a fire-s365x171
    Alternative Layouts
  2. Alt Graph, Compose, Dead Key
  3. Most Efficient Layout?
  4. Maltron vs Dvorak
  5. Colemak vs Workman


  1. Dvorak Layout
  2. Hardware vs Software Dvorak
  3. Myth of QWERTY vs Dvorak
  4. Dvorak vs Colemak
  5. Blank Keycaps vs Labeled Keys
  6. List of Dvorak Keyboards
  7. Qwerty to Dvorak, A PhD thesis, 1978


  1. International Layouts
  3. German
  4. German Ergonomic
  5. French
  6. New French Layout
  7. French Ergonomic
  8. French Letter Frequency
  9. Russian
  10. Portuguese Ergonomic
  11. Chinese Input Methods
  12. Japanese Layouts

Layout Efficiency

  1. English letter frequency To Build a Fire  Jack London 50383
    Char Frequency Counter
  2. Most Efficient Layout for Numbers?
  3. Semicolon vs Apostrophe Frequency
  4. Inverted Number Row Better?


  1. semiergo keyboard layout 2017-41845-s275x227
    Standard Ergonomic Layout for Laptop

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