What language do Chinese cellphones text in?

Listening (mostly) to the coverage of the earthquake disaster in China I learned that text messages are the most popular form of communication in China. Now I dislike using my little cellphone keyboard to send text messages in English, I can’t even fathom how it works in Mandarin. (I’m assuming they are all texting in Mandarin — China has at least six different regional/ethnic language groups most of which have about as much in common as Latin and Hungarian but Mandarin is the official default.) Now clearly they’ve got this figured out but it’s such a basic thing that no one has explained it to us outsiders.

As a typewriter collector myself I have long dreamed of adding a Japanese or Chinese typewriter to my collection. The Chinese typewriter pictured below is explained by this Wikipedia entry.

That multi-lingual typewriter was the size of conventional office typewriters of the 1940s. It measured 14” x 18” x 9”. The typefaces fit on a drum. A “magic eye” was mounted in the center of the keyboard. When the typist pressed several keys, according to a system Lin devised for his dictionary of the Chinese language, a Chinese character appeared (in the magic eye?). To select a particular character, the typist then pressed a “master” key, similar to today’s computer function key. The typewriter could create 7000 distinct characters. It could type additional “words” using combinations of characters, attaining a theoretical total of 90,000 words. The inspired aspect of the typewriter was the system Lin devised for a Chinese alphabet. It had thirty geometric shapes or strokes. These became “letters” by which to alphabetize Chinese characters. He broke tradition with the long-standing system of radicals and stroke order writing and categorizing of Chinese characters, inventing a new way of seeing and categorizing.

The StraightDope has an explanation here of how a Chinese computer keyboard works but it doesn’t do much to clear up my confusion about the whole texting thing.

Anybody clear this one up for me? Bueller?

UPDATE: NPR has come to my rescue. Apparently the Chinese use an English keyboard to type in the phonetic equivalent of a character and then that character appears in the text. Sounds clumsy to me but 1.6 billion people seem to think it works, so who am I to argue?

2 thoughts on “What language do Chinese cellphones text in?

  1. Pingback: Guess what arrived in the mail today! A CHINESE TYPEWRITER!!! « Collateral Damage

  2. the NPR ‘explanation’ demands that all Chinese folk know (and use) ONE phonetic ;shape; for each character, no? so ‘tshih’ equals …….. Is that right? it seems profoundly awkward to me. mom

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