The Input Method From Hell

Andrei Marks · September 10, 2007

Otherwise known as 五笔字型输入法 (wu3bi2zi4xing2shu1ru4fa2), which can be translated as “five stroke character model input method”. Most people call it 五笔.

Now, if you are in any way familiar with the Chinese language, and have used a computer to type characters, then you’ve probably met the pinyin input system. Type in the pinyin of the syllable/word/phrase you’re looking for, pick it out from a list of possibilities that pops up, and like magic it’s there on your computer.

In short, inputting characters in 五笔 is based on the structural components of characters (roots, they’re called), rather than the sound. There are several advantages to this, listed here and elsewhere, all of which I think far outweigh the following disadvantage.

Instead of getting to close my eyes and imagine this:

I must close my eyes and imagine this:

It’s slow going.

Now it’s actually a very rational, if at times quirky system, and it’s just a matter of repetition and gradually memorizing what goes where. There are some typing programs out which help you do this, but I don’t feel like spending any money or downloading any malware. I’m also lazy. So I am learning it with the basics from this website (very helpful) and from inputting every single Chinese character I must using this method.

At first this was extremely frustrating, but once the locations of the roots settle in your head it gets easier. The challenging part isn’t even that, it’s figuring out exactly how a character is pieced together. Sometimes it’s like beating your head against a wall trying to do a problem set, followed by the euphoric rush that comes after you figure it all out. I’m not using an unnecessary chain metaphor here, I really used to beat my head against the wall doing problem sets.

So my typing speed is at least 1 character per minute now. When I’m on fire.

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