Recently, I did a weekend long road trip, and then promptly fell sick for a week (thus the delayed publishing of this post, sorry folks!). During my weeklong nasal-congestion-induced stupor, I kept thinking about the stretch of drive over the Blue Ridge Mountains where I listened to an old podcast episode of Radiolab called, the Wubi Effect.
Listening to that episode sparked a lot of fond childhood memories. Wubi (or Wubizi 五笔字) is a keyboard input system specifically designed for typing Chinese characters, based on how they look. When I was an elementary school student in China, I went to a lot of typing contests, where I used Wubi to crush other fellow 8-year-olds. I was a very fast typer thanks to Wubi! Once you master it, Wubi is much faster than Pinyin, which is an input method based on how the characters sound.
Wubi’s visual-based input technique was partially designed to be fast, but also designed to preserve the sanctity and purity of the Chinese characters and culture, while still giving the country a path to enter the digital age. It was invented really as a labor of love by one man, Wang Yongmin, during a time of deep existential crisis in China.
While China was, collectively, still recovering from Cultural Revolution PTSD, the world was moving forward, especially on the technological front. Big, bulky computers are being adopted in more and more research facilities and businesses. PCs are emerging as a new form factor to popularize computing among consumers. Apple released its first product, the Apple I, in 1976, the same year the Cultural Revolution ended. The IBM PC was introduced in 1981. China badly wanted to catch up, but the very physical nature of the QWERTY keyboard – only containing Roman alphabet and numerals – posed a seemingly insurmountable challenge. How on earth could you fit more than 70,000 Chinese characters onto a 26-letter keyboard?
So Wang Yongmin set out on his pursuit to somehow QWERTY-ize the Chinese characters. Meanwhile, the country’s Committee on Language Reform, a governmental body, was working on proposals to do away with Chinese characters altogether and adopt some form of romanization, so China can be part of Western technological advancement and not fall behind further. In effect, Wang’s lonely pursuit was a hedge; China was ready to move on from itself.
By 1984, against all odds, Wang was able to break down Chinese characters into repeatable particles, fit them onto the QWERTY keyboard, and demoed his achievements at the 38th UN General Assembly in New York. Hu Yaobang, who was the general secretary of the CCP at the time and a reformer, visited Wang’s lab in Henan Province, tried out Wubi for himself, and was delighted. The Committee on Language Reform’s work to compromise Chinese for the sake of computers was soon decommissioned. Unfortunately, Hu’s leadership was also short lived.
The origin story of Wubi revealed an important character in China’s relationship with technology and modernity. China has simultaneously the willpower to bend the problem to its preference and the willingness to bend itself in order to avoid falling behind. For a country often portrayed as ideologically rigid, when push comes to shove, it is a rather flexible and pragmatic place.
This character still holds some instructive importance today.
China’s Gloomy Future
It’s hard to escape the gloomy predictions of China’s future, especially this month. I share Daniel Drezner’s feeling that “it’s been impossible to go 24 hours this month without reading a piece noting China’s economic woes.” It certainly feels like China is heading into another existential crisis.
These predictions may or may not end up being right, but their uniformity and frequency is striking. How can so many people be so sure of something so complicated as the future of the second largest economy in the world? Well, the truth is, you can’t be, but the “professional prediction class” must still try. Plus, there are almost no negative consequences to being wrong, so who cares? Just keep predicting. A broken clock is right twice a day.
A telling example of the worthlessness of these predictions is a side-by-side comparison of the cover story of The Economist between its August 2020 edition (left) and its August 2023 edition (right):
The Economist, one of the most prestigious bastions of economic predictions, is nothing more than a weathervane. Its point of view holds little predictive value. But since it is not in the business of being right, but in selling elite opinions beautifully packaged into social status for the masses, being right or wrong is of no concern to this esteemed publisher.
This observation does not mean China is not in trouble. It is. Perhaps at an existential level of troubles. But I have no idea if or how a place as complex as China will emerge from these troubles. Nor does the “professional prediction class” – people who are paid to pretend to know.
During times of uncertainty, the most useful exercise is probably to study history, like the historical backdrop of when Wubi was created and when China was indeed facing an existential crisis.
In 1978, when Wang Yongmin started working on Wubi, China’s GDP per capita was roughly $150. Today, its GDP per capita is around $12,720.
In 1978, China was trying to build its own computers, because it hadn’t yet figured out how to fit Chinese into Western computers. Today, it is the global leader in many technological dimensions like advanced manufacturing and electric vehicles, yet it is still notably behind in cutting edge generative AI and semiconductors production, a gap worsened by US and Dutch sanctions.
In 1978, most people got their housing assigned from the government; there was no such thing as buying real estate. Today, its debt-ridden real estate woes are severe and difficult to untangle. And of course, Xi Jinping is, in so many ways, not Hu Yaobang.
Today certainly looks like another moment when China’s relationship with technology and modernity is put to the test. Will it bend the myriad of problems it is facing to its preference? Or will it bend itself to avoid making things worse?
We have one early clue: the set of interim rules regulators released in July on regulating generative AI, which started out rigid and unreasonably tough, but ended up more pragmatic and left room for companies to innovate to avoid falling more behind (see my deep dive into these rules in a different post).
It is an example (not a prediction) that is characteristic of the dilemma and insecurity that marked the country when Wubi was created.
Wubi’s Bittersweet Ending
Even though Wang Yongmin successfully bent technology to fit the Chinese characters, the government ultimately decided on a different direction. China standardized on a common set of pronunciations of spoken Chinese (or Putonghua 普通话) to root out the inefficiencies of regional dialects. Thus, Pinyin, the romanization of these pronunciations, also became the standard.
Children studied Pinyin first to learn how characters sound, before they learned how to write, which is the basis for using Wubi. Over time, Pinyin became the more accessible and thus popular way to type Chinese at Wubi’s expense. I, too, have forgotten Wubi and relinquished the fast-typing superpower it once bequeathed to me. I only type in Pinyin now; that is how I write the Chinese version of this bilingual newsletter.
Wubi is now a relic of a bygone era. Despite Wubi’s technical ingenuity and cultural preservation value, China chose the promise of Pinyin, bending itself to make commerce, technology, and modernity easier to reach for its people, while risking the same people losing their ability to handwrite their own name (or cry and complain about it):
Will China choose to bend itself once again more than it bends the world, as it faces a difficult future? I have no idea. Neither does The Economist.
But there is one thing I do know, which The Economist may not. Typing contests in China are still a thing. And the fastest typers still use Wubi.