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Why Wubi Chinese input is better than pinyin

A keyboard marked with Chinese

If you type Chinese on your computer, you most likely use a pinyin-based input method, or some other phonetic typing system. This is an obvious choice as it’s easy to learn and goes hand in hand with your studies of Chinese pronunciation.

However, you might start to notice that typing characters is not beneficial for your ability to write them, and the time spent typing may even detract from valuable writing time. Entering Chinese characters through phonetic input methods can also be slow, as there is so much ambiguity for each syllable.

A better way to type Chinese characters

The Wubi input method solves these problems. The difference is that it’s a shape-based input method (of which there are many – Wubi is just the one I would recommend). Rather than typing in the pronunciation of characters you want to input, you hit keys assigned to particular strokes or shapes.


One advantage of this is that it’s a lot more efficient. There is little to no ambiguity, so any Chinese character can be typed in four keystrokes or less, without scanning and selecting from lists of potential characters.

The system even incorporates quick codes for common combinations of characters, so you can type a two-character word with four key strokes. These two factors combined can up your typing speed significantly.

The flipside is that the system takes a lot of time and effort to learn, especially compared to phonetic input methods. However, you are a language learner – putting the time and effort in is what you do. As this article will explain, learning Wubi is well worth it.

Not dialect or language-specific

Another plus of learning Wubi is that it’s not limited to any particular Chinese dialect. With pinyin input, you really need to know Mandarin Chinese, but for Wubi you just need to know the shape of the character.

This means you could even use it to enter a lot of Japanese kanji. This isn’t the main advantage of Wubi though, especially for language-learners.

Practice writing Chinese characters while typing them

The really cool thing about Wubi is that you have to know the shape and components of a Chinese character to type it. So, when learning to type, you memorise radicals and groups of radicals.

When typing, you put that knowledge of character shapes into practice, reinforcing what you’ve learnt. The system doesn’t correspond perfectly radical for radical, but knowing the Wubi code for a character will certainly help you remember how to write it by hand.

This deals with a common problem that applies not just to foreign learners but to native speakers too: forgetting how to write because you routinely type instead of write. If you use Wubi (or another shaped-based input method), you’re actively rehearsing the structure of the characters you type. It’s another chance to get those repetitions done.

Not so good for traditional characters?

One drawback for Wubi is that it doesn’t deal with traditional characters very well. The system is that you type the same codes for simplified characters, but enable a mode which enters their traditional equivalents. This limits the advantage for learners described above.

A solution could be to learn cangjie, which is commonly used in Hong Kong. However, it’s even harder to learn than Wubi and isn’t constructed so systematically.

How do you type Chinese characters? Do you think it’s worth learning a more complicated system like Wubi?

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  • K書窩之王

    Are you sure 五笔 is faster than 拼音输入法 for standard texts? Tools like 搜狗拼音输入法 have become extremely efficient thanks to “intelligent” word recognition. You can import tons of dictionaries for different specialisms, usage frequencies are saved … . It is, however, quite slow when you’re looking for isolated characters that are less commonly used. But in these cases you can use the integrated
    手写输入 tool, at least if you’re using Sogou.

    If your aim is to solidify handwriting skills, than 五笔 may be your choice. But in terms of efficiency I’m less sure.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net East Asia Student

      Yeah it’s certainly true that the phonetic input methods have improved massively. I do actually use the 智能拼音 input method on SCIM, and it is very efficient. However, you’ve still got to stop to select characters and phrases, no matter how much the system learns and improves itself. With the shape-based input methods, you can just type constantly without interruption.

      It’s still up for debate, and I’m only in the process of learning to use 五笔 myself, but I think once you’ve put in the time to learn how to use it, it is faster and more efficient.

      • http://chris-thai-student.blogspot.com chris(thai_student)

        I haven’t tried wubi yet(and won’t be be for some time) but I have noticed that on a couple of occasions when I have had on-line text chat with an experienced Chinese wubi typist they type noticeably faster than other Chinese.

        On one occasion sentences just appeared simultaneously like magic.

        The mistakes they make will differ though the occasional typo from a wubi typist can seem strange because unlike a pinyin mistake the wrong character probably doesn’t represent a word with the same sound.

        • http://eastasiastudent.net East Asia Student

          Yeah I agree that’s another drawback of the pinyin based input methods. I find it’s easier to miss typos you’ve made as you can press the right keys but still get it wrong.

  • http://www.21tiger.com Michael A. Robson

    Would you say this is the input method most Chinese actually prefer (eg. on cell phones, on keyboard) because it basically mimics writing in Chinese—whereas most foreigners love Hanyu Pinyin because they’re basically ‘talking’?

    It’s kinda funny, since Chinese/Japanese are really the only languages with this crazy Character system, the language forks into visual understanding and auditory…

    It makes sense now why most foreigners just learn the latter, and are able to skip over learning to actually write Chinese! On the other hand, if you know how to ‘speak’ English, you basically know how to ‘write’ in English already…(although, as Children do this guesswork in their formative years, they have to learn the proper spelling)

    • http://eastasiastudent.net East Asia Student

      As far as I know, phonetic based input is the most popular system in mainland China for input on phones. This is the only system I’ve seen Chinese people using, anyway.
      For keyboard input on desktops and laptops, there seems to be a more balanced spread of input systems. I’ve seen a lot of older people using touch pads and stylus-based methods to actually draw the characters. I suppose that’s got to be the best way to practice your writing, but it really isn’t a fast way to type.
      You’re right about ‘speaking’ and ‘writing’ being less distinct in European languages. I think it’s pretty well established that character-based writing systems are much harder to learn, hence this issue of input systems and the many factors in selecting one to use.

      • http://www.21tiger.com Michael A. Robson

        Wow. Ok. I’m in Shanghai, and all phones are sold with Wubi input, and I figured that would be the fastest and most popular. Chinese tend to ditch the ‘English’ alphabet whenever possible (Go Reds!).. I’ve even seen lots of Chinese on airplanes inputting text messages on their iPhones in the butt-ugly ‘draw the character with your finger’ optional Chinese input method in iOS. I mean, that has got to be the slowest “我刚到了。你在哪里?” after the plane’s landed known to man.

        • http://eastasiastudent.net East Asia Student

          Ah right yeah, that’s wubihua. I was referring to wubzixing in the article, but it is a similar principle.

  • http://www.21tiger.com Michael A. Robson

    “If your aim is to solidify handwriting skills, than 五笔 may be your choice. But in terms of efficiency I’m less sure.”

    For characters with 4 strokes or less :P remember, you never actually enter the fifth stroke with Wubi, that’s why it’s so fast.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net East Asia Student

      Yeah, totally agree. The point is that any character can be entered with four key presses or less, and without absolutely no other input. This has got to be faster than choosing options from a phonetic system.

  • Steven Daniels

    I disagree with you 100%. Learning Wubi for any Chinese learner is a waste of time. Not only does one need to know a lot of characters well before starting to learn Wubi, but it doesn’t help one improve their Chinese skills. Every learner would be better off spending the time it takes learning Wubi studying some other aspect of Chinese.

    Wubi is pretty interesting. Top typists can type over 400 characters a minute. But the only people I’ve known who use Wubi have to do large quantities of typing: professors writing books, professional data entry workers.

    Pinyin remains the simplest way to input Chinese. Save your time. Save your efforts. Don’t learn Wubi (unless you really, really want to.)

    • http://eastasiastudent.net East Asia Student

      “Not only does one need to know a lot of characters well before starting to learn Wubi” – this doesn’t mean that it isn’t beneficial once you’ve reached this stage. Even if the codes for Wubi do not translate directly into knowledge of characters, using the method is still going to provide more practice than a pinyin input system.
      I think you could well be correct that the time spent learning Wubi could be better spent on other things, but it’s the sort of thing that SRS is perfect for. A lot of progress can be made in Wubi by incorporating into an existing character study system, so it needn’t take up masses of time.

      • Steven Daniels

        I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to spend time both studying characters and studying the codes to type them (unless you’re doing lots of data entry in Chinese).

        Wubi isn’t for beginners. A learning system that taught Wubi in context of learning characters might be pretty interesting.

        Wubi has benefits. Just as Learning another 5000 characters would have benefits. But learners should focus on things that maximize their benefits. Usually that means focusing on improving what you’re bad at. If you can learn Wubi, your characters are probably just fine.

  • http://askpeterchinese.com peter jiang

    Practice writing Chinese characters is a very good advantage for wubi input, and the disadvantage is that if you don’t use this wubi input frequently, will easily forget how to type. and for pinyin input with sogou pinyin input etc, which will not be easily forgotten with it’s associated function etc even though you don’t know how to write this chinese character.

    anyway, i used to be a wubi input user, and now i prefer pinyin input.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net East Asia Student

      Yeah that’s true, but you can always have the pinyin-based methods as a safety net when learning something like wubi.

  • http://mykafkaesquelife.blogspot.com/ My Kafkaesque life

    I’ve never seen someone write Chinese so fast like my girlfriend, who uses zhuyin or bopomofo (注音符號) on her laptop. It’s like 10 times faster than with pinyin. Most in Taiwan do so and I hope I can learn it.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net East Asia Student

      That’d be a pronunciation-based method then? What makes it so much faster?

      • 偃月刀

        To input each syllable in Zhuyin, you need to enter a symbol for the initial, final, and tone. Having to enter a tone makes it easier for the computer to guess the correct character as it narrows the character to those of the same tone where as in pinyin, tone is not a factor. To enter something like yī in zhuyin takes three keystrokes (initial y-, final -i, and tone). The largest number of keystrokes for a single syllable in Zhuyin is 4 if it’s a compound final (dipthong), where as the largest number of keystrokes for a syllable in pinyin might be 5 as in xiong. I find that Zhuyin also helps me remember tones since you have to enter the correct tone. But one must also keep in mind that some PRC and ROC standard Mandarin pronunciations and tones are not the same.

  • http://toshuo.com Mark

    I learned to type in Chinese while I was in Taiwan, so I used a zhuyin IME like nearly everyone else there. To be honest, I found it a big advantage that it was phonetic. Just by chatting online occasionally, I was forced to know the zhuyin (which maps 1-1 with pinyin at the syllable level) and the tone of every character I wrote. I think it’s one reason why I didn’t struggle with tones so much.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net 葛脩逺

      Yeah I agree that at the early stages, there are certainly a lot of advantages to a phonetic system. It’s interesting that you used a tone-based system too – I’ll have a look into that.

  • http://www.zhongwenlearner.com Gong Mo Tai

    Hi Guys,

    I have a new site with Chinese tools and one of the main focuses is on inputting Chinese. I have thus far incorporated Pinyin, Jyutping, Cangjie and even Zhuyin as ways on inputting hanzi characters.

    I honestly think the Zhuyin method is the fastest if you are used to the Zhuyin keyboard layout (check out my virtual keyboard for help with learning that).

    Would an Wubi method be beneficial as well? I am doing research into what learners find most helpful.


  • Basil

    I’m Sougou pinyin user now. It is the best pinyin method I’ve tried. But now as I grew up, I’m switching to ZhuYin and taiwanese keyboard. I think ZhuYin helps a lot to remember tones. New version “Microsoft Office 輸入法 2010″ looks much better than the pre-installed win7 one http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyID=60984ecd-9575-411a-bd38-2294f17c4131&displaylang=zh-tw
    I also want to learn 倉頡 just for fun…

  • http://gaoshancha.wordpress.com TeaHouse

    Interesting post.

    How are you coming along with your Wubi? I’ve been trying to get into Cangjie-5 (for trad. & simp.), though I don’t give it as much time as I should. I mainly want to learn Cangjie because I tire of having to draw a character in my Pleco dictionary just to learn how to pronounce it. That, and I also want to be able to remember how to write the characters better, and I think graphical input methods are helpful in this respect.

    I’ve lately been looking at Wubi to see if it would be any easier. So far, I actually find the roots of Cangjie to be easier to locate on the keyboard. There are fewer roots and the roots are quite simple compared with the many roots in Wubi. But I have not been working on very complicated characters yet…

    With either though, building up the muscle memory is the hardest part. I type over 70 wpm in English, and the slow down with Cangjie can be…disheartening at times.

  • http://www.chengduliving.com Charlie

    Is it possible to get a keyboard with radicals on the keys like you can for Japanese? If not (I haven’t seen one), how does input work with 26 keys and so many different radicals?

    • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

      Yeah you can get keyboards marked for wubi. You can also get phones with keys marked for stroke input. They’re not marked with radicals though, that’s not how it works. They’re marked with strokes or marked with wubi keys.

  • Pingback: Mandarin Chinese (language): How long does it take to learn the 五笔 method? - Quora

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  • http://verda-stelo.blogspot.com Chetan

    I agree with you. Wubi, or any shape based input method for that matter, indeed helps you remember characters. I am only starting to learn Chinese. I don’t know many characters. But the ones that I do, I regularly practise with Cangjie. It helps a lot.

    When I will start learning Simplified Chinese a few months from now, I’m sure Wubi is going to be my method of choice.

  • staticor

    i’ve used Wubi (sougou, baidu, etc) for 5 years. And i will teach this input for my son.

  • Basil

    WOW! 2 years has passed already and I’ve googled the same topic and saw my comment here/// Well now I can say that I’ve totally switched to 倉頡 input now. I’ve been using ZhuYin for pretty long time, but as I’ve noticed, the more I was using methods based on pronunciation the more I used to forget the shape of some characters, even those which are used frequently.
    倉頡(CangJie), in my opinion, is comparatively easier to learn (at least for MS Windows users) than Wubi, just because there are many tools for ‘windows’ by default that are very helpful to master it from scratch. I haven’t had to read any special books or tutorials. All I had to use was a simple in-built hand-writing recognition tool installed for Taiwanese keyboard layout.
    With Wubi it’s a bit more tricky. I’ve also tried to learn some Wubi and the first problem I’ve run into with it is that I couldn’t find out the key combinations for it without using some online dictionaries like “zdic.net”. Otherwise it’s almost the same as Cangjie, except maybe for one thing: When i type cangjie (with standard tools) it shows me the characters instead of english letters (but some cangjie software does that too:(.. like fireinput for firefox ) so it feels “more chinese” this way and more easier to associate those characters with the radicals or parts associated with that key, like when i press “A” i don’t see ‘A’ but 日, Q – 手 etc. That’s a bit annoying to me with 五笔.


    PROS and CONS:


    + easy and intuitive to learn (with standard tools for windows users)
    + good for both simplified and traditional characters.
    (in older versions – for traditional)
    + you can get the exact character you need
    + good for memorizing characters
    + widely used in HK
    + dialect independent
    + no english letters appear while typing
    - keyboard keys do not have PARTS printed on it
    - need to list/write down all the associated PARTS for each key before you’ve learned them all


    + has a nice keyboard with all the parts written on keys
    + good for both simplified, traditional chinese
    (in older versions – for simplified)
    + you can get the exact character you need
    + good for memorizing characters
    + more popular in Mainland China
    + dialect independent
    - english letters appear while typing (it’s confusing!)
    - learning needs more time and patience (mostly because of tools)

    P.S. Either Wubi or Cangjie is fine and I honestly believe that these are the best chinese input methods, because chinese is based on its writting system not on sounds. Dialects may sound different but they all are based on chinese characters. SO it’s more natural to use an input method which is also based on characters (!!!).

    P.S. #2 pinyin and zhuyin are maybe good enough for native chinese speakers and especially for mandarin speakers (coz they are already familiar with the characters and most of them don’t care which way to type it) BUT i think to some people like us (like those of us who care about keeping the chinese writing system in the way it is) it’s very important not to use any tools that are destroying the characters-based system or/and characters-based thinking. )))

    and a link to a complete cangjie character PARTS guide (in chinese) – http://a2e.de/oas/lang/zh/cangjie/

  • Bo Dang Ren

    This is why I love typing Hangul — shape-based and phonetic at the same time.