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A woman’s effort to revolutionize Chinese typing

Characters, probably the Chinese people’s first and the longest-lasting invention, have boggled the foreigners for centuries. Learning Chinese is not for the faint-hearted, they moan. Now it is not just foreigners who are complaining. Many Chinese are losing the ability to write their characters from memory now that typewriting is taking over. Something needs to be done. And Cai Tian is one such person who is painstakingly trying her best to make a change.

The Story of UI Chinese

Cai Tian is now the only person remaining at the company called UI Chinese, which owns three patent rights for its innovative Chinese input method for PC, a groundbreaking new method of teaching Chinese characters and the color display of a Chinese character that distinguishes different strokes. UI is the phonetic representation of the company’s Chinese name You’ai, meaning friendship.

The UI input method requires the knowledge of both a character’s stroke order and pronunciation for the user to successfully type a character, a deliberate design to enhance the users’ memory of how a character is written when typing. It was invented by Cai’s former colleague, a scholar named Chen Yu.

“It is a sad story,” Cai recalled the circumstances of Chen’s invention. “He is a learned man, a long-time buff of the Chinese characters. It was at his child’s hospital bedside that he found the time to deconstruct the characters.”

It took Chen seven years to analyze the data of the strokes and discover the patterns, while taking care of his sick child. He then spent another two years to apply his discoveries to the computer. The end result is this new input method of characters that aims to serve the purpose of typewriting and hopefully during the process the users could memorize their characters so that they won’t forget about how to write them.

“The whole point of this input method is to help people remember their characters,” Cai said with all the seriousness. “Many people don’t realize the importance of characters, which is exactly what united China in the first place. And think about all the languages that have extinguished because of the lack of a written form. It is not a matter to be taken lightly.”

“To think that many adults can no longer write the language without a pause-and-think, and that even primary school students don’t get to write as much as before as all sorts of pads are taking over in the classroom is scary, very scary,” she continued. “I just hope we won’t wait until it’s too late to take action. That’s why I did it in the first place, and that’s why I am sticking to it.”

Cai was Chen’s old colleague when they were both working for the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press. She worked for the Operation Center of the Opening and Closing Ceremony for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 as a technician and has been working on a number of gigs since then. It was a lucrative and exciting job, but she didn’t think twice to quit and join Chen when he summoned her for help in 2012. “I could always go back to my job. But he needed my help right away.”

Majoring in Computer Assisted Language Learning in college, Cai was the right person to take charge of technology. Together with Chen and another friend who took care of marketing, they took up the challenge with their company, UI Chinese.

Cai Tian (right) poses with a student of hers during one of their Chinese sessions, using the UI Chinese textbook. Photo: Courtesy of Cai Tian

The highs and lows

They really did go all out. “We invested over 2 million yuan into the company trying to make it work,” Cai said. “We all pitched in, particularly Chen. He had a website on Summer Palace where he displayed his years of research and collections. To do this, he sold the website to the Summer Palace and invested all the money.”

At the height of their endeavor, they had three course developers, two art designers and another technician working for them. They went to all the fairs and exhibitions they could get into to promote their products. They gave trial lessons in universities. They even got the approval from Xu Lin, the director of Hanban, headquarters of the Confucius Institute, who praised their work as “revolutionary” and encouraged them to carry on.

Their input method proved to be effective in helping the beginners to quickly master the basics of character writing and learn to input characters with ease. “Even people with no previous exposure to Chinese can learn to type any given character within an hour, easily,” Cai said with pride. “In one of our sessions, an American man who was so fond of our products that he had tears in his eyes when he told us he learnt more in one lesson than years of learning combined together. We wanted to give him a set of textbooks for free. But he insisted on paying.”

However, the trouble is they have difficulty securing a market. The input method was originally designed to enhance people’s memories of the characters, so it is not the fastest or the most convenient one to use for typing. And their book required the teachers to take additional time to familiarize themselves with the didactics before they could use it in the classroom. The printing expenses and heavy freight were also a big hindrance.

“The book is beautifully printed and is very heavy. It costs 198 yuan to ship a single one to America,” Cai said. “Plus we’ve learnt that actually many American schools have free textbooks provided to them by Hanban, which is really not helping our case.”

Another obstacle came from Chen himself, who is a man of ideals. He did everything out of passion and disliked the commercial aspect of things which he thinks contaminated what they do, which is for a noble cause of preserving the writing of characters in the national memory in the digital age when people are no longer writing with pens.

Soon the money ran out and their project has not come very far from where they began. “We have two books yet to come out and the input method stuck at the web version as we run out of money to develop the stand-alone version for PC. We were also in the middle of developing an app for mobile gadgets, but that was halted too because of lack of funds.”

And the team disbanded. “Last year I still had one person who helped me with the database, but this year I am all alone,” Cai said. Chen, whose father had also taken ill, left as well. For Cai, the easiest thing was to cut losses by selling everything, but she chose to stick to it.

“I’ve had a lot of people approaching me and asking for a price. But I don’t want to sell. I want to keep the company for Chen in case one day he decides to come back and pick up where we left,” Cai said. “I hope I could find investors who would buy the usage rights of our products. I want to at least make enough money to cover Chen’s losses.”

Another UI Chinese session. Photo: Courtesy of Cai Tian

One woman’s battle

Cai is persistent and determined to make a difference even if she is on her own. She now makes her living as a freelance tutor, translator and cross-cultural consultant. She takes every opportunity she gets to promote UI Chinese. By using the textbooks in her Chinese sessions, hundreds of foreigners have benefitted from this unique method. And she even donated five hundred books to a rural school in Hunan because “they could make better use of them than we do here”. 

“I was inspired by Cui Yongyuan, who taught me to focus on doing what I can to change what I want to change, rather than thinking about things beyond my reach and get frustrated,” Cai said. Cui is a popular TV host who is known for his high-profile philanthropic endeavors such as launching the “Countryside Teachers Training Project” of which Cai has been a team member for three years.

“I am happy if I could just change one person through my efforts. And if this person could in turn influence another one, and so on, I would consider it as a big success,” Cai said.

Cai has another plan on her mind, too. “I want to start a movement,” she mentioned it for a second time. “I want to invite as many people as I can to just sit down together and write with pens and papers. I want to have parents writing with their child. I’ll pay for the drinks and everything. Writing is a wonderful thing to do. It helps you to stay calm and focus, a bit like meditating.”

“I’ll call it A Movement of Writing.” Cai’s eyes glitter with anticipation. “I just hope I could make more people passionate about the language again, before it’s too late. ”

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