When foreigners learn Chinese, they often struggle getting to grips with writing the characters. There are around 50,000 characters in modern written Chinese, but in order to be considered literate, an adult needs to know only 3,000-4,000 (a 1,000-2,000 character vocabulary would allow you to comfortably read a Chinese newspaper).
However, more and more Chinese citizens feel they are losing the ability to write by hand, and many are signing up for exams to try and combat this.
The HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi – literally Mandarin level exam) test was originally aimed at foreigners learning Chinese, but was introduced for Chinese nationals in several cities and provinces in 2007. Because so many people use computers in their work and hardly ever pick up a pen, their written literacy skills are in decline – this is true all over the world, not just in China.
When typing Chinese characters rather than writing them by hand, a person types the sound of the character (a bit like spelling a word out) then the computer suggests possible characters for that sound from which they choose the appropriate one:
It’s a bit like multiple choice, whereas if you were writing the same word by hand, you would have to think of the character yourself.
The Shanghai Language Commission conducted a survey among university students, which found that while many know what the characters should look like, they are unable to handwrite them.