The smart technology turning China’s illiterate late bloomers into digital natives

Up until now, people without an understanding of Chinese characters and the romanised writing system pinyin have been locked out online

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 September, 2018, 6:33pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 September, 2018, 11:25pm

Qie Suqin, from rural northern China, has decided not to learn to use a mobile phone.

The 69-year-old homemaker from the city of Baoding in Hebei province said she just did not have the time between her housework and catching up on soap operas on television.

But Qie has another limitation: she can’t read.

“I was only in primary school for two years then I dropped out to help on the farm at home,” she said.

Instead she relies on her husband, Li Daluan, 72, an avid social media user, to get news and updates about their family in other parts of the country.

Li and Qie are on two sides of China’s digital divide. The country now has 802 million people online, according to data released by the state-run China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC). And while that makes China home to a quarter of the world’s internet users, it also means that hundreds of millions of the country’s 1.4 billion people are still offline, leaving them out of the loop of an increasingly important source of information and entertainment.

One of the biggest barriers is illiteracy, particularly among older generations.

But technology is also helping some people overcome their lack of formal education to be a part of the digital revolution.


Although over 40 per cent of Chinese live outside cities, rural residents account for just 26 per cent of the country’s internet users.

Government and business have tried to narrow the divide by improving access through satellite-based mobile networks, boosting broadband speeds for schools, and incorporating rural areas into the government’s Internet Plus economic development plan.

But the gap remains.

The CNNIC said that nearly a third of those surveyed who did not use the internet cited their low levels of education as a reason for not going online.

Apart from being able to read Chinese characters, one of the challenges is the need to know pinyin, a romanised Chinese writing system developed in the 1950s.

Pinyin is crucial for inputting characters into phones and computers, with users tapping in the alphabetised version of a Chinese word and then choosing from a series of characters. It means computer users not only have to be literate in Chinese, but also able to use the alphabet to find characters.

“When computers first came into China ... they were all set up to accommodate alphabets,” said David Moser, author of A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language. “The only thing they could do was use pinyin, or different kinds of romanisation.”

Today, pinyin is a basic skill taught to children before they begin their study of characters but it is unfamiliar to many older people who went to school before it became a mandatory subject.


For those who do not know pinyin, there are other options, including bigger, touch-screen devices that let users draw Chinese characters on their screen using a pen or finger.

This has opened up the online world for Li Jiehua, 75, from Xinyi, Guangdong province, who first starting using an iPad last year.

Though Li only has three years of formal education and speaks colloquial Cantonese, not Mandarin, she quickly picked up the handwriting input tool on her iPad with the help of her granddaughter, and now uses it to search for articles and follow news.

“I’m a bit of a gossip, I like to read my WeChat subscription accounts, scan them for news and get [my husband] to read them with me,” she said, referring to one of China’s most popular social media sites. “WeChat makes it easier to pass the time.”

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But this method can have its own difficulties, even for those who are literate, according to Elisa Oreglia, assistant professor of global digital cultures at King’s College London. 

“If you study characters when you are in school but stop studying when you are 15 or 16 and never write, you revert to a passive knowledge of characters – you can read them but you can’t write,” said Oreglia, who has researched internet use in rural China.

That is where speech recognition technology can make a difference, with apps like Xunfei’s iFLY able to recognise and transcribe several of China’s major dialects, in addition to Mandarin.

Many Chinese news apps such as one operated by The Beijing News also offer an audio function that reads out the day’s major news articles.

In addition, the messaging app on WeChat allows users to swap voice and video messages in the same way they would text.

“There is now a whole branch of the internet that doesn’t work with text,” Oreglia said.

“There are endless threads [on WeChat] which are just video forwards – it’s a very rich and very communicative environment that completely bypasses language.”

Li, the iPad user from Guangdong, said video messages and calls helped her connect with family living outside her small city.

“It’s like I can see everyone in person, wherever we are. It’s a beautiful thing,” Li said. “Much better than a phone call.”


Video is also a major source of entertainment, with live-streaming and video-sharing platforms like Kuaishou and Douyin offering an almost limitless supply of content.

Pu Yan, a doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute, said she saw people with little education use these apps during the six months she spent researching internet usage in rural Henan province last year.

“There was one woman who has only a first-grade level of literacy, but she told me that she spends most of her spare time using the video platform Kuaishuo, or another app specifically for videos of group dancing,” Yan said.

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She said the woman, who had recently returned to her village after working in nearby cities, felt watching those apps helped her stay connected to the outside world.

Yan also saw how people could use image recognition technology on search engines to find what they needed.

She said one middle-aged woman used a screenshot of a WeChat picture of a dress she wanted and uploaded it onto an image search function on e-commerce site Taobao.

“She used this image search to successfully locate the dress that she wanted to buy for her daughter, and during the whole process she did not use pinyin or spelling or speech,” Yan said. Taobao is owned by Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post.

But Oreglia warned that these kinds of technological fixes did not mean “problem solved” in terms of literacy.

She said that as more social services move online there was a danger of leaving behind people who might use the internet but were not doing so with full literacy.

Yan agreed, saying policymakers should educate people about how to best use the technology and sort through the deluge of information.

But Yan is optimistic about the benefits technology – and greater education – can bring to rural areas.

“It’s very exciting how people can benefit from the internet without higher education levels,” she said. “These trends mean the lifestyle gap between rural and urban [China] is shrinking.”