Typing in Chinese: A Most Detailed Guide

As you progress from a beginner to an intermediate learner of Chinese, the likelihood of having to produce Chinese text increases. A skill you need to learn at this stage is typing in Chinese on your computer or smartphone.  But there are about 2500 commonly used Chinese characters! Does that mean that I have to get a keyboard with at least 2500 buttons?

typing in chinese: meme of funny chinese keyboard
Image from KnowYourMeme

The answer is NO! You can easily type any Chinese character you want with the QWERTY keyboard. 

  1. You need to know the Pinyin and tones or the radical of the character you want to type.
  2. Choose an input method.
  3. Download a Chinese keyboard.
  4. Note some unique letters in the Pinyin system.
  5. Know how to use punctuation.

Let’s get started! 

An Introduction to Input Method for Typing in Chinese

As the universal keyboard on computers consist of 26 letters, and Chinese characters look nothing like them, the first thing you need to do to start typing in Chinese is to find a suitable input method.  An input method is a typing software on your device that allows you to represent all Chinese characters with the 26 letters in a systematic manner.  We introduce three input methods for Simplified Chinese: Pinyin, five-stroke and handwriting.

Typing in Chinese with Pinyin Input Method

The Pinyin input method is the most commonly used one today.  As the name suggests, the Pinyin input method uses Pinyin, the Romanization system to represent the pronunciations of Chinese characters.  To use this input method, you first have to be familiar with Pinyin, which is usually the first thing learners of Chinese will learn. You also need to know the pronunciation of the characters you are typing. 

typing in chinese: pinyin
Image from TutorMing Blog

When using the Pinyin input method, you first type in the Pinyin letters that represent Chinese syllables, then you choose the correct character among all possible results that share the same pronunciation.  We’ll start learning how to type Chinese with Pinyin step-by-step in a minute. 

Typing in Chinese with Five-stroke Input Method

Chinese characters are made up of components, and these components are written with strokes. The five-stroke input method utilizes this feature of Chinese characters.  It divides the 26-letter keyboard into 5 areas, and the buttons in each area represent components that are made up of the 5 basic strokes in Chinese: “一” (heng)、“丨” (shu)、 “丿” (pie)、“丶” (dian) and “乛” (zhe).   

typing in chinese: five-stroke input method explanation
Image from Wubizhijia

To use the five-stroke input method, you need to know the order of the strokes to write each Chinese character.  An advantage of this input method is that it actually types Chinese in a more straightforward manner – what you type is what you see on the screen, you don’t have to choose among results. Therefore, typing with the five-stroke input method can be really fast when you are familiar enough with it. 

Typing in Chinese with Handwriting Input Method

This input method is the easiest to understand: you write the Chinese character by hand on the screen, then your device will recognize it.  With this input method, you can input characters whose pronunciation you don’t know. You don’t even have to know the order of the strokes in a character, because this input method only recognizes the whole character after you complete writing it.  Two main drawbacks of this method, however, often mean that not many people choose it. Firstly, it is the slowest, as you have to write each character one by one. Also, if your writing is not easy to recognize, you have to choose again from the results the machine suggests based on what you’re writing.  The second drawback is that you probably need a touchscreen to write. Computer users are not able to use this input method, because it’s extremely difficult to write Chinese characters with your mouse. 

typing in chinese: handwriting input method
Sogou Handwriting Pad

Before Typing in Chinese – Install a Pinyin Keyboard

As mentioned before, the Pinyin input method is the most common one, so we are going to teach you how to use it step-by-step. Before you’re ready to type, you need to install a Pinyin keyboard on your device. 

Install the Default Keyboard of Your Operating System

Whether you want to type on your computer or smartphone, you can always install a default Pinyin keyboard, whatever the operating system of your device. For Mac and iPhone users, you can find it through your settings.

typing in chinese: default pinyin input on Mac
Pinyin Input on Mac
typing in chinese: default pinyin input on IOS
Pinyin Input on IOS


typing in chinese: default pinyin input on windows
Pinyin Input on Windows
typing in chinese: google pinyin for android
Pinyin Input on Android

Tool Recommendations for Typing in Chinese

Besides the default Pinyin keyboard, we also recommend a couple of tools that can be useful for Chinese learners.  Sogou Pinyin keyboard is one of the input method software with most users in the Chinese market. It is powerful for its lexicon and machine learning algorithm to let you type the most efficiently.

typing in chinese: sogou input method app
Sogou Input Method on Appstore

Gboard is highly recommended for Android users who need to type in more than two languages on their smartphones. You can get keyboards of multiple languages with this app and exchange them according to your needs when you type. 

typing in chinese: gboard app
Gboard on Google Play Store

Start Typing Chinese Characters with Pinyin

Once you are set up with your input software on your device, we can officially start typing Chinese characters. We start by typing single Chinese characters.

What About Tones When Typing in Chinese?

As you know, Pinyin consists of two parts: the romanization and the tonal mark. To type any Chinese characters, you only have to type the romanization on your keyboard.  For example, I want to type the character 你 (nǐ), I press “n” and “i” on my keyboard, then this is what I see:  typing in chinese: typing 你 After I type in romanization “ni”, the Microsoft default Pinyin keyboard provides me with a list of possible results for “ni”. In this list, characters with different tones are mixed together, but they all have “ni” as their romanization.  Therefore, when you type with Pinyin keyboard, you don’t need to know the exact tone, but you need to know the romanization of the characters and what they look like in order to pick them out from the results list.  Because the first one on the list is the character 你 I need, I either press “space” or “1” to type this character out.  If I want to type a less commonly used character 匿 (nì) which shares the same romanization, I have to expand the list and view more results. To do this, I press the “+” button on the keyboard.  typing in chinese: how to expand result list The list changes to other results: typing in chinese: typing 匿 To pick out the character 匿 I want, I press “6” to select it.  Note that due to the modern machine learning algorithms, the result selection system becomes more and more intelligent. It considers both the general character frequency and your personalized typing history. The more and recent you type a character, the more likely it will be put towards the front of the results list. 

How to Type ü

Now you might be wondering which letter on the keyboard represents the special “ü” letter in Chinese Pinyin. The answer for that is “v”.  “v” stands for ü” on the keyboard.  So here are which letters you would press to type words involving ü” :

  • 女 nv
  • 绿 lv

Compare them with typing “nu” and “lu”: 

  • 怒 nu
  • 鹿 lu

Typing Chinese Words or Phrases with Pinyin

The Pinyin keyboard also allows you to type multiple characters at the same time! This will improve your efficiency a lot by typing common words and phrases all at once instead of picking out each character one by one.

How to Pick the Correct Words or Phrases

To type a word or a phrase, you input all the romanization you need. For example, if I want to type 你好, I press “n” + “i” + “h” + “a” + “o” continuously, and this is what I get: typing in chinese: typing 你好 Because 你好 is listed as the first one, I either press “space” or “1” to select it.  If the word or phrase you are typing is not a common one, you will have to still pick individual characters out.  For example, if I try to type somebody’s name 李粒, I input the full romanization “lili” first. However, all the listed results are not what I want. typing in chinese: typing 李粒 So I press “+” to view more results and find the first individual character I want. After I find 李, I press “6” to select it.  typing in chinese: typing 李粒 Then the system will automatically move to the result of the second syllable “li”. I browse through the list to find the one I want.  After I find 粒,I press “1” or space to get the whole name. 

Apostrophe – the Syllable Dividing Mark

The apostrophe is a very useful tool to divide the syllables when you type words consisting of short syllables that might be confused as one. This can happen when the second syllable starts with a vowel.  For example, the romanization of the city name 西安 is “xi” and “an”. If I input “xian” directly, the system will give me results with the syllable “xian” but not “xi + an”. In order to solve this, I type an apostrophe ‘ after inputting the first syllable. By typing “xi’an”, I make sure that I get the correct word.  typing in chinese: typing 西安 Here are another two examples requiring the syllable dividing mark: 

  • 饥饿 ji’e
  • 湖岸 hu’an

Typing in Chinese: Punctuations

When you move on to type Chinese sentences or even paragraphs. You will need to use punctuation. There is no spacing in Chinese writing, but punctuation is necessary. Some Chinese punctuation rules work the same as in English.  Here is a list of common punctuation rules in Chinese and a brief introduction to their function. 

  • Full stop 。

The full stop marks the end of a sentence. 

  • Comma ,      

The comma marks a pause in a sentence. 

  • Exclamation mark !

The exclamation mark marks the end of an exclamation. 

  • Quotation mark “”

The Quotation marks in Chinese are used to directly quote other people’s words. 

  • Question mark ?

Question marks are used at the end of questions. 

  • Colon :

A colon usually precedes a list, an explanation or a quotation. 

  • Semicolon ;

The semicolon is something in between a full stop and a comma. It is used to segment clauses that are related. 

  • Enumeration comma

The enumeration comma is used to separate items in a list. 

  • Middle dot  ‧ 

The middle dot is put between the first and last names of translated western names. 

  • Title marks 《》

Title marks are used to signify the names of books or movies. 

  • Ellipsis  …… 

The Ellipsis is used to signify that some contents are omitted here. 

Another Pinyin Keyboard Layout on Smartphone – 9 Key

9 Key, also known as PhonePad,  is another Pinyin keyboard layout which is typically used on smartphones nowadays. It was actually the only keyboard layout available for Chinese people before the smartphone era, simply because all phones only had 9 keys for inputting back at that time! 

Why and How to Get 9 Key

As people gradually move to smartphones that can fit a 26-key keyboard on the screen, 9 key is now less commonly used, however it still remains the preferred choice for many people because it is easier to type with only one hand. typing in chinese: 9-key layout This is a typical 9 key layout on the phone. Key “1” represents the syllable dividing mark, while key “2” ~ “9” each represents 3 or 4 letters.  Before starting using 9 Key, you need to get it on your device first. The good news is that you don’t have to install any extra app for this. Most of the Chinese input apps allow you to change between 26 key full keyboard or 9 key within it.  typing in chinese: how to get 9-key layout

Typing Chinese Characters, Words and Phrases with 9 Key

Now you might be wondering how to use this keyboard layout with clusters of letters. The answer is don’t panic and just remember to use it according to Pinyin input rules. Instead of pressing the button representing each letter directly, you press the button containing the letter you want.  For example, if I want to type 你(nǐ), I need “n” and “i”. So I press “6” and “4” that contain these two letters. typing in chinese: typing 你 on 9 key Because the sequence of “6” + “4” can only make syllables “ni” or “mi”. The app will automatically provide you with the results of both syllables. Because 你 is a very common character, it ranks the first here, so I press it to type it into my text.  If your wanted character is less common and thus not listed in the first few recommendations, there are two things you can do.  First, you can select the specific syllable you want on the left side of the keyboard. By doing this, the app will only give you character results of the specified syllables, so you can pick out your character faster.  typing in chinese: specify the syllable on 9 key The other thing you can do is to extend the result list by pressing the “>” button in the upper right corner.  typing in chinese: expand the list on 9 key Then you’ll see an expanded result list and you can pick your desired character from there.  To type multi-syllable Chinese words or phrases, in the same manner, you press the buttons that contain the letters you need.  For example, if I want to type the four-character idiom 人山人海, I need the letters “renshanrenhai”. So I press the buttons “7367426736421”.  typing in chinese: type 人山人海 with 9 key Since this is a commonly used idiom, the app intelligently gives it to me. However, if you do not see the words or phrases, press the “>” button to view more in the expanded list.

Last But Not Least…

Congratulation for the acquisition of another important skill – typing in Chinese. We have a few more advice for you on not only practicing this skill to perfection but also improving your general competence in Chinese.

  • Review your panoramic plan of learning Chinese and wisely utilize your skill of typing in Chinese to practice Chinese through texting with Chinese friends, writing blogs in Chinese, etc.
  • Build your necessary vocabulary and practice typing in Chinese at the same time! Try to type these HSK 1, HSK 2, and HSK 3 words.
  • Keep learning Chinese with ChineseSkill scientifically designed curriculum!

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