China has 802 million internet users. It’s a massive number for sure, but it also only accounts for just over half of the country’s 1.4 billion people. That leaves hundreds of millions still cut off from the web -- many of them older and illiterate. Yet some of them are quickly beginning to catch up with the times, according to the South China Morning Post.


Even for those who are literate, typing Chinese on a smartphone isn’t as simple as English. That’s because while all English words are made up of the 26 letters that you can find on a standard keyboard, there are over 50,000 unique characters in the Chinese language.

To overcome the challenge, people in China rely on a language system known as pinyin. It was introduced by the government in the 1950s, and lets you spell out Chinese words according to their pronunciation using the Latin alphabet. When you type in pinyin on a phone, you can select the correct character from a list of similar sounding words.

The pinyin input method on an iPhone (right) versus the handwriting function (left).

But here’s the problem. Many of those in the older generation went to school before pinyin was made mandatory for students. So even if they know how to write simple Chinese characters, they can’t type in pinyin. That’s where the touchscreen comes in handy.

Nearly all phones sold in China come with software that let users draw Chinese words with their fingers. That means they don’t need to use the English keyboard at all, instead writing just like they would on paper.


Of course, others can’t read or write at all, so drawing out characters like that won’t help. That’s where technology comes into play.

A new solution is native dictation apps that can translate speech into text instantly, so they don’t need to write anything out.

It’s even easier with messaging apps. On WeChat, for instance, people can simply send voice or video messages of themselves talking.


Short video apps are all the rage in China right now. The most popular ones, like Kuaishou and Douyin (know as Tik Tok overseas), attract a vast number of users from poorer and less educated areas of the country.

The China Internet Report 2018 says 175 million short video app users come from rural China. That’s where one Oxford University researcher told the SCMP she saw people with low literacy turning to video for entertainment.

As more people in China go online, smartphones and the apps that come with them will likely become more indispensable: A whopping 98% of all internet users in China already surf the web on mobile, with more than 70% of them turning to the web for video, online shopping and payment.