Kathleen Brady ‘11

Harvard University, Department of Linguistics

Chinese braille faces a unique challenge because the Chinese language is written using tens of thousands of characters that cannot be represented by the 63 possible combinations of dots used in six-dot braille. Chinese braille records the language phonetically, which prevents braille readers from distinguishing among homophones (words with different meanings that have identical pronunciations) and from accessing semantic information contained in written characters. The system also does not allow Chinese braille readers to create written documents that can be read by sighted people, causing a communication barrier between blind and sighted Chinese people. These problems are not the result of a lack of effort or care on the part of China and Chinese people, but are rather a product of the language and its writing system. With only twenty-six characters in the English alphabet, creating a one-to-one correspondence between print letters and braille symbols is fairly straightforward, but Chinese has almost two thousand times that number of characters, with the largest Chinese dictionaries containing upwards of 49,000 unique entries (Rogers, 2005). Even Japanese, which also uses characters, has less than two thousand and only developed brailled characters as recently as the 1980s (Dasgupta, 2002). This paper examines methods to increase reading speed and comprehension in Chinese braille and proposes a system of brailled characters that incorporates semantic elements into the braille code, distinguishing among homophones by creating a unique combination of braille cells for each Chinese character.

Assumptions and terminology

The braille code used in Mainland China is different from those used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and thus the terms ‘China’ and ‘Chinese braille’ will refer to Mainland China and the braille code used in Mainland China, respectively (Yau, 1991 and Chan, 2011). Furthermore, this paper accepts the assumption that Chinese characters are an important part of Chinese language and culture, an attitude that is widespread in China. One of the goals of this paper is to suggest realistic improvements to education for the blind in China, so cultural standards will be accepted as they are regardless of their linguistic validity.

Although the term blind is usually reserved for describing individuals with complete vision loss (Corn and Koenig, 1996), the term as used in this paper will refer to someone for whom braille is their primary literary medium, even if they have some residual vision.


Description of the Chinese braille code

The unit of braille is called a cell and consists of six dots. There are sixty-three unique combinations of raised dots that can be formed, which in English braille are used to write the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, to indicate numbers and capitalization, and to transcribe abbreviations for words and word parts such as the, sh, -ed, and, and –ing. These contractions ultimately save space and increase reading speed, but may make braille more difficult for beginning readers to learn (National Braille Press, 2010 and Millar, 1997).

Since Chinese lacks an alphabet, most of the 63 distinct braille symbols are used to represent the sounds of the language. Each syllable of Chinese, which corresponds to one character, is written as up to three cells of braille. The first cell gives the initial consonant; the second, the final vowel; and the third, the tone. Similar to  written pinyin, neutral tone is not marked in braille. Of the 63 possible cells that can be created in a six-dot braille code, this code uses 52 for initials and finals and four to mark tone, leaving six remaining dot combinations to express punctuation marks or to indicate numbers. Tone marks are frequently left out to save space, reducing the number of cells required to write one syllable from three to two (Huang & Zhang, 1985). Below is an example of Chinese braille using the word for ‘tone’, shēngdiào (声调). Spaces are used between word boundaries, but not between syllable boundaries, so there is no space between shēng and diào since together they form one word.

(Fig. 1) shēngdiào

Chinese braille also employs various methods to decrease the amount of space required to emboss braille texts. Reducing space is important for increasing reading speed, since braille reading speed remains consistent when measured in cells per minute (Legge et al., 1999). Thus, reducing the number of cells needed to write a text also reduces the amount of time required to read it. Since braille reading speeds tend to be lower than print reading speeds, any increase in braille reading speed is valuable and has strong implications for blind education by helping blind students keep up with their sighted peers.

In addition to eliminating tone marks, Chinese braille uses abbreviations. For example, the finals may be eliminated from a two-syllable word, and the abbreviation will just use the initial of each syllable. The phrase meaning ‘absolutely not’, bìng bù (并不) is abbreviated as bb, which reduces the number of braille symbols needed from six (or four) to two.

For the most part, there is no method for distinguishing among homophones in this phonetically-based system, although certain common homophones are written using abbreviations unique to a specific character. The three words in Chinese corresponding to the English words he, she, and it are all pronounced but are written differently. The braille code assigns a distinct set of cells to each of these pronouns to reduce confusion when reading braille.

(Fig. 2a) tā (他) 3rd person singular masculine pronoun ‘he’

This is written following the standard rules of Chinese braille.

(Fig. 2b) tā (她) 3rd person singular feminine pronoun ‘she’
(Fig. 2c) tā (它) 3rd person singular neutral pronoun ‘it’

The first cell in a different context would indicate a comma, but here it serves only to indicate a specific meaning of ‘tā’.

Two-cell Chinese braille

In the 1970s, a new braille code known as two-cell braille (汉语双拼盲文, hànyǔ shuāngpīn mángwén) was introduced in China. This system used a very complicated method of embedding tone onto the existing initial-final structure of Chinese braille, in which dots were added to the initial and final symbols depending on the tone and the vowel. Despite its capacity to distinguish among homophones in Chinese without requiring additional space, two-cell braille was retired after a decade because it was too difficult to learn and use (Li, 2011). Two-cell braille was not replaced by any other system and the Chinese braille code based on pinyin and described above in the previous section remains in use today.


Blind education in China

China has several government-funded schools for the blind, but many blind children go uneducated. There are also several privately-funded schools for the blind run by missionaries. If students have enough residual vision to see characters, they are not taught braille and are trained to use their remaining vision to read and write, even if they require very large font and bright lights (Zhang, 2008). Studies at a school for the blind in Tennessee have shown that low-vision students often reach higher levels of reading proficiency when they are also exposed to braille and that in order to learn to read braille efficiently, instruction must begin early in life (Trent & Truan, 1997).

Chinese contains numerous homophones, and since braille readers only perceive pinyin spellings of the language, they may have difficulties differentiating homophones. To demonstrate this difficulty, there are syllables of Chinese that can be written as over one hundred characters, each with a unique and unrelated meaning (Rogers, 2005). Chinese characters are made of subcomponents called radicals, which may indicate the meaning or pronunciation of the character. While sighted readers take advantage of semantic radicals to help them read faster (Miao and Sang, 1991, cited in Shu and Anderson, 1997), blind readers do not have access to this crucial information.

Also problematic is that college-level reading material is rarely available in braille and blind Chinese students tend to lag behind their sighted peers academically. Totally blind students rarely have the option to attend university but instead receive training in vocations such as massage therapy and piano tuning. If a student is particularly gifted in music or sports, he or she may have an opportunity to continue that as a career in a government-funded school. The availability of post-secondary study at a university depends largely on where the student lives, as universities in Shanghai can accommodate blind students while universities in Beijing can only accommodate students with enough residual vision to read print (Zhang, 2008).

In addition to learning to write braille using a stylus and slate to poke dots in a page, students also learn to use a pencil and paper to write pinyin with no tone marks (Huang and Zhang, 1985). Students can also use a braille typewriter to write braille. While this method of writing is better than nothing, there is no way for students to write or type characters, as even modern computer programs cannot accurately translate pinyin into characters due to the high number of homophones (Zhang, 2008).

Another problem faced by schools educating blind students is diglossia, which is the phenomenon of using a written language that differs from the spoken language (Hock and Joseph, 1996). Mandarin Chinese has thousands of dialects, so in many cases a child’s native language may be very different from the standard Beijing pronunciation, known as putonghua. While this is also a problem for sighted students, they can still learn characters by sight and by using semantic radicals until they master the putonghua pronunciations. Since blind students use braille that is based solely on the pinyin pronunciation of a character, they must master the standard pronunciation and language before they can begin to learn braille.  Learning braille is already a slower process than learning to read print (Hatlen, 2009), so having to learn a second language before learning to read adds another obstacle to literacy acquisition. Anecdotal evidence from Hong Kong, where Cantonese is spoken, suggests that students who do not speak the standard Hong Kong dialect as a first language make slower progress when learning braille (Wong, 1980). Since the braille codes of both Hong Kong and Mainland China are based on pronunciation rather than on characters, it is reasonable to infer that the issue of diglossia would create problems for learners of braille in Mainland China, as well.


Japanese language and brailled kanji

In order to understand the Japanese braille system, it is first necessary to understand the complex writing system of Japanese. Chinese characters used in Japanese are called kanji and often have different pronunciations and sometimes different meanings in different contexts. These different readings are called on readings and kun readings and are best explained through an example (Rogers, 2005). The word for ‘mountain’ in both languages is written 山. In Chinese this is pronounced shān and was borrowed into Japanese with the pronunciation /san/. When an adaptation of the original Chinese pronunciation is used in Japanese to express the Chinese meaning of a kanji, this is called the semantic on reading.

At the time of the borrowing, Japanese already had a word for mountain, yama, so the character 山 took on this pronunciation as well. This is known as a semantic kun reading when the character is pronounced using the Japanese word corresponding to the meaning of the Chinese character. There are 1,945 kanji in general use in Japan according to guidelines set by the country’s Ministry of Education (Dasgupta, 2002).

In addition to the kanji, Japanese also has two syllabic scripts, called the kana. Each kana symbol represents an open syllable of Japanese, or a consonant-vowel sequence. The kana can be used to write any word of Japanese phonetically, but they are typically only used in conjunction with the kanji to spell borrowed words, verb and noun inflections, or onomatopoeia. The modern Japanese braille code, invented in 1890 and known as tenji, is based on the kana script where one braille symbol represents each of the fifty kana (Ishihara, 1952). In this way, Japanese braille is analogous to Chinese braille, in that it is written based on the sounds of the language rather than on the writing system.

In 1982, an innovator named Hasegawa introduced a new addition to the Japanese braille code. This addition was known as tenkanji and allowed kanji characters to be written in braille. Since there are almost two thousand kanji in use in Japanese, each tenkanji requires three or four cells of braille. Although this may seem cumbersome to a braille user, it allows blind students to type kanji texts into a word processor and to create texts that can be read by sighted readers, which can lead to greater inclusion for blind students (Dasgupta, 2002). Before the Hasegawa approach for brailled kanji, blind Japanese students could only create text on a word processor using kana, resulting in a document almost unreadable to sighted readers. The use of tenkanji also allows blind Japanese readers to distinguish between homophones, while the basic tenji did not allow for those distinctions. To date, Chinese braille has no equivalent of the tenkanji for using braille dots to encode characters (Li, 2011).

Hasegawa’s tenkanji used both semantic and phonetic information to identify each of the 1,945 kanji. When describing the structure of tenkanji, I will use the convention laid out in Dasgupta’s description of Hasegawa’s work. The labels C1, C2, and C3 (and C4, if applicable) will refer to the first, second, and third cell of a tenkanji, respectively (1993). The 950 most common kanji are all written in the space of three cells to save space and increase efficiency for the reader. C1 always contains the tenkanji marker, indicating that the following cells will all encode a single kanji and are not to be read as kana. C2 contains the most common on reading for the character, and the most common kun reading is given in C3. To use the example above of the Japanese word for ‘mountain’, under the Hasegawa approach the kanji 山 would be brailled as follows:

           C1           tenkanji marker

           C2           kana braille symbol for sa(n)

           C3           kana braille symbol for ya(ma)

Here is an illustrated example, provided by Dasgupta (2002):

(Fig. 3) tenkanji for the kanji 安, which in Chinese is pronounced ān and means ‘tranquility, peace’

In Japanese, this kanji means ‘tranquil’ or ‘cheap’ and has the primary on-reading /an/ and the primary kun-reading /yasu-i/. Only one syllable of the kun-reading is used in the tenkanji, and that syllable is underlined.

The remaining 990 kanji have on and kun readings that overlap with the more common kanji described above, and so must be brailled using a different method. In some cases, rather than naming the kun reading in C3, Hasegawa names the primary semantic element of the kanji. A primary semantic element is the Japanese equivalent of a semantic radical in Chinese. In some cases, a synonym of the semantic element is named rather than the semantic element itself to further differentiate brailled kanji. Lastly, approximately 250 kanji do not contain semantic elements related to the meaning of the character, and in these cases C3 and C4 are used to describe other parts of the character and may be chosen arbitrarily for the purpose of creating a unique combination of braille cells to represent a given kanji.


Proposed system of brailled characters

A primary concern when developing a system for representing Chinese characters in braille would be designing a logical system that uses a minimal amount of space. A good starting point could be a braille code for the most common characters and the ones taught earliest in a child’s education, such as the 2,570 unique characters taught in regular Chinese primary schools, as recommended by the Elementary Education Teaching and Research Center at the Beijing Education and Science Institute (Shu et al., 1996). This set of characters is taught in elementary schools that use this particular textbook series, but is not standardized across China, and the precise list of characters taught in elementary schools may vary. However, the analysis used by Shu et al. is frequently cited in other analyses of literacy acquisition research in China. Once a productive system for representing Chinese characters in braille is developed, more characters could be included in the system. The system could be expanded to include the 3,800 characters that account for 99.9 percent of characters found in ordinary Chinese reading materials (Rogers, 2005). Due to the limited number of unique combinations of braille cells that are possible, it may not be possible to create brailled characters beyond that 3,800, and blind Chinese people would still need to rely on pinyin for rare or very technical characters, or a fifth cell could be added to the proposed braille system below to create braille forms of specialized words. The system could be used to augment the current system, not replace it, as the two would need to be used together for maximum efficacy. The balance of pinyin-based braille to brailled characters would need to be determined by empirical research in consultation with Chinese braille readers. As we will see below, the proposed system relies on the current system and requires knowledge of pinyin-based braille, so using a combination of the proposed system and the current pinyin-based system should not create additional strain on a user, beyond the effort required to use the proposed system alone.

Similar to Hasegawa’s tenkanji, each Chinese character in this system could be encoded into braille in a span of three to four cells. The first two cells would indicate the pinyin pronunciation in a manner that is no different from the braille system that currently exists. The vowel in C2 may be eliminated or replaced by an indication of tone to differentiate homophonous characters containing the same radical.

The following two cells, C3 and C4, would be used to indicate the main semantic radical contained in the character. There are 189 character components that can be the main radical for a character, so these second two cells will be enough to encode all 189 radicals. Character marker 1 would occupy C3 for 63 of these radicals, which will be differentiated by the braille symbol in C4. For radicals 64 through 126, character marker 2 will occupy C3, and to indicate radicals 127 through 189, C3 will be occupied by character marker 3. If a character is classified under multiple radicals, a single radical will be chosen to use in this system. The choice of which radical to use will be based on an attempt to spread the characters evenly across the radicals, minimizing the number of homophonous characters that are differentiated by the same semantic radical in this braille code. The use of tone to distinguish between semantically related homophones is already a method used in the current braille system, such as the three-way distinction between the pronouns “he”, “she”, and “it”, which are all pronounced (see fig. 3). For reference, a summary of the general structure of the proposed system is given below:

          C1           initial consonant

          C2           final vowel or tone

C3           character marker – one of the four unique braille cells not already in use in Chinese braille

(see fig. 3.3 for examples)

C4           one of 63 braille symbols to indicate the semantic radical –

this will be referred to as the “radical indicator”

The main radical for each character in the tables below was determined using the Hanzi xinxi zidian (“Chinese character information dictionary”) and the Hanyu xindai da cidian (“Chinese modern large dictionary”). In Table 1, the main radical for each character is listed in the table, including multiple radicals if they were listed in the dictionary. The radical used in the brailled form of the character is given in the far right column of the table.

Ideally, the most frequently-occurring characters could be represented in only three cells of braille instead of four. This is possible, if for a given radical, there is only one character that starts with a certain initial. In this case, it would be possible to name that character using only the initial consonant of its pronunciation and omit the final vowel. Decreasing space can save printing costs as well as increase reading speed, both of which have important implications for blind people communicating and learning to read.

An example of a brailled character demonstrating C2 elimination is shown below. The character 蚕, cán, ‘silkworm’ is the only character that begins with /c/ and has 虫 as its primary radical. This example is taken from row 53 of Table 2.

           C1           braille for pinyin /c/ ()

           C2           omitted, so C3 will follow directly after C1 with no space in between

           C3           one of the three character markers

           C4           the braille symbol that when combined with the marker in C3 indicates the semantic radical 虫.

If more than two homophonous characters contain the same primary radical, eliminating C2 is not a viable option for distinguishing among the homophones. In this case, C2 can be used to indicate tone rather than to indicate the final vowel. Consider the characters 蟹, xiè, ‘crab’, and 蝎, xiē, ‘scorpion’, which can not be distinguished by pinyin alone. The final vowel is replaced by the tone mark in the brailled rendering of 蟹, ‘crab’ below. These examples are taken from rows 44 and 48 of Table 2, below.

           C1           braille for pinyin /h or x/ ()

           C2           braille for fourth tone ()

           C3           one of the three character markers

           C4           the braille symbol that when combined with the marker in C3 indicates the semantic radical 虫.

Deciding which character keeps its final vowel in the brailled form and which character will have its vowel replaced with an indication of tone is arbitrary.

It is beyond the scope of this project to offer braille transcriptions for the many thousands of characters in use in Chinese so I will instead provide examples of how the system would work in the tables below. Table 1 will illustrate how the system differentiates between homophones. Because tone marks are frequently omitted in Chinese braille, tone will be ignored when determining homophony in these examples, and words pronounced shī, shí, shǐ, and shì will be considered homophones. Each of the approximately sixty characters pronounced /shi/ will be listed with a brief definition, followed by its radical and then an illustration of how the character would be rendered into braille.

Table 2 follows a similar format, and shows the proposed braille renderings of all the characters that contain the radical 虫, meaning ‘insect’. Each character will be presented along with its pronunciation and a brief definition in English, and then its proposed brailled form.

In the event that a character has more than one pronunciation, the more common pronunciation will be used for its braille form regardless of how the character would be pronounced in a specific context. This will minimize the number of characters that need to be learned, and reduce confusion when translating documents from print into braille.

Table 1. Proposed brailled versions of characters pronounces Shi
Shi is a syllabic consonant, so the vowel is not written in the current braille code to save space. !is creates an issue when brailing characters since one of the methods suggested for distinguishing between homophones is to omit the “nal vowel. However, other methods for di#erentiating homophones are also available and will be demonstrated in Table 1.

Some of the proposed brailled characters may stray from the four-cell plan outlined above. Such deviations are sometimes necessary in order to create a unique combination of cells for each character.

This proposed system is not perfect and definitely has room for further improvement. The proposed system of brailled characters does not solve the problems created by diglossia, since it remains dependent on the putonghua pronunciation of the character. Additionally, the list of characters used in the tables above is not exhaustive, as there are tens of thousands of Chinese characters. Instead, the proposed system only covers the commonly used characters, and characters that occur less frequently would not have a special braille symbol and would still be written in pinyin. The set of characters on which this proposed system is based is the set of characters pronounced shi or containing the radical 虫 and found in the dictionaries cited above. This proposal does not specify which braille symbols should serve as which radical indicators and character markers, since that is a decision best left to the brailled readers who would use such a braille code.

Since the proposed system of brailled characters adds to the current system, rather than altering it, the proposed system should not encounter the problems that led to an early end for two-cell braille. The two-cell system called for alterations of the individual pinyin symbols depending on the tone and the syllable, so a reader who had not mastered the system would not be able to pronounce an unknown word. The proposed system leaves the pinyin largely intact, especially for the most frequently used characters. Thus, if a beginning reader encounters a word written using the proposed system and is not familiar with the characters identified by the semantic elements, the reader could still use the phonetic information contained in the brailled character and treat the character as if it was written in the current pinyin-based system.



A system of brailled characters for Chinese would increase educational opportunities for blind people in China. Using the unique combination of cells assigned to each character, blind people could type at least the most common characters onto a computer, allowing them to create documents that sighted people can read. This technology would allow blind people to communicate with their sighted peers, and open up more opportunities for blind people to succeed in school and at work. Since sighted Chinese children can acquire new vocabulary words just from reading them in context by using semantic information contained in the radicals (Shu et al., 1996), brailled characters could allow blind children to acquire vocabulary from reading, allowing them to catch up to their sighted peers.

Additionally, access to Chinese characters could allow blind people greater inclusion in society. Chinese characters are valued as a part of Chinese history and culture, stretching back over three thousand years to the eleventh century BCE (Rogers, 2005), so brailled characters would allow blind people some insight into that aspect of their language and culture.

More research is still needed before implementing the proposed system. In consultation with blind people who would be using the system, it is important to determine a balance between brailled characters and pinyin. Since brailled characters take up more space and take more time to learn, some words might be better written using pinyin-based braille to maximize reading speed and efficiency. Thus, I do not suggest that my proposed system should be implemented immediately, but rather that it is a starting point for more research into the topic, in collaboration with the population that would be using the braille code. Brailled characters would allow blind Chinese people to write texts in Chinese at the same level as their sighted peers and read more difficult texts, which in turn would offer them greater educational opportunities.



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  1. Would you be interested in setting up a pilot project of your Chinese braille in Wuhan?

  2. Hi, I’m teaching Chinese braille in rural western China.
    Could you please send me any lists of 现行abbreviations?
    In other words, ‘bb’ etc…

    I can’t find any such lists on line, and my students need to know!
    Thank you!