In December 2021 clusters of grey, yellow and green squares started to appear on social media feeds and smartphone screens. These images were often accompanied by messages of pride or frustration from the sender.
These were scores on Wordle: a simple, once-a-day word game that has taken much of the world by storm.
Soon there were spin-off versions in German, French, Arabic and Turkish. But for would-be Chinese players, there was a problem. Wordle is a spelling game where you guess a five-letter word by narrowing down its component letters through a process of trial and error. Chinese characters can’t be broken down in the same way. And Chinese words spelt into Latin letters (or pinyin) don’t work very well in Wordle either, because there are so many homonyms once the tones are stripped out.
The difficulty of producing a Chinese version of the game – one that has the same simple appeal as the original (itself based on old parlour games) – speaks to the age-old debate on the practicality of the written Chinese language. Mao Zedong even contemplated developing a phonetic alphabet as part of his attempt to improve China’s literacy rate in the 1950s.
Most of the Wordle spin-offs in China take a different approach with players guessing traditional sayings or Chinese idioms known as chengyu, rather than individual words. Because chengyu are sentences, characters can be entered rather than letters.
And because they are established phrases – just like words have established spellings – there is a decent chance of being able to work out the answers from some solid knowledge of chengyu and the patterns they follow.
The main contenders among the Chinese apps are Han Dou, which allows users a free selection of characters, and Chengyu Wordle, which invites players to choose characters from a limited list. Pinyin Cai Chengyu – a fiendishly difficult game where players enter pinyin and only see the characters at the end of the game – is another.
None have been able to replicate the viral success of Wordle, however.
In Hong Kong, programmers have tried a different tack. The Cantonese version of the game is closer to the original in that it has people guess a word using Roman input. Another version asks players to guess an individual character using the Cangjie keyboard input method (which is bit like coding for individual characters) but this proved too much for players unfamiliar with the format. “Why do I find it easier to play Wordle in English than in my own language,” asked one frustrated Pinyin Cai Chengyu player.
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