Issue 1
Issue 1

Beyond “Blind” Reading: A Brief History of Braille in China

If you went to middle school in Mainland China in the 1990s, you might remember an article in your English textbook about the birth of Braille, the tactile writing system for the blind.

Before Braille, carved-out Latin letters on wooden boards were used to give the blind a reading system. Later on, the letters were pressed into soft cloth using pins, or printed heavily on thick paper with big lead letterheads-this was a cheaper and easier system than the wooden boards. Such embossed letters might look nice, but they were slow to touch and read. They were not easy to write either.

Inspired by the “night writing” or sonogra-phy that French soldiers used to communicate silently at night, Louis Braille (1809–1852) started to experiment with a reading and writing system for the blind in 1821. The blind Frenchman replaced the complicated embossed Latin alphabets with simple raised dots, embossed on special paper. In 1829, Louis Braille publically presented his 6-dot system at the Royal Institute for the Blind in Paris. It included musical notation and mathema-tical symbols. This system, known for its simple codes and facility for tactile recognition, was well received among the visually impaired and their special education instructors. Braille’s invention solved the difficult issues of reading and writing for the blind, and it soon became the universal communication tool for blind people all over the world. The International Congress of Teachers of the Blind, held in Berlin in 1879, approved the system as the official educational language of the blind. Named in 1885 after its inventor, the Braille System was acknowledged in 1887 as the international writing system for the blind.

Braille made its way to China in the same century. In 1874, the Scottish missionary William Hill Murray established the Hill Murray Institute for the Blind in Beijing (now the Beijing School for the Blind). The English Bible, printed in Braille, was the first book used at the institute for a missionary purpose. William Hill Murray would later collaborate with visually impaired Chinese people to develop China’s own version of Braille, employing the 6-dot system, the phonology of the Kanghsi Dictionary and the tones of the Beijing dialect. This Chinese Braille used 40 dot formations to write out 408 phonetics, representing 408 sounds of the Mandarin commonly spoken in Northern China.

And so, the very first Chinese Braille system in history was born and named the Kanghsi System for the Blind (also known as the Beijing System, the Concorde System for the Blind and System 408). Subsequently, other versions of Chinese Braille modeled after such dialects as Hokkien and Nanjing Mandarin.

In 1952, Huang Nai, chairperson of the China Association for the Blind and Deaf, worked to improve existing Braille versions such as the Nanjing Mandarin system and launched the new Chinese Braille program. The new program, based on official standard Chinese with Beijing dialect intonation and the same 6-dot Braille system, uses the pinyin phonetic system to spell out segmented compound words and phrases. It is commonly known as the “Current Chinese Braille” system today. This Braille system is composed of 21 consonants, 34 vowels, tone marks and punctuation marks. Embossed dots are numbered and arranged inside of one 6-dot matrix to represent a combination of consonants and vowels, forming one Chinese character.

The system was approved by China’s Education Ministry in 1953 and launched nationwide; it is still commonly used today. At the same time, visually impaired inventor Li Ding made a breakthrough in lead letterhead publishing in Chinese Braille. On December 3rd, 1953, China published the first Braille book, The Most Adorable Person. While characters are strung together into sentences in standard written Chinese, Chinese Braille segments the characters into word compounds, phrases or semantic units. This system provides more contextual information and suggestions for “guessing.”

I say “guessing” because of the large number of homophones in Chinese. However, in order to save space, tones are not necessarily marked in Chinese Braille. This means “one item” (一個, tone 2 and tone 4) and “one square” (一格, tone 4 and tone 2) would both be printed as “yige” in Chinese Braille, without their respective tone marks. The fact that Chinese is a tonal and contextual language makes the break between semantic units even more necessary when tone marks are omitted. While the pinyin word “yige” (one) might be difficult to guess, the word compound “yigenüsheng”(onegirl) would be almost impossible to decipher. With “yige nüsheng,” it would be easier to come up with “one girl.” Imagine a whole English sentence without any breaks between words, it’s exactly the same thing here.

One might ask: Why don’t we leave a space after each Chinese character, the natural syllabic unit? Well, space is an issue for Braille printing, which is usually done on kraft paper. Kraft paper is wider and thicker than regular A-4 paper, so one page of standard Chinese text printed on common paper will turn into three pages of Braille printed on kraft paper. If all the Chinese characters in the text were spaced out, the book would be incredibly thick. Also, it is much easier to “guess” the meaning of Chinese words when they are con-textually segmented into semantic units.

The lack of required tone marks in this version of Chinese Braille makes this system challenging to communicate effectively. In 1957, Huang Nai and Fu Liangwen proposed a new Chinese Braille system. After more than a decade of working to improve the system and consulting experts, they integrated the segmentation style (which is the greatest advantage of the Current Chinese Braille) and complete intonation marking within each unit of two 6-dot matrixes—in this way tones and words came together as one. (This modification is the greatest advantage of Current Chinese Braille.) On top of that, there was a set of regulations applied to standardize contracted writings. In 1991, the final version was adopted officially and named the Double-Spelling System for the Blind.

Double-Spelling Braille is more efficient and practical than Current Chinese Braille. Except for compound words such as “public welfare” (公益 gongyi) and “artcraft” (工藝 gongyi) that have exactly the same tones and pronunciation, most words with the same pronunciation but different tones can be easily distinguished by blind readers. However, the Current Chinese Braille, or the old version, had already been widely taught and used by the blind community. The new Double-Spelling System wasn’t warmly received amongst school instructors and elderly blind people, who resisted a new Braille with such different coding. On the other hand, it also shows that the Current Chinese Braille system might be sufficient enough for a blind person’s day-to-day needs. Perhaps the distinctions between these different types of Braille are not all that significant in the lives of the people using them.

Good enough is never good enough though. With the blind community becoming increasingly involved in varying social activities, the Current System has its limitations. Blind individuals need to integrate with the rest of society. To solve the tonal issue of the Current System, experts are working on another version that saves space and is easy to read. But they aren’t aiming to change the Current Chinese Braille system too drastically.

Nevertheless, it is important to recognize the ultimate limitation of the Braille structure for the Chinese language. Braille, which originated from Latin languages, is more suited for phonogramic languages. While Chinese characters have phonogramic and signifying properties, the Chinese language contains an enormous quantity of same-pronunciation characters and words that can have different meanings. Therefore, using only phonograms in the more complex Chinese language setting puts visually impaired people at a disadvantage.

Without proper language training, the visually impaired might confuse phonetically identical words, causing misunderstandings in emails or instant messages. An apology for “belated (拖 tuo) responses” could become an apology for “naked (脫 tuo) responses.” That kind of error can make blind people look uneducated. But mainstream society has continuously neglected the blind community’s specific need: a tailor-made education and communication system to support them.

It’s still debatable which Braille system is best. At the same time, there is a whole new debate brewing about the raîson d’être of Braille with the rise of screen reader software and apps on computers and smartphones. Just as people argue the pros and cons of digital books and print books, disagreements over screen readers and Braille also exist. In fact, the debate within the blind community is becoming even more heated.

Braille provides the blind with equal access to information through tactile reading. But today, that same job can be done through a screen reader on a smartphone or computer. The user listens to the information instead of reading it by touch. Some people think that tactile reading is no longer necessary for a few reasons. Books printed in Braille are thick, heavy and inconvenient, and there are only so many titles published in that format. There are less than 1,000 braille books published each year, accounting for less than 1% of regular paper books. Most of the time, their contents are outdated. Last but not least, China’s literacy level of Braille (both for the Current and Double-Spelling versions) is still very low despite decades of promotion and education. Only a handful of visually impaired people out of China’s total population of 13 million can read.

Screen readers make reading for the blind much easier. You can start reading anything (as long as it is available online), any time, any place and at any speed you want. Compared to reading Braille books, you can read ten times faster on a reader with an adjustable speed setting. More importantly, your reading becomes more individualized and up-to-date with the rest of the world. Writing or inputting information is also more efficient — either with the keyboard or speech recognition software (which is functioning better and better these days). More and more systems are providing compound word assistance for each Chinese character to make it easier to find the right character among many homophones. For example, when you type the pinyin “tuo”, the software will give you two options: “tuo” (拖), to drag, or “tuo” (脫), to remove. This also means that the pedagogy for blind people should focus on the differentiation of homophones to improve their understanding of Chinese characters.

Some organizations have started to provide tailor-made services like converting paper books into digital books. They have helped blind students prepare for the College Entrance Examination and published textbooks for visually impaired students so they can study at regular colleges. As China’s society ages, the visually impaired population is likely to grow. It is obviously cheaper and easier for blind people to use screen readers rather than learn Braille from scratch.

People opposed to this new trend might not have anything against the screen reader technology itself. But they do insist that visually impaired people learn tactile reading. For some of them, feeling the weight of a Braille book in hand, reading word by word by fingertip, smelling the paper of each page — that’s the joy of reading. Those non-visually-impaired readers who advocate the pleasure of reading paper books over e-books can surely sympathize with them. At the same time, they also think it is more con-venient for students to use Braille books and take notes in Braille. The real challenge for tactile reading, they think, is not Braille itself. The fact that the Braille publishing industry is underdeveloped and fails to engage with the blind community when it comes to policy and decision-making poses more problems. Even more interesting is the idea, held by many visually impaired people, that giving up Braille means losing a writing system. Is there anything more catastrophic than a community becoming a people without words?

It is hard to say which side makes more sense. Those favoring screen readers are mostly people who have lost their sight after birth, who cannot read Braille or do not know Braille well enough. Those who insist on the necessity of Braille are mostly people who were born blind, who are older, or who teach at schools for the blind. Compared to the broader debate over print books vs digital books for sighted people, this situation is about much more than a psychological barrier. It involves a whole physical and sensual transition for blind people, from touching to hearing.

The human auditory system receives messages in a linear and passive way; any information accessed through hearing therefore requires great attention of the listener. For visually impaired people, reading is conducted through the longitudinal dimension of time. It is hard for them to read through the transverse dimension of structure and context — of course it’s not totally impossible, but it’s troublesome to operate on the computer and it’s inconvenient to memorize or to do parallel reading. Highly technical material demands careful reading but it’s easy to get distracted when you are listening. We have to stop the reader or replay it — and this process conflicts with our thought process. I heard a joke from a visually impaired friend about how he or she is envious of people who can play with their smartphones or work on their laptops during a meeting. It is impossible for visually im-paired people to do that because they can only focus on one thing at one time. Tactile reading, which is closer to visual reading, helps them stay in control and feel more at ease. 

Some of my friends welcome the age of the internet on the one hand, and insist on tactile reading on the other. It is not difficult to have it both ways. You just need a computer, a refreshable Braille display and screen reader software supporting voice prompt and the Braille display. The Braille display is a device with a mechanism to raise dots and convert coded output into Braille characters to send to a special touch screen. Users only need to operate the Braille display’s keyboard or buttons to change the content line by line or paragraph by paragraph. Advanced Braille displays do not need to be connected to a computer — you only have to insert a memory card to read the e-books stored on it. Some portable Braille displays have an input function, allowing users to take notes. This device may fit some reading habits, making it easier for readers’ thoughts to flow freely as they consume information. But the device is still confined by the size of its touch screen. At this stage, we have not yet overcome the difficulty of enabling the visually impaired to read books through the transverse dimension of structure.

In the future, it is likely that more reading options better suited to the needs of the blind community will emerge, changing and adjusting themselves according to the way information is accessed. Maybe we will be able to insert knowledge SIM cards into our brains, or maybe our consciousness will be detached from our brains. We will no longer engage ourselves in vehement fights over who’s right or wrong; instead, we’ll show mutual respect and understanding.

In any case, we need to determine our needs and goals for reading as individuals. With that in mind, we should be able to identify our rights, capabilities and methods of support to make the best decisions.

Text by Cai Cong, Visually Impaired, Editor-in-Chief of Youren Magazine English translation by Tom Wang and Lin Yuting
Chapter 10 – 12