The peculiar challenges of Chinese Braille

chinesebraille.jpg The Braille system, in which the characters of a language are represented via the position of dots in a six-dot cell, is called "the world's first binary encoding scheme" for the characters of a language. Though text-to-speech technology enables many blind people to read via computer, Braille is still considered an integral part of literacy for blind people. Most languages use one cell to represent one language phoneme. All Braille encodings employ the left-to-right evenly spaced cell patterns. Japanese Braille, Korean Braille, and Tibetan Braille (developed in 1992) have reassigned all the Braille blocks to sounds in their own languages. Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese Braille, based on pin-yin, use three characters per syllable: onset, rime and tone. The tone characters are frequently disregarded, creating ambiguity and problems for Chinese Braille students. See also: Chinese-designed super cool Braille embossing printer/labeler, DotlessBraille for info on open source LaTeX and XML to Braille translation software and a terrific Braille FAQ, Moon Code and an early Braille book burning. [photo of performance art exhibit via impact lab]


  1. It would seem that the title of your article is not correct; Chinese braille does not use the a 1-to-1 orthographic pinyin system. Although this article ( says pinyin is used, this is flatly contradicted by the next two articles you link to (,, not directly in name but in description. As described both in the articles you linked to and in your own description, the system is actually “phonetic,” with each onset and rime represented by its own character. That’s not the characteristic of the pin-yin romanization, it’s the characteristic of zhuyin fuhao.

    Prior to the romanization that let to pin-yin being developed, a syllabic system called zhu-yin ( was used in China. All the onsets and rimes of mandarin, for example, are able to be expressed using one of the 37 characters of the zhuyin system, and each tone with a diacritic.

    It would make no sense to use pinyin, which uses the roman alphabet (and a lot of letters per character, plus diacritic), because that would require many more letters per character, and it seems the person (people?) who designed Chinese braille realized this.

    Incidentally, using the zhuyin fuhao system characters can be represented by as little as 1 symbol and 1 diacritic and I think as many as 3 symbols and a diacritic, which makes the range of symbols required for characters in Chinese braille actually 2-4.

    Since I’m part Taiwanese I have to make some obligatory comment on how much Mao’s cultural revolution sucked. Suffice to say pinyin wasn’t a great achievement, it was just Mao trying to be different.

  2. I’m absolutely loving your posts, Jessamyn. You’ve a weath of quirky snippets and curios to share, and I’m really enjoying reading them. The links in this posts are giving me a serious nerd-on.

  3. So…we needed a picture of a naked (presumably) Chinese woman to go with this article…why? And her eyes are pixelated? Wha???

  4. It’s a photo from a Chinese performance art piece that I thought went nicely with the subject matter, though I have no idea why her eyes are pixellated. There’s not much else image-wise that I found in my internet random walks that seemed to go with it. Sorry if you find it problematic.

  5. If the attached image is in any way representative of the challenge of Chinese braille, then I wholeheartedly accept this challenge.

  6. I’m going to go out on a limb and risk looking stupid in public yet again; apologies in advance.

    The icon of the tattooed Chinese woman is a topic in Asian lit, and it’s a topic that Frank Chin and Maxine Hong Kingston have had a dust-up over. Take a look:

    I think it’s safe to say that this is probably valid stuff for performance artists to explore, and as a visual metaphor for Chinese braille, it seems pretty innocent and straightforward to me.

    Okay, group hug everybody.

  7. I must say, being bi-lingual with Japanese myself (language background in college and abroad), also with a friend learned-fluent in Mandarin Chinese, this article really intrigues me.

    I had no idea how my own second language of Japanese’s system of braile worked. I mean, think of it. A second written (embossed) language for everyone blind, but on top of their own NATIVE language? How’s that NOT wild? How can you not wonder how that works? Who decides these amazing systems to work in other languages? I would stare at Japanese braile on office door markers for ten minutes sometimes, trying to discern how that’s worked out.

    Thanks to this article, I feel I might get it better. With Mandarin, though, all those tones- wow, what a mindfuck. It’s a linguistic mindfuck period (in structure complexity with so many tonal levels, from what I understand), but transcribing it into BRAILE? Jesus.

    This is one of those things that really makes me glad I read BB daily, for a long time now- you never know what you’ll find, both incredibly cool and relevant to a large population of people around the world at the same time, even when it’s your own backyard- no mainstream news outlet can touch that kind of formula.

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