Chinese Writing ‘Robot’ Stirs Debate

The story of a Chinese schoolgirl and her character-copying machine has sparked a debate about how the Chinese language should be taught in this age of automation.

According to the Qianjiang Evening News, a mother in the northeastern city of Harbin discovered that her teenage daughter had bought a machine to help her do homework exercises, like copying chunks of text and writing essays.

“Requiring children to copy text—such as vocabulary, textbook passages, or poems—hundreds of times is common practice in Chinese schools. With a minimum of about 3,000 Chinese characters required for fluency in Chinese, repetition is viewed as the most effective way to drum them in,” claims the South China Morning Post.

Despite festivities and traveling leaving little time for the assignments, Zhang was amazed when her daughter had finished all her exercises in two days, the report said. But while cleaning the girl’s room, Zhang found 

The daughter had spent about $120 to buy the device, a metal frame and pen, with packaging claiming it could “imitate all sorts of handwriting,” using money gifted to her during the Lunar New Year, but her mother reportedly smashed it, saying: “It can help you with homework, but can it help you on tests?” 

However, the newspaper report garnered considerable praise for the girl and her use of the device to complete time-consuming, repetitive tasks. Most of the comments on the newspaper’s social media posts enthused about the technology. 

The devices cost from 200 to more than 1,000 yuan ($30–$150) and work with the paper going in the center of a metal frame, with an arm to which a pen can be attached. When connected to a computer by a USB cable, its robotic arm writes text entered using the accompanying software.

Users can choose from a wide selection of fonts and even use their own handwriting font, by using an app to write 6,000 Chinese characters once each to enable the robot to learn them – or multiple times, so that each character does not look suspiciously identical.  

Interest in the machine has led to questions about the necessity of such homework assignments, arguments that the girl should no longer be made to copy texts at her age, and even education reform to require teachers to set challenging and creative homework rather than boring copying assignments.

Parents of Chinese students often cite the development of creativity and innovation as reasons to send their children to study overseas.

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