Americans familiar with the National Spelling Bee, will not be surprised by the fact that teenage champions can spell words such as, stromuhr, serrefine, and guerdon (whatever on earth they might mean). However, this summer, Chinese people were surprised to find Chinese teenagers could memorize complex characters such as 蹶(jué), 羼(chàn) ,谶 (chèn), on the TV show 汉字英雄（Hànzì Yīngxióng, literally, Hero of Chinese Characters). On the show, contestants from seven to 17 years-old compete to show their mastery of Chinese language.
Starting July 11, the show is produced jointly by Henan Satellite Television and iqiyi.com, an online video platform. It has become a surprise hit, and was in the top three ratings last Friday, beating several popular singing and dancing competitions that were shown at the same time.
There are even rumors that some Chinese teachers have been telling students to watch the show as their homework. More and more students are seemingly rekindling a love of Chinese language, which perfectly fits the stated aim of the show: “Seeking Chinese characters that we lost using keyboards”(寻找键盘里失落的汉字 xúnzhǎo jiànpán lǐ shīluò de hànzì).
This preliminary rounds start with a game called 十三宫(shísān gōng，Thirteen Palaces). There are thirteen empty rooms and each room has a question. The contestant step into the first room and answers a question. If correct, they move into the next room, and this process continues. However, if a contestant is wrong, they have to chose to turn left or right, and answer questions in a new room. However, if there are no empty rooms available, the contestant will have to leave the Thirteen Palaces, and it is game over.The contestants write characters according to their pronunciation, for example, they may be asked to write “mǐng”, as the “mǐng” in 酊大醉”; the contestant is able to ask for clarification and how it would be used in a sentence. During the game, the contestant has one opportunity to ‘phone a friend’ and get help via a 30 second telephone communication (sound familiar?)
This game, which is useful for writing practice as well as learning characters, attracted the interest of many people. They can even download an App named 汉字英雄, for both the Apple and Android systems.
In the intermediate rounds, contestants write a series of characters that are homophones. The first contestant not able to remember the characters fails.For example, a contestant may be asked to write all the permutations of the character “chan” (chān chán chǎn chàn), which would be 43 characters, according to the 11th edition of the Xinhua Chinese Character Dictionary (《新华字典》Xīnhuá zìdiǎn), so it is no easy task.A contestant might be asked to write the character according to its radical, for example, according to the 氵 (三点水儿,sāndiǎnshuǐr), 辶 (走之儿,zǒuzhīr),讠(言字旁儿,yánzìpángr), etc.
In the Qing Dynasty(1616-1911) , according to the Kangxi Dictionary (康熙字典), there were more than 47,000 Chinese characters, so the language would seem very difficult to master. However, Chinese characters have a large number that are pictographic. Their pictographic nature imbue them with a powerful vitality that is difficult to find in a Romance language.
Contestants who memorize a huge number of characters undoubtedly astonish the audience. A 16-year-old girl, Zhang Siyu, who was greatly influenced by her grandfather, insisted on reading every single issue of the Chinese character learning and research magazine《咬文嚼字》(Yǎo Wén Jiáo Zì) since first grade. She has now read 149 issues, and thus can be considered a bona fide expert at these kinds of questions, and, accordingly, she performed very well on the show.
Yu Dan, a professor at Beijing Normal University, points out: “Actually, compared with pronunciation right now, it is more important for us to trace the development and evolution of pronunciation and character pattern…You can find out the historical evolution of grammatical and pronunciation rules; this is the most interesting part of the ‘Hero of Chinese Character’”.
Professor of Chinese language at Peking University, Zhang Yiwu, says, “The language can be summed up in four characters 约定俗成 (yuē dìng sú chéng)，That is, it is established by people through long social practice and accepted due to customs over time. If the tendency is for language to take a certain direction over time, then people will pick up on that and follow it.”
Twelve episodes have now finished and the show will have its semi-final imminently. People interested in Chinese characters could do worse than watching this amusing little gem, either on TV or via internet.
A few minutes video from Episode Two
Hero of Chinese Characters
Henan Satellite Television 21:25 every Thursdays and Fridays