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Ubuntu 9.10 Chinese Input Methods

Ubuntu pinyin floating toolbarAfter installing the files for Chinese support, there is at least one more thing to do before you can start typing Chinese. Ubuntu 9.10 has switched us to the IBus (Intelligent Input Bus) framework. new site

According to the official announcement, IBus provides a "full featured and user friendly input method user interface" and is more flexible so it "also may help developers". But as at least one blogger named Samiux puts it, "IBus is not mature and complete, I choose SCIM instead". As for me, the Pinyin romanization-with-tone-marks input is a nice-to-have, but every time I look at the Pinyin input method that displays apostrophes (see below), I tend to agree with Samiux! Want to get your SCIM back? See my Ubuntu settings page for a link to Samiux's instructions.

If you have Ubuntu 9.04, your default input methods are SCIM!
See Ubuntu 9.04 Chinese input methods

Ubuntu 9.10 Input Method Selection:

To get the IBus keyboards to appear, do the following after installing the files for Chinese support (including selecting IBus in that little menu I showed you there).

First, right-click on the keyboard icon and then select "Preferences":

Opening iBus preferences

Then in IBus Preferences, click on "Select an input method":
IBus Preferences - Select an Input Method

When you click there you'll see all these languages, and can scroll down to "Chinese" to reveal the available input methods:
Ubuntu iBus Preferences - Selecting Chinese input methods

Select the input method(s) you want and click the "Add" button. Below you can see that I selected all of the phonetic input methods (skipping the non-phonetic Cangjie, Wubi and Quick/jianyi), and then used the "Up" and "Down" buttons to arrange the list order leaving English as the default:
Ubuntu iBus Preferences - Input Method List - English and Chinese

Now press the "Close" button.

Please don't forget this next step every time you make a change in the Language panel: right-click on the keyboard icon and select "Restart".
Ubuntu 9.10 iBus restart

The keyboard disappears and reappears, and now we're ready to learn more about these input methods.


If you try to left-click the keyboard icon without first opening something you can type into, it just says "No input window". A basic suite of applications from, also known as "OOo", is included with Ubuntu. When we installed Chinese features for Ubuntu all files required for Chinese support were also installed. Let's open OOo Writer and try those features out.

Go to the Ubuntu Applications menu (or the Ubuntu Netbook Desktop left-side menu), select "Office" and then the Word Processor:

OpenOffice on Ubuntu Application Menu

OOo Asian language features are usually enabled by default after the installation. In earlier versions this was not the case, and you had to go to Tools > Options > Language Settings > Languages then click the box next to "Enabled for Asian languages".

There are more preferences we can set later, and if anything I describe below does not seem to be working correctly please go there and ensure at least that one box is checked. See the Ubuntu Chinese settings page for more info.

Using IBus Chinese Input Methods in OpenOffice:

First click the keyboard icon at the top right of your screen:

Ubuntu 9.10 iBus keyboard icon

Then in the menu that appears you can choose any of the input methods you previously selected in IBus Preferences. All phonetic input methods are listed here, with the primary simplified and traditional versions in bold:

Simplified characters:
iBus PinYin icon PinYin - Hanyu Pinyin and Shuangpin input, continuous, self-learning, GBK option, even English spelling lookup.
iBus pinyin-tone-marks icon pinyin - Pinyin romanization with tone marks (not Hanzi), for example type "pin1" and get "pīn".
iBus tonepy icon tonepy - Pinyin with tone number Hanzi input. Not continuous, no self-learning sort but useful as a backup.
iBus py icon py - Hanyu Pinyin Hanzi input, with proportional/ monospaced Latin but not continuous, no self-learning.
Traditional characters:
iBus Chewing icon Chewing - Pinyin and Zhuyin/bopomofo input. Requires tone number for each character. Was also in 9.04/SCIM.
iBus bopomofo icon bopomofo - a basic Zhuyin/bopomofo phonetic symbol keyboard, not an input method. Just for typing Zhuyin.

More about how these input methods compare in a moment. First, let's select "PinYin" from the menu. (This is actually called "python PinYin" if you're ever looking for it as a separate download.) The language panel (a floating toolbar) will appear at the lower right of the screen, and you're ready to input Chinese!

iBus PinYin floating tool barJust hover over each icon and a tooltip will appear explaining what it does. To switch input methods you can use the keyboard icon or the language panel's first icon, or you can use these default hotkeys:

  • <Ctrl-Spacebar> will switch you between English and the last Chinese input method chosen
  • <Alt-Shift-L> will cycle you through all the input methods one-by-one

My Preferences page offers info on how to change iBut hotkey preferences. But the PinYin input method also offers the following additional hotkeys. Reader Xuan Luo figured these out by painful trial-and-error, for which we thank him very much:

  • <Shift> will switch you between English mode and Chinese mode (equivalent to pressing the second button on the panel) and also switches the punctuation mode (fourth button) if it's originally set to Chinese punctuation.
  • <Shift-Spacebar> will switch between full and half letter mode (third button)

If you were accidentally pressing "Shift" and finding yourself in English mode, you can thank Xuan Luo for figuring out how to switch back! Other PinYin hotkeys (but not these unfortunately) can be turned on or off via the "i" button on the Language Panel.

Inputting Chinese using OpenOffice with the Ubuntu iBus Pinyin input method

When using the Pinyin input method, Hanzi candidates will appear as you type. I did not type the apostrophes you see in the candidate list, I typed only "hanyupinyin" on the line where you now see Hanzi.

The Pinyin with apostrophes appears automatically at the top of the candidate list. Why, I have to ask, do the Ubuntu Chinese input methods so often imitate only the worst features of other IMEs? Like Microsoft's SimpleFast, this implementation does not make the best use of the basic rules of Hanyu Pinyin for speed and accuracy! I'm told they're all copying the Sogou IME, which has a similar look and is very popular in the PRC, but IMHO apostrophes should be used only as as specified by the rules of Pinyin: to separate syllables when there might be some confusion (Xi'an vs. xian, fang'an vs. fan'gan, etc.) and nowhere else. Ditto for spaces between Pinyin sounds: Pinyin not pin yin.

[Update: in Ubuntu 10 the Sogou-like apostrophes are gone, but the spaces - as in Google Pinyin - remain. I still don't like it.]

What was this developer thinking??? Why not imitate MS New Experience and the SCIM 智能拼音 (Smart Pinyin) IME? Maybe he/they have no idea: it's called "PinYin" after all, and the "y" should be lowercase. But what do I know? I'm just a foreign devil. Try asking the Father of Pinyin instead.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes (deep breath, pause...)

  • Hanzi candidates will appear as you type.
  • When character or phrase candidates appear, keep typing if they are OK (it guesses better as you complete cizu), then hit the spacebar on your keyboard to confirm your selection.
  • To choose different candidates, type the number of a character or phrase in the list, press the down arrow to move to it on the list and hit spacebar, or click on it with your mouse.
  • The candidates will automatically sort over time as the input method adapts to your frequency of usage.

Ubuntu 9.10 IBus Chinese Phonetic Input Methods Compared:

For simplified characters, PinYin (full name: "python Pinyin") is main phonetic input method. PinYin supports both Hanyu Pinyin and Shuangpin. It offers continuous input, self-learning (auto-sorting by your frequency of usage), and even an English spellcheck input.

iBus PinYin floating tool bar

Unlike Smart Pinyin SCIM in 9.04, "PinYin" does not also support traditional characters well. [Update: this changed with Ubuntu 10.] Selecting the GBK option is not the same thing. You've already seen my rant above about the apostrophes and the capital "Y". [Update: that is also fixed in Ubuntu 10.] Those issues aside, this input method still has many rough edges and in fact the IBus framework overall is not entirely stable.

But the other Pinyin-related "one-trick pony" simplified input methods like tonepy round out the features, and for most people this combination may be all they need. If you don't like this, you can always see my Ubuntu settings/preferences page for info on getting SCIM back.

For traditional characters, Chewing is the phonetic input method. Chewing supports Pinyin and Zhuyin/Bopomofo - including Pinyin input with or without tone numbers - and also offers other input methods including the non-phonetic E-Ten (Yi Tian).

Here you can see where to set Chewing to Hanyu Pinyin input:

Chewing preferences - selecting the Pinyin keyboard

"bopomofo", which I listed in the previous section, is not really an input method from the user perspective. It's more of a keyboard overlay allowing you to type the Zhuyin symbols alone. It's just a supplement to Chewing.

Chewing is also in the SCIM framework used in Ubuntu 9.04, and previously I found this to be a mature, solid if less sophisticated implementation that works along the lines of the Microsoft New Phonetic IME. However in IBus Chewing is more unstable at this time. If you don't like IBus, I offer a link to info on getting SCIM back on my Ubuntu settings/preferences page.

Next Steps:

Chinese Fonts and Other Language Features in Unbuntu and OpenOffice

Chinese Language Preferences in Ubuntu and OpenOffice

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