Kingdom of Characters: A Tale of Language, Obsession, and Genius in Modern China by Jing Tsu - review by Robert Bickers

Robert Bickers

How the Typewriter Changed Chinese

Kingdom of Characters: A Tale of Language, Obsession, and Genius in Modern China


Allen Lane 314pp £20 order from our bookshop

He was trying, he told me, to get to ‘Ex-ee-en’, and the woman who could be just glimpsed through the tiny aperture at the Foreign Guests ticket booth simply could not understand him. Neither, initially, could I. It was the summer of 1985, and I was backpacking around China, as was the Londoner who had accosted me at Beijing’s railway station and asked me if I spoke Chinese and, if so, whether I could help him. After a brief exchange, I realised that he was trying to get to the city of Xi’an – drawn there, like many of us, by the Terracotta Army – and he was soon sorted out with a ticket. The challenge he faced was that the city’s name, 西安, when written in the country’s standard romanisation system, known as Pinyin, comes out as ‘Xi’an’. This was, and is, a wholly unintuitive formulation for an English speaker like my fellow backpacker, whose ultimate objective, after seeing the Terracotta Army, was to get back to London in time for the Notting Hill Carnival.

An older romanisation system known as Wade-Giles, after the two British diplomat-scholars who developed it, gives us not ‘Xi’an’ for the city but ‘Hsi-an’, which looks more pronounceable to a Western backpacker. But helping foreign backpackers, or non-Chinese speakers in general, is not the point of Pinyin, as Jing Tsu, a Chinese literature professor at Yale University, shows in this survey documenting the adaptation between the 19th and the 21st centuries of the Chinese written language to new technologies. Pinyin uses Latin letters in a precise, technical way to represent the elements of sound in spoken Mandarin, the dialect of north China that became the official national spoken language in the 20th century. As a result, a character like 西 (‘west’), which when spoken sounds similar to the English word ‘see’, is written ‘xī’. The point of introducing Pinyin was principally to improve levels of literacy, but it was also about allowing China to make effective use of communication technologies developed in the West – telegraphs, typewriters, modern printing, computers – built around alphabetic writing systems.

Despite its long and extensive literary heritage, and despite being the home of some of the earliest printed books, Qing-dynasty China found itself at a profound disadvantage in the new global information order that evolved in the 19th century as part of the intertwined processes of colonial expansion and globalisation. Foreign powers subordinated China through the deployment of advanced maritime technologies and weaponry. The Qing empire found itself hampered in its efforts to respond by the nature of its written language. Knowledge is power, goes the saying, but not if knowledge cannot be organised, retrieved, transmitted and reproduced.

Language reform was part of the answer, as Tsu shows, and was one of a number of initiatives aimed at national renewal in the decades after the abolition of the monarchy in 1912, the ultimate objective of which was the recovery of China’s independence after a near-century of foreign impositions and invasions. Political power, Mao Zedong famously argued, grows out of the barrel of a gun, but the phrase is famous because it was very widely reproduced and increasing numbers of Chinese were able to read it, or have it read to them. In time, the characters in which the phrase was written would be simplified: the character for ‘power’, for instance, would change from to – fifteen strokes of the pen fewer. Indeed, during the 20th century the number of separate elements in many Chinese characters was reduced.

Abandoning the existing script altogether and switching completely to a romanisation system, such as Pinyin, was unfeasible, however. The spoken languages of China are tonal, and even when the character for ‘west’ is romanised in a way that retains its specific tone, it has so many homophones that it is difficult to work out which precise character is being represented. Is it the ‘xī’ that means ‘inhale’, or the ‘xī’ meaning ‘hope’, or the ‘xī’ meaning ‘sunset’, or ‘rhinoceros’, or ‘rare’, or ‘tin’? All are pronounced in exactly the same way but written quite differently, though context and the fact that most Chinese words are compounds of two or more characters resolves most confusion. The nature of the challenge is vividly captured in a ninety-two-word story, reproduced in Tsu’s book, in which every character has the same sound. When romanised without tone marks or indicators, it simply goes, ‘Shi shi shi shi, shi shi shi shi…’

Kingdom of Characters draws on a body of technical work on the Chinese language published in recent years. The ‘characters’ of the title are those of the written Chinese script, but the word also hints at the way the book is framed, with each chapter taking a discrete theme and focusing on one or more individuals who worked to reform the written script or to adapt it to new technologies. For instance, during the 1910s and 1920s, Wang Jingchun, a Yale graduate and a leading figure at China’s Ministry of Communications, lobbied tirelessly at conferences and congresses for Chinese to be incorporated properly into international telegraphic conventions. The writer Lin Yutang, author of the 1930s English-language bestsellers The Importance of Living and My Country and My People, designed a prototype Chinese typewriter. In the 1970s, the scientist Zhi Bingyi, after emerging from imprisonment in a makeshift jail during the Cultural Revolution, devised a way of encoding Chinese script for computing. Like their script-reform peers, each sought to reimagine how the written character could be understood and adapted for the new technologies that were reshaping the world. It is a fascinating story, told in a lively manner.

The book is at its best when setting out the nature of the challenge reformers faced and explaining the ways in which different Chinese scholars and activists developed new means of analysing and ordering the written language to equip it for, among other things, literacy campaigns, library classification systems, typewriting and computing. The framing makes accessible a potentially dry as dust and, for a non-Chinese reader, unintelligible topic. I can assure those who are not familiar with stroke order or character radicals, both of which are important to Tsu’s story, that they will find these clearly explained here.

Tsu concludes with a discussion of what she sees as the historical rebalancing of the global information order as China increasingly represents itself overseas on its own terms, unmediated by scholars like Wade and Giles. But what does the ruling Communist Party’s China have to say or show that appeals to audiences overseas? The answer is very little, it seems, and its repressive policies in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and elsewhere speak for themselves. China has closed itself off to other voices and is alienating potential friends overseas. Most of Tsu’s language reformers would be appalled: this is not what they struggled so hard to achieve.

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