Chinese writing’s near death experience

“If the Chinese script is not abolished, China will certainly perish!” So said the literary author Lu Xun in the 1930s, and many in China agreed. History has proved him wrong, of course. How the country went from rags to first ruin, then riches has been the stuff of headlines for over a century. Yet far from being abolished, the script (known as hànzì) was successfully pressed into service for all sorts of modern technologies. In Kingdom of Characters, scholar Jing Tsu introduces us to a tumultuous century and a colourful cast of (human) characters.

In 1900, China was a great power in steep decline. European imperialism had played its usual shameful part, but there were other reasons for the country’s plight. Some of these problems were linguistic in nature. More than 80% of the population could neither read nor write, including most women. Nobody except officials spoke a standard language, and the numerous varieties of Chinese made communication beyond regional borders impossible. However, widespread illiteracy and the absence of a standard language were common in countries around the world and were living memories even in Europe. More peculiar was the fact that written Chinese reflected the state of the language as spoken 2,000 years ago rather than any of the modern vernaculars – imagine the French doing their correspondence in Latin. But the real trouble lay elsewhere: in the Chinese writing system itself.

Ancient, revered and the vehicle of a great civilisation, the character-based script had downsides that were becoming more and more pressing in a technological age. The main thing to understand is that it’s nothing like an alphabet. Alphabets typically consist of 20 to 40 letters that represent single sounds. Such a low number makes for convenient keyboards. It also keeps code sets for telegraphy (such as morse) and computers sweet and simple. Chinese characters, on the other hand, represent meaningful syllables, and there are many thousands. Quite a challenge, then, to build a mechanical typewriter, or to remember the correct morse code for each one. Moreover, the letters of an alphabet have a fixed sequence, and any user can rattle them off. Characters have no such order. And while workarounds were developed for the sake of dictionaries and catalogues they were error prone and time consuming.

Yet another linguistic problem was not inherent in the script, but annoying all the same: the lack of a standardised method for transliterating the characters into the Roman alphabet or other scripts. As a result, Chinese words, including names, could be rendered in many different ways: for example, the province we now know as Sichuan used to be spelt either Se-tchuen, Szechw’an or Ssu-ch’uan.Make no mistake: these were hard problems with far-reaching social and economic consequences. To make things worse, they had to be solved against the backdrop of a collapsing empire, a civil war, several foreign invasions, another civil war, Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward and his horrific Cultural Revolution. Yet solved they were, by a combination of ingenuity, determination and cultural pride, with the occasional admixture of diplomacy, power-play and a little luck.

This is where the author is at her best: she brings to life the individuals who gave their all to solve China’s problems with language technology, even as political and social turmoil was raging around them. She describes their long struggles with the beloved script, their hardships (jail, flight, hunger, technical glitches), their many defeats and the rare but rewarding triumph. She portrays Wang Zhao’s Chinese alphabet, ultimately surpassed by Zhang Taiyan’s alternative bopomofo system. She writes about several inventors of Chinese typewriters, none of them commercially successful, and the men who made it possible to send a cable in Chinese. There’s a cameo for long-lived Zhou Youguang, who co-invented pinyin, the modern system for writing Chinese in the Roman alphabet. And so it goes on, up to and including the full integration of Chinese into the digital ecosystem.

This focus on colourful individuals makes the book lively, but it’s not without its problems. The people we get to know best, those we keep company in their eureka moments and their long struggles, are often not the ones whose ideas end up prevailing. As a result, we get to know a lot more details about “also-ran” inventors and their inventions than about the ones who actually shaped modern China.

More unfulfilling still is that we don’t really come to understand all these fascinating innovations – not me, anyway. For a work on language technologies, the descriptions of the linguistic nuts and technological bolts are less than crystal clear. That is the main flaw in a book full of lovingly presented individual portraits and fact-filled stories.

Kingdom of Characters: A Tale of Language, Obsession, and Genius in Modern China is published by Allen Lane (£20).

This review was published in the Guardian on 22 January 2022.

2 thoughts on “Chinese writing’s near death experience

  1. Thank you for your post. I myself have always been wondering how the Chinese ever managed to build a serviceable keyboard for typewriters and now computers.
    I’m looking forward to reading the book, even though it sounds like it doesn’t provide all the answers!
    Anna Rempe


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