Written Chinese is not alphabetical. Because its characters are the same everywhere, they unite the country’s disparate regions despite their dialects, which are often mutually incomprehensible. The universality of characters means that literate Chinese have always been able to read and write official directives, essays and poems. For foreigners seeking even modest literacy in the mid-1950s, when I was learning to read Chinese, the goal, after three years of study, was perhaps 3,000 characters. That was negligible compared with Chinese scholars – or the skilled printers who could survey a tray bed of at least 2,500 characters and insert the correct ones, often in combinations, into a form ready for printing. They were using the moveable type invented not by Gutenberg, but by anonymous geniuses during the Tang dynasty in the 9th century.
Thomas S. Mullaney, a historian at Stanford University, tackles the combination of the characters and the complicated matter of how Chinese information technology has emerged. If you don’t know Chinese or about information technology, he is not easy to follow. He introduces quantities of technical terms, some might say jargon. But what he tells us is unusual and informative. His theme – the preservation of characters, a basic element of Chinese culture, and how they entered, and became part of, the modern informational world – is well worth our attention.
While most Chinese would like to retain their culturally central characters, in the first decades of the 20th century some well-known intellectuals, including Chen Duxiu, a founder of the Communist Party, and Lu Xun, the most famous author of his day, wanted characters abolished. They saw them as an obstacle to universal literacy, which could link China to the modern world.
But would the elimination of characters in favour of an alphabet mean subjugation to Western imperialism, a Chinese preoccupation from the 19th century up to now?
“The problem would have to be solved quickly,” writes Mullaney, “for it constituted nothing short of a civilizational trial by which to judge once and for all whether Chinese script was compatible with Modernity with a capital M.”
And thus emerged and evolved the Chinese typewriter, which enabled China to join the world of library catalogues, dictionaries, duplication, phone books, punctuation, widely broadcast texts and millions of books. But how to preserve much of the Chinese essence?
Here Mullaney adroitly recalls the most famous sentence in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel, The Leopard: “In order for everything to stay the same, everything must change.” Nowadays, therefore, Chinese texts whizz around the world, employing the same technology that Westerners use to communicate over great distances. “For the keyboard and Chinese script alike,” we read, “for everything to stay the same, everything needed to change.”
The difference from the Western Olivetti turned out not to be a “technological abyss”. Typewriters are no longer with us, but Chinese computer keyboards remain. Still choosing from thousands of characters, skilful as the printers of old, Chinese typists can work faster than their Western counterparts. How amazing, then, to read the following in The Times of 1973: “The Chinese typewriter is a long-standing joke... it is almost synonymous with the paradoxical or impossible.” Indeed, the paper called Chinese typing “an operation similar to landing on the Moon”.
Jonathan Mirsky was formerly associate professor of Chinese, history and comparative literature at Dartmouth College.
The Chinese Typewriter: A History
By Thomas S. Mullaney
MIT Press, 504pp, £27.95 ISBN 9780262036368 and 9780262340762 (e-book)
Published 29 September 2017