Saturday, May 28

Kingdom of Characters by Jing Tsu review: Chinese writing’s near-death experience | Books


“IIf 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 proven him wrong, of course. How the country went from rags to broke to riches has been the subject of headlines for more than a century. However, far from being abolished, the script (known as hànzì) was successfully put into use for all kinds of modern technologies. In Kingdom of Characters, scholar Jing Tsu introduces us to a tumultuous century and a colorful cast of (human) characters.

In 1900, China was a great power in steep decline. European imperialism had played its usual shameful role, 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 not read or write, including the majority of women. No one except officials spoke a standard language, and the many varieties of Chinese made communication across regional borders impossible. However, widespread illiteracy and the absence of a standard language were common in countries around the world and were vivid memories even in Europe. More peculiar was the fact that written Chinese reflected the state of the language as it was spoken 2,000 years ago rather than any of the modern vernaculars: imagine the French doing their correspondence in Latin. But the real problem lay elsewhere: in the Chinese writing system itself.

Ancient, revered, and the vehicle of a great civilization, the character-driven script had drawbacks that were becoming more and more pressing in an age of technology. The main thing to understand is that it is nothing like an alphabet. Alphabets typically consist of 20 to 40 letters that represent single sounds. Such a low number makes keyboards convenient. It also keeps code sets for telegraphy (like 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. Also, the letters of an alphabet have a fixed sequence, and any user can pronounce them. The characters are not in that order. And while workarounds were developed for the sake of dictionaries and catalogs, they were error-prone and time-consuming.

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Another linguistic problem was not inherent to the script, but just as vexing: the lack of a standardized method for transliterating characters into the Roman alphabet or other scripts. As a result, Chinese words, including names, can be translated in many different ways: for example, the province we now know as Sichuan used to be spelled Se-tchuen, Szechw’an, or Ssu-ch’uan. Do not get wrong. : These were difficult problems with far-reaching social and economic consequences. To make matters worse, they had to be resolved in the context of a collapsing empire, civil war, various foreign invasions, another civil war, Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward and his horrific Cultural Revolution. However, they were resolved through a combination of ingenuity, determination, and cultural pride, with the occasional mix of diplomacy, power plays, and a bit of luck.

This is where the author is at her best: she brings to life the people who gave their all to solve China’s problems with language technology, even as political and social turmoil surrounded them. She describes her long struggles with the beloved script, her difficulties (jail, escape, starvation, technical failures), her many defeats, and the rare but rewarding triumph. She portrays Wang Zhao’s Chinese alphabet, finally superseded by Zhang Taiyan’s alternative bopomopho system. He writes about various inventors of Chinese typewriters, none of them commercially successful, and about the men who made it possible to send a cable in Chinese. There is a cameo appearance by the long-lived Zhou Youguang, co-inventor of pinyin, the modern system for writing Chinese in the Roman alphabet. And so it continues, including the full integration of the Chinese into the digital ecosystem.

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This focus on colorful individuals makes the book lively, but it is not without its problems. The people we know best, those we accompany in their eureka moments and their long struggles, are often not the ones whose ideas end up prevailing. As a result, we know far more details about the “also known” inventors and their inventions than we do about the ones that actually shaped modern China.

Even more unsatisfying is that we don’t really get to understand all these exciting innovations, at least I don’t. For a paper on language technologies, the descriptions of the linguistic nuts and bolts of technology are less than clear. That is the main flaw in a book full of lovingly presented individual portraits and factual stories.

Gaston Dorren is the author of Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages. Kingdom of Characters: A Tale of Language, Obsession, and Genius in Modern China is published by Allen Lane (£20). To support The Guardian and The Observer, purchase a copy of Kingdom of Characters at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.


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