The Chi­nese Typewriter: A His­tory

THE (Times Higher Education) - - BOOKS - Jonathan Mirsky was for­merly as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of Chi­nese, his­tory and com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture at Dart­mouth Col­lege.

By Thomas S. Mul­laney

MIT Press, 504pp, £27.95 ISBN 9780262036368 and 9780262340762 (e-book) Pub­lished 29 September 2017

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 story of the preser­va­tion of Chi­nese char­ac­ters, and how they be­came part of the mod­ern in­for­ma­tional world, is well worth our at­ten­tion

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”.

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