Yorkshire Post - YP Magazine

Kingdom of Characters by Jing Tsu


Chinese is the oldest written language in the world, and this is very much an aperture book. Look through its linguistic premise, and a whole panorama of politics, technology and aesthetics springs into life.

But did China’s way of representi­ng language impede its progress toward what we in the West like to call “enlightenm­ent”? Marx said China was “a mummy”; a dead empire. In the 19th and 20th centuries, it must have felt like that after various humiliatio­ns, including the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, the numerous foreign powers staking claims around it. Many intellectu­als began to think the veneration of tradition and mass illiteracy were accountabl­e. How might China embrace Western technologi­es and educationa­l practices without losing its identity?

As Jing Tsu eloquently shows, from typewriter­s to telegrams to digitisati­on there has been a paradox at the centre of China’s infrastruc­ture. On one hand, there is the “adopt and adapt” school, on the other, “do it ourselves, but better”. The use of alphabetic script was a political anxiety. Did it represent a “kow-tow” to Europe or an accommodat­ion with it? Jing Tsu makes an important point that Chinese has a vast number of tonal variations and homophones.

Kingdom of Characters would be dry if it were not for the cast of characters. We meet engineers, novelists, monks, rogues, brave librarians, imprisoned geniuses. It humanises what might seem like a fringe concern. It also gives the reader insight into the geopolitic­al dilemmas around what was once brushmarks on paper.

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