Kingdom of Characters review by Jing Tsu – The near-death experience of Chinese writing | Books

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“IIf Chinese writing is not abolished, China will certainly perish! So said literary author Lu Xun in the 1930s, and many in China agreed. History proved him wrong, of course. How the country rose from rags to ruin to riches has been in the headlines for more than a century. Yet far from being abolished, the script (known as hànzì) has been successfully fielded for all manner of modern technology. 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 predicament. Some of these problems were linguistic in nature. More than 80% of the population could neither read nor write, including most women. No one except civil servants spoke a standard language, and the many varieties of Chinese made communication across regional borders impossible. However, widespread illiteracy and the lack of a standard language were common in countries around the world and were living memories even in Europe. Stranger 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 was elsewhere: in the Chinese writing system itself.

Ancient, revered, and the vehicle of a great civilization, character-based storyboarding had increasingly pressing drawbacks in the technological age. The main thing to understand is that it has nothing to do with an alphabet. Alphabets usually consist of 20 to 40 letters that represent unique sounds. Such a low number makes them practical keyboards. It also keeps code sets for telegraphy (like morse code) and simple, simple computers. Chinese characters, on the other hand, represent meaningful syllables, and there are several thousand of them. Quite a challenge, therefore, to build a mechanical typewriter, or to memorize the correct morse code for each. Moreover, the letters of an alphabet have a fixed sequence, and any user can debit them. The characters have no such order. And while workarounds were developed for the sake of dictionaries and catalogs, they were error-prone and time-consuming.

However, another linguistic problem was not inherent in the script, but annoying all the same: the absence of a standardized method for transliterating characters into the Roman alphabet or other scripts. As a result, Chinese words, including names, could be rendered in different ways: for example, the province we now know as Sichuan was once spelled either Se-tchuen, Szechw’an, or Ssu-ch’uan . Make no mistake about it. : these were difficult problems with considerable social and economic consequences. To make matters worse, they had to be resolved against the backdrop of a collapsing empire, a civil war, several foreign invasions, another civil war, Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward and his horrible Cultural Revolution. Yet they were solved, thanks to a combination of ingenuity, determination and cultural pride, with an occasional mix of diplomacy, power play and a bit of luck.

This is where the author is at her best: she brings to life the individuals who gave their all to solve the problems of language technology in China, even as political and social unrest raged around them. She describes their long struggles with the beloved script, their trials (jail, flight, hunger, technical issues), their many defeats, and the rare but gratifying triumph. It depicts Wang Zhao’s Chinese alphabet, eventually superseded by Zhang Taiyan’s alternative bopomofo system. She writes about several Chinese typewriter inventors, none of whom achieved commercial success, and about the men who made it possible to send a Chinese cable. There’s a cameo for Zhou Youguang, who co-invented pinyin, the modern Chinese writing system in the Roman alphabet. And so on, until the full integration of Chinese into the digital ecosystem.

This emphasis on colorful individuals makes the book come alive, but it’s not without its problems. The people we know best, those we accompany in their moments of eureka and their long fights, are often not those whose ideas end up prevailing. As a result, we learn many more details about “also known” inventors and their inventions than about those who actually shaped modern China.

What’s even more unsatisfying is that we don’t quite understand all of these fascinating innovations – not me, anyway. For a book on language technologies, the descriptions of linguistic cogs and technological locks are far from clear. This is the main flaw of 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 Watcher, purchase a copy of Kingdom of Characters at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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