Thumbs up for Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern by Jing Tsu. History.
An absolutely fascinating history of the technical and political problems faced by the men who brought the written Chinese language into the modern age. By which I mean, how to make a typewriter that can handle thousands of unique characters, while still being portable and easy to use? How to encode those characters using the international standards of telegraphy? How to chose a national dialect, and how to simplify complex characters to increase literacy (and how to decide if one even should)? How to compromise when digitizing very slightly different characters, when choosing a default means giving one country’s culture traditions precedence over others? Also, how to do this when even the attempt to answer any of these problems might get you imprisoned or executed, because there’s always a revolution going on? If these questions interest you, then you should read this book. It is not without some irritating flaws of presentation. For example, it was intensely frustrating that there were not many more images demonstrating how the various typewriters worked – I simply could not imagine them from the brief textual descriptions. Also, when you are writing a work of history in which four or more of the important main characters are all surnamed Wang, please, for the sake of us who do not have perfect memories, include their personal names more frequently. Those criticisms aside, this is, as far as I know the best (only?) book in English that covers this topic, and if you are even the most amateur of sinologists like myself, it is too interesting to skip.
The after-hours sessions at the [international telegraphy] conference were when his real work began. Wang [Jingchun!] and his delegation put on short demonstrations of the Chinese language at evening salons and parties. Knowing that the Westerners would be quick to exoticize or disparage the Chinese language, they made sure that wine flowed to soften their reactions. They tried every imaginable way of going over the basics—radicals, strokes, characters, etc. They engaged their audience in a manner that was instructional but not condescending. Wang plied them with anecdotes about the origin of the ideographic script. Once they were primed, he moved on to the more technical matter of the frequent occurrence of phonetic likenesses, or homophones, in the Chinese language. He tried to impart the lesson that Romanization, otherwise a simple solution, was challenged by homophones. Same-sounding words made Chinese much harder to distinguish in alphabetic form, because letters cannot indicate the tones or details that a good visual of the character script itself makes plain instantly. However you Romanize it, Chinese inevitably loses its essential, physical cues for identification—unless a different method can be found to represent it. It was another way of saying the obvious: while China wished to internationalize, it could only do so in a way that was in keeping with: its historical, cultural, and linguistic particulars.
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