What does it take to reinvent a language?
After a meteoric rise, China today is one of the world’s most powerful nations. Just a century ago, it was a crumbling empire with literacy reserved for the elite few, as the world underwent a massive technological transformation that threatened to leave them behind. In Kingdom of Characters, Jing Tsu argues that China’s most daunting challenge was a linguistic one: the century-long fight to make the formidable Chinese language accessible to the modern world of global trade and digital technology.
Kingdom of Characters follows the bold innovators who adapted the Chinese language to a world designed for the Roman alphabet and requiring standardization, from an exiled reformer who risked a death sentence to advocate for Mandarin as a national language to the imprisoned computer engineer who devised input codes for Chinese characters on the lid of a teacup. Without their advances, China might never have become the dominating force we know today.
With larger-than-life characters and an unexpected perspective on the major events of China’s tumultuous twentieth century, Tsu reveals how language is both a technology to be perfected and a subtle, yet potent, power to be exercised and expanded.
I came across this book my Twitter timeline when one of the authors I follow recommended this one, and I also realized that the author of this book contributed an essay in one of my favorite SFF anthologies, The Way Spring Arrives. Since the pandemic began and I started getting into cdrama or webnovels, I’ve had a fascination for the Chinese language and so I definitely knew I had to read this book. And it was so unlike anything I’ve ever read.
Due to my not very extensive non fiction reading, I have some idea about 20th century Chinese history, especially the civil war and what came later. But my knowledge is limited to the larger political implications and some personal stories. So, reading the progress of those same events of history, but in conjunction with the evolution of Chinese language was a fascinating prospect.
Only after I started watching dramas did I understand the complexity of the Chinese language, it’s ideographic script which is so unlike the western alphabet, and just the huge number of characters present which make it so difficult to learn – which is probably why only the elite knew it and around 90% of the population was illiterate at the turn of the 20th century. This singularly complex language posed a very drastic impediment to China being able to compete with the western nations on an equal footing and the author chronicles the life and work of many scientists, engineers, linguists and scholars who dedicated their lives to breaking down the characters into its components which could be then used to create typewriters, Telegraph code, a character indexing system, a new romanization system, typesetting and retrieval mechanisms to propel the country into the digital age and finally being a part of Unicode. The paths these men followed to accomplish their goals were not easy and they faced many hurdles but their dedication to their language and it’s history, and their desire to ensure their country is able to make technological advances without compromising on its language was commendable to read about. Imperialism has destroyed cultures and languages and so much more across many countries, so it’s really amazing to see the decades of work to preserve and evolve the Chinese language to keep up with modern times be so successful.
It takes a lot of determination to keep going when a common refrain in those days was that China couldn’t develop if it kept using its language. Language is truly more than just words, it’s a culture and memory of the people and preserving any of our native languages from being erased by the hegemony of English is a task deserving of applause. And as the author mentions, in this digital age, information is warfare and language is an important component of it. And China has managed to come a long way – from depending on western technologies and trying to catch up to them, to having the most internet users in the world – and is now ready to dominate in the artificial intelligence and other futuristic fields. Let’s see what role this language revolution will play in China’s quest for global domination and will they be successful.
As for the book, this may not be for everyone and some may find it dry and the science behind some of the technologies boring, but this is a bigger story about language and it’s power and the people who understood it, and I really appreciated the author’s bringing this part of history to us readers. I’m more intrigued about languages and the roles they play in our lives now and I’m excited to read more books about this field. And who knows, maybe I will be able to find some books about the history of my native language too.