"Famous non-object" to "technological reality" to surprising controversy
March 11, 2018 11:06 AM Subscribe
Today if you open a laptop or unlock a phone to type in Chinese, the first thing you’ll notice is how intent the software is on doing all your work for you. The letters typed on your keyboard trigger the on-screen display of several dozen likely possibilities, arranged in order of frequency. This seems so obviously computational it is a surprise to learn that it originated with the actuating keys Lin devised for his typewriter, and with the fervour of the typists in the early days of the Revolution.
With support from the 2013 Usher Prize, a three-year National Science Foundation fellowship, and a Hellman Faculty Fellowship, Thomas Mullaney has finished the first volume of his project examining “China’s development of a modern, nonalphabetic information infrastructure encompassing telegraphy, typewriting, word processing, and computing”: The Chinese Typewriter: A History. For a relatively obscure subject, the book sounds fascinating, and is entertainingly reviewed by Jamie Fisher in the LRB.
Mullaney’s project was discussed on the Blue back in 2012, as he was starting out, along with some interesting arguments between commentators about the Chinese language, especially whether logographic Chinese is inherently inferior to alphabetic writing systems - an argument that has long pedigree both inside China and internationally.
This argument blew up again in 2016, when Mullaney became involved in some public back-and-forth about whether Westerners are chauvinistic about Chinese language(s), suggesting that criticisms may be driven to some extent by modern versions of Orientalism and social Darwinism. Writing in response to perennial MeFi favourite Ted Chiang, who suggested in the New Yorker that “Chinese characters have been an obstacle to literacy for millennia”, Mullaney posited:
[I]t’s fair to say that modern appeals to the “inefficiency” of Chinese—especially those couched in seemingly neutral descriptions of literacy, typewriters, and computers—are neither neutral nor innocuous. To the contrary, Orientalism 2.0 rehabilitates, rejuvenates, and indeed fortifies old-school Orientalist discourses, making it possible to offer sweeping condemnations of Chinese script without relying upon gauche, bloodstained references to Western cultural superiority or the “fitness” of Chinese script in a Social Darwinist sense.In an interview with the LA Review of Books, Mullaney also drew attention to the role of Chinese character input in the development of now-universal predictive text.
These two pieces drew a response from David Moser (author of A Billion Voices: China's Search for a Common Language), who noted that Mullaney tends to conflate criticisms of Chinese language with criticisms of Chinese script, and that recent technological breakthroughs in character input demonstrate the serious problems that existed before, and to some extent remain:
[D]espite the exciting new advances in character entry that Mullaney mentions, even now the most common input methods (straightforward pinyin, wubi entry, etc.) are still cumbersome in comparison with typing in alphabetic text. (Pinyin or handwriting input on a smart phone or pad still generally involves a two-step process, in which the user must choose the correct character candidate from a pop-up menu.) Mullaney seems to assume that, because modern computer science has come up with workable, workaround solutions to the problem of digitizing Chinese characters, there evidently was no problem to begin with!(Moser had previously written a funny essay about the difficulties and impracticalities of learning Chinese as an English speaker, “Why Chinese is So Damn Hard”.)
So... Do modern criticisms of Chinese characters depend on Orientalism and ignorance, or on discredited concepts like social Darwinism and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? Or is Mullaney too quick to accuse others of racism and bad faith?
William Hannas suggested in his 2003 book The Writing On The Wall: How Asian Orthography Curbs Creativity that “because East Asian writing systems lack the abstract features of alphabets, they hamper the kind of analytical and abstract thought necessary for scientific creativity”, a hypothesis that appears to subscribe to a strong version of Sapir-Whorf and received considerable criticism at the time of publication.
[While far short of providing evidence for Hannas’s idea, there’s some intriguing evidence to suggest that the human brain might process Chinese characters in a fundamentally different manner to letters from alphabetical languages.]
If Mullaney represents one side of the English language debate over Chinese characters and Chinese typewriters, much of the other side is represented by Victor Mair’s contributions at Language Log [note: Mair taught Hannas in graduate school, is the general editor for the Pennsylvania Press series in which his book appears and quotes him approvingly].
The Chinese typewriter … is the clumsiest, clunkiest device for composing text that is imaginable. Essentially, it is a small, highly inadequate, and terribly inefficient type case with mechanical means for picking up the individual sorts and banging them against a piece of paper on the platen. Ironically, movable type was invented in China around 1040 AD, but it never caught on for the simple fact that the massive (and ever expanding) number of glyphs that constitute the Chinese writing system were too hard to manage and maintain.Chinese Typewriter, Chinese typewriter, part 2, Chinese character inputting, Chinese typewriter redux.
Firestorm over Chinese characters (Mair’s summary of the Chiang-Mullaney-Moser contretemps). Hu Shih and Chinese language reform. What’s going on with Chinese character amnesia? Does learning Chinese make kids short-sighted? And many examples of emerging biscriptalism / digraphia in the wild.
Quartz asks: Why are there so few Chinese fonts? (Previously)
The default set for English-language fonts contains about 230 glyphs. A font that covers all of the Latin scripts—that’s over 100 languages plus extra symbols—contains 840 glyphs, according to Březina. The simplified version of Chinese, used primarily in mainland China, requires nearly 7,000 glyphs. For traditional Chinese, used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, the number of glyphs is 13,053.And, of course, the English-language debate is paralleled by a much richer history of the same discussion between Chinese speakers. Starting in 1956, Chinese characters have been officially simplified by the government and these simplified characters are widespread outside of Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. But reformers of various political affiliations wanted to go further and convert entirely to Romanization. Per the LRB review of Mullaney’s book:
In 1936 Mao Zedong had expressed his belief that ‘we will have to abandon characters altogether if we are to create a new social culture in which the masses fully participate.’ Twenty years and some two thousand proposals later, the party settled for reducing the number of strokes in the word for ‘hair’.John DeFrancis’s excellent and detailed 2006 article, “The Prospects for Chinese writing reform” has much more on the historical context:
[I]n February 1950 Liu Shaoqi informed two fellow advocates of writing reform that “As yet no plan has been decided for reform of Chinese writing.”
Four months later, Mao Zedong dropped a bombshell when he informed Wu Yuzhang, a strong supporter of the New Writing who was head of the Association for Chinese Writing Reform, that the reform “should not be divorced from reality or make a break with the past.” The reality that Mao had in mind doubtless included what Zhou Enlai later told a former French education minister: “All those who had received an education, and whose services we absolutely needed to expand education, were firmly attached to the ideograms [sic]. They were already so numerous, and we had so many things to upset, that we have put off the reform until later.”[Several Romanization systems exist for Chinese and can result in confusion regarding historical spellings of people and places: Mao Tse Tung, or Mao Zedong? Luckily, Wikipedia has a summary.]
More detail on some of Mullaney’s thoughts, along with pictures of Chinese typewriters, can be found in LA Times and Atlantic write-ups of his project (both articles from 2016).
Finally: video of a Double Pigeon in use, from Mullaney’s Vimeo channel.