"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.
posted by chappell, ambrose (23 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Very mediocre student of Chinese here. This post is extremely my jam.
posted by soren_lorensen at 11:22 AM on March 11

This is absolutely fascinating. I've just started learning Japanese and have attempted to use the SwiftKey and Google Hiragana/Katakana inputs. Very interesting.

I can't imagine trying to learn all the characters for different things in Chinese. I had never thought before how it might be a hamper to creativity and expression but I see it now that it's pointed out. Literacy in Chinese is a whole nother ball game, it seems.
posted by sio42 at 11:26 AM on March 11 [1 favorite]

Fascinating stuff. Thanks for collecting these links. Chinese language, Mullaney's work, and the ensuing debate is well outside my area of expertise, but it's been interesting to follow from a distance. He does seem to overreach to me--and to be adept in the arts of self-promotion--but that's not to say that he isn't an extremely impressive scholar and thinker.

And even if he does overreach, the firmly entrenched sense among Western publics of the natural-ness of our language, our script, and our modes of input (our alphabet, the keyboard, etc) and the ease with which that sense slides into a belief in Western (Roman-script) superiority probably calls for tough challenges like Mullaney's.

The responses from Language Log are interesting and make me think of another angle on this discussion that has come up there on occasion: the Korean promotion of the superiority of hangeul. Does it change the tenor of the debate if we think about an Asian aphabetic writing system in terms of a nationalist project? Do Mullaney's critiques map onto hangeul promotion in interesting ways?

(I'm in now way qualified to answer, but I'd love to read commentary from people who are.)
posted by col_pogo at 11:26 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]

English orthography is very poor in consistently conveying the phonetics of the characters. Weirdly, people tend not to argue that it reflects underlying weakness in the Western alphabet or that spelling issues are holding up the development of Anglophone culture, much less this:

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.

(If anything, developing technologies to increase writing efficiency shows excellent regular human creativity...)

I am way too ignorant of Asian literature to make a meaningful argument here, but in the little exposure I've had to premodern Japanese writing, the writing system has seemed to facilitate other forms of creativity, e.g., linking words together in meaning that share characters or even strokes, which ours is less favorable for.

Regardless of his other points, Mullaney just can't be wrong that discussions of this subject are ideologically neutral, especially when they just so happen to reproduce stereotypes. Vast ingrained cultural biases just vanish when it comes to linguists? Are you kidding me?
posted by praemunire at 11:39 AM on March 11 [1 favorite]

If anything, the extra effort needed to be literate should increase the value of literacy and the skill demonstrated by literate authors. But I agree that the arguments for alphabet vs characters having any impact on creativity are largely bogus.
posted by subdee at 12:22 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]

yeah there is some structure to Chinese characters, they usually have a "meaning" and a "pronunciation" component. it's not totally random, although as pronunciation and usage has shifted over thousands of years this isn't always reliable.

In that way it's not much worse than bizarre English spelling. is there any other language where there are national competitions involving just correctly spelling words?

the question of text input is separate from that though. there's a phenomenon in China where literate adults who spend all day typing will find themselves drawing a blank when they try to handwrite certain characters. this is not something I can imagine happening in an alphabetic language.
posted by vogon_poet at 12:47 PM on March 11

regarding abstraction and Chinese characters - from someone starting to learn Mandarin - couldn't the components of hanzi (both the radicals and the non-radical parts that show up in many different characters) be considered abstractions? they certainly make characters and words easier to learn (even if half the time it's my own personal story as a mnemonic device.... private moon two spoons, 能, neng2, can/able to)
posted by kokaku at 12:56 PM on March 11

In the late 90s the law firm I worked for hired a Chinese attorney and his wife for as part of their expanding business in China. At the time it was very difficult to provide them with a workable Windows word processing system, and for a time they had to write all of their correspondence by hand, which was viewed as "unprofessional." We finally got something set up, but it literally took months to find anything that worked adequately.
posted by lhauser at 1:19 PM on March 11

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.

I'd think if anything about written Chinese would hamper creativity it would be the amount of time devoted to memorizing the characters instead of more self-directed pursuits - not the structure of the writing system itself.
posted by atoxyl at 1:57 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]

A very general observation: I see young people in China composing characters in their phones using pinyin (roman phonetic) while older people (cab drivers for example) using stroke based inputs methods in their phones
posted by mbo at 2:07 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]

Really interesting links, thank you!

Mullaney states things pretty strongly, but on the whole correctly, I think. Westerners who think (or write books stating) that Chinese characters 'hamper creativity' are sad and parochial. And yay for computers and smartphones making access to them so much easier.

One thing he doesn't point out, though: before about 1800, Westerners tended to be impressed rather than disdainful about the Chinese writing system. The change not coincidentally came as Qing China came to be perceived not as a rich and majestic civilization but as a weak state ripe for colonization.

One of the articles from Mair references his learning to read Mandarin through phonetically annotated sources— this would have been zhùyīn fúhào. This is the equivalent of Japanese kana, though unfortunately for us it's not widespread outside Taiwan.

Hanzi are difficult, no question about it. And they're also a rich cultural heritage. Giving up one's cultural heritage in favor of a quick Westernization is something that people often come to regret.
posted by zompist at 2:41 PM on March 11 [3 favorites]

This is an amazing post. Thank you. I had never heard of the MingKwai typewriter before, and my mind is buzzing with the astounding mechanical convolutions of the thing. I found this poorly formatted but extensive post about it.

While I'm happy to entertain the idea that there is something to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in general, I find it hard to believe that Chinese characters hamper creativity. On the contrary, I've found that they seem to inspire creativity and linguistic playfulness in Japanese (I don't really know Chinese, so I can't comment on that). I don't think anyone seriously argues that acquiring literacy in Chinese, or typing in it, is as fast as with an abecedary, so there is some overhead, but Chinese characters are well-suited to expressing spoken Chinese, and usually give clues to both their pronunciation and meaning.
posted by adamrice at 5:31 PM on March 11

I learned Zhuyin/Bopomofo as a child, and I thought it was way better than Pinyin. We had to be "weaned off" of it to get used to reading and writing "grown-up" Chinese characters. And the problem wasn't Bopomofo (or Japanese Kana), it was the Anglo-centric ASCII keyboard that eventually made the unnatural Pinyin romanization a practical concession.

The racist pseudoscience aspect is weird and crass. It taints all interesting discussion.

Sapir-Whorf and related issues are interesting and plausible, but I don't see how it amounts to anything beyond speculation. To me, nor is it exactly a question or stance of linguistic-cultural relativism. Rather, it's that you can't epistemically know whether one writing system or another is more efficient or productive or creative, because unless you're God or mayyyybe a Type IV civilization like Iain Banks' Culture with access to running world sims to the end of time over and over again, you can't know that. It's not like a Lisp v.s. C debate, where you can have a good intuition under an already-constrained technological context about which tool is better for your task or project.

Maybe this is my projection, but isn't there also a historical narrative that written Chinese was unwieldy in order to serve the feudal elites? Whether true or not, IMO that's kind of how to go about thinking whether for you it's okay to desire change in some ways, and in the process lose part of your heritage, etc. Like, heritage is great and all, but in the name of freedom and liberation I'm okay with not being too sentimental about loss. Maybe?
posted by polymodus at 6:01 PM on March 11 [3 favorites]

The Roman alphabet is fairly sucky as alphabets go, what with not mapping very well to the actual sounds. But I do think alphabets in general are more efficient and easier to learn than character systems. Japanese and Korean both have interesting fusions of the concepts, though.
posted by tavella at 6:06 PM on March 11

I thought this bit of "Why Chinese is so Damn Hard" was hilarious because it precisely reflects my experience with the Talmud and now I'll have a good way to explain why, no, you probably don't want to study it:
classical Chinese really consists of several centuries of esoteric anecdotes and in-jokes written in a kind of terse, miserly code for dissemination among a small, elite group of intellectually-inbred bookworms who already knew the whole literature backwards and forwards, anyway.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:53 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]

written Chinese was unwieldy in order to serve the feudal elites?

I wouldn't say so, because that was only the first rung of the ladder. To actually join the elite (by passing the civil service examinations), you had to memorize the ancient classics, comprising half a million characters. It could take a few decades to finally pass the (multiple) exams.
posted by zompist at 12:03 AM on March 12

Wow... Decades!
That's crazy and impressive.

I've been thinking about it and wonder if actually only knowing a subset of the written characters for words you know would actually make you have some more, ah, creative uses of language to get across what you meant?

In alphabet based language you'd spell things badly or use other words. But in characters you'd just have to find another way to say it instead of spell it badly.

I seem to recall learning in art history that ancient China had a rather high literacy rate. (I didn't have a modem art class so I don't know what it is these days.) which is extra interesting in context of this conversation.

Sapir-Worf seemed a bit too pat when I learned about it in college. Interesting to keep seeing here and there that it's no longer considered valid.
posted by sio42 at 1:11 AM on March 12

Even if this were deemed a problem (as Mao had), I'm not sure there is actually a solution (as Mao discovered) that doesn't also involve reforming the entire language. Chinese is so jam-packed full of homophones, characters represent the only way to tell which one of the dozen or two meanings of the word ma3 you mean. In spoken Chinese there's context but (as noted in one of the previouslies) there's also a fair amount of writing imaginary characters on the palm of one's hand to clarify. There just aren't that many available morphemes in Chinese (esp. Mandarin) so the ones that exist get re-used a lot. When I learned about Mao's language reform attempts, I was sympathetic because Chinese! ARGH! but I think there's a reason why even a dictator couldn't get it done.

When I was first learning Chinese, computer input was a non-starter for anyone without advanced training. Now? If I was starting from scratch now, I would be hard pressed to actually put the effort in to learn to hand write characters, it's so much easier to do it on my phone--all it takes is knowing pronunciation and a vague recollection of "Oh yeah, that's the one." Stroke order? Pshaw. Don't even get me started on using a dictionary. My kindergartener can do it (and does, as he takes Mandarin at school). It makes me a little sad. Using a Chinese-English dictionary had previously been my #1 party trick when amongst non-Chinese speakers (why yes, I am a tremendous amount of fun at parties!), now anyone with an app can go to a Chinese restaurant and look up anything on the menu just by copying the character.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:26 AM on March 12

The Roman alphabet is fairly sucky as alphabets go, what with not mapping very well to the actual sounds.

This is more of an English problem than a Roman alphabet one.

English sleeps around a lot and goes home with other cultures' vocabulary as trophies. They're "loan" words, in the same way that sweater in high school was a loan. So as a result, we've stolen borrowed a number of orthographic systems too. But that's hardly the alphabet's fault.
posted by bonehead at 9:07 AM on March 12 [2 favorites]

I think that the comparison with English spelling is quite interesting, and arguments about spelling demonstrate some similar notions of conservatism and prescriptivism vs attempts to make the language more accessible. In fact, in both the linked pieces by David Moser, he explicitly brings up the comparison with bad English spelling:

In his response to Mullaney:
Mullaney’s reversal of logic can be made clearer with analogy to the legendary inadequacies of English spelling. Scholars for generations have bemoaned the state of English orthography, noting that the system is riddled with inconsistent spellings in words such as through, though, rough, bough, cough, etc. There were multiple schemes for completely overhauling the spelling rules of English to make the conventions more efficient and consistent, as are those of Spanish or German. Imagine, if you will, a writer who pooh-poohs these criticisms of English orthography, accusing critics of English spelling as “Anglophobes,” and crowing that “The great irony of this “Anglophobia” is that English orthography is not only going strong in the 21st century, but it is one of the fastest, most widespread, and successful languages [sic] of the digital age!” No one would seriously contend that the development of things like computer spell-checkers refutes the criticism that English orthography is seriously broken. If anything, the need for such technological fixes confirms the intrinsic drawbacks of the writing system.
And he also makes extensive comparisons with the “various flawed spelling heuristics of English” in part 3 of his Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard essay.

I’m a British English speaker but I would always encourage a potential English learner to pursue American English, as it makes more sense. The rules have been tidied up and codified to a greater degree: that vs which, for instance - and the spellings have often been phoneticised: color, check, center, pediatric.

I was a little nervous about writing that last paragraph, as I didn’t want to sound patronising or imply in any way that this “simplification” was anything less than a positive and healthy development. And that’s about my own language! Imagine trying to write something similar about the language of another culture which my culture had subjected to a long history of colonialism, racism and Orientalism. It’s fraught. Which is to say that there isn’t anything wrong with trying to assess Chinese characters as a writing technology in comparison to other writing technologies (and it really is a profoundly different approach to alphabetical systems, and I think valid to acknowledge the existence of comparative advantages and disadvantages)... but at best you’re going to touch on some understandably sensitive subjects that may be best left to people who are native speakers of the language, and at worst you’re going to bring in a lot of your own conscious and subconscious cultural baggage. No, scratch that - at worst you’re going to write a deeply unpalatable book which makes axiomatic the idea that Asian people aren’t able to create things.

One of the things that I found most interesting while putting this post together - as well as in the case of the #MeToo in China post that I did a while ago - is that the cast of characters is so small. China has the largest population of any country. It’s probably already the world’s biggest economy, and if not, it will be very soon. It’s the world’s largest producer of GHG emissions. And it’s sliding into an increasingly terrifying form of authoritarianism. There are lots of reasons to want to know a lot about China, and yet China is not a major subject of Western academic study, and thanks to media sector dysfunction (which has given us so much over the last few years), reporting on China is filtered and distorted through an unhealthily small group of people. (If you were going to take all of the English-language foreign correspondents in China for a drink, it would probably be polite to tell the bar-owner that you were coming, but it’s not like you would need to book a room or anything.) And it goes without saying that Chinese academia and journalism is operating under severe constraints, and isn’t able to reliably and accurately contribute to understanding modern China, either.

(The other really interesting thing I discovered was that it’s possible to be dyslexic in one language but not be in another!)
posted by chappell, ambrose at 11:38 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]

Hey, Thomas Mullaney! He pointed me in some very helpful directions when I was writing my blog post on H. K. Chow, the inventor of the first ever Chinese typewriter. I wouldn't say I agree with him 100% on everything and I do think he is very quick to jump to accusations of racism and bad faith; for example, he claims that MC Hammer's infamous dance move is racist-ly called the "Chinese typewriter", a claim that I haven't found anywhere else except Wikipedia, with a source of . . . Thomas Mullaney.
posted by chainsofreedom at 3:02 PM on March 12

reporting on China is filtered and distorted through an unhealthily small group of people. (If you were going to take all of the English-language foreign correspondents in China for a drink, it would probably be polite to tell the bar-owner that you were coming, but it’s not like you would need to book a room or anything.)

Why is this? Government restrictions on foreign press/freedom of speech? Lack of caring by other countries' news networks? Both?
posted by sio42 at 2:52 AM on March 14

As I understand it, it’s because the internet made print journalism economically unviable (no more classified ads); and yet, because the press has such an important social function, it’s somehow still going like Wile E Coyote in midair. Paywalls and begging for donations are never going to replace that income, so newspapers have been doing more with less for quite some time.

This has been discussed a lot on the Blue, and it’s a preoccupation of David Simon (of The Wire) and of Nick Davies. Davies wrote a book called Flat Earth News about this phenomenon, which is now mostly famous for a relatively incidental discussion of UK journalists using “The Dark Arts”, which became the phone hacking scandal a few years later and brought down Murdoch’s News of The World. However, the main argument is how cost-cutting leaves the newspaper industry with few resources for original reporting and vulnerable to recycling content from wire services, competitors and public relations firms. (He calls this “churnalism”.) From the John Lanchester LRB review of the book:
In 1970, CBS had three full-time correspondents in Rome alone: by 2006, the entire US media, print and broadcast, was supporting only 141 foreign correspondents to cover the whole world.
Add to that the difficulties of reporting in China - it’s a very, very big country; information is tightly controlled; local governments and police forces often have considerable power and independence by virtue of the fact that they’re so far from the capital; Xinjiang and Tibet are police states and very unfriendly to reporters - and the lack of representation among foreign correspondents (likely to be young white males who may or may not speak Chinese) and you end up with the current situation where a lot of quirky human interest stories are reported [google “dancing grannies”], a lot of questionable “trends” are extrapolated, there are a million stories on Beijing’s air quality (of considerable personal interest to expats - google “airpocalypse” to see how often these stories get written) and if a factory blows up in a city half an hour down the road then it’ll probably get reported, but any further and maybe not.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 7:10 AM on March 19

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