Most nonfiction books add ideas and facts to knowledge the reader already has, but it is rare to read a book that opens up a whole new world. This year when I read “Kingdom of Characters” by Jing Tsu, I was introduced to an entire sphere of knowledge I knew almost nothing about. Even though I had studied American and European history in school and have read biographies for many years, I had almost always seen China through the eyes of Western visitors and writers. Tsu gave me an inside view of some of the ways the country has changed over the past hundred years or so and how it has become part of a worldwide culture. And she does this by telling us the ways in which reading and writing have adapted to the modern global world. It started with the alphabet.
To write their language, Chinese speakers have traditionally used ideograms, in which each word is represented by a tiny picture that represented an individual word. Most other languages used an alphabet in which a small number of symbols could be combined in various ways to represent many different words. This made a tremendous difference in the way Chinese people could communicate in writing.
It took years of patient work for scholars to construct a Mandarin alphabet that was finally presented in 1904. Instead of praise, the scholar who achieved this, Wang Zhao, was imprisoned for attempting to modernize the country. But he had taken the first step that would lead the country into the modern world culture.
Jing Tsu takes us through the skills that were needed to allow Chinese speakers to communicate easily with people who spoke and wrote other languages. One step was developing a way to arrange words in an index. We often forget that it is knowledge of the alphabet that allows us to know immediately where to find the word we are looking for. People who grow up using an alphabetic language, learn the alphabet while they are very young. This gives them a basic tool to organize knowledge. In a list of vegetables, for example, a turnip is always going to come after an onion. We don’t even have to think about it. But in a language without an alphabet, a new way of organizing entries had to be worked out.
With every step toward joining the world community, another adaptation had to be mastered. The Chinese language could not be used on a Western typewriter. Those were designed for languages based on an alphabet rather than a language based on characters, as Chinese was, so a new kind of typewriter had to be invented.
With each new development—the typewriter, the card catalog, the teletype and then the computer—new adjustments had to be made so that the Chinese language could be used on the tools developed throughout the world. Jing Tsu makes the struggle to enter the global world of writing almost as exciting as a tiger hunt. Today China holds its place in the international marketplace and the scientific community on an equal footing with other countries using other languages.
You can find Jing Tsu’s book, Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern (2022) in most public libraries both in hardcover and in Kindle editions. A paperback edition will be published in January 2023.