How the Chinese kept their characters and did not adopt the Western alphabet

“If Chinese writing is not abolished, China will surely perish!” That’s what Chinese writer Lu Xun predicted in 1936. Not exactly a statement you’d expect from the man now known as the father of modern Chinese literature. But Lu saw no other choice: if China wanted to modernize, he had to say goodbye to that ramshackle character script that stood in the way of progress.

Chinese cultural historian Jing Tsu wrote a book about how the Chinese managed to preserve their characters: kingdom of characters† She opens her book with this quote from Lu Xun, which expresses a sentiment that lived among the Chinese in her day. “Certainly in the late 19th century, there are many voices about giving up writing altogether,” Tsu says in a video call from the United States, where she is a professor at Yale University. “However, you see very quickly that there are Chinese who say: it is not the fault of the characters.”

Tsu wanted to write the story of those ‘problem solvers’: “This is not the story of the great revolutionary leaders, but of the people who tried to pick up the pieces after each revolution. The people who thought hard to answer the question: what now?

Why did the Chinese want to get rid of character writing after thousands of years?

“In a sense, that’s a story about the relationship between China and the West. Without contact with foreigners, the Chinese would never have seen their writing differently. The Chinese discovered that an alphabet made it much easier to learn to read and write. And literacy was a big problem in the early 20th century. Less than 30 percent of men could read and write and no more than 2 percent of women. China was under great pressure to modernize. To do that, you needed not just peasants serving the emperor, but modern, well-educated citizens.

“So people were saying, ‘Why don’t we switch to a Latin alphabet or some other phonetic alphabet? That would make it much easier to learn to type. But of course something else was also going on: in the shadow of the West’s growing dominance, everything Chinese seemed backward.”

When you think of a typewriter, you think of a keyboard with 26 letters. What about the characters, of which there are 80,000?

You write that the Chinese began to view their writing differently due to the rise of Western technology such as the telegraph. What’s up with that?

“Look, it’s about the globalization that started back then. You can think of telegraphy as the Internet of the 19th century. So imagine: you are a country that still communicates with messages delivered by men on horseback or by boat. That could take months, whereas a telegram delivered the message in a few minutes. That’s a big deal when you consider how everything in the modern age is driven by speed and efficiency.”

Tsu describes that the Chinese encountered great practical obstacles in using telegraphy. The 26 letters of the alphabet are easy to convert to Morse code. But for the thousands of Chinese characters, a laborious solution was found at best: each character was given a number. Anyone who wanted to send a Chinese telegram had to look up that number for each character in a thick reference book and then send that long string of numbers in Morse code. Rather, the receiver had to look for the character corresponding to each digit.

A telegram he sent in English in a minute or two took over half an hour in Chinese. Tsu: “Consider how much time and lives it took if a military order was not quickly passed on to a general on the battlefield. Or the profit that was lost if competitors could bid faster.”

And why was it so difficult to make a Chinese typewriter?

“When you think of a typewriter, you immediately think of a keyboard with the 26 letters of the alphabet. What about the characters, of which there are about 80,000, and of which 3,000-4,000 are needed to be properly expressed as literate? Do you have to make a keyboard with thousands of keys? So that’s exactly what the first inventor of a Chinese typewriter, the American missionary Sheffield, did. His idea was: one character per key. He put all those characters on a giant round plate, and if you wanted to write a character, you had to find it somewhere on that plate first. It’s not exactly efficient. Finding the correct character on the typewriter was especially tricky because there was no logical order in which those characters were arranged.

“The alphabet is not only a collection of 26 letters, but also a fixed series of letters. B always follows A, and that order plays an extremely important role in how we organize information. Think of a library catalog, computer files, or a simple list: everything, big and small.”

Tsu describes that developing character writing principles was essential to being able to write in Chinese. It was also important to write on the computer. Typing in Chinese on a computer works differently than typing in a language like Dutch. It’s best compared to looking up words in a dictionary, Tsu explains.

These days, when you write in Chinese, you look up the characters stored in the computer one by one.

Tsu: “Nowadays, when you write in Chinese, you look up the characters stored in the computer one by one. Many people do that with the help of pinyin† Then you write the sound of a word in the Western alphabet, like my name Jing: JING. If you do, you will not immediately see the correct character appear on the screen. Instead, the computer shows you a list of words, all of which are pronounced “jing.” So you have to pick the right character from that.”

Pinyin is the standardized phonetic script for Chinese, in the Western alphabet, developed in the 1950s at the behest of Mao Zedong. Before that, there were countless ways to write Chinese words in the Western alphabet: for example, you could write the name of the Chinese capital as Peking, Beijing, or Pei-ching. Only since the introduction of pinyin is it the standard orthography of Beijing.

The introduction of pinyin has also played a significant role in increasing literacy among the Chinese. For example, many Chinese learn to read and write pinyin first, before attempting to learn to write characters.

Why didn’t Mao just replace the character’s script with the pinyin?

“The idea of ​​replacing the character’s writing with an alphabet was around until the 1930s. But to do it, a number of conditions had to be met. For example, an alternative phonetic spelling like pinyin had to be developed, but that lasted until the 1950s. At that time, the total abolition of the characters, from a nationalist perspective, had become impossible. Mao said that he wanted a writing system with a “national form”. It could be adapted a bit, but it had to remain a kind of ‘writing with Chinese characteristics’.

“Look, we tend to think that technology naturally evolves in a certain direction. But it is not a linear process. Each change was a bridge, a stoppage, to solve a certain problem. Pinyin thus partially solved the problem of literacy. In this way, a more drastic change in the Chinese writing system is always postponed and eventually cancelled.

Writing class in a Chinese elementary school in the year 2000.

Photo Getty Images

For the Chinese, sticking to character writing meant that virtually everyone wrote by hand before the advent of the computer. Typewriters were expensive, rare, and complicated devices that only specialists could work with. Tsu: “In fact, throughout the 20th century, China has been at least 15 or 20 years behind the West in terms of technology. Although of course that also had to do with the completely different political situation in China.”

Modern technology is no longer an obstacle to the Chinese writing system. But most Chinese people use the alphabet to write with pinyin. It is not a penalty?

“No, because that’s just one of the ways you can write. In addition, more and more options have been added in recent years. There are even people who return to writing by hand, with digital pens on a trackpad.

“And even if you use the Latin alphabet to write Chinese, it’s much faster than English. This way, you don’t have to type out common phrases completely, but the first letter of each character can suffice. Take, for example, the seven characters that make up “People’s Republic of China”: zhong hua ren min gong he guo: All you have to do is type ZHR and the computer will fill in the rest.”

The Chinese writing language revolution is far from complete

That reminds me a bit of what my smartphone does when I start typing a word in Dutch. Then my phone often fills in the rest of the word on its own.

Wow! This is an important point! This is not in my book, but the so-called predictive text messagesThe technology is also based on principles developed to organize Chinese characters based on how often a character is used. That idea was already developed at the end of the 19th century! People assume it’s Western because it’s hard to imagine something so modern coming from China. But it absolutely is.”

What does the future of Chinese writing look like?

“Ha, it’s a brave new world† The linguistic revolution of Chinese writing is far from complete. Take emojis: they are Japanese, of course, but they also indicate a kind of global return to a writing system that contains ideographic, i.e. visual, elements. We go back to thinking about images, about how we can capture emotions and reactions in images. Exactly the elements that also make up Chinese writing!” Tsu laughs. “It’s really amazing. One could say that the literate world is becoming more and more ‘Chinese’”.

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