Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern
Few contemporary societies take their writing culture as seriously as China. The oldest living language spoken by the most people, at the same time ancient and modern, Chinese is currently used by more than 1.3 billion people—not counting those around the globe who learn it as a second language. Its written form has remained largely unchanged since it was first standardized more than 2,200 years ago. By comparison, the number of letters in the Roman alphabet fluctuated until the sixteenth century, when the letter “j” split from “i” and completed the twenty-six-letter set.
Chinese heads of state are probably the only political leaders in the world who can still be seen demonstrating their cultural prowess at official occasions, in their case by dashing off a few characters or auspicious phrases with an ink brush. Deng Xiaoping was reputedly a bit shy, but his immediate predecessor and onetime rival, Hua Guofeng, devoted his late life to the practice, and former president Hu Jintao was fond of displaying his penmanship in public. Mao’s calligraphy still sits prominently on the masthead of the country’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily, and recent computerized handwriting analysis showed that Xi Jinping’s style is remarkably similar. Such showmanship not only serves as a daily reminder of the leader’s legitimacy but also reinforces the importance of a cultivated skill that has been the hallmark of China’s ruling elite since the time long before nations. Calligraphy, in fact, is one of the few practices of the Chinese tradition that survived the country’s twentieth-century revolt against its feudalistic past.
It’s hard to imagine an American president or European head of state opening an official state ceremony or visit with a show of penmanship. But in the Chinese context, literacy means something more than just knowing how to read and write. It has traditionally signaled many things: the mark of being steeped in the classics and wisdom of the ancients; a meditative craft through which to cultivate a higher self; an elite medium through which to express one’s inner character, thoughts, and emotions.
Deciphering Chinese is not only an insider’s art; it has also been a cross-continental pursuit. For more than four centuries, devoted followers of the Chinese language in the West have tried to peer into the secrets behind its ideographic capture of reality, speculating about its provenance and complex physical structure. Extravagant claims and theories met with enthusiastic reception in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe and twentieth-century America. Kings, clerics, adventurers, scholars, modern poets, and theorists of language were drawn to its strangeness and exceptionality, looking for a key to unlock its secrets through grammar and compositional laws. Sixteenth-century Jesuit missionaries labored to learn it, seventeenth-century savants were fascinated by it, and eighteenth-century Sinologists fetishized it.
How an entire civilization outside of Christendom evolved to have a writing system as complex and massive as the Chinese script has been an enduring linguistic mystery for outsiders. This inquiry poorly masks a deep suspicion: How can a people who read and write in characters ever think the way we do? Even in the late twentieth century, views like this were touted by Western experts in different fields. Alphabetic thinking, social theorists would say, explains the advent of the scientific revolution in the West. A modern theorist of networks and the digital age sees the alphabet as a conceptual technology that forms the bedrock of Western science and technology. A scholar of ancient Greece saw the signs much earlier at the fount of Western civilization, where “the alphabetic mind” was responsible for all the West’s accomplishments. Joseph Needham, a renowned British historian of Chinese science, spent his life’s work defending scientific inventions in ancient China against claims like these, but he also recognized that the Chinese language remained the greatest barrier for Westerners to understanding the minds of the Chinese. It is China’s first and last Great Wall.
The Opium War of 1839 to 1842 marked the beginning of a new course for China. During a series of crises and confrontations with the Western world that would keep China in an inferior position well into the early years of the twenty-first century, the demise of the Chinese script was foretold by many. Still, the Chinese were hesitant to accept the prospect of a future without their written language. They saw how the Chinese language, like the empire, might not be viable in a modern world increasingly transformed by various branches of Western science and new modes of electricity-powered communication, beginning with the telegraph. But the Chinese language had been the fundamental building block of China’s cultural universe. So rooted was the script in the country’s history and institutions over the millennia that it was difficult for the Chinese to consider abandoning it. From the grassroots to the highest level of the modern state, intellectuals, teachers, engineers, everyday citizens, eccentric inventors, duty-bound librarians, and language reformers embarked on one of the most extraordinary revolutions of the millennium in search of a solution. That is the subject of this book. The rude awakening of Western cannons firing at the gates; a teetering empire and the last throes of the imperialistic order; an urgency to modernize taken into overdrive by a new political ethos—all these shifts compelled the Chinese to embark on a parallel course: to get their language on the same footing as languages using the Western alphabet.
BRIDGING THE CHASM between two radically different scripts and systems of language seemed impossible at times, and the onus was mostly on the Chinese to modernize—or, what amounted to the same thing for most of the twentieth century, to westernize. The scale of the transformation was daunting. This important process lies at the core of China’s modern identity, but the burden of this assimilation may be hard to imagine for those who have not experienced it. Languages make worlds. Those who attempt to cross over into one that is different from their own often experience the same hesitation, doubt, and uncertainty China did as a nation. To gain entry into a language, one has to cross several thresholds.
Six months before my family emigrated from Taiwan to the United States, my mother started teaching us English. My siblings and I, then ages nine to twelve, learned its basic alphabet on ruled pages in spiral notebooks—which we had never seen before. I was ecstatic to find out that there were only twenty-six letters. The inside edge of the top joint of my middle finger had grown a thick callus from gripping the pencil every night, tracing the complicated contours of written Chinese characters in square-ruled practice books. Alphabet letters’ simple curves and lines were much easier to reproduce on paper, compared to the thousands of characters that had been drilled into our heads in school. Under my mother’s expectant eye, we practiced the English alphabet as diligently as we did Chinese calligraphy, using imported BIC pens that landed hard and easy on paper instead of the soft ink brushes with hairy tips that were nearly impossible for a nine-year-old to control with patience. I adjusted my habits of writing—from going right to left and vertically to left to right and horizontally. “D” was easy, “Q” my favorite—because their lowercase versions were the least like their uppercase selves. The sticks and lines became habitual, and we quickly graduated to cursive. My father had hoped I would one day become a journalist like the NBC anchorwoman Connie Chung, then the first professional Chinese American woman seen nightly on screen in every household in the United States. English, it seemed, was the only thing that stood between me and my conquest of American network television.
The determined effort to learn English was overkill, it turned out. My siblings and I learned to write the alphabet letters in no time. It was, to use an English idiom that took me many years to get right, a walk in the dark (park). There was just one problem: I had no feeling for the Western alphabet. I strained to relate to its form, despite the ease of picking it up. The written form was strangely empty of expressiveness, and the sounds attached to the letters felt arbitrary and emotionally flat without the tonal fluctuations of Chinese—the sounds I was born into.
After arriving in Monterey Park in Los Angeles, an enclave known as “Little Taipei,” English remained foreign despite learning it in context. My elementary school was full of Asians I had never seen before—Vietnamese, Cambodian, some Japanese and Korean. No one spoke English except in English class, where we struggled to move our tongues and mouth muscles in unnatural ways.
Every stage of English was a new experience. Bit by bit, how I made sense of the world through language changed. The transformative moment came in college, where the stakes of analyzing and thinking in English grew greater. “Critical thinking”—that unique acrobatics of the mind that is often taken as the universal and only acceptable set of thought procedures in making coherent, logical arguments—made me realize how decisively I had to leave Chinese behind in order to immerse myself in English and know it from the inside. I never had to think so hard in dogmatic ways in Chinese to arrive at sense-making. The two language worlds did not accord; they clashed. Chinese had a prior claim to every experience that was expressive, intuitive, and creative to me, while English felt like a corrective device that straightened and twisted me to fit a new mold. It was not enough to just master writing, reading comprehension, and vocabulary. To think in English, I had to breathe and live a worldview that was expressed and constructed in that language.
For the Chinese language to survive adapting to the Western alphabet, it had to do a lot more. Luckily, an equivalent journey from English to Chinese isn’t necessary to follow this story, but it does help to bear in mind a few essential points about Chinese ideographic writing. It is fundamentally unique, distinct from any other writing system in the world, and it is built from individual dots and lines that form clusters of patterns with a distinct contour. There are six basic properties of the Chinese script that are distinct from the Roman alphabet and the focal points of its modern transformation into a technology.
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|January 28, 2022|
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