How do you reinvent a language as complex as Chinese? Kingdom of Characters, a fascinating new book by Yale University professor and historical scholar Jing Tsu, argues that China’s most daunting challenge after its meteoric economic rise over the last century was a linguistic one: making the Chinese language more accessible in a world increasingly designed for the Roman alphabet.
In the early 1900s, China was a crumbling empire with a low literacy rate. Making the Chinese language — with its complex character-based writing structure and many dialects — accessible to the modern world of digital technology and global trade was just as important as any other of China’s industrial advances.
“The 26 letters are the hallmark of Western languages and are tremendously helpful. Having a finite number of letters in the alphabet gives Indo-European languages a huge advantage,” Tsu said in a recent interview with Dan Russell on Book Soup. “From that perspective, everything in Chinese is just the opposite. First of all, the language is not spelled out. There are no letters. We write in clusters that get grouped together. There are tens of thousands of characters to learn. About 80,000 total, actually, although you only need 3,000 to 4,000 for daily literacy. I remember growing up and having to learn dozens of characters each day, having to write and repeat them for hours each night. Characters are made of lines and dots called strokes. A stroke is basically a continuous line that you make without lifting your hand. Strokes then come together and form parts. It’s a language of elemental units, almost kind of like a language of Lego. You build them in these different shape without strong phonetic cues.”
The larger-than-life characters in Tsu’s book give us a new and unexpected perspective on China’s tumultuous 20th century and reveals how language can be a subtle, yet powerful force to change history. The language revolution that made China modern is chronicled in detail through the stories of bold innovators who required standardization like Wang Zhao, an exiled reformer who risked life and limb to advocate for Mandarin to become the national language. Likewise, credit goes to Zhi Bingyi, the computer engineer who began devising a system to help computers read Chinese characters while imprisoned for being a “reactionary.” Without their advances and even because of these linguistic innovations, China turned into one of the most powerful countries of the modern era.
However, international use of the Chinese language has not matched the acceleration of the Chinese economy’s steady growth. The difficulty of learning the written language is undoubtedly a factor. Although opinions vary, it is estimated that to be considered literate in Chinese, knowledge of between 6,000 and 8,000 characters is required.
Along the way, China borrowed ideas and technologies following other countries. Mao Zedong almost was forced to accept the Romanization of the Chinese language. The initiative was abandoned when it became clear it would have put those who spoke in dialects other than Mandarin in a difficult position. Instead, the committee simplified the character set to promote literacy. It also created the transcription of a new novel letter in Chinese pinyin which improved daily interaction with computers. People use it to type on keyboards and smartphones. Other systems use buttons to connect parts of the Chinese symbol. For experienced people, this method is faster, but more difficult to learn.
In recent years, AI technology is further assisting. People who write Chinese on touch screens are increasingly helped by artificial intelligence that can predict text and suggest automatic corrections while entering in characters based on overall frequency of use and surrounding words.