Amid the ferment of the early twentieth century, reformers faced a broader question, too: once Chinese traditions were overthrown, what cultural norms should succeed them? Most of the people whom Tsu writes about looked to the United States. Many of them studied at American universities in the nineteen-tens, subsidized by money that the United States received from China as an indemnity after the anti-Western Boxer Rebellion was defeated. Zhou Houkun, who invented a Chinese typewriting machine, studied at M.I.T. Hu Shi, a scholar and a diplomat who helped elevate the vernacular into the national language, went to Cornell. Lin Yutang, who devised a Chinese typewriter, studied at Harvard. Wang Jingchun, who smoothed the way for Chinese telegraphy, said, with more ardor than accuracy, “Our government is American; our constitution is American; many of us feel like Americans.”
This focus on the U.S. might please American readers. But, in the last years of the Qing dynasty and during the early Republican period, Japan was a far more influential model of modern reform. Oddly, Tsu barely mentions this in her book. Japan—whose military victory against Russia in 1905 had been hailed all over Asia as a sign that a modern Asian nation could stand up to the West—was the main conduit for concepts that changed the social, political, cultural, and linguistic landscape in China. More than a thousand Chinese students joined Zhou and Hu as Boxer Indemnity Scholars in the U.S. between 1911 and 1929, but more than eight thousand Chinese were already studying in Japan by 1905. And many schools in China employed Japanese technical and scientific teachers.
It’s true that Japan’s industrial, military, and educational reforms since the Meiji Restoration of 1868 were themselves based on Western models, including artistic movements, such as Impressionism and Surrealism. But these ideas were transmitted to China by Chinese students, revolutionaries, and intellectuals in Japan, and had a direct and lasting impact on written and spoken Chinese. Many scientific and political terms in Chinese—such as “philosophy,” “democracy,” “electricity,” “telephone,” “socialism,” “capitalism,” and “communism”—were coined in Japanese by combining Chinese characters.
Demands for radical reform came to a head in 1919, with a student protest in Beijing, first against provisions in the Treaty of Versailles which allowed Japan to take possession of German territories in China, and then against the classical Confucian traditions that were believed to stand in the way of progress. A gamut of political orientations combined in the so-called New Culture movement, ranging from the John Dewey-inspired pragmatism of Hu Shi to early converts to socialism. Where New Culture protesters could agree, as Tsu notes, was on the critical importance of mass literacy.
Downgrading classical Chinese and promoting colloquial writing was a step in that direction, even if abolishing characters in Chinese remained too radical for many to contemplate. Still, as Tsu says, some Nationalists, who ruled China until 1949, were in favor of at least simplifying the characters, as were the Communists. Nationalist attempts at simplification ran into opposition from conservatives, who wanted to protect traditional Chinese written culture; the Communists were far more radical, and never gave up on the idea of switching to the Roman alphabet. In the Soviet Union, the Roman alphabet had been used in order to impose political uniformity on many different peoples, including Muslims who were used to Arabic script. The Soviets supported and subsidized Chinese efforts to follow their example. For the Communists, as Tsu notes, the goal was simple: “If the Chinese could read easily, they could be radicalized and converted to communism with the new script.”
The long conflict with Japan, from 1931 to 1945, put a temporary stop to language reform. The Nationalists, who did most of the fighting, were struggling simply to survive. The Communists spent more time thinking about ideological matters. Radical language reform began in earnest only after the Nationalists were defeated, in 1949, and forced to retreat to Taiwan. Mao, in the decade that followed, ushered in two linguistic revolutions: Pinyin, the Romanized transcription that became the standard all over China (and now pretty much everywhere else), and so-called simplified Chinese.
The Committee on Script Reform, created in 1952, started by releasing some eight hundred recast characters. More were released, and some were revised, in the ensuing decades. The new characters, made with many fewer strokes, were “true to the egalitarian principles of socialism,” Tsu says. The Communist cadres rejoiced in the fact that “the people’s voices were finally being heard.” Among the beneficiaries were “China’s workers and peasants.” After all, “Mao said that the masses were the true heroes and their opinions must be trusted.”
Tsu rightly credits the Communist government with raising the literacy level in China, which, she tells us, reached ninety-seven per cent in 2018. But we should take with a grain of salt the claim that these gains came from bottom-up agitation. “Nothing like it had ever been attempted in the history of the world,” she writes. The Japanese might beg to differ; ninety per cent of the Japanese population had attended elementary school in 1900. We can also wonder whether the simplified characters played as large a role in China’s high literacy rate as Tsu is inclined to think. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, traditional characters have been left largely intact; if there is proof that children there have much more difficulty in learning to read and write, it would be good to know. Simply being told that “the people’s voices were finally being heard” is not quite sufficient to make that case. And, even if there are benefits to learning a drastically revised script, there are losses, too. Not only are the new characters less elegant but books written in the old style become hard to understand.
That was part of the point. In 1956, Tao-Tai Hsia, then a professor at Yale, wrote that strengthening Communist propaganda was “the chief motivation” of language reform: “The thought of getting rid of parts of China’s cultural past which the Communists deem undesirable through the language process is ever present in the minds of the Communist cultural workers.” This was written during the Cold War, but Hsia was surely right. After all, as Tsu points out, “those who voiced their dissatisfaction with the pinyin reform would be swallowed up in the years of persecution that followed,” and those who grumbled about the simplified characters fared little better.
Tsu assiduously links the story of language reform to technology—we learn much about the heroic efforts to accommodate modern typesetting to the character-based system—and that story continues through the digital era. The speed with which these advances were accomplished is indeed impressive. In the seventies, more than seventy per cent of all circulated print information in China was set in hot-lead type. Today, as Tsu writes excitedly—at times, her style is redolent of Mao-period journals like China Reconstructs—information processing is “the tool that opened the door to the cutting-edge technology-driven future that China’s decades of linguistic reform and state planning at last pried open.”
Tsu celebrates these technical innovations by highlighting the personal stories of key individuals, which often read like traditional Confucian morality tales about terrible hardships overcome by sheer tenacity and hard work. Zhi Bingyi worked on his ideas about a Chinese computer language in a squalid prison cell during the Cultural Revolution, writing his calculations on a teacup after his guards took away even his toilet paper. Wang Xuan, a pioneer of laser typesetting systems, was so hungry during Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign, in 1960, that “his body swelled under the fatigue, but he continued to work relentlessly.” Such anecdotes add welcome color to the technical explanations of phonetic scripts, typewriters, telegraphy, card-catalogue systems, and computers. Sentences like “Finally, through a reverse process of decompression, Wang converted the vector images to bitmaps of dots for digital output” can become wearying.
Today, in the era of standardized word processors and Chinese social-media apps like WeChat, Pinyin and characters are seamlessly connected. Users typically type Pinyin on their keyboards while the screen displays the simplified characters, offering an array of options to resolve homonyms. (Older users may draw the characters on their smartphones.) China will, as Tsu says, “at last have a shot at communicating with the world digitally.” The old struggles over written forms might seem redundant. But the politics of language persists, particularly in the way the government communicates with its citizens.
“Kingdom of Characters” mentions all the major political events, from the Boxer Rebellion to the rise of Xi Jinping. And yet one might get the impression that language development was largely a story of ingenious inventions devised by doughty individuals overcoming enormous technical obstacles. Her account ends on a triumphant note; she remarks that written Chinese is now “being ever more widely used, learned, propagated, studied, and accurately transformed into electronic data. It is about as immortal as a living script can hope to get.” Continuing in the same vein, she writes, “The Chinese script revolution has always been the true people’s revolution—not ‘the people’ as determined by Communist ideology but the wider multitude that powered it with innovators and foot soldiers.”