At 7 PM EST tomorrow, I’m going to be the “Q” in a virtual Q&A with Yale professor Jing Tsu, author of the brand new (and fascinating) book, Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern. Everyone is welcome — here’s a link. (It’s free, although you can buy a ticket that includes the book). In this post I want to share a few insights from the book. To start, a very short story:
Sir Shi was a poet who lived in a stone house and loved lions so much that he vowed to eat ten of them. He would peruse the market looking for lions, and one day at ten o’clock ten lions arrived. Sir Shi killed the ten lions and took them home, where he ordered his servant to clean the stone house in preparation for the meal. Sir Shi then sat down to dine on his lions, only to realize that they were not flesh-and-blood lions but stone lions. It was a bummer for Sir Shi.
That’s my summary of the tale of Sir Shi. Here’s the full version, in Chinese:
Beautiful, right? And now here is the version using the Latin alphabet you’re used to:
The Sir Shi story was concocted by one of the central figures in Kingdom of Characters, not as a parable meant to reveal some abstruse bit of ancient wisdom — people who live in stone houses should throw stones instead of eating stone lions? — but rather to demonstrate the challenge of transliterating Chinese script in a Western alphabet.
Chinese is a tonal language, and the thirty-one different Chinese characters used above in Sir Shi’s story include a variety of different tones (rising or falling pitch, for example) that impart meaning. In this Romanized version, there are no tonal indicators, which leaves just a repetitive drone of identical shis — gibberish, as opposed to drollery.
“China’s First and Last Great Wall”
In the introduction of her book, Tsu uses that phrase — “China’s first and last great wall” — to describe the barrier that the Chinese language long presented to Western understanding. The Sir Shi story above is just one example of the enormous difficulties that came with preparing Chinese for the international (and technological) stage.
The written form of Chinese, after all, “has remained largely unchanged since it was first standardized more than 2,200 years ago,” Tsu writes. The alphabet I’m using in this newsletter, meanwhile, was still in flux until the early 16th century, when the letter J ceased to be an artistic-flourish version of I, and took on a life (and sound) of its own.
Basic Chinese literacy requires memorizing thousands of characters, and, traditionally, Chinese writing had both an aesthetic and exclusionary quality. The difficulty of writing served as a selection sieve for officials in imperial China. To earn a post, one had to submit written poetry and essays on moral issues.
Even now, Tsu notes, “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.” Chinese script doesn’t just seem more complex to English-reading outsiders — it is more complex.
Innovation and Modernization
The structure of Kingdom of Characters unfolds like a relay race among innovators, one passing the baton to the next as they try to widen the reach of written Chinese — via simplified characters for everyday use, and by creating technology and classification systems to make Chinese compatible with the telegraph, the typewriter, and eventually the computer and phone. Not to mention “pinyin,” a customized system developed in the 1950s and using the Latin alphabet to create phonetic spellings of Chinese characters to make it easier to learn pronunciation.
A question I had partway through the book: Why, in the face of thousands of years of tradition and a litany of technical difficulties did a parade of Chinese innovators (my favorite is a librarian who smuggled out 300,000 books and buried others in concrete during a Japanese invasion) insist on simplifying the script? The answer is that they desperately wanted China to join the rest of the world.
The exchange of knowledge between China and the United States in the book is pervasive and remarkable. Check out this image below, in which a Chinese official (and major figure in the book), is placed symbolically between Chinese citizens hungry for progress and an American locomotive coming to give it to them. And that headline!
One needn’t read much news these days to realize that China and the U.S. are not on the kind of terms that would facilitate a headline like the one above. (The U.S. recently announced a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics next month in Beijing.)
When I read news articles about China/U.S. relations lately, I often find myself more rather than less confused about what’s going on, and why. Kingdom of Characters, using language as a frame for the collision of ancient tradition and breakneck modernization, left me with greater understanding — and smarter questions about the future. (Plus, for the first time, I realized why a licensing contract for translation of my book specified “Chinese (Simplified)”.)
The book is as much about social and political change as language. As an adage popularized by Yiddish linguist Max Weinrich goes: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”
And as Jing Tsu told me when we chatted last week: “You will never find another country that worked as hard to integrate into the world, and never one that then felt more misunderstood.” I know she is expecting thoughtful (and difficult) questions about China and her book, so bring them to the Q&A tomorrow night.