A New York Times Notable Book of 2022
What does it take to reinvent a language?
After a meteoric rise, China today is one of the world’s most powerful nations. Just a century ago, it was a crumbling empire with literacy reserved for the elite few, as the world underwent a massive technological transformation that threatened to leave them behind. In Kingdom of Characters, Jing Tsu argues that China’s most daunting challenge was a linguistic one: the century-long fight to make the formidable Chinese language accessible to the modern world of global trade and digital technology.
Kingdom of Characters follows the bold innovators who reinvented the Chinese language, among them an exiled reformer who risked a death sentence to advocate for Mandarin as a national language, a Chinese-Muslim poet who laid the groundwork for Chairman Mao’s phonetic writing system, and a computer engineer who devised input codes for Chinese characters on the lid of a teacup from the floor of a jail cell. Without their advances, China might never have become the dominating force we know today.
With larger-than-life characters and an unexpected perspective on the major events of China’s tumultuous twentieth century, Tsu reveals how language is both a technology to be perfected and a subtle, yet potent, power to be exercised and expanded.
Tsu, a professor of East Asian language and literature at Yale, debuts with an immersive history of the effort to transform the written Chinese language’s vast and complex set of characters into a modern communication technology. Noting that Chinese ideographic writing is “fundamentally unique, distinct from any other writing system in the world,” Tsu details how China’s struggle for sovereignty during the 19th century, when the opium wars resulted in harsh trade agreements and territorial losses, sparked innovations and reform efforts by Chinese scholars, politicians, and inventors who believed the written language was a barrier to development. Tsu describes efforts to develop and promote the Mandarin alphabet, adapt characters for telegraphic transmission, and develop a typewriter to replicate characters. Communist leader Mao Zedong’s efforts, meanwhile, to simplify Chinese characters and make the language easier for Westerners to learn dramatically improved the country’s literacy rate and eventually reduced the number of characters from tens of thousands to 2,235. Tsu also explores the history of typesetting and modern printing in China, and the evolution of Chinese characters in the internet age. The level of detail occasionally slows the book’s pace, but Tsu sheds light on the intriguing interplay between Chinese language and politics. Sinophiles and language buffs will be fascinated. (Jan.)
– Publishers Weekly
Of all the Chinese dialects why is Mandarin the official one? Why does mainland China use simplified characters and how were they developed? Tsu (East Asian languages and literatures, Yale Univ.; Sound and Script in Chinese Diaspora) answers these questions, and others, in this fascinating history of the Chinese language from 1900 to the present. While the term “character” in the title refers to the symbols used to write the Chinese language, it could also refer to all the colorful figures who appear in this history, including Du Dingyou, who saved 300,000 books from his university library from destruction during World War II, and Zhi Bingyi, who, while in a jail cell in 1968, saw an element in the components of Chinese characters that helped him to develop the coding method for computer processing. Other topics featured in Tsu’s comprehensive history include Romanization, Chinese typewriters, telegraphy, and library classification systems. The book is rounded out with illustrations of variants of characters from Hong Kong, mainland China, and Taiwan. VERDICT Essential reading for anyone interested in Chinese language or modern Chinese history.–Joshua Wallace
– Library Journal
How the oldest living written language has had to modernize and adapt.
Because of the highly complicated ideographic nature of the Chinese written language, both the West and China’s own people have long striven to decipher its meaning and power. Traditionally, only the elite could master the elaborate script, since it took too long to write and was hard to learn. When China was confronted with “catching up” with the West by the late 19th century, the task of modernizing and adaptation was enormous. Tsu, a Yale professor of East Asian studies who emigrated from Taiwan to the U.S. as a child, has a unique and poignant perspective on having to adapt to the Western alphabet and a different mode of critical thinking. “The two language worlds did not accord; they clashed,” she writes. The author reviews the basic properties of the Chinese script as it transformed via characters, strokes, components, radicals, and tone. She explores Wang Zhao’s first attempts to modernize Mandarin during the mid-1900s in the spirit of reform and in response to Japan’s attempts to modernize its own language; the first mapping of the ideographic keyboards for typewriters (adapted for a few thousand commonly used Chinese characters rather than the letters of the Roman alphabet), which allowed Chinese to become a part of the telegraphy revolution; the deconstruction of the language for categorizing and indexing for libraries; and the Communist Party’s attempts to simplify and modernize in the 1950s using roman script instead of ideograms. Purists might object, but literacy rates have increased hugely–to 96.8 percent by 2018, according to Tsu’s reckoning. The linguistic and historical threads the author weaves together are complex, but her engaging tone makes the book accessible for general readers.
An engaging, relevant work that delves into the linguistic past in order to predict China’s future success in the world.
– Kirkus Reviews
Praise for Kingdom of Characters:
“Rigorous and engaging. . . . Languages, as this book makes clear, convey worlds.” –New York Times
“A lively and insightful history of the intersection of China’s information technology systems and its language revolution. The book is a richly documented, riveting, and scholarly rigorous transnational account of how Chinese evolved from a hard-to-learn script entrenched in the beleaguered Middle Kingdom in the 19th century to a global language in the 21st century.” –Science
“A fascinating book” –The Economist
“A lively chronicle of the inventors who gave their all to make the Chinese script compatible with modern life.” –The Guardian
“Enchanting… [Tsu’s] love for the enigma and beauty of Chinese shines through in this delightful mix of history and linguistics… A pleasure to read.” –The Sunday Times (London)
“Erudite and beautifully written.” –Rana Mitter, The Times Literary Supplement (London)
“A well-told story about those who created modern China not through the barrel of a gun or a little red book but through dictionaries, libraries and printing presses.” –The Spectator (UK)
“Interesting and very readable.” –Peter Gordon, Asian Review of Books
“Pioneering” –Physics World
“[A]n immersive history of the effort to transform the written Chinese language’s vast and complex set of characters into a modern communication technology . . . Tsu sheds light on the intriguing interplay between Chinese language and politics. Sinophiles and language buffs will be fascinated.” –Publisher’s Weekly
“Tsu’s humanistic, big-picture sensibility makes an otherwise obscure thread in the history of information technology vivid and compelling.” –Booklist
“An engaging, relevant work that delves into the linguistic past in order to predict China’s future success in the world.” –Kirkus (starred review)
“In Kingdom of Characters, Jing Tsu introduces us to a cast of unforgettable figures. She tells an essential story of modern China: a country at once transformed and yet deeply traditional.” –Peter Hessler, author of Oracle Bones and River Town
“Jing Tsu wears her erudition lightly and gives us a fascinating and moving story. It shows the passionate struggle of generations of pioneers. It’s a story of desperate strife, unflagging dedication, and ultimately, triumph.” –Ha Jin, author of Waiting and War Trash
“A deeply engaging and revealing narrative of the Chinese language in modern times. Meticulously researched and beautifully written.” –David Wang, Edward C. Henderson Professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature, Harvard University
“Seldom have I read a book about modern China so informative, revelatory and enjoyable.” –Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman and The Man Who Loved China
“An absolute joy to read. This stunning, meticulously researched book is the detective story of Chinese characters. Jing Tsu has seamlessly fused the craft of the linguistic historian with the artistry of the storyteller–including cliff-hangers.” –David Crystal, author of How Language Works and The Stories of English
– From the Publisher