Literate Modernism: How and Why China Has Shaped Chinese


In mid-19th century China, after suffering multiple humbling defeats by imperial powers, a movement to modernize China’s military developed. The idea was that the national essence or culture of China could be better defended with superior Western methods and technology than outdated Chinese methods—seen as the extension of a static political culture. That the methods and technology were Western did not matter—they were not tied to the imperial aims which produced them; they could be adapted by anyone, and were essentially culture-less.

Modernity in this instance was technical, an application used to preserve something unchanging—Chinese culture. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century and again in the early 20th century that questions of modernity were recast as residing in the cultural sphere, yoking the military to political representation to women’s emancipation to literature. Part of this new modernization of China was the question of language: was it explicitly or implicitly political, but also whether or not it would aptly serve as an instrument of modernization, a technique by which modernity is formed.


A Billion Voices: China's Search for a Common Language, David Moser (Penguin, may 2016)
A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language, David Moser (Penguin, May 2016)

Two recent books about language in China explore these questions. A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language, by David Moser, a linguist and longtime resident of Beijing, is a history of Mandarin Chinese—a misnomer that at its best refers to putonghua, the “common speech” promoted by the People’s Republic of China (though it is also taught in similar form as guoyu, or national speech, in Taiwan). It focuses on the speech and script reforms that created Mandarin as we know it today, and the intellectual foment around those changes. Which is why Moser begins with the distinction that speech—the living language of the Chinese, which is spoken, differs from the written language, script—what in many cases records and codifies speech.

In China, the bazillion different dialects and regional accents historically differed from the written language that was codified in the classical language, and used for official communications. This changed in the early twentieth century, as politicians and intellectuals alike sought to modernize the country, solve problems of illiteracy, and to propel China onto the world stage—as a country that had thrown off backward ways of thinking.

From a 1918 letter that linguist and litterateur Qian Xuantong wrote to Chen Duxiu, Trotskyite and editor of New Youth magazine, then the signal journal of political and cultural change:


In an early essay of yours you strongly advocated the abolition of Confucianism. Concerning this proposal of yours I think that it is now the only way to save China. But upon reading it I have though of one more thing: if you want to abolish Confucianism you must first abolish the Chinese [written] language. If you want to get rid of the average person’s childish, uncivilized, obstinate way of thinking, then it is all the more essential that you abolish the Chinese language. To abolish Confucianism and eliminate Taoism is a fundamental way to prevent the fall of China and allow the Chinese to become a civilised nation in the twentieth century. But a more fundamental way than this is to abolish the written Chinese language, in which Confucian thoughts and fallacious Taoist sayings are recorded.


If this sounds ludicrous, it should be remembered that China had in the early 20th century, just like in the 19th century, suffered extensive military and diplomatic defeats at the hands of modern Western nations—as well as Japan, who had already modernized their government and military, and unified its language. The perceived shackling of the Chinese mind, the habits that kept the Chinese from better expressing themselves and thinking in new ways, could, to this group of firebrand intellectuals and even some dull bureaucrats, be boiled down to a lack of public education and thousands of years of antiquated customs. If you want to solve a problem, nip it in the bud: without the language to convey Confucian hierarchies and Daoist vagaries to future generations, people could instead devote their time to science, democracy, and other appropriately modern pursuits. Language was the key to this.

Many intellectuals favored disregarding Chinese entirely for something else.

Moser traces the multiple abortive attempts by these intellectuals to at least simplify the written language as well as codify its spoken expression—acts done with the hope that a unified language would both streamline public works as well as smooth over the many strong regional and cultural differences throughout China. One of the more ingenious methods of doing this was the attempt to introduce an alphabet into Chinese.

Many intellectuals, as seen above, favored disregarding Chinese entirely for something else—like the provocative and famous writer Lu Xun, who thought Esperanto would be China’s linguistic future. Colorful story after colorful story of people sometimes literally fighting with each other over debates of obscure interest to casual observers—which word should be pronounced what way—as well as sometimes advocating the nuclear option of “total Westernization”, the idea that a wholesale adaptation of Western techniques would yield modern governance—make the book a very enjoyable read by itself. Curiously, Moser can be seen as a bit of a holdover from these dialogues, advocating for an alphabetic script.


Perhaps the most salient aspect to the Chinese script is the difficulty in learning to write it…. Unlike phonetic or alphabetic scripts, which normally involve a couple dozen or more symbols, Chinese script requires the rote memorization of many thousands of characters, some of such stupefying calligraphic complexity that the literati had to essentially devote their entire childhoods to mastering the system.


While many arguments for what we’d call literary modernism have fallen by the wayside in China as well as elsewhere, in favor of wonky policies and ethnic affiliations, it’s refreshing to see that someone is still fighting the good fight. Whether or not you agree with Moser in placing language education near the center of his argument, at least he has an argument—and one you don’t have to be a linguist to engage with. At its core the idea is simple: Chinese is difficult to learn, and by adapting a less taxing script literacy increases. As literacy increases, so does general education.


But as language reform moved into the middle of the 20th century, enthusiastic language reformers (like Mao Zedong) were forced to back down on their all-or-nothing positions into a series of compromises. The results of these compromises were the establishment of pinyin—the romanization system used alongside Chinese characters, especially for language learners—and simplified characters, with reduced numbers of brushstrokes.

Pinyin has had success by bureaucratic standards: it is incredibly systematic, and is taught in all schools in China as a secondary form of the language, used to spur students to more serious study. In professional life as well, it can be used to very quickly decide on the pronunciation of a word that may be unfamiliar. The simplified characters themselves are only a minority of Chinese characters, and usually only those that were the most complex—and thus time-consuming to learn. Many of the simplified versions were also already in use in marketplaces as well as by professional (artistic) calligraphers. Neither pinyin nor simplified characters present a serious challenge to the existence of the traditional Chinese script, and many people can read both.

The other, grand success of language compromises, was putonghua. An amalgam of northern-style pronunciation and lexicon, it is now standard spoken Chinese. It is taught in all schools, is promoted abroad, and is, perhaps most decisively, used in nearly all media broadcasts.

Moser predicts this new development of spoken Chinese will eventually swallow regional dialects as well as minority languages: an extreme example would the phasing-out of Tibetan- and Uyghur-language classes in schools, which are first confined to familial and informal settings, and then, over time, they become at best a patois known by old-timers. Though not a minority language, this is also exactly what happened to the Beijing dialect that putonghua was largely based on: for all intents and purposes it has turned into an accent peppered with some archaic-sounding phrases.

But if it’s hard to be sanguine about this prospect, there’s still an element of indecision which leaves back doors open, and even leaves room for official revision. Regional media still introduce dialect programming, and even Xi Jinping has made comments that—if demonstrably in contradiction to his policies—reimagine the Chinese nation as inclusive, and not fractured into exclusive clans based on regional or linguistic identity.


In recent decades there has been a rhetorical shift from the use of Zhonghua renmin, 中华人民, ‘The Chinese People’ to Zhonghua minzu, 中华民族, ‘the Chinese nation’ in referring to the people of China. (Note President Xi Jinping’s call for ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’, Zhonghua minzu weida fuxing, 中华民族伟大复兴). This change signals a shift of focus from the original notion of China as a communist state encompassing several different ethnic groups to a national state with one unified minzu. Should it be interpreted simply as ‘the nation’, or does it also encompass meanings such as ‘a people’, ‘an ethnic group’?


This is a vision of political modernity enabled by better access to language instruction, and by better communication across otherwise wide cultural divides. It is also a vision of China as a melting pot, of a sort.


The Chinese Typewriter: A History, Thomas S. Mullaney (MIT Press, July 2017)
The Chinese Typewriter: A History, Thomas S. Mullaney (MIT Press, July 2017)

But Stanford professor Thomas Mullaney’s The Chinese Typewriter: A History, offers another view of language as a means for communication. It is an enthusiastic history of the development of the Chinese script as a mechanical form—meaning its first mechanical experiments up to pioneering work in predictive text (a second volume, which explores the impact of predictive text upon computing, is yet to come). The modernism he writes about is one where the Chinese script impacts non-Chinese societies—not as an imperial project, but as a technique that directly shapes how we interface with each other in a more international world.

He begins by invoking the same intellectuals who wished to radically change China early in the twentieth century, specifically Lu Xun:


The celebrated writer Lu Xun (1881-1936) was yet another member of this chorus. “Chinese characters,” he argued, “constitute a tubercle on the body of China’s poor and laboring masses, inside of which the bacteria collect. If one does not clear them out, then one will die. If Chinese characters are not exterminated, there can be no doubt that China will perish.” For these reformers, abolishing characters would constitute a foundational act of Chinese modernity, unmooring China from its immense and anchoring past.


But Mullaney explores a different path to modernity, one symbolized by the typewriter. The typewriter was the solution to the “what” of the Chinese language that allowed China to develop a reactive modernism that was, in Mullaney’s reading, more radical than the one proffered by other intellectuals. Mullaney describes a machine that—even in its sound—is very different from established visions of modernity, in that “compromise” is the only substantial argument available.


The aurality of the Chinese typewriter was and always has been a compromised space, at all times somehow related to, completely ensphered within, and yet distinct from the global soundscape of the “real” typewriter of the West. In listening to the Chinese machine, we can never hope to isolate ourselves in the peace and quiet of an anechoic chamber, dwelling upon the fine texture of its sounds through high-fidelity speakers. The analytical space we occupy is more like a crowded café, music blaring throughout, in which we are straining to hear faint sounds. There exists no such thing as a “China-centered” history of the Chinese typewriter—nor of Chinese modernity.

The typewriter was the solution to the “what” of the Chinese language.

The problem of Chinese typography was the character system’s seeming irreducibility to predictable components as well as the sheer size of the vocabulary. Chinese base-level “literate” vocabulary being around 4000 words, many Western parodies were made of the mythical Chinese typewriter, large as a mountain to accompany all of the keys, usually accompanied by racist undertones. These attitudes were strengthened by the successful experiments by Remington and Olivetti—harbingers of mechanical modernism if there ever were any—in other Asian countries. Yet they met no success in similar experiments in China.

It wasn’t until Shu Zhendong’s typewriter (1920s), and Lin Yutang’s ill-fated Mingkwai typewriter (1940s), realistic models that solved a number of the problems endemic to typing in Chinese, that significant progress was made along a different track from both Western typewriter companies as well as the one envisioned by advocates of “complete Westernization”. Shu Zhendong’s typewriter, marketed by the huge Commercial Press, was a success, but Lin Yutang’s, despite superior mechanics, never went into mass production.


In the 1950s, a window was opened by typists using modified versions of Shu’s typewriter and mimeograph technology. Although typesetting could take very long periods of time, small shops providing typing and production services proliferated. These small shops, beyond the ken of state-sanctioned and top-down decisions over the smallest details, provided large amounts of the propaganda needed to support such an outwardly ideology-driven state. (Interestingly enough, as printing centers these shops have persisted to the present day—producing avant-garde journals like Jintian along with bread-and-butter leaflets and numerous other printing projects.) It was at these shops, flying just below the radar, that something happened:


[A]mong Mao-era typists we can trace the earliest known experimentation with and implementation of an information technology currently referred to as “predictive text”—now a common feature in Chinese search and input methods.


Because of the constant use of cliché in Party directives and propaganda, typesetters were able to organize their typing plates into predictable, efficient constructions. And although this seems like an obvious solution in a world obsessed with saving time, these typists were saving very, very considerable amounts of time, while laying the groundwork for future, global technology. It is a considerable accomplishment that this happened within a political framework with a very ambivalent relationship to individuals’ work. The Chinese script, after all, was for many the key to shaping China’s future and past alike.

Yet it’s not only China’s future and past, because in a sense the gains made by predictive text (and later technologies like handwriting recognition that they helped enable) impact the world far beyond China — if you use a computer, you have very likely used this technology, no matter where in the world you are. You are in some sense adapting a “Chinese” vision of modernity in this case—one very different that the inclusive, nation-creating pinyin script. If on first glance it seems technocratic, it’s worth remembering that it was professional typists—hardly a glamorous profession—who enabled it. It was not a government-sponsored, top-down effort. To many, it is the definition of democratic.


But it should be said, then, that Mullaney has used those grounds—the adaptability and flexibility of Chinese, the modernistic technology birthed by it, and that it was pretty much invented by average Joes—to attack arguments that Chinese might be inordinately difficult or backwards on grounds of a retroactive Orientalism. Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Mullaney is of the opinion that the view that Chinese should be simplified is, today, tantamount to the parody of the Chinese typewriter with its million keys.

Moser responded to Mullaney’s article on the well-known Language Log blog. Like the argument for romanization, it was simple: your post hoc argument misunderstands language and, implicitly, modernity. It was Chinese people who, after all, wanted to replace the script. The reasons they wanted to do so—political unity, education, and the development of new ideas—still apply today.

And out of this we see that the question of language may be the very question of modernity: how language shapes its own sphere of influence.


Editor’s note, 14 October 2017: An earlier version of this review contained the following two errors: that the Shu Zhendong typewriter was not successful, and that Thomas Mullaney’s Foreign Policy article directly addressing David Moser. They have been corrected to show that Shu Zhendong’s typewriter was indeed successful, and Mullaney’s article was not directly about Moser’s book.

Matt Turner is a writer and translator living in New York City and Beijing. He publishes regularly with Hyperallergic Weekend, Seedings and Cha, and has work forthcoming in Bookforum, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The World of Chinese. His translation of Lu Xun's 1927 book of prose poetry, Weeds, is forthcoming from Shanghai's Seaweed Salad Editions.