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170D – 20th Century China

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Published: Wed, 20 Sep 2017

Alice Locke

The use of written language as a tool of communication is the most vital aspect of modern society. Almost everything deals with either our numerical or linguistic system to function, from the binary code running electronic devices to words directing traffic in a busy thoroughfare. Language exists to consistently and conveniently convey thought in an accessible medium. China faced, in the twilight of the Qing Dynasty, a crisis of identity where its people were scattered and divided as to how they were going to adapt their language towards their evolving needs. Jing Tsu, in his article, Chinese Scripts, Codes, and Typewriting Machines, delves into this issue, and elaborates on the struggles faced by intellectuals of the time as they attempted to reconfigure and reconstruct the chinese ideographic system for use in the modern era. Tsu argues that, “The script revolution, which was often pushed into the background while bigger political events seized the stage of twentieth-century China, turned out to be the lasting one. It irreversibly augmented the global influence of the Chinese language, thereby opening up a new space for competition and co-option between the alphabetic and ideographic writing systems.”1 Though the author then goes on to mention the obsolete nature of the identification of chinese script as ideographic, she maintains the distinction between the Chinese and western systems of writing. The core argument of this article is that while the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a time of extraordinary social and political upheaval, the most lasting impact of this revolution was the alterations made to the Chinese script. The importance of this piece lies in its interpretations of the adaptations that contemporary intellectuals had to create to facilitate the China’s transition into the modern era.

Since antiquity, the Chinese writing system has been considered sacred, a divine writing system devised by the heavens, and for this reason, there had been a long held belief that any attempt to alter it would be sacrilege. In the face of such history, the intellectuals of the late Qing period were determined to produce a method of advancing their nation’s competency on the global level. Giving a disclaimer, the author chooses to focus neither on the interactions of languages nor the potential appropriations that they made on one another, attributing these assertions to scholarly articles.2 [120]Though these issues are intrinsic to the grand scale, they can be put aside for a more indepth look at a particular movement in history. The logographic text was used as a cultural standard establishing China’s cultural prestige, but now it was becoming an issue, the complexity of the script made it very difficult for average people to have significant access. This in turn largely contributed to the low rate of literacy in the population at the time, and more importantly, made writings very difficult to mass produce. Seeing this increasing divide between the current utility of the language and the increasing need for unavailable modes of communication, Chinese script writers put their life on the line to modernize their language, and to adapt it for a modern world focused on the maths and sciences.3 [120] At the onset of this literary revolution, the government was largely still favoring the antiquated system that had been used for centuries, unlike the intellectuals, the government was more concerned with the traditional thoughts of the script being handed down from the heavens, than recognizing a need to ingrain itself into the new world forming around it. Tsu then goes on to note an argument published by the Cambridge University Press, that establishes language as the basic method of argumentation and explanation.4 [121] This argument, presented as another scholarly article, establishes the basis of language and shows that even though different language system can have the same basis, they might not lead the people to the same ideologies. This illustrates the divide between eastern and western philosophies, not as a vast intellectual difference, but rather as a systematic lack of infrastructure to support varying logics.

As a result of China being surpassed in technological and scientific disciplines, Chinese contemporaries looked towards the west for ideas to incorporate into their script revolution. These revolutionaries would incorporate various methods of writing from the west and Japan in order to better prepare the Chinese writing system for use in the modern scientific era. Many of these intellectuals experimented with Isaac Pitman’s phonography in order to attempt to create a shorthand method of expressing Chinese while maintaining the general style of the system. Reverend Alexander Gregory created and published a possible version of shorthand Chinese in the Phonetic Journal which influenced and inspired others interested in the area to use his example as a basis for a modern Chinese shorthand.5 [130] The Phonetic Journal was a scholarly collection of works submitted, through this medium, ideas both simple and complicated could be examined and distributed by people throughout the globe. By seeing this example, intellectuals would not only have been given inspiration how to go about the revolution, but also a reminder of how their proposed script could be used to spread knowledge. Indeed, many of the proposed scripts came with an example, something recognizable that was translated into the shorthand that the author was attempting to establish. Tsu describes that each author had various motivations for their attempt at the creation of a simplified Chinese script, missionaries attempted to use it as a tool to better attract converts, intellectuals sought a better method of disseminating information, scientists wanted a better method of noting data, the Chinese people wanted an improvement to their writing system and many believed that shorthand was the best mode of revolution at the time.6 [131]

The revolution continued to garner support, and quickly became a global endeavour, with contributions from as far away as Glasgow.7 [131] These publications taken from various scholarly journals were used to demonstrate the scope and nature of the early script revolution. Unfortunately though, the vast majority of the proposed scripts ran into similar problems, in essence they were too complicated and failed to meet the initial expectations of being easier to learn.8 [132] The creator of each script as well as those around him were able to grasp the concept without much effort, as intended, but the further away from himself that the creator got, it became a growingly difficult material to teach. Those that adopted the system early could adapt to the added rules and subtleties, but the systems became too complicated to be useful as shorthand.9 [134] Every language is complicated, with millennia of small changes that have led to vast differences between dialects, Chinese in the north is a vastly different language than in the south, similar to comparing French and Italian, grammar and pronunciation rules are so different that trying to create a generic system for both languages would be extremely difficult. While both French and Italian use an alphabetical basis for their script, each has its own special characters, along with having pronunciation of similar strings of characters vastly differ, even within their own language. The greatest mistake of these script writers was to attempt to unify the script of the nation without unify the language of the nation. From the start, their approach was doomed to fail as they lacked the vision for scale, they created systems adapted for their personal needs at the time, but were unable to cater to the population as a whole.

The failings of these early reformers would grow into a new era of reform in Chinese script. Tsu maintains that the window of opportunity was far too short for these radical shorthand methods to gain popularity and the gradual reform necessary to incorporate such system.10 [135] The debate for the path of the modern language reached the height of debate during these early years of the republic. It still wasn’t entirely clear which direction the country was headed linguistically, with some called for a “Han Script Revolution,”11 [138] among other controversies that set the stage for a leap into typography. Lin Yutang, a chinese writer and pioneer in typography, set out to create a typewriter that would allow him along with millions of others to quickly and efficiently type in the Chinese script.12 [135] Lin is hailed as great writer of this time period, but his contributions towards typography are generally not mentioned, even though his machine served as a basis for many of the multilingual and chinese-language typewriters.13 [137] The two main forms of script revolution revolved around either alphabetization or the simplifying of stroke order; Lin argued that these two concepts were not mutually exclusive, that both could be sued in conjunction to create a modern Chinese script.14 [138] This ideal published in the Princeton University Press, would serve as Lin’s basis for creating his system of typography. Lin experimented with and studied various models proposed by other linguists at the time, but he found that they were too complicated for the average person, that while work in theory, they failed in practice as the shorthand revolution had decades ago. Lin’s goal was to create a system that was accessible to the average user, one that was both aesthetically pleasing, as well as functional in purpose.15 [140] Finally, in 1924, he devised his own system which “became the cornerstone of the indexical system for his typewriter.”16 [140] These notions and discoveries were written in an autobiographical format by Lin later in his life, detailing his endeavors as he sought to create a typographical system accessible to everyday people.

For this purpose, Lin created a system of “alphabetically” locating Chinese words based on stroke order rather than phonetic pronunciations. The first stroke of the character was used as the primary reference point, with each subsequent stroke being used to further narrow the search in a sort of “alphabetical” manner.This differed greatly from the traditional “Reverse Cut” which used the final, and usually most visible, stroke to classify characters.In this manner, Lin was able to organize the characters in a manner akin to aa, ab, ac, etc. which allowed him to organize his typewriter in the same fashion.17 [141-2] Lin’s system dismantled the arguments of alphabetic superiority by creating a system that functioned in a similar way using traditional Chinese characters. “By figuring out a new mode of accommodating and assimilating alphabetic languages, Lin fused what he though was the best feature of both languages.”18 [142] The keyboard of the machine displayed Chinese radicals and not latin characters which had previously antagonized critics of this format.19 [142] Lin detailed how his typewriter would accept input and then produce a selection of characters that would then be chosen by the author of the piece. He had finally created a method to distribute the Chinese language en masse.

Indeed, he succeeded at his original goal in theory, but in practice, Lin faced entirely different problems than his predecessors. The simple fact of the matter was that it cost too much to produce. In order to facilitate the complexity of the machine, Lin was forced to order many specialized parts that increased the overhead cost above what was acceptable, to about $1000 per machine. This led to Lin selling the patent to the Mergenthaler corporation in 1951.20 [143] From this point onward, Lin was uninvolved in the legacy of his typewriter. At this point, Tsu switches from referencing Lin’s personal memoirs and delves into news reports and articles in magazines such as Scientific American to find information about the legacy of the Lin’s typewriter in modern computing. The patents made their way to IBM and were processed into what became the sinowriter. This machine was the ideal that Lin was unable to meet, it was an inexpensive typewriter that could easily be accessed, even by people that weren’t able to understand Chinese themselves.21 [145] The ideal of the script revolution that began over half a century ago had been realized. From this point, the sinowriter would undergo several more upgrades which increased its functionalities, but the basic ideal stayed the same. The Chinese script had finally gained an effective recording technique it could use in the modern era.

China gained linguistic independence with the creation of effective writing tools in the twentieth century. The script revolution began in the last days of the Qing Dynasty and continued worldwide throughout the length of the twentieth century. The first reforms were blinded by the notions that the script was inferior to western alphabets and only sought to create a shorthand method to supersede the traditional language. This conflicted with the very nature of Chinese society and faded into unpopularity quickly with the rise of typographic machines. A new struggle emerged with the primary focus being the effective translation of Chinese from a written to a printed text. Lin Yutang successfully overcame this enormous obstacle, before allowing others to refine his his invention into a more practical form. The work and effort of thousands of people worldwide is what allowed the sinowriter to become the first easily mass producible method of scripting the Chinese language. Jing Tsu details the events and circumstances that led to the creation of the sinowriter primarily using scholarly articles from both modernity and contemporary sources. With the exception of Lin’s personal testimonials, Tsu sticks to using verifiable articles to establish an academic atmosphere for the article. The specifics of the accounts of newer sources might differ from what they were originally, but being scholarly articles, they maintain a high standard for their information. The core of the article dictates China’s struggle towards finding a writing system befitting its entrance into the global stage.


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