...rigorous and engaging ... this is the key message of Tsu’s book: The story of how linguists, activists, librarians, scholars and ordinary citizens adapted Chinese writing to the modern world is the story of how China itself became modern. Following the history of the script helps explain China’s past, present — and future ... This book tells the stories of those who decided otherwise. Tsu’s title, Kingdom of Characters refers both to the literal characters that make script and the people who sought to save them. She does not sugarcoat their difficulties, introducing us to, for example, Wang Zhao, an exiled reformer who crossed China disguised as a monk, risking his life to introduce a new Chinese alphabet that he believed would unite the country under one common language ... Each step of the way, these innovators had to ask questions like: How can the Chinese script be organized in a rational way? Could the language be written with an alphabet? And if so, which one? ... By examining these questions closely, Tsu helps the novice to Chinese understand both the underlying challenges and how they were conquered. (I sense Tsu is an excellent teacher.) This material could, in the wrong hands, become dry. But Tsu weaves linguistic analysis together with biographical and historical context — the ravages of imperialism, civil war, foreign invasions, diplomatic successes and disappointments ... Languages, as this book makes clear, convey worlds. The world of Chinese script, painted so vividly by Tsu, is one I’m now grateful to have glimpsed.
I was more than delighted to read Jing Tsu’s incredibly fascinating book ... As Jing Tsu eloquently shows, from typewriters to telegrams to digitisation there has been a paradox at the centre of China’s infrastructure ... Jing Tsu makes an important point that Chinese has a vast number of tonal variations and homophones. She quotes, brilliantly ... The book would be dry if it were not for the cast of characters. We meet engineers, novelists, monks, rogues, brave librarians, imprisoned geniuses. It humanises what might seem like a fringe concern. It also gives the reader insight into the geopolitical dilemmas around what was once brush-marks on paper ... Jing Tsu’s book may be as prophetic as it is historical.
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 ... 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 ... 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 ... 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 ... 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 ... In the last sentence of her book, Tsu writes, 'Still unfolding, history will overtake China’s story.' I’m not sure what that means. But the story of the Chinese language under Communism is mostly one of repression and distortion, which only heroes and fools have defied.
Tsu...runs through the by now reasonably well-known story of the Chinese typewriter ...
The remainder of the book is largely the story of (Greater) China wrestling back control of the standards process for Chinese character set coding ... While at one level arcane, these are endlessly fascinating questions which cut to the core of what language and communication are. The fuzziness of language is not entirely suited to the binary nature of computerized data. This interesting and very readable book is however colored by a political framing ... Ideographic writing systems like Chinese are particularly fascinating … and relevant to anyone who uses an electronic device (emojis—characters with meaning independent of pronunciation—operate not unlike Chinese characters). Tsu dispels much of the opaqueness of the subject by embedding it into a story of language, characters and particularly fascinating tales of pre-computer technology.
Ms. Tsu largely steers clear of politics in her book. And she doesn’t break enough new ground to attract readers familiar with China’s modern history. Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable light read and may be useful for parents sending their children to learn Mandarin. If nothing else, it will give them an appreciation of the complexity and beauty of the language.
... fascinating ... While focusing on the Chinese script, the book ultimately tells a story of much broader importance and furnishes the reader with a sense of the obstacles that China had to overcome to 'join' the modern world.
This is where the author is at her best: she brings to life the individuals who gave their all to solve China’s problems with language technology, even as political and social turmoil was raging around them ... This focus on colourful individuals makes the book lively, but it’s not without its problems. The people we get to know best, those we keep company in their eureka moments and their long struggles, are often not the ones whose ideas end up prevailing. As a result, we get to know a lot more details about 'also-ran' inventors and their inventions than about the ones who actually shaped modern China ... More unfulfilling still is that we don’t really come to understand all these fascinating innovations – not me, anyway. For a work on language technologies, the descriptions of the linguistic nuts and technological bolts are less than crystal clear. That is the main flaw in a book full of lovingly presented individual portraits and fact-filled stories.
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.