A Yale University professor of languages and literature 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. With larger-than-life characters and an unexpected perspective on the major events of China's tumultuous 20th-century, Tsu explores how language is both a technology to be perfected and a subtle, yet potent, power to be exercised and expanded.
...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.