Language lessons

Review of Kingdom of Characters by Jing Tsu. Penguin, 2022.

Language can feel simultaneously personal and monumental, in flux and inviolate. Thus, the extent to which the sheer conditionality with which the Chinese language navigated the twentieth century is a jarring realization. Imagine if, in classrooms from Beijing to Boston, students were perfecting the Cantonese exclamation “la” instead of the “er” of the Beijing Mandarin accent. And instead of committing thousands of characters to memory, students penned their essays in alphabetic script. These are among the plausible outcomes that could have become the Chinese language as China navigated its revolutionary tumult.

In this history of the Chinese language’s progression to modernity, Yale professor Jing Tsu has produced a work that transcends linguistics to encompass history and culture, politics and diplomacy, and economics and innovation with great elegance and concision. Each chapter captures the evolution of Chinese, from the push to make Mandarin the national language and the pursuit of a practical Chinese typewriter to how to render the language in the electronic age. The Chinese language “pushed to the brink every universalist claim of Western technology, from telegraphy to Unicode.” Rendering Chinese into numbers so that it could be transmitted over telegraph via Morse code required more than just an ingenious classification system so that characters could be easily referenced. It also required diplomacy to grant China an exception from international convention which made numbers costlier to send than letters.

Throughout, Tsu employs delightful analogies that are no less enriching to those who have never attempted to learn Chinese as those who have mastered it. They also prompt a deepened appreciation for one’s own language. A particular favorite is Tsu’s introduction of a stroke-based indexing system: Chinese does not have the inherently self-ordering characteristic of the alphabet. Instead, one proposed solution was to organize characters by stroke count. If applied to the Roman alphabet, that would place the letter “E” before “A,” causing Tsu to quip that expressions like “A-list” or “plan B” would need to be expunged. 

Given that the pursuit of universal literacy was as much a driver of Chinese language reforms, including the adoption of simplified characters, as new technologies, one wishes for greater illumination of how the language was and is taught. Whereas older generations of Chinese once learned Russian in solidarity with the Soviet Union, English is now a tested subject on the country’s college entrance examination, although its importance has been recently downgraded. Today, it is impossible to overhear a conversation on the streets of Shanghai that is not peppered with loan words. The CCP may not be as strident as the French in policing China’s purity from English intrusions, but one can easily imagine that changing as the Xi era continues. Tsu alludes to the common Chinese misperception that its language is impenetrable to outsiders and yet could offer still more insights about the linkages between the Chinese language and the Chinese worldview.

The book is not without some missteps. It elides Beijing’s continued politicized insistence that China’s mutually unintelligible languages are mere “dialects.” And while the Soviet Union’s campaign of language assimilation merits mention, the CCP’s more recent efforts to suppress Tibetan, Uyghur, and Mongolian languages do not. Worries that the next generation of Chinese, dependent upon electronic input, are forgetting how to physically write is just as potent a motivator of the television shows and competitions focused on mastery of the language as the aspiration to instill “cultural pride and confidence.” An unquestioning reference to analysis that purports Xi Jinping’s penmanship to be “remarkably similar” to Mao’s, despite its seeming obviousness as propaganda, comes across as naive.

At the book’s conclusion, Tsu invokes competition between the United States and China, writing that the Chinese internet has become “smarter, faster, and ever more rich in data” due to its having three times as many users as the United States. For a book that had so expertly guided its readers through the nuance of language, it is a stunning conflation with nationhood: indeed, there are as many individuals who speak English as a second language as there are who do Chinese as a first. The openness and breadth of exchange enabled by English promises greater innovation and mutual understanding than what is possible behind the walled garden Beijing has assembled. The dollar’s “exorbitant privilege” as global reserve currency may one day cease, but English’s continued role as lingua franca appears as viable as ever.