If Chinese writing does not disappear, China will perish!” Lu Xun (1881–1936), one of the most famous Chinese writers of the twentieth century, warned in 1936.

China's state and society had been in an existential crisis since the Opium Wars of the 1840s and 1860s.

New forms of communication, influenced by western inventions such as the telegraph and typewriter, also posed an unprecedented challenge for the millennia-old Chinese character script. Unlike in Turkey, where the traditional Persian-Arabic script was replaced by a Latin alphabet in 1928, the defenders in China sat down of the classic character script.

This conservatism had revolutionary consequences.

Jing Tsu, Professor of Chinese Language and Literature at Yale University, combines the history of technology and media, linguistics and biographical sketches of language reformers to create an overall picture of the development of Chinese since the late nineteenth century.

She begins her story with Wang Zhao, a Qing Dynasty official who was forced to flee into exile in 1898 as a supporter of the failed movement to establish a constitutional monarchy.

He saw China's salvation from the crisis in a modern education system for the general public and chose the northern Chinese dialect ("Mandarin") as the basis for learning Chinese characters using phonetic symbols.

In the republic founded in 1912, Mandarin was then declared the national standard language.

Difficulties, setbacks and defeats

As she progresses through the stages of the written revolution, Jing Tsu repeatedly shows connections to China's changing fate in the twentieth century, which was marked by military violence, famines, persecution and flight.

A continuous success story amidst all this turbulence has been the linking of sign writing with modern modes of communication.

The success of the writing revolution can be attributed to two effective strategies: on the one hand, the adaptation of new technologies to the special requirements of Chinese, on the other hand, the simplification of the typeface, supplemented by alphabetical transliterations, which - as with Wang Zhao - as learning and pronunciation aids were intended.

As early as the 1920s, abbreviations were increasingly being introduced, some of which had already been in existence before the third century.

The communist government under Mao Tse-tung then made it the standard font in the 1950s.

Mao saw in the abbreviations a symbol of national self-determination and an instrument for literacy and indoctrination of the masses.

On the mainland, they were seen as a cultural triumph over Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists, who were defeated in the civil war and who stuck to the traditional Chinese characters in Taiwan.

The use of abbreviated or traditional characters is still a political issue, as is the transliteration Pinyin, which has been used in the People's Republic since 1957.

It superseded the "Wade-Giles" transcription system developed by learned British diplomats in the nineteenth century.

It was much more difficult to adapt Chinese characters to new technical hardware.

How could a language with thousands of characters be reproduced on a typewriter, telegraph or computer?

While some of the author's technical explanations are not always easy for laypeople to understand, she describes the CVs of inventor personalities with vivid conciseness.

She emphasizes the successful cooperation between scientists and inventors in China and their colleagues in the United States.

For example, while aviation expert Zhou Houkun in Boston and engineer Qi Xuan in New York designed the first prototype Chinese typewriter, it was Shu Zhendong, a technician at Shanghai-based Commercial Press, who

who took the step towards mass production of typewriters in China in 1922.

Its success confirmed that China had begun to take charge of its technological destiny in the mechanical age.

Using the example of the three most important players in the development leap into the computer age and digitization, Jing Tsu shows the energy with which China's inventors searched for ways to modern language and writing technology.

They were undeterred by the political and social chaos around them.

Zhi Bingyi, for example, who received his doctorate in electrical engineering in Leipzig in 1946 and was arrested as a “reactionary academic” during the Cultural Revolution, designed the Chinese coding system that would become decisive for computer technology in the future.

Under very different circumstances, Beijing computer scientist Wang Xuan was able to benefit from China's opening to America in the early 1970s and work closely with Boston electrical engineer Francis F. Lee on his invention of computer laser typesetting.

In her description, which is worth reading, the assessment of the current consequences of the writing revolution is also ambivalent: on the one hand, she created the conditions for the world's largest data community with over nine hundred million users in China, on the other hand, the authoritarian regime in Beijing subjects modern communication technology to strict Internet censorship and restricts it significantly constrains the flow of information to and from China by erecting a "digital Great Wall" that can be opened and closed at will.

Jing Tsu: "Kingdom of Characters".

The Language Revolution that Made China Modern.

Riverhead Books, New York 2022. 336 pp., hardcover, €24.