In Review

Kingdom of Characters review: a ‘delightful mix of history and linguistics’

Jing Tsu’s ‘enchanting’ book tells the story of the Chinese language over the past 150 years

This “enchanting” book tells the story of the Chinese language over the past 150 years, and the “revolution” through which it, and its “intricate and arcane” script, were brought into line with the demands of the modern world, said Michael Sheridan in The Sunday Times. It is a “delightful mix of history and linguistics”, shot through with its author’s love for the “enigma and beauty” of the world’s oldest living tongue.

Jing Tsu, professor of East Asian languages at Yale, is an excellent guide to the complexities of the language – which once made literacy the privilege of a tiny elite in imperial China, hobbling communications across the empire and contributing to its humiliation by foreign powers in the 19th century. She gives lively pen portraits of the 20th century reformers – “brilliant, eccentric, wilful and wayward geniuses” – who simplified and adapted it for use with modern communications technologies, from Morse code to the internet, enabling China’s national resurgence.

In 1900, only one in ten people in China could read and write, said Cindy Yu in The Spectator. The many varieties of the language (such as Mandarin and Cantonese) hampered communication, and written Chinese reflected the state of the language as it was spoken 2,000 years ago. But as Tsu shows in this “authoritative” account, the biggest problem was the writing system itself, which uses tens of thousands of characters, “stand-alone ideographs” that are not phonetic and cannot easily be organised in dictionaries.

A Chinese typewriter from 1899 used levers to choose between 4,000 characters on a table-sized disk. Telegrams could only be sent by assigning each character a six-digit number, so that a 25-word message took half an hour to encode, compared with two minutes in English. Efforts to render the language in the Roman alphabet were resisted by cultural conservatives, and complicated because many words in Chinese sound the same and are distinguished only by tone and context.

In the end, the Communists kept hold of Chinese characters, but in simplified form, and developed “pinyin”, said Gaston Dorren in The Guardian. This was a way of rendering Mandarin Chinese in the Roman alphabet – enabling a billion users to type on alphabetic keyboards today. Tsu focuses a little too much on the “also-rans”, those whose plans for linguistic reform did not prevail; and the “linguistic nuts and technological bolts” are often “less than crystal clear”. Even so, the book makes for a “lively”, “colourful” and pleasingly fact-filled read.

Allen Lane 336pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99

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To order this title or any other book in print, visit theweekbookshop.co.uk, or speak to a bookseller on 020-3176 3835. Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm.

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