The Improbable Invention of Chinese Typewriters & Computer Keyboards: Three Videos Tell the Techno-Cultural Story

Even if you don’t speak a word of Chi­nese, you sure­ly know that the lan­guage uses not an alpha­bet, but ideo­graph­ic char­ac­ters: about 50,000 of them, all told, 3,000 to 5,000 of which must be mem­o­rized in order to achieve rea­son­able lit­er­a­cy. The poten­tial for con­flict between the Chi­nese writ­ing sys­tem and twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry tech­nol­o­gy hard­ly needs expla­na­tion. How, in short, do Chi­nese peo­ple type? Youtu­ber John­ny Har­ris offers an expla­na­tion in the video above, begin­ning with the per­haps coun­ter­in­tu­itive answer that Chi­nese peo­ple type with more or less the same key­board every­one else does — when they’re using a com­put­er, at any rate.

Our smart­phone age has giv­en rise to a num­ber of dif­fer­ent input sys­tems, all designed to per­form the same basic task of adapt­ing the ancient and elab­o­rate writ­ten Chi­nese lan­guage to dig­i­tal moder­ni­ty. In Har­ris’ telling, these tech­nolo­gies turn on two major devel­op­ments: the cre­ation of pinyin, a ver­sion of the Latin alpha­bet that pho­net­i­cal­ly rep­re­sents Chi­nese char­ac­ters, and the devel­op­ment of algo­rithms that pre­dict which char­ac­ter the user wants to type next.

His expla­na­tion is breezy and not with­out its errors (the dia­gram about thir­teen min­utes in, for exam­ple, actu­al­ly shows the Kore­an alpha­bet), and you might con­sid­er sup­ple­ment­ing it with videos like expa­tri­ate Matthew Tye’s more detailed “How Do Chi­nese Peo­ple Type?” above.

But if you tru­ly want to under­stand the evo­lu­tion of Chi­nese typ­ing, you must begin with the Chi­nese type­writer — and so must read Tom Mul­laney. A Pro­fes­sor of East Asian Lan­guage and Cul­tures at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty, Mul­laney pub­lished The Chi­nese Type­writer: A His­to­ry five years ago, and has more recent­ly been at work on a fol­low-up on the Chi­nese com­put­er. In the lec­ture above, he recounts the Chi­nese type­writer’s once-impos­si­ble-seem­ing devel­op­ment in an hour and a half, con­nect­ing it to a host of cul­tur­al, lin­guis­tic, ortho­graph­ic, and tech­no­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­na along the way. It’s a sto­ry of inge­nu­ity, but also of sur­vival. Chi­nese made it through the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry with­out being man­gled or abol­ished to meet the lim­i­ta­tions of West­ern engi­neer­ing, but not every writ­ing sys­tem was quite so lucky.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Free Chi­nese Lessons

Behold the 1940s Type­writer That Could Type in Eng­lish, Chi­nese & Japan­ese: Watch More Than a Thou­sand Dif­fer­ent Char­ac­ters in Action

An Ani­mat­ed His­to­ry of Writ­ing: From Ancient Egypt to Mod­ern Writ­ing Sys­tems

When IBM Cre­at­ed a Type­writer to Record Dance Move­ments (1973)

Dis­cov­er the Inge­nious Type­writer That Prints Musi­cal Nota­tion: The Keaton Music Type­writer Patent­ed in 1936

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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