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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