Exploring the Kingdom of Characters

Society & Culture

How has the written Chinese language helped shape China? Yale's Jing Tsu discusses her wonderful new book Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution that Made China Modern, her role as culture commentator for NBC during the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, and more.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast with Jing Tsu.

Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, the weekly discussion of current affairs in China produced in partnership with The China Project. Subscribe to The China Project’s daily, newly-designed China Access newsletter to keep on top of all the latest news from China from hundreds of different news sources, or check out all the original writing on our website at TheChinaProject.com. We’ve got reported stories, essays, and editorials, great explainers and trackers, regular columns, and of course, a growing library of podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uighurs and other Muslim peoples in China’s Xinjiang region, to China’s ambitious plans to shift its economy onto a post-carbon footing. It’s a feast of business, political and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor. I’m Kaiser Kuo coming to you from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Many of us who’ve learned Chinese just in recent decades now take for granted how easily we can communicate in written Chinese today. Actually, knowing how to write the couple of thousand characters needed for basic literacy isn’t even all that necessary if you have even the most rudimentary digital device. If we don’t possess literacy at all in Chinese, we can just cut and paste big chunks of text and machine translate them into or out of Chinese with relative ease and do it for free or at a very, very low cost. If we only speak Chinese, we can dictate into our phones and have our words captured with impressive accuracy.

These days, most people I know who didn’t learn Chinese as children and have learned to write by hand do so mostly out of an aesthetic appreciation for Chinese characters, which are pretty inarguably beautiful things, but go back not very long ago, and the written language was a matter of quite fractious debate with great many people. Giants of Chinese intellectual and literary life arguing very forcefully that the Chinese writing system itself needed to be scrapped entirely and that it was holding back China’s efforts to modernize, while others dedicated themselves to creating ex nihilo, the technologies required to allow things that we take so much for granted now, including typing, telegraphy and computing.

My guest today has written a wonderful book that I have recommended before on this program. It’s called Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern. I am thrilled that the author, Jing Tsu, is able to join me finally on Sinica. Jing Tsu is John M. Schiff professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures and Comparative Literature at Yale University. Though I’ve only recently gotten to know her, I am already a huge fan, and we’ve had some really fun conversations about how the languages and writing systems we use shape the way we actually think. I’m eager for her to share her thoughts about that and other things today. Jing Tsu, welcome to Sinica.

Jing Tsu: Thank you, Kaiser, for having me.

Kaiser: I should mention that Jing and I happened to appear together recently, the venerable podcast, Radio Open Source, which is hosted by the great Chris Lydon. The show airs on WBUR in Boston and is also available wherever you get your podcast. There’s a link in the show notes, of course, and in the transcript, so check it out. We were asked to talk about people-to-people relations between China and the U.S. and Jing is really wonderful there, although you can skip my parts.

One quick caveat before we dive into this topic, and that is that linguists and other specialists are probably going to be able to nitpick over how certain words are deployed in the conversation to follow. Just so you all know, yes, I do know that linguistics only deals with the spoken language and not the written, and yes, I know that ideograph or ideogram is out and we should use logogram to talk about Chinese characters, that a word is not a character, that people use the word dialect wrong all the time. They should be calling them maybe topolects. They’re actually separate Sinitic languages.

Anyway, all that stuff, I will try to be careful, but apologies in advance for any slip-ups, and please, no need to write me with the corrections. With all of that out of the way, Jing, I think it’s fitting that Radio Open Source, those guys should have asked you to come on because you are one of those remarkable cultural translators who is so good at making China intelligible to the non-specialist and you have done that really beautifully in Kingdom of Characters. I think I may have said this already when I recommended the book on an earlier show, but it’s one of those books I love the most. It’s one of those books that shows the life of the forest by focusing on a single tree. You really hit on a great tree to focus on with the written language.

This, I think, it really tells the story of modern China through a perfect vehicle with pretty surprising connections to all the major turning points in the last century and a half, modern Chinese history, but it’s also, it’s like China: very deeply rooted in the past. I wanted to start by asking you today about another time you were tapped for your expertise as a cultural translator, when NBC, the American television network, asked you to travel to Beijing for the Winter Olympics earlier this year as their cultural commentator. Can you tell me how that came about first?

Jing: Yeah. This, in some part, I think is really because of COVID. In the early days of COVID, everything went online and someone has seen me on a panel, which was actually about U.S.-China relations that was sponsored by the Jackson School of Global Affairs at Yale, and that’s apparently how NBC heard about me, because this person was actually a consultant that they used when they were trying to figure out who to bring out for the Olympics.

Kaiser: Yeah, so they hit you up, and what I guess I’m most interested in is what this experience revealed to you about what the producers of the program were most curious about when it came to China, most perplexed by, or maybe even most ignorant of about contemporary China. What sort of stuff were you asked to comment on?

Jing: Well, it’s interesting because they did this now twice, which is where theyhave a cultural commentator and they have another journalist who comments on the politics. The last time they did, this was actually at Sochi in Russia. What this signaled to me was that they took this very seriously. Now, you recall at that time, things were, as they still are, pretty tense between China and the U.S. We were embroiled in issues over Xinjiang. Peng Shuai was also a huge topic around January. There was Hong Kong, there was Taiwan, there was Tibet. There’s a lot of very difficult issues that the network had to deal with.

Kaiser: Sure.

Jing: Interestingly, they didn’t ask me. They gave me topics that they want to hear my thoughts on. They actually just spent a lot of time listening and asking questions, which I was actually quite impressed by. It was very clear that to represent China to, let’s say, your average grandmother washing dishes in Idaho when the Olympics is on, is very different from what, let’s say, I’m used to in academia, where you have a captive audience of 19 to 21-year-olds where you’re just there to listen and learn.

Kaiser: Yeah. How was the whole closed loop experience for you? Was your sense that they handled it well? That they handled it awfully? The whole thing looked bizarre from the outside. I’m curious what it was like inside the closed loop.

Jing: It was pretty bizarre from the inside too. It was very Orwellian, but I think also they did the closed loop system so well. When we arrive at the airport, you would think that we’re the only flight that day. We were ushered into this area where we were tested. Everything had this thin film of white dust, and that’s from the disinfectant, and of course hazmat suits with blue tape, their Chinese names written on them, so they can recognize each other. And they just processed us. The whole time, it was very impressive when we went to visit the ski venues, actually. When we went to a train station, the entire terminal was blocked off for us, same with the airport. We were completely separated from the local population. Now, you might remember, before the Olympics, there were these reports about how, “Oh, if you’re a foreigner, you’re in a car and you get into an accident, no one can come help you because they need a special team to come extract you.”

Kaiser: Right.

Jing: What they did not tell you was that we actually ended up with our own lane when we were on the freeway. The whole time we were truly in a bubble. We were handled either like VIPs or foreign contaminants. I think, at that point in time, it was basically one or the same.

Kaiser: Yeah. That’s like it was back in the 80s too, right?

Jing: Yeah, which you would know a lot about, yeah, yeah.

Kaiser: Eileen Gu of course was a huge topic of contention there. I’m sure you were asked about her and her unclear nationality status and things though. Where did you come down when you were asked about that?

Jing: Yeah. I actually had to do a segment on her with Mike Tirico. At that time, you might remember this also coincided with the Woman in Chains from Xuzhou. What I pointed out was basically the reaction of the Chinese netizens. On one hand, Eileen Gu was basically embraced as this shining icon, beautiful Eurasian, incredibly talented athlete. But I also pointed out that Eileen Gu is only possible within an American system. She got to choose her sports, she got to play with – it’s very different from how athletes were chosen at a very young age in China. The Chinese netizens also realized with this contradiction between the Xuzhou woman and Eileen Gu is that it was a reality that they cannot quite embrace or hope to see in the Chinese system. That was, in broad strokes, what I said. I would just also emphasize, at the end of the day also, Eileen Gu is…she’s going to be a college freshman. In some ways, I look at her and how much pressure Olympic athletes, especially those who of Asian descent, are just put into this very difficult spotlight throughout this whole Olympics.

Kaiser: Yeah, no. That’s a really excellent, excellent set of responses to that. I wish I could have seen that segment, it sounds like you really nailed it. Let’s talk about the book and perhaps we can begin with your original inspiration for writing a book about the written Chinese language. How did you get started on this?

Jing: My approach was really from being in a scholarly world for 20, 30 years since I was a graduate student, you hear about this question, which I’m sure you have too, why didn’t scientific revolution happen in China?

Kaiser: The Needham question.

Jing: Exactly. The Joseph Needham question, the one that we all carried for decades. Scholars had revolved around basically trying to argue its way out of this position of inferiority and to justify why China had science and so on and so forth. What I wanted to do was, how do we tell the story without being on the defense? How can we simply tell a history without getting into these academic hair-splitting quibbles that actually, I think, constrain us and limit us from engaging with this history of these remarkable cast of known and unknown characters, what I call second and third stringers of history.

Kaiser: That’s an interesting origin for it. You were actually born in Taiwan, you were a waishengren (外省人 wàishěngrén) like my family was. Mandarin Chinese was your first language, obviously, but I know this is true, at least many people who then go on to learn a second language, but I found that we often don’t recognize the peculiarities and really the remarkable properties of our first language until we’re well along our way to learning our second one. It’s only when we step outside of that native language that we can see how special or how weird it is. Was this at all a case for you when you started writing about the language you grew up speaking and reading and writing?

Jing: I think it’s most certainly true. Also, I have to say, academically I’ve been working on this topic for over a decade. The way of explaining it to your average, your smart reader was very different, because I really had to learn how to look at Chinese as though I’ve never seen it before.

Kaiser: All right.

Jing: Look at this thing and try to figure out what would be my first questions? It’d definitely be about the way it looks, then the way it sounds, the way it’s used. Those are the three general premises that I proceeded on to explain that language and try to bring it to life.

Kaiser: Yeah. I think a lot of our listeners probably already have at the very least a glancing familiarity with the Chinese writing system, maybe not all of them. Yeah, it’s great you bring this up, because when you’re introducing the fundamental features of such a different writing system to your students or to this imaginary readership of yours, you try to impress upon them that it’s visual. I’ve tried to do the same thing, it’s hard. I think I’d probably do it wrong, but I think a lot of people think that it’s just pictographs or rebuses, that it’s like Egyptian hieroglyphics or something, or maybe that there’s just no rhyme or reason to it whatsoever.

You can’t exactly divorce Chinese characters from their pictographic origins, and you also don’t want to give people the idea that there is a ton of rhyme and reason, that you can deduce the meaning or the pronunciation just by looking at them. You’re in this weird gray area. I find it pretty hard to explain, but I think you put your finger on it, that you have to start with the visual properties of it, right?

Jing: I think, yeah, apart from the visual property and that it looks strange. I think there’s one very fundamental difference. If you look at…the alphabet is really a line of letters, right?

You spell things out in the linear fashion and one letter after the next, and it comes in a certain order that’s inviolable. B comes after A, S before T. For Chinese characters, first of all, that linear logic does not exist. Characters appear not like a row of something in linear fashion, but a cluster of parts that pile together like Lego blocks. I think just to wrap one’s head around that is already a very good start.

Kaiser: Yeah. One thing I loved about your book is that you feature these really well-chosen characters, not Chinese characters, but Chinese renwu (人物 rénwù) not wenzi (文字 wénzì). You know, these personages. They’re really fantastically representative of the different challenges that China faced. Actually, you had to be at the epigraph of the book itself. You actually start with these really, three of them actually, that set up the whole, really, the arc of the book. The first is from Lǐ Shízēng 李石曾, anarchist and Republican revolutionary, who said in 1907 and in the kind of social Darwinian language of the day, “Evolutionary theory says that the inferior shall be gotten rid of. We must then start with a Chinese script.” You know, very social Darwin. The second one will probably prove very surprising to a lot of people, it was from none other than Lǔ Xùn 鲁迅, who is widely regarded as the greatest Chinese writer of the 20th century. He echoes this idea actually three decades later, he says, “If the Chinese script does not go, China will certainly perish.”

Finally, there’s this quote from Chén Míngyuǎn 陈明远 from 1980, who says that, “Computers are finally able to process Chinese, long live the square character.” What did Li Shizeng and Lu Xun, and really countless others, what did they believe was so inferior, so existentially threatening about the Chinese writing system?

Jing: Well, I do have to say, first of all, that when you look at what these intellectuals were saying late 19th century, early 20th century, you have to take it with a grain of salt, because for them, this rhetoric of failure, of extinction, of imminent perish, China’s going to be over, that’s really is a heuristic device that they were using to galvanize their countrymen and their fellow citizens. But on a practical level, what really struck me about this project is that there was something compositional and physically challenging about the Chinese language. It takes more time to learn. There’s no other civilization that prized more the fact of spending probably half your life, if not your entire lifetime, learning new characters and reading the classics and basically digging through the past.

There’s an extraordinary distinction granted to that kind of knowledge that’s built slowly over time. Not something that your children’s generation or my students coming up really appreciate, which is the slow accretion of knowledge and the dripping on stone technique. That was always prized, as you know, with different kinds of calligraphy and being well-versed in the classics in China, being able to compose verse on tap. Around the late 19th century, when you have West on the rise with their guns and boats and their technical proficiency in mathematics, physics, and so on and so forth, then this writing system became very cumbersome. Because you spend all this time learning these characters in school, what about math? What about physics? What about anatomy?

At that time they made the Chinese feel, maybe that’s the problem in China, why it was weak in comparison to the west, because the language was so burdensome and so difficult to learn. It was not efficient, it was not amenable to science and modernity. Those unfortunately were also echoed and reinforced by the observations of the early Europeans, who did come to China and was also faced with a strange writing system, except this also went through different phases. There’s really a love-hate relationship where Chinese was revered as the mother tongue of God in the 17th century, by these pursuants of universal language, and in the 18th century it was fetishized and raised a degree of idealization. But then in the 19th century, when evolutionary theory came along, all of a sudden Chinese became backward and primitive, if not, barbaric.

Kaiser: Just to be upfront about this, I’m one of those people who was very sentimentally attached to the Chinese character, and I’m immensely grateful to the book’s protagonists, who did work so hard to find ways to print them and to type them and to send them by telegraph and to word process them. What is it that so many Chinese people, the students of Chinese, still love so much about them? Because you still do find that.

Jing: I think the language, the written form itself is really beautiful. There’s an art to it. There’s an aesthetic. There’s a huge philosophical background and discourse that comes with the Chinese language. The origin of the characters, that the ghost wailed and heavens rained millet on the night that characters were born. That a four-eyed sage actually was inspired by the formation of clouds and the patterns of the universe to construct a symbol system for the human language that could also resonate and harmonize with. It’s very different. It was never abstract to begin with the way we think about the Greek alphabet and what it adapted from the Phoenician alphabet, because the characters were very much meant to be part of the natural world, not something that stands against it or let alone have the will to power to control nature.

Kaiser: Oh yeah, that’s beautifully put. Yeah, I remember my first classical Chinese class learning about the whole mythology. Shuowen Jiezi (说文解字 Shuōwén jiězì; Discussing Writing and Explaining Characters), it actually explains how, I can’t remember who it was, who saw the footprints of different birds in sand and realized you could identify the bird by the footprint and that they had distinct patterns and the characters were born, which is a little more scientific than millet raining down from the heavens.

Jing: It is, and I’ve never looked at the bird the same ever since, I’ll tell you that.

Kaiser: Yeah, exactly. It’s funny, I joked with you about this when we were talking about the film the other day about how the book is all Wangs and Zhous. You’ve got Wáng Zhào 王照 and Zhōu Hòukūn 周厚坤 and the invention of the Chinese typewriter. Wáng Jǐngchūn 王景春, the chapter on telegraphy, and of course, Zhōu Yǒuguāng 周有光 on pinyin. They’re all Wangs and Zhous, it’s amazing. Can you introduce us to some of these characters again, the renwu (人物 rénwù) not the wenzi (文字 wénzì) and talk about their contributions? Who are some of the ones that you really felt connected to and that you really groove with?

Jing: Well, they’re definitely very surprising characters to me that came up in my research. One is certainly the fake Buddhist monk that starts the book off in chapter one, who is basically like a Mandarin, a pretty conservative one. This is not someone that I read about in graduate school. That is to say, it’s not the Liáng Qǐchāo 梁启超, it’s not the Kāng Yǒuwéi 康有为 with the radical, cool ideas to topple the last dynasty and to really bring in something new, like this pumped up very eloquent rhetoric. This is basically like a conservative, a gradualist. He was a mild progressive, and his father, his brother were all very loyal to the last empire. But then, he was this really stubborn, almost very unlikable person. In fact, I found it hard to love Wang Zhao when I wrote about him.

But I found him immensely interesting and grew a huge amount of respect. He himself came back from exile in Japan, where he could have very well lived out his days in peace. But then, he had this idea that his Mandarin phonetic alphabet was going to save the day, that it was going to save the Chinese language from the precipice of ruin, and that he alone was taken on this task. Now, of course, there were other language reformers, but Wang Zhao is the one who insisted and perhaps, in fact, even manipulated Beijing Mandarin to be the basis of what later became Putonghua (普通话 Pǔtōnghuà). There’s a lot of steps along the way, a lot of manipulation and gerrymandering, but essentially, he’s the one that did it.

And I love how, you know, I followed him all the way through his entire life, and he wrote these volumes of poetry, not often very good, but incredibly heartfelt and poignant. I just remember one of his last poems, he asked, “Could I have done better? Could I have been a better man, more likable? Perhaps.” But then he said, “But so that’s how it is, and I’m willing to pay the price for it.” I just thought that kind of integrity, to have one purpose in your life and to see that through. I don’t know many people I know now who can commit themselves so unwaveringly to that one cause.

There’s also the bureaucrat, Wang Jingchun, the telegraphy chapter, which I really had to dig hard because the guy was not very verbal, didn’t leave behind very much. Really trying to bring out this personality, I had to go through many, many different other people’s perspectives and put them together.

As much as each of those characters gave me a challenge, there was one that I truly loved almost as much as he loved the Chinese script revolution, which was my librarian, Bismarck Du. He called himself Bismarck because he wanted to rule the field of library science with an iron fist. He’s the one that comes up in the middle of chapter four. He’s almost exactly in the middle of the book. I actually originally wanted to start the chapter with him, but then after several back-and-forths with my editor, we decided start off the chapter with Lǐ Hóngzhāng 李鸿章, whom I wrote about before was also of course great and a genius and a Maverick, but Bismarck Du was the no-nonsense, hard-nosed, always by the book guy, who really brought down in some ways this very dramatic, heated race to find that perfect way to index and to analyze Chinese characters.

He wrote these love odes to the library. He really did. Written in the voice of a lover to the beloved, and he’ll talk about past relationships and fights and the disagreements and ultimately, an enduring partnership. I really, really enjoy writing about him. For all the human characters of this book, if they did not exist in history, I would not even know how to make them up.

Kaiser:I see his Bismarck Du, and I raise him a Kaiser Kuo.

Jing: I like that, and I like to see what the outcome is. Well, but I just had to point out, your interest in Chinese language, your interest in Chinese language though, this episode you’re going to do, I wanted to say that you and I are basically all part of this Chinese script revolution that’s still happening. It draws interest, and it draws those like us to really ask and to question and to wonder about its legacy.

Kaiser: But not all of us are fully equipped to explore it the way you have. You are somebody whose areas of academic focus actually nicely straddle the two cultures that C.P. Snow talked about, the humanities and social sciences, I suppose, on one hand. On the other hand, science and technology, because you actually do quite a bit of work on science and technology, bring these two things together in the book, the humanities and science, and are able to write about some quite highly technical issues from the mechanics of typewriters to the ins and outs of Unicode. What did you find most challenging in terms of the technologies that you had to get your head around?

Jing: Well, first of all, thank you very much for saying that. To be mentioned in the same sentence as C.P. Snow is very humbling. Yes, almost as humbling as what this book actually put me through in trying to write it. Certainly, I’m a humanist because I ran away from math and science and anything having to do with computers. But of course, everything comes back to bite you in life, so this book made me go through..I spent countless hours trying to figure out how a Monotype casting machine worked in the 1910s. I read typewriting manuals from 1899. Unicode and learning about coding. I remember I was in Switzerland with my family at the time and they were all out and I was sitting alone at home watching, reading through this Unicode book written by Ken Lunde, who is actually the authoritative figure on this.

That entire book, which is probably 400, 500 pages. Almost every page was dogeared, because I just had to, “Okay, I got to look this up later.” Certainly, apart from that, I think it also challenged me as a historian or historian try-to-be, as a cultural historian. I remember working the Vatican library, looking through dictionaries from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, the first bilingual dictionaries like Latin-Chinese or Portuguese-Chinese or French and Chinese. I remember the reading room and seeing this monk with the robe and everything who came in. He was slipping through this illuminated manuscript that was so old that it actually didn’t close anymore. He went through those pages like the way I would read Cosmopolitan or something, or an Economist.

It’s just actually really remarkable to, in this process, researching for this book, to be steeped in the past three, four centuries, even though, which were all necessary foreground knowledge for me before actually writing about the 20th. It was an adventure in itself. As I said, at the end of it, I realized, “Wow!” When I was sitting in Hanoi, that chapter seven with those Unicode people, I realized, “Who would come to Hanoi in the middle of a school year instead of teaching my classes?” I realized, “Wow! I just became part of this revolution that I’m writing about, with all these adventures and obsessive compulsive Mavericks and just obsessive personalities.” I realized, “Ah! That’s me.”

Kaiser: One of the things that struck me as I was reading the book is that the writing system stands as a metaphor for China and its challenges. On the one hand, the fierce attachment to tradition, the sense of urgency around modernizing, the recognition for the need for quite a revolutionary change. Also, the obsession with technological advancement, the fraught nature of participation in a wider world. As I read the book, I kept recognizing that there was a ti (体 tǐ; essence, substance) and yong (用 yòng; function, application) kind of thinking at play straight out of the Self-Strengthening Movement that started in the 1860s.

Jing: Yeah.

Kaiser: I thought that this was in evidence in the way that some of your protagonists thought about Chinese characters, that they were the embodiment of Chineseness itself, the essence, the ti that had to be preserved, and that this could only be done with the right application of technology of Western yong. I actually see many areas of Chinese life where this thinking persists right down to this day. Do you think that there’s something to that when it came to the modernization of writing?

Jing: In short, absolutely, because if you think about it Zhongti Xiyong (中体西用 zhōngtǐ xīyòng; Chinese Learning as Substance, Western Learning for Application) is really about figuring out how to bend the stick back, trying to adapt yourself to a system that you did not invent, nor was it designed for you, but then having to do it. This is the same for other parts of the world with alphabetization. Linen called it the greatest revolution, the East, and there’s a whole Eurasia movement towards alphabetization with Turkey and Central Asia Republics and so on and so forth, or back then, they were not republics just yet. This really is a kind of unprecedented onslaught of adapting to a foreign technology and writing is that first technology that humans invented. That was just an extraordinary, extraordinary change, and for the Chinese language in particular, to bridge that gap, it was really like doing the impossible.

Kaiser: Yeah. I think that part of this, the whole resistance to even things like Hanyu Pinyin or to jiantizi (简体字 jiăntĭzì), simplified characters, that still reflects these same tensions that they see them as a betrayal or a compromise that might be avoided with the right technology. It’s really interesting.

Jing:What’s interesting is, I think you’re right that there’s some people who certainly thought that way, but if you look at the internal documents of the Pinyin committee and how jiantizi, simplified characters were actually talked about, both of those were meant to be bridge measures to ensure the survival of the Chinese script. A lot of people think that was supposed to be a replacement of. In fact, we have many scholars in the west like John de Frances and these advocates who actually think that Pinyin should take over. I don’t think they really saw that. For the Chinese, they were willing to go take a detour, but the idea was always to come back to themselves. Frankly, that’s a larger statement about where we see China now. That people are surprised that you and I were asked to talk about, “What happened to Kissinger? What happened to ping pong diplomacy?” Well, what happened was, it was a convenient love affair, but I think both U.S. and China were very clear-eyed about who they were getting to bed with, and it was not going to be a long alliance.

Kaiser: Fascinating, yeah. That’s why, this is that thing about your book that I love so much is that it stands in for so many other questions. What do you think are the next technological frontiers for Chinese characters? Are we now at the point where it’s basically complete, the language is now as frictionless, every bit as frictionless as, say, English when it comes to the actual use of technology in the modern world?

Jing: Well, there’s actually two ways to answer that. One as a technological breakthrough, it’s still very much ongoing. Just a couple of years ago Baidu’s AI machine translation surpassed Google’s. There are certain ways in which precisely because of the Chinese language, the Chinese had to overhaul and drag their language into a technological milieu that’s not their own. They actually learned more about it. They both learned the strengths of an alphabet technology, and they learned the strengths of Chinese and how to make that alphabetic technology augment Chinese language rather than replace or having to subsume it under. That’s one general answer to that.

The second answer is, I believe last month, the Chinese actually, there was a new regulation out that called for stamping out these weird fonts that are proliferating on the internet. I think there is a sense as with a general backlash against facile westernization as a stand-in for modernity. There’s a sense that there’s a problem that the young people can’t really write in characters or recognize them, that one needs to bring in the technological progress we’ve made with writing and to really put the emphasis back on it as a cultural heritage and responsibility. That seems to me what the regulation, the regulatory landscape, how the government thinks about it. It is something, obviously I think, with any nation, it is always very important at some point to control the language like the power standardization. I think that is very much being used and utilized.

Kaiser: Yet another detour or a bridge technology and we’ll ultimately come back to being able to write, yeah. It pains me actually to see even people close to me who can write, but do not make any effort to write beautifully. It’s weird. I tell them, “Look, this is, it’s supposed to be thinner here and thicker here. You put more pressure here and less,” anyway.

Jing: Yeah, I hear you.

Kaiser: That’s the part that’s lost.

Jing: I hear you. Well, except you’re talking to someone who, as a kid in Taiwan, I have to say I was not a very good student, and I used to during calligraphy class, I will often use those pens to draw out the contour and fill it in with ink. Can’t hold that against an eight-year-old. I’m so much better now.

Kaiser: Okay, good. That is what I plan to do in my retirement, is just to sit in a bamboo grove with a pot of heated wine and do calligraphy.

Jing: Oh, I think, Kaiser Kuo, that could be your new studio name.

Kaiser: All right. I want to shift gears now and talk about those big questions that animated, really, I think your initial idea for the book, the Needham question and stuff. By the way, with Needham, it’s really funny because there’s this anecdote in the book, The Man Who Loved China, which is about Needham by Simon Winchester. This is pretty well-known, he’s talked about it himself. He’s in bed with his Chinese graduate student, Lu Gwei-djen, and he’s enjoying, I guess, a post-coital cigarette. She tells him, she asks what the word is for cigarette. She tells him it’s xiangyan (香烟 xiāngyān) and writes it down and breaks down the characters, and he’s basically then immediately hooked on Chinese. He doesn’t really explore the whole question of how the Chinese writing system may have hindered scientific development or affected the way that Chinese people thought.

Needham was your starting point, but you wrote a version of this, and I thought it was such a great tease. It bears quoting at length. There’s a paragraph in the introduction to your book and it actually sent a little thrill through me when I read it. It made me instantly want to reach out. You wrote, “How an entire civilization outside of Christendom evolved to have a writing system as complex and massive as the Chinese script has been an enduring linguistic mystery for outsiders. This inquiry poorly masks a deep suspicion. How can a people who read and write in characters ever think the way we do?” That just really grabbed me and it made me want to, like I said, reach out. I know you’ve not read Richard Nisbett, but I do recommend it.

He wrote this book called Geography of Thought. I’m sure you’d find it very, very interesting. It’s about how much more important, for example, context is in Chinese than in English and other European languages. Maybe and also maybe not directly related to language, but there’s all sorts of fascinating stuff about how Chinese tend to group things based on relational properties rather than on specific categories. The examples that he gives are like, if you ask a bunch of Chinese people, you give them three words or even pictures like, “cow”, “chicken”, “grass”, and ask them to group two of them together. Chinese will tend to group cows and grass rather than cow and chicken. Westerners, because cows and chickens are both animals, they’ll group them together. But because cows eat grass, the Chinese will group those two together. Same with “monkey”, “banana”, “panda”, they’ll group monkey with banana rather than monkey with panda for the same reason.

When it comes to language, anyway, I think the whole impact on thinking question is clearly, well, it’s something that interests you, it interests me, but with this caveat that we’re speculating here, we maybe haven’t done a lot of research. What are some of the features of Chinese that you suspect might have an impact on cognition or on thinking or ultimately on the Chinese psychology?

Jing: Well, I just want to start with a comment first on what you were saying, how you were summarizing this argument. I think all the examples you gave, how we associate certain words and concepts with others, these are actually categorizations that we create out of language. I don’t necessarily think they’re categorizations that are created by language itself, but rather, when we express our thoughts to them. For instance, if you look at…one of the most important things in the book about language is how they enable us to categorize and classify our thought. Whether in our own head, or actually externally in systems of language like dictionaries or catalogs, or how we group things together and how we see some things as having affinity and others not, those are the points where I think the greatest civilizational difference come from. Because if we look at how Chinese organized their libraries, they didn’t have Dewey decimal systems. They didn’t have a Library of Congress. They organized it like the way you said, according to precepts of morality and norms and cultures.

The classics, when you read Shuowen Jiezi, that classic, what we call the first Chinese dictionary, it’s very much organized by almost Confucian precepts. You have ruler and then family. It’s very much governed by that. Yes, I do think that language systems reflect that, but I’m also hesitant to push that very far, because I think these are habits that are created by language. But whether that necessarily creates a mold that we think in like a spatial container, I’m actually uncertain about that. I think, for those who are bilingual like you or me or trilingual, quadlingual, I think it definitely is true that, as you said earlier, it’s only when we get to step outside of our own language do we sense and see the possibility of different ways of thinking.

Kaiser: You’re more perfectly bilingual than I am for sure. I don’t express it a hundred percent or even close to it in Chinese. I think that may be the reason why I feel like Kaiser in Chinese is a very different person than Kaiser in English. Is Jing in English a very different person than Jing in Chinese?

Jing: Oh gosh! I could tell you, there’s one very notable difference. For some reason, I can cuss in English literally like a sailor.

Kaiser: Yeah. I’ve heard you.

Jing: But I cannot do … have you? Oops! Oh my gosh. I didn’t even notice it. I cannot come anywhere saying a bad word in Chinese.

Kaiser: Wow.

Jing: I just can’t do it. I just think it just feels really, really bad. But English is almost like these are just sounds. They almost don’t mean very much to me. To say a bad word, to say whatever four-letter word you like to fill in, it’s just not as a big deal to me. Now, I remember I was learning English in third grade, I would say perhaps the most innocuous four-letter word, damn, all the time. That was one of the words I learned. I would just say that whenever something goes wrong. The American kids in class were appalled, and they looked at me as though I was just completely indecorous but in any case. That’s actually the greatest difference. I think a lot of certainly my own personal sense of propriety was already ingrained in the Chinese language, and so that definitely has a first mover advantage in shaping who I am.

Kaiser: That’s hysterical, because I’ve seen that. I’ve definitely seen that in people who learn Chinese as the second language. They swear way more than they need to in Chinese. They don’t have the kind of low-caliber words, where it would’ve just been enough to just mildly argue with somebody or whatever. They reach immediately for the large bore stuff, for the worst involving your mother and her private parts. Suddenly, they escalate unnecessarily because they don’t have that. I think there is that effect that people don’t think they’re real in Chinese. They’re just some sounds you-

Jing: Well, and I almost think people overcompensate. It’s frustrating not to be able to communicate in a different language, so you tend to go for the strong verbs, the strong words to feel as though you’re able to express yourself more when it just pulls you into a different personality.

Kaiser: One thing I keep thinking about the differences between English and Chinese and maybe the way that we think, it’s just the ubiquity of the use of chengyu (成语 chéngyǔ), of these four-character idioms in Chinese. Now, it’s not like everyone uses them all the time. It’s only people who are at a particular level of erudition, but it’s hard to stump most educated Chinese. Most of them have heard thousands of these chengyu. I wonder whether the fact that you’re using these…we’ve got them too. We’ve got them too in English. A lot of them come from Shakespeare, from the King James Bible or from Greek mythology or from Aesop and his fables and stuff, sure we have them too. But they don’t appear with the frequency that I encountered them in even just Chinese of a moderate level of literacy. Do you think that makes any difference?

Jing: Well, chengyu, to me, are basically just colloquialism. I don’t particularly think of them as learned something. In fact, one of the first books my parents gave me as a child was actually a chengyu, and I absolutely loved it. I flipped through that I think so many times the pages wore out. I liked it because it’s always four, in sequence of four characters. There’s something about it that also rhymes. I think that’s actually quite important, because Chinese literacy is also very strongly rooted in poetics and being able to write verse and is very observant of parallelisms and things. I also like chengyu, because I think it does … you ever get the feeling when you’re talking to a Chinese, that they’re always like pontificating? Like sharing life’s wisdom with you? I think chengyu actually encourages that, because there’s always a punchline, or what’s actually a punchline is really a moral message that’s embedded in there.

Kaiser: Exactly.

Jing: English is different. I use this as an example in the book, Walk in a Park. That just means something really easy, that has no-

Kaiser: That’s a mere idiom.

Jing: … deeper meaning. Yeah. It’s an idiom, but Chengyu works the same way, but it’s very sharp in its moral critique.

Kaiser: Yeah. They often have a moral object lesson in them.

Jing: Absolutely. Either more a lesson or an insult, which could basically be the same thing. I cannot think of another language that has a more colorful inventory of insults.

Kaiser: Yeah. Well, Shakespearean English is pretty darn good. I know I’ve told this story before probably on this podcast, but I was given two Chengyu dictionaries at various points in my life by my parents. One of them was organized by Pinyin alphabetically. All the idioms that I have to hand are always, they start with aiwujiwu (爱屋及乌 àiwūjíwū; love me love my dog) or aibushishou (爱不释手 àibùshìshǒu), or they’re organized by stroke order, so I know like.

Jing: I love that.

Kaiser: Yiqiuzhihe (一丘之貉 yīqiūzhīhé).That’s as far as I got and then I gave.

Jing: That’s actually pretty funny.

Kaiser: Yeah. I used the same ones over and over again. I’m reminded of this Edith Wharton short story called Xingu, where this one character in there, she’s this not particularly learned woman, who’s taking part in this book club, basically, this lady’s book club. She has this little booklet called Appropriate Allusions for All Occasions. She keeps it next to her thigh and it gives her great comfort, and she’s looking for an opportunity to use the one that she remembers, which is, “Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a hook?” That was hysterical. Edith Wharton is actually really, really funny as a writer, not my recommendation for this week.

Okay. Anyway, to get back to the topic. There is also I think a great question, one of the big ones for me, the question of the relative durability of the Chinese writing system over time and there’s no arguing, it’s been very durable over time, did that contribute do you think to the idea of political unity? Western Europe obviously had Latin, and it endured albeit with some changes for many centuries even after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. But China, well, it didn’t have the codification of written vernaculars like you had in … sure, you can write Cantonese in a Cantonese vernacular now, but for the very longest time there was a standard written language irrespective of the spoken vernaculars.

You had a lot of divergence in the topolect of the different Sinitic languages, but you still have this written Chinese. I wonder whether the mostly non-phonetic nature of the writing system proved ultimately to be an advantage. In other words, the script wouldn’t change irrespective of how you pronounce the word. Did it contribute to the idea of China as naturally or properly being a single political entity even after the Northern and Southern dynasties, even after the Liao and the Jin and the Yuan. Why did the idea of China persist? Does it have something to do with the immutability of the written language?

Jing: I would say most certainly, yes. Because you have to think about that’s also when Chinese was first standardized. Emperor Qin, who also built The Great Wall. Even before him, one has to remember as I mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of philosophical weight behind a Chinese written language and writing traditionally is really equated with authority. That is why when the emperor has a certain character in his name, and if you happen to have that character in your name, you better not use it, you have to change it, as long as he’s in reign. Writing is very much like a talismanic symbol of power, and to be in control or to be able to issue that writing in any form is considered a very serious act. That’s why you have Chinese seances, fortune tellers who channel spirit so they can write out characters. That’s supposed to be taken as having talismanic power.

Whether you’re talking about, and these are more heterodox usage of Chinese characters, of Chinese writing. There’s always the official realm of sanctifying, authorizing and systematizing the written language, but there’s also the popular usage, as you mentioned, not only for dialects, but also for other purposes like Taiping. The Taipings were actually the first ones who used vernacular language and simplified characters as their official language. They also issue their own currency, but a lot of our simplified characters now, a big part of it’s also taken from the precedents that were used by the Taipings. There’s several of these very unusual sources for simplified scripts.

Again, when we talk about simplified characters, first of all, we think, “Oh, right, that and Pinyin , that was Mao’s two, his twin accomplishments, not true because simplified characters were first proposed under the Nationalist government already as early as 1909. When they proposed it, they were not inventing it, they were also taken from popular usage. The idea of simplification is really like this is to get closer to the people’s habits of using the written language. It’s part of this whole May 4th-era of basically de-sanctifying in some ways authority and to redistribute, to give the power of language to the people.

Kaiser: This idea that the Taipings were responsible for it, I’m kicking myself now because I spent my 50th birthday in the Bodleian library in their Sinica and Serica collections.

Jing: Oh, lovely.

Kaiser: They have a ton of Taiping documents. I held them in my hands and I did not think to look for the simplified characters. Next time, maybe on my 100th birthday I’ll be invited back.

Jing: Well, I know we have to work that into your podcast on language. We have to figure out how to give you some semblance of that.

Kaiser: Yeah, if you’re out there librarian, invite me back. I’ll fly out to Oxford. Do you know if anyone’s written about this before? I’d love to read something about it.

Jing: Yeah. There’s some, in Chinese mostly.

Kaiser: Yeah, that’s fine.

Jing: Yeah. I’ll send you a couple of short articles on this. Yeah.

Kaiser: Oh, that’d be amazing. That’s something I completely did not know.

Jing: It is very mind-blowing. The Chinese character, does it come from above or does it come from below? It’s definitely grassroots, but almost totemic, also has this strange mythical realm, which is talked about and discussed in conjunction with The Book of Change and all that stuff. When you say, is it equated, you know, something about Chinese that ensures unity. Ot is certainly the backbone of the Chinese culture, and that is why as a subject of the book, that in the 20th century, there was no way they were going to let it go, and you know what? The fact that China went through the 20th century without actually having to sacrifice their language when they had every reason when they felt every pressure to do so, strengthens that resolve all the more that Chinese character will be here and is here to stay.

Kaiser: Jing Tsu, Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me about this book and to share some of your thoughts about the Chinese language and how it shapes thinking and how it shapes ideas about ethnicity and state and all that. I really look forward to having you back on again before too long. I think there’s a million different topics that we could explore on this show together.

Jing: Most certainly.

Kaiser: Yeah, that’d be great. Let’s move on now to recommendations. First, a very quick reminder that the Sinica podcast is powered by The China Project, and if you like the work that we’re doing with Sinica or with any of the other many shows in the Sinica network, the best thing you can do to support the work that we do is to subscribe to our wonderful China Access newsletter. Your subscription makes all that we do here possible. I know you hear me say this on the show every week, but really if you’re a listener and you’re not subscribing, please do. You’ll find it so immensely worthwhile. All right. Under recommendations, Jing what do you got for me?

Jing: I got a film for you and it may not be surprising given how popular it is, Everything Everywhere All at Once. Have you seen it?

Kaiser: I have not seen it yet. Not yet. I’ve been saving up. I’ve been trying to find the time to watch it with my wife.

Jing: Well, I watched it because a student of mine gave me a reading list to educate me on metaverse because she realized how little I know about it. But what I really like about it is first of all, it’s a great lens through which to see where the technological decoupling between China and the U.S. might come in in terms of culture, and the perspective of what kind of use do they see that they can put technology to. That’s a very important difference.

The second, which is actually, I’ve already seen, that Chinese sci-fi film Wandering Earth, is how differently heroism, individual heroism is articulated in China and the U.S., where the U.S. is very much a Christian, theological boiler plate of the single hero who needs to redeem himself, the fallen worked himself up to fulfilling or becoming whole again. In Chinese, Wandering Earth as well, both Wandering Earth and Everything Everywhere All at Once deal with generations of heroes. Wandering Earth is a grandfather, son, and grandson, and in this one, it’s grandfather, daughter and granddaughter, and you have a husband thrown in there too. It’s almost like, that is just three short of a Confucian, five bonds articulation, and I just find that so fascinating, because this really is the easy dichotomy used: individualism versus collective. It’s also more than that. It’s individualism for sure, but collective cohesiveness is also articulated in the family structure. I find that for those two reasons, very interesting film, and I’ll be sure to watch it for a second or third time, because it’s also complicated.

Kaiser: Great recommendation. Yeah, I’m kicking myself for not having seen this yet, because so many people have told me that it’s a transformative moviegoing experience, that it’s just truly a great film. I hope I haven’t set my expectations too high, but I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed seeing anything that-

Jing: Michelle Yeoh. I got to tell you, this movie would not disappoint you because it is also outrageous. I burst out laughing so many times that I was nearly crying. It’s just outrageous. I won’t tell you what it is, but if you can imagine all the Hong Kong films you’ve seen, where there’s just Shaolin Soccer, that thing. It has outrageous moments like that.

Kaiser: Okay, great. My recommendations for this week, I’ve got two of them. One, bookish and scholarly, the other, very pop culture. The book, the scholarly one, I was in a bookstore. I took my daughter to a university, to her orientation, and she loves bookstores. We were wandering around in a used bookstore on State street, and I found a copy of Mark Elvin’s, The Pattern of the Chinese Past, which mine had fallen apart. The spine was broken, and I had those in four pieces. I bought myself a new copy and that was the only book I had with me, so during downtime, I re-read the first two chapters, and I was just reminded how wonderful it is.

This is the book where he lays out this theory about the high level equilibrium trap, which connects to what you were talking about, the Needham question, because this is his answer to the Needham question, that basically in Song China it got to this level where there wasn’t any more need for innovation. It was doing a pretty fine, fine job. It’s a really thinky, very intensely cerebral history text. It’s full of big ideas. Elvin is brilliant. I love this book, The Pattern of the Chinese Past. I got it for $8, it was great.

Kaiser: Also, the new Porcupine Tree album Closure/Continuation, which is just a great album. They’ve been on hiatus for like a decade. I think their last record was 2012 or 2013. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time. They’ve been releasing singles from it in drips and drops, but to listen to the whole thing through, oh wow! It’s a great record. It’s up there with their canonical great records, and I’m going to see them in D.C. on tour in September. I’m really glad. I said Porcupine Tree, I think one of the greatest progressive rock bands ever and they’ve not disappointed. All right. Thank you. My God, that was so much fun!

Jing: That was so great, Kaiser. It was so fun talking with you.

Kaiser: Yeah. Well, we’ll have you back again really soon.

Jing: Yeah, that’d be great. Love to.

Kaiser: The Sinica podcast is powered by The China Project and is a proud part of the Sinica network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email at sinic@thechinaproject.com or just give us a rating and a review on Apple podcasts as the school does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at @SupChinaNews and be sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica network. Thanks for listening, see you next week. Take care.