Chinese writing is character-based, the one major world script that is neither alphabetic nor syllabic. Over the past two centuries, Chinese script has encountered presumed alphabetic universalism at every turn, whether in the form of Morse Code, Braille, stenography, Linotype, punch cards, word processing, or other systems developed with the Latin alphabet in mind. Today, however, after more than a century of resistance against the alphabetic, not only have Chinese characters prevailed, they form the linguistic substrate of the vibrant world of Chinese information technology. In this talk, Stanford historian Tom Mullaney shows how this unlikely transformation happened, by charting out a fascinating series of experiments, prototypes, failures, and successes in the century-long struggle between Chinese characters and the QWERTY keyboard.
Thomas S. Mullaney is Professor of Chinese History at Stanford University, a Guggenheim Fellow, and Curator of the international exhibition, Radical Machines: Chinese in the Information Age. His new book, The Chinese Typewriter: A History, examines China’s development of a modern, nonalphabetic information infrastructure encompassing telegraphy, typewriting, word processing, and computing. His writings have appeared in the Journal of Asian Studies, Technology & Culture, Aeon, Foreign Affairs, and Foreign Policy, and his work has been featured in the LA Times, The Atlantic, the BBC, and in invited lectures at Google, Microsoft, Adobe, and more. He holds a PhD from Columbia University.