How to Build a Chinese Typewriter: Reimagining Technology and Script in the 19th and 20th Centuries
A talk by Thomas S. Mullaney as part of the History of Science Spring 2013 Colloquium.
Monday, May 06, 2013
The celebrated May Fourth writer Lu Xun remarked that "if Chinese characters are not exterminated, there can be no doubt that China will perish." Scholars of modern China have been echoing him ever since, investing this passing, cavalier, and erroneous comment with historical significance beyond any reasonable measure. Overlooked if not dismissed has been the much larger, dynamic, diverse, and transnational cast of characters who, in contrast to the easy iconoclasm of the abolitionists, engaged in the grinding, quotidian, and yet no less iconoclastic reconceptualizations of both technology and the Chinese language itself, fashioning an immense and complex repertoire of coordinated technolinguistic systems that by now govern the Chinese language information environment. These individuals shared the same anxieties as their more famous counterparts, and yet made it their business, and sometimes life missions, to chart out pathways by which Chinese writing could enter into the domains of telegraphy, stenography, typewriting, Braille, library card catalog organization, punch card computing, and a host of other epoch-forming information systems that themselves were invented with alphabetic writing in mind, and which largely depended upon alphabets to function. In this talk, Tom Mullaney will focus one of the most important and illustrative domains of technolinguistic experimentation - that of the Chinese typewriter and its development in the 19th and 20th centuries - to explore this uncharted history of both modern China and modern information.
Thomas S. Mullaney is Associate Professor of Modern Chinese History, and received his Ph.D. in History in 2006 from Columbia University. He is the author of Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China (University of California Press, 2011, Foreword by Benedict Anderson). This book charts the history of China’s 1954 Ethnic Classification project (minzu shibie), a joint social scientific-Communist state expedition wherein a group of ethnologists, linguists, and Party cadres traveled to the most ethnically diverse province in the People’s Republic to determine which minority communities would and would not be officially recognized by the state. He is also principal editor of Critical Han Studies: The History, Representation and Identity of China’s Majority, a pathbreaking volume that examines China’s majority ethnonational group. His current book project, The Chinese Typewriter: A Global History, examines China’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century development of a character-based information infrastructure encompassing Chinese telegraphy, typewriting, character retrieval systems, shorthand, Braille, word processing, and computing. He is also the founding editor of Dissertation Reviews, an online scholarly community that features friendly, non-critical overviews of recently defended dissertations in a variety of disciplines.
This talk is part of the History of Science Spring 2013 Colloquium by the UCLA Department of History.