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  • Published: 17 May 2022
  • ISBN: 9780241295854
  • Imprint: Allen Lane
  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 336
  • RRP: $50.00

Kingdom of Characters

A Tale of Language, Obsession, and Genius in Modern China




A riveting, masterfully researched account of the bold innovators who adapted the Chinese language to the modern world, transforming China into a superpower in the process

What does it take to reinvent the world's oldest living language?
China today is one of the world's most powerful nations, yet just a century ago it was a crumbling empire with literacy reserved for the elite few, left behind in the wake of Western technology. In Kingdom of Characters, Jing Tsu shows that China's most daunting challenge was a linguistic one: to make the formidable Chinese language - a 2,200-year-old writing system that was daunting to natives and foreigners alike - accessible to a globalized, digital world.

Kingdom of Characters follows the bold innovators who adapted the Chinese script - and the value-system it represents - to the technological advances that would shape the twentieth century and beyond, from the telegram to the typewriter to the smartphone. From the exiled reformer who risked death to advocate for Mandarin as a national language to the imprisoned computer engineer who devised input codes for Chinese characters on the lid of a teacup, generations of scholars, missionaries, librarians, politicians, inventors, nationalists and revolutionaries alike understood the urgency of their task and its world-shaping consequences.

With larger-than-life characters and a thrilling narrative, Kingdom of Characters offers an astonishingly original perspective on one of the twentieth century's most dramatic transformations.

  • Published: 17 May 2022
  • ISBN: 9780241295854
  • Imprint: Allen Lane
  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 336
  • RRP: $50.00

About the author

Jing Tsu

Jing Tsu is the John M. Schiff Professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures & Comparative Literature at Yale, where she specializes in Chinese literature, history, culture, science and technology, and politics. She is a member of the Council on East Asian Studies at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies and an affiliate faculty at the Jackson School of Global Affairs. A Guggenheim fellow, she has held fellowships and distinctions from Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton. She moved to the US from Taiwan at age 9, and now lives in New York City.

Praise for Kingdom of Characters

Kingdom of Characters is an eye-opener. It approaches a central topic in modern and contemporary Chinese culture through a unique perspective, combining scholarship with vivid historical narrative. Jing Tsu wears her erudition lightly and gives us a fascinating and moving story. It shows the passionate struggle of generations of pioneers, who tried to find ways of reshaping and preserving the Chinese written script. It's a story of desperate strife, unflagging dedication, and ultimately, triumph

Ha Jin

Kingdom of Characters is a deeply engaging and revealing narrative of the Chinese language in modern times: its graphic and phonetic transformations, conceptual debates, technological innovations, and political contentions. Jin Tsu has brought together a series of key moments concerning Chinese modernity, from the first Chinese typewriter to the digital Sinosphere, from the script reform to the voice revolution. Meticulously researched and beautifully written, this book is indispensable for anyone interested in the sound and script of modern China

Professor David Wang, Harvard University

How to permit what Joseph Needham admiringly called "the glittering, crystalline world" of China's ancient ideographic script to run along the western-made telegraph wires, to be typewritten instead of brush-stroked, to make full use of Silicon Valley's internet and the iPhone, is a story of both dazzling technical and political fascination and an ever-swelling global importance. Jing Tsu has crafted a tale of this achievement with flair, originality and extraordinary narrative power: seldom have I read a book about modern China so informative, revelatory and enjoyable

Simon Winchester

Writing about writing is hard; writing about Chinese writing in English is devilish. Strokes, logographs, ideographs - even the basic terminology can cloud the mind like a calligraphy brush loaded with too much ink. Jing Tsu's brilliant solution is to focus on characters - not the ones written from left to right, top to bottom, but the actual living, breathing, thinking individuals who, since the start of the twentieth century, did everything they could to adapt the Chinese language and writing system to the modern world. In Kingdom of Characters, Tsu introduces us to a cast of unforgettable figures: the wanted fugitive who pushes for Mandarin as China's national tongue; the engineer and bamboo expert who develops a Chinese typewriter; the railway administrator who tries to figure out how to send telegrams in a language without an alphabet. Along the way, Tsu tells an essential story of modern China: a country at once transformed and yet deeply traditional

Peter Hessler

An amazing story! How Chinese speech and script go to be standardized and made fit for the age of printing, data-processing and the internet is a true adventure story, told with brio and passion in this eye-opening book. It's a complicated tale, to be sure, and the solutions found verge on the miraculous. But the false starts, forgotten heroes, the rejections of the past and returns to tradition that are clearly laid out in this book also map out a cultural history of modern China. Immensely instructive and thoroughly enjoyable

David Bellos, author of IS THAT A FISH IN YOUR EAR?

An absolute joy to read. This stunning, meticulously researched book is the detective story of Chinese characters. Jing Tsu has seamlessly fused the craft of the linguistic historian with the artistry of the storyteller - including cliff-hangers

David Crystal, author of THE STORIES OF ENGLISH and HOW LANGUAGE WORKS

Enchanting... [Tsu's] love for the enigma and beauty of Chinese shines through in this delightful mix of history and linguistics... A pleasure to read

Michael Sheridan, Sunday Times

Impressive... A well-told story about those who created modern China not through the barrel of a gun or a little red book but through dictionaries, libraries and printing presses. As the Chinese say, heroes are born out of turbulent times, and what China has undergone has been nothing if not turbulent

Cindy Yu, Spectator

[Tsu] brings to life the individuals who gave their all to solve China's problems with language technology, even as political and social turmoil was raging around them

Gaston Dorren, Guardian

Incredibly fascinating... Chinese is the oldest written language in the world, and this book is very much an aperture book. Look through its linguistic premise and a whole panorama of politics, technology and aesthetics springs into life... Remarkable

Stuart Kelly, Scotsman

Erudite and beautifully written

Rana Mitter, TLS

Interesting and very readable

Peter Gordon, Asian Review of Books

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