Exhibit: 70,000 Characters, One Keyboard on China's Path to Info Age

In 1913, newspaper workers at movable type cabinets used by a Chinese newspaper in California

Dec. 02, 2018

Here’s the ultimate puzzle: how to fit 70,000-plus Chinese characters on a typewriter keyboard?

The answer can be found in "Radical Machines: Chinese in the Information Age," a new exhibit at the Museum of Chinese in America that tells the fascinating story of how technology adapted to the Chinese language, enabling China to become the technology giant that it is today.

Not surprisingly, it is a story of ingenuity and persistence and it began in the 1800s, when the world was being crisscrossed with telegraph cables and messages were sent by Morse code. Chinese and global engineers and entrepreneurs set out to build a telegraphic code that could translate the thousands of Chinese pictograms into simple dots and dashes. (The problem was solved by assigning a unique number to the most common Chinese characters; operators sent messages with the aid of a thick manual listing all the numbers and their characters they represented.)

Converting typewriters to the Chinese language was the next dilemma. Remington and Smith Corona typewriters first appeared in the U.S. after the Civil War. They were quickly modified to accommodate different languages and alphabets, including Cyrillic, Hebrew and Arabic. But the typewriter companies failed when they confronted Chinese. “They were all so wedded to the keyboard that they just could not figure out how to do without one,” notes Thomas S. Mullaney, a professor of Chinese and Asian History and the History of Technology at Stanford University and the curator of the Radical Machines exhibit. 

While researching his book, "The Chinese Typewriter: A History" (2017), Mullaney found a Stanford engineering assignment from the 1950s and ’60s that asked students to try to build a Chinese-language typewriter. “I was not surprised,” he said, “because people everywhere wanted to break into the China market.”

(Nevertheless, in popular culture, the idea of a Chinese-language typewriter became a convenient excuse for racial jokes. The show has examples of cartoons and even a clip from the Simpsons that laughs at the machines.)

The Chinese-language typewriter was to go through several iterations. On display is one of the three remaining in North America, and the oldest, from 1926. It was equipped with a tray bed, a rectangle with 2,500 metal characters (the most common in the language), similar to movable type.

Fortunately, the search for a better Chinese-language typewriter ended with the introduction of word processors. This too proved to be a challenge. In order to capitalize letters, change a font, or input symbols like parentheses, one 1970s model of a Chinese word processor had 15 shift buttons which, when used together with a spiral bound book on a touchpad, gave the user a grand total of 60 different characters for each location on the pad.

Eventually, with the development of pinyin, a transliteration of the sound of the Chinese characters using Latin letters, more sophisticated Chinese computers were able to use the standard 50-100 key QWERTY Keyboard, originally designed for Latin-script alphabets. With this keyboard, (its name comes from the order of the first six keys on the top left letter row of the keyboard) the computer could suggest Chinese characters similar to the way that modern phone apps complete partially typed words.

A particularly interesting display discusses the fear that one day Chinese youth, who use devices as obsessively as the rest of us, will suffer from "character amnesia," losing the ability to write less common characters by hand. Will they, the curator asks poetically, be able to "raise [their}brush but forget the character?"

If this show is any indication, the Chinese will come up with an answer for that, too.