The Chinese Typewriter by Thomas S. Mullaney

The Chinese Typewriter: A HistoryThe Chinese Typewriter: A History by Thomas S. Mullaney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found this non-fiction account of the development and history of the Chinese typewriter to be fascinating and well-researched, but I cannot recommend it to most people (more on that later). The title itself is both a simple statement of the subject of the book, yet is also misleading. There is no such thing as the Chinese typewriter, just as there is no such thing as the American automobile.

There have been dozens of different devices made or at least proposed to serve as Chinese typewriters, at first by Americans and Europeans, but later by the Chinese and then Japanese. They have taken many forms: with and without keys; using slugs or discs or cylindrical rack trays; with ~10,000 characters of less than half that many; with or without Japanese or Roman alphabets, and so on. All of these are explored in depth and generously illustrated with photos, charts, and other graphics. I enjoyed the book greatly.

My hesitation to recommend lies primarily in the author’s inexcusably pedantic, pretentious, and comically convoluted writing style. He never uses a two-syllable word if he can find a four- or five-syllable one to take its place. Some of the words and phrases you should prepare yourself for include: orthopraxy, referential paratechnologies, technosomatic ensemble, machinic, and semiotic substrate. His sentences are often so long it is obvious the publisher made no effort to use an editor. Here’s an example:

To the contrary, once China and Chinese characters had been reconceptualized as a communicative problem — a puzzle in need of a solution rather than a medium of communicative possibility — this opened up a new, exciting, and lucrative possibility for Japanese and Korean inventors, one in which Japan and Korea could be transformed from the beneficiaries of Chinese cultural inheritance to sites where the puzzle of East Asian technolinguistic modernity might itself be solved.

Your assignment, class, is to diagram that sentence. When I read that to my wife, who used to be the Assistant Director for a Stanford PhD. program and who proofread doctoral theses, she asked if it was a parody because she couldn’t believe anyone could seriously write a general market book that way. When I told her the author was a Stanford professor, she snorted and said she could believe it after all. Despite this, the writing is content-rich and relatively concise compared to other academic works I’ve read lately.

Another warning: I may be the ideal reader for this book. I’ve spent a year each studying Japanese and Chinese (Mandarin). Although I can’t actually read either, I know a few hundred characters and I am already very familiar with the concepts of radicals, kana, and reduced character sets (e.g. toyo kanji). I’m also a long-time cipher and cryptology nerd with extensive experience with issues such as alternative methods of ordering letters and words, CTC encoding, and so forth. If these are all foreign concepts to you, the book is likely to be a tough slog for you. The author does a good job of explaining these things, but there’s a lot to take in. There is a great deal of Chinese political and social history mixed in with the central topic as well. It would be helpful if you had some knowledge along those lines.

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