Thomas Mullaney - Associate Professor of History, Stanford University
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.