The Chinese Typewriter: A History, by Thomas S. Mullaney

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The Chinese Typewriter: A History, by Thomas S. Mullaney

Postby Speakeasy » Mon Oct 15, 2018 7:11 pm

The Chinese Typewriter: A History, by Thomas S. Mullaney

Some members might be familiar with “Books”, a French-language monthly journal which specializes in reviews of foreign language books. Most of the reviews are translated reprints from other sources. Whilst reading the latest issue, I came upon a review that had previously appeared in the "London Review of Books" of Thomas S. Mullaney’s recent book “The Chinese Typewriter: A History” which tells the story not only of the titled subject, but of Asian scripts versus Occidental scripts, of the influence of technology on spelling reforms, and the like. I immediately ordered a copy of the book! While I have not yet received it, based on the London Review of Books reviewer’s comments, I felt obliged to bring it to the attention of the members of this forum.
Chinese Typewriter 1.jpg
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The Chinese Typewriter: A History – ... typewriter

London Review of Books ... handed-kid

An image that appeared in the “Books” review: Chinese typewriter (late 1800’s)
Chinese Typewriter 2.JPG
Chinese Typewriter 2.JPG (86.56 KiB) Viewed 524 times

Mautadit, encore des erreurs de frappe!
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Re: The Chinese Typewriter: A History, by Thomas S. Mullaney

Postby DaisyMaisy » Tue Oct 16, 2018 3:52 am

Thanks for posting! This looks interesting.
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Re: The Chinese Typewriter: A History, by Thomas S. Mullaney

Postby Speakeasy » Mon Dec 24, 2018 3:58 am

Not long after my initial post on “The Chinese Typewriter, A History” by Thomas S. Mullaney, I received delivery of the copy of the book that I had ordered through a local bookseller. As I always have five-or-more books on the go, I put this one aside to be read during a short train trip that I had planned. Thomas S. Mullaney’s history was so engrossing that I found myself secretly wishing that, for once, the trains would not run on time! Quite seriously, whether you are enamoured of technology, of the Chinese language, or of anything at all related to languages, you owe it to yourselves to pick up a copy of this book (which, in passing, is the first volume of a planned two-volume set).

A couple of days ago, I began hammering away on my QWERTY keyboard in the forlorn hope of creating an interesting précis of this formidable volume and, six pages later and still not satisfied with my draft, working under the assumption that “someone out there” might have posted a shorter and far more engaging review which might provide the final impetus for you to investigate this book, I began searching for one. Thanks to a Mr. Lionel D. Youst, there is such a review on Amazon. DO YOURSELVES A FAVOUR, BUY THE BOOK!

Amazon Customer Review
Lionel D. Youst (5 stars) One of a Kind

“Sixty-five years ago I bought a copy of Lin Yutang’s “The Wisdom of Confucius.” I still have it, the clearest and best organized introduction to the Confucian Classics ever written in English, as far as I know. During the 1930's through 50's, anyone wanting to know about Chinese language and culture in English relied on works by Lin Yutang. He was a genius who has since dropped from view, but Thomas S. Mullaney brings him back as the unlikely hero of the fascinating history of the Chinese typewriter. In this book, the typewriter is presented as the foil in the monumental 150-year quest to find the organizing principle of Chinese writing. Lifetimes were devoted by a fascinating array of geniuses to find such a principle, primarily to fit the Chinese written language onto the typewriter. After numerous valiant attempts over many decades, the answer was at last revealed: there is no organizing principle of written Chinese. It cannot be adapted for the typewriter by reducing it to alphabetical or numerical order. Organized according to common usage, or according to analyses of the brush strokes, are the two obvious remaining choices. Those are the principles upon which Chinese characters were traditionally sorted for printing or typing, with only moderate success.

The Chinese puzzle was finally solved by Lin Yutang, who invented an electro-mechanical typewriter using predictive text The auto-suggestions on the Google search bar, or in Microsoft Word, are taken for granted today. You type in a letter or two and the computer program comes up with what you probably want. But in 1947 Lin Yutang rolled out an electro-mechanical typewriter that did just that without a computer, and in Chinese – and it could print every Chinese character in existence. The Chinese Communist Revolution and the Korean War destroyed any chance of gaining financial backing to manufacture the MingKwai, as Lin called his typewriter, and it was never brought into production. However, the emergence of the personal computer made predictive text imminently practical and perhaps saved the written Chinese language from total eclipse from the alphabetic scripts used by the rest of the world. I think Lin Yutang would be satisfied.

The fascinating history of the Chinese typewriter – and Chinese written language – is exceptionally well told in this exhaustively researched book. The writing flows along like a novel and I couldn’t put it down. I was surprised, however, on page 277-8 to read that Mullaney speculates that the one and only MingKwai typewriter ever made must have been destroyed. He could have looked at the web page of the Lin Yutang House in Taipei and see that it is included as one of the exhibits on display there, apparently whole and complete. I certainly hope the web site is correct and that Mullaney was mistaken. All of the many other digressions and anecdotes within the book carried me right along with them, and I give Mullaney five well deserved stars for a book that has no competition. It is one of a kind.”

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