By Jing Tsu
Reviewed by Gina Anne Tam
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright September, 2023)
Jing Tsu believes that Americans do not understand China well. With an eye on deteriorating US-China relations in the past several years, the prolific literary scholar has repeatedly made public her concern about the information gap between China and the West, a reality she sees as increasingly dangerous. Scholars who have deep, lived experience in China, she contends, have an increasingly important responsibility. She states that the “days of armchair scholarship are over,” instead imploring fellow specialists to do all we can to help readers understand China on its own terms—as a place that is textured and complicated, not a two-dimensional caricature of a dangerous and threatening hegemon.
It was to further this goal that Tsu wrote Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern, a work that has topped best-seller lists and gained widespread attention by mainstream audiences around the world. The book is a history of Chinese language modernization as told through several compelling biographies placed vividly into the context of the tumultuous history of China’s twentieth century. It is meant, Tsu purports, to help bridge the understanding gap between the average American and citizens of China. Language, she believes, is a vector through which we can understand China today—from the state processes that control and shape culture, to the economics of technological advancement, to ideas about foreignness, nativity, and power.
Given that the author’s main goal is to explain China to non-experts, the primary audience for this book is likely not specialists like most MCLC readers. It thus seems reasonable to assess this book differently than we might a work just for specialists. I believe this because I am deeply sympathetic to her goals. Americans understand little about China, and that ignorance has become increasingly entrenched and significant as relations have worsened. Books on China for general readers that do not portray it as bad—books that might actually help shore up the informational and empathy gap between the United States and China— are in short supply. Few are written by women, even fewer by women of color. And while there is little in her book that is novel or new to the expert, I believe that books like this one, books that take the stories in existing scholarship and make them both comprehensible and exciting for non-experts, serve a public good.
Yet if we are to judge the book on these terms, then it is worth asking—what do we, as scholars, owe to communities outside our ivory towers, those comprised of our neighbors, fellow citizens of our countries of residence, or other global citizens? How can we best serve them given our expertise, and what do we have to offer them?
Tsu filters this question through her lived experience. Kingdom of Characters begins with a personal story about her first encounters with both English and Chinese. An immigrant from Taiwan to the United States, she describes how her initial encounters with English, both its sound and script, lacked the kind of intimacy and feeling she had associated with Chinese. Eventually, she explains, she would learn to “breathe and live,” in both languages. “Languages make worlds” (xviii) she says, and for her, these two worlds “clashed” as she navigated her relationship to both. Tsu uses this personal history with scripts and sounds as her starting point into her story about China’s language, a way to grasp just how unique the very foundation of China’s culture and history—its language and script—is, and how that uniqueness has come to bear on China’s recent history.
This personal connection, to me, is a strength of Tsu’s book. It helps set up the stakes of her narrative and the ways in which the evolution of language can affect all kinds of people around the world. It also made me consider my own positionality as a reader of the book. I’m a white American from Colorado, and I began learning Chinese languages as an adult. While, more recently, I have researched and written about the history Tsu tells here, if this book had been written twenty years ago, I would have been an eager audience for it. Having read my first book about China in high school, I spent the summer before college sitting in Barnes and Noble between shifts at KFC, reading every book about Chinese history the store had in stock. I did not know very much about China and I was not surrounded by people who talked about China often, but I was an earnest learner and I liked a good story. With only some textbook-like histories shelved between Cultural Revolution memoirs at my disposal, Tsu’s book would likely have been a favorite addition to my summer reading list.
The appeal would have lain largely in the deftness with which Tsu intertwines the big picture with the personal. The book is divided into seven chapters, each narrating how Chinese became a “modern language,” in Tsu’s words, through the vividly written biographies of some of China’s most well-known language reformers. Chapter 1 details spoken language reform, focusing on attempts by Wang Zhao 王照 to introduce a unified pronunciation. Chapter 2 tells the story of Zhou Houkun’s 周厚坤 attempt to make a typewriter that could accommodate the sinograph, while Chapter 3 exhumes the innovations of Chinese telegraphers from a history of Chinese telegraphy that has historically centered a Frenchman. Chapter 4 explains the quirky innovators who sought to discipline China’s script into an orderly system that could be used in dictionaries and card catalogues. Chapters 5 and 6 foreground innovations from well-known men such as Qu Qiubai 瞿秋白 and Zhou Youguang 周有光 who designed Romanization systems, simplified characters, and invented early coding systems. Chapter 7 brings us to the linguistic innovations unique to the twenty-first century, covering everything from input systems to internet slang. Each chapter tells the stories of these men’s’ lives in colorful detail, describing their dusty robes and sunken cheeks (1), the “smoldering heat” of their prisons (211), the way their minds “swam with thoughts” (43). Interspersed are targeted narrations of historical events that range from the national—the First Opium War, the 1911 revolution, the anti-Rightist campaign of the 1950s—to the global, including international touchstones such as the 1926 conference in Baku (to discuss how the Arabic script could transcribe Turkic languages), and the Philadelphia World’s Fair of 1876.
Were I to have read this as my pre-college self, I would have absorbed a great deal of good from it. There is a lot of solid national history here for the non-expert, including corrections to several well-known myths: Tsu correctly points out that the Chinese Communist Party did not invent simplified characters, and her explanation of how to look up a Chinese character in a dictionary is quite easy-to-understand for those uninitiated with the sinograph (128-133). On a bigger scale, her writing makes men engaged in tasks that many readers might presume tedious (telegraphy, Romanization reform, even a card catalog system) seem both eminently interesting and central to the story of China’s modern history. She also starkly lays out how the history of language is inseparable from the history of China itself. I find such a message welcome.
But looking back on my eighteen-year-old self, I also think I may have absorbed other messages that are more problematic. While Tsu includes some important correctives, she also gives credence to some zombie myths about China’s language that, while perhaps tangential to her overall narrative, are nonetheless closer to false than true. She brings up but does little to dispute the common myth that Cantonese was almost the national language. She reiterates the long-asserted CCP myth that simplified characters caused the rapid rise in literacy rates in the late twentieth century (176-177), more or less taking at their word what are possibly earnest but certainly strategically publicized testimonies of everyday people proclaiming that simplification made literacy possible for them.
There are more troubling assertions woven into her narrative as well. Tsu walks a fine line between explaining China’s language to the uninitiated and making it seem strange or even exotic. In the process, she missteps, as hyperbolic or even orientalist characterizations of China’s languages from Western observers sometimes slip unattributed into her own prose: that Chinese languages have “strange sounds” (16); that Chinese is the “oldest living language” (1) (a favorite nationalist myth claimed by multiple nation-states around the world that builds contemporary national identity on the grounds of an invented antiquity, yet remains ultimately unprovable); and that characters were the key to the very “minds” of the Chinese people. The exoticization of Chinese languages would have accorded with my younger self’s latent assumptions about “the East” growing up surrounded by other white Americans, primed as we are to presume everything about China is inherently exotic. But looking at it today, it is frustrating to come across these characterizations in a work that may be the only one general readers ever encounter on the topic.
As a historian, however, the message that troubles me the most is the idea that the “reinvention” of the Chinese language itself was accomplished by a few eccentric men. That a handful of colorful personalities changed the very way people speak would likely have reinforced my presumption, growing up in a patriarchal world, that it is extraordinary men who change history. It would have also intertwined with the framing mentioned above. While the allure of “great man history” narratives maintains its staying power—whether we like it or not—we also likely intuit that, when it comes to our own native languages, we are not the passive recipients of the inventions of a few famous men. Famous men may matter (and we often award them outsized roles) but language doesn’t work like that. Might my eighteen-year-old self have come away from Kingdom of Characters with a sense that China is unique in this regard as well? With a sense that language change in China doesn’t happen from the million ways a society earnestly grapples and whimsically plays with modes of communication, but rather because some quirky men have innovative ideas?
To declare that Tsu sees a few men as the main drivers of history is not just reading between the lines. Sentences like “the fate of China’s language lay in his hands,” or the sheer number of times these men are called “geniuses” and their inventions “pivotal,” leave little ambiguity about who Tsu believes has agency. In the book there are two kinds of actors—the men whose genius Tsu espouses, and “China,” ambiguous and barely defined. She barely touches on how many of these men’s inventions were lost to history, to the grander processes of technological change, to commercialization, or to the fact that the masses she treats as passive recipients were perhaps more active in the process than we give them credit for. What is lost, then, is a sense of the relative degree to which these men actually changed history versus the extent to which they were simply products of the particular historical moment in which they lived. As historians, we grapple with this question constantly. I think Tsu’s overall narrative would have been strengthened if she had grappled with it more as well. I also find it sadly ironic that a book that begins with such an intimate look at a symbiotic relationship between the author and the languages through which she builds the worlds around her—a story that evokes real empathy—is followed by a series of historical narratives that treats everyday learners and speakers as passive recipients of the actions of the few.
I write all this to return to my initial question—what is it that we owe general audiences? What stories should we choose to present to them? Do we write the kinds of gripping stories that make history exciting for people, but perhaps lack the nuance and thought that might actually change minds? Do we treat the past like a “strange country” to make it interesting, or do we lean into the more mundane realities of history so as to warn our audiences against exoticizing the East? Do we give outsized agency to a few interesting people whose biographies most readers will find interesting, or do we balance that by chronicling the smaller, more intimate moments of change that, collectively, create the worlds we live in? There are good arguments to be made for all of these approaches. Yet I worry that Tsu’s approach in this book may not necessarily be received by a general audience the way she would like them to. I realize that it is as easy to criticize a general-audience book as it is difficult to write one, and that we as scholars are quick to find fault with anything less than the most rigorous of academic monographs. But the conversations about China are happening around us no matter what we do, and it is crucial that we make informed, positive contributions to them. Because the stakes are so high, general audience books deserve to be taken as seriously as anything else we do, open to both well-earned praise and well-intentioned critique.
Gina Anne Tam
 Yuan Yang, “Jing Tsu: The Days of Armchair Scholarship are Over.” The Financial Times (Feb. 10, 2023).