Alphabet revolutions

Uluğ Kuzuoğlu’s new book discusses 20th-century reforms of the Chinese writing system in the context of a growing information economy.

Throughout the 20th century, Chinese characters were at risk of disappearing. In his new book “Codes of Modernity: Chinese Scripts in the Global Information Age,” Assistant Professor of History Uluğ Kuzuoğlu explores how the rise of new information technologies made it extremely difficult for the Chinese script to survive modernity. Kuzuoğlu sat down with the Ampersand to discuss the political, economic, and creative forces behind China’s search for a new script.

Uluğ Kuzuoğlu

What inspired this book?

In Turkey, where I grew up and went to college, there was an alphabet revolution in 1928. Before then, everything was written in the Arabic script. After that year, everything was written in the Latin script. Schools stopped teaching the Arabic script, and print shops stopped printing it. So, when I enrolled in the history department for my master’s degree, I had to learn the Arabic script from scratch just to read anything in Turkish published before 1928.

I was both fascinated and frustrated by this. I wondered why anyone would want to change the script they use in their everyday lives. At the time, I thought Turkey was unique in doing this, but when I started graduate school with a specialty in Chinese history, I realized that debates over script reform took place around the world throughout the 20th century. I wrote this book because I wanted to figure out why these debates were happening at the same time in countries and cultures as diverse as Turkey and China.

What are the typical explanations for these debates over script reform?

The standard narrative is that during the transition from empire to nation-state in the early 20th century, Chinese reformers found it important to institute a national language in order to create a unified nation-state. Within this narrative, script reforms were seen as an outcome of language reforms, and scholars rarely tried to distinguish between the two or try to understand scripts beyond the domain of languages.

What is new about your argument?

I am careful to draw a distinction between script and language. The two are obviously related, but it is wrong to conflate them. In fact, the argument I propose in my book is that script reforms were not just about language reforms, but about a global change in information technologies tied to industrializing economies. Briefly put, new inventions like the telegraph and the industrial printing press resulted in an unprecedented increase in information output around the world, and with that increase came a demand for greater efficiency in written communication. Script reforms were one way to deal with this crisis in efficiency.

How did the spread of new information technologies to China result in calls for script reform?

The best example is the telegraph. Morse code was invented in the 1830s for the 26 letters of the English alphabet. It was a form of encoding that abstracted each letter into dots and dashes. But since Chinese characters are not alphabetic, it initially seemed impossible to use the telegraph when it was brought to China in the 1870s. After all, how can you turn Chinese characters into dots and dashes? 

Eventually, the problem was solved by assigning unique four-digit codes to 9,999 Chinese characters and listing them in a telegraph codebook. But locating a Chinese character in the codebook, translating it into numbers, and retranslating it into Morse code took too much time and money. So, all of a sudden, the dominant information technology of the day forced Chinese reformers to confront their script as “archaic.”

What solutions did script reformers offer?

There were a variety of ideas. Chinese left-wing reformers wanted to completely get rid of Chinese characters and adopt a Latin alphabet. Other reformers wanted to create their own phonetic script that would work alongside the Chinese characters instead of replacing them. Still, others argued for just simplifying the existing Chinese characters. These arguments were the products of different political positions, which I describe in detail in the book.

Among the left-wing reformers, was there any concern about losing the culture attached to Chinese characters?

The issue for socialist revolutionaries was never “losing one’s culture.” It was rather the political determination to create a new culture, which was both exhilarating and destructive at the same time. These reformers were drawing on the ongoing Latinization movement in the Soviet Union, where Soviet revolutionaries were trying to replace dozens of writing systems across central and inner Asia with the Latin alphabet. From the Soviet Union to China, socialists were trying to get rid of their own cultures in the hope of building a new internationalist and revolutionary one.

What new script was finally adopted in China?

In 1958, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) decided to adopt Pinyin as China’s auxiliary phonetic script. Pinyin, which used Latin letters to represent the Mandarin pronunciation of Chinese characters, was a paradoxical outcome of this whole story. It was invented by a Wall Street banker, Zhou Youguang, who came back to China after 1949 to take part in the revolution. For Zhou, Pinyin was meant to aid literacy and standardize pronunciation — not to replace Chinese characters. As such, Pinyin was not the “revolution” socialists dreamed of in the 1930s.

The real paradox, however, was in the government’s dissemination of Pinyin. The year that Pinyin was invented, China launched an aggressive campaign to replace all ethnic minority scripts — Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tibetan, and Zhuang, among others — with Pinyin’s Latinized letters. In other words, the government was OK with keeping Chinese characters but somehow not OK with letting other nationalities keep their scripts. The campaigns eventually failed for a variety of reasons, but I find this contradiction to be absolutely fascinating: Socialist, anti-imperialist China aspiring to become an alphabetical empire. 

These kinds of contradictions are in fact the driving force behind my narrative in the book. All technologies generate social, political, and cultural contradictions, and scripts in China were no different. By dissecting their contradictory histories, I think we can learn something greater about the contradictions of modernity at large.

What does this history tell us about the overall legacy of information technologies in China?

Let me end with a story from the 1980s. In 1986, the CCP decided to indefinitely suspend the idea of alphabetizing Chinese. Computers now had the capacity to process Chinese characters, which refuted the previous technical arguments for the “inefficiency” of characters. It was a time of new-age technological optimism. 

But if you fast-forward 37 years, you see that the 20th century’s last two decades of hope have been replaced by fear, insecurity, and anxiety. Computers have brought increased surveillance, data manipulation, misinformation, social media addiction, and polarization. Considering all these unwanted changes, the previous question about “losing one’s culture” to new information technologies becomes all the more poignant. Maybe it’s time to think seriously about the technologies we use and decide what kind of culture we really want.