Publication Date: January 18, 2022
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How a hundred years of linguistic innovation turned China into one of the most powerful countries of the modern era
After a meteoric rise, China today is one of the world’s most powerful nations. Just a century ago, it was a crumbling empire, with literacy reserved for the elite few. In Kingdom of Characters, Jing Tsu argues that China’s greatest and most daunting challenge was a linguistic one. Just as important as China’s technological and industrial advances and political maneuvers was the century-long fight to make the Chinese language—with its many dialects and complex character-based script—accessible to the modern world of global trade and digital technology.
Kingdom of Characters follows the bold and cunning innovators who adapted the Chinese language to a world defined by the West and its alphabet: the exiled reformer who risked a death sentence to advocate for Mandarin as a national language, the Chinese-Muslim poet who laid the groundwork for Chairman Mao’s phonetic writing system, the imprisoned computer engineer who devised input codes for Chinese characters on the lid of a tea cup, among others. Without the advances they enabled, China might never have become the dominating global force we know today.
The revolution of the Chinese script is just as breathtaking as China’s transformation into a capitalist juggernaut, in large part because those linguistic innovations literally enabled China’s reinvention. With larger-than-life characters and an unexpected perspective on the major events of China’s tumultuous twentieth century, Tsu reveals how language is both a technology to be perfected and a subtle yet potent power to be exercised and expanded.
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