How important is language to the modernization of a nation? What did the modernization of Chinese have to do with making the country more modern? Professor Jing Tsu of Yale explores this topic in her latest book Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern, and she joins on episode 337 of The Armen Show to cover language, history, China, and more.
Jing Tsu, a 2016 Guggenheim fellow, specializes in modern Chinese literature & culture and Sinophone studies, from the 19th century to the present. Her research spans literature, linguistics, science and technology, typewriting and digitalization, diaspora studies, migration, nationalism, and theories of globalization. At Yale she offers graduate seminars on sympathy, world Sinophone literature, and approaches to East Asian intellectual and literary history.
From mainland China to Southeast Asia, her area of expertise covers the Sinophone world at large. She offers a regular interdisciplinary course, “China in the World,” which features six contemporary topics in historical time. Tsu has been a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study (Harvard), the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (Stanford), and the Institute for Advanced Studies (Princeton).
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, as the world underwent a massive technological transformation that threatened to leave them behind. In Kingdom of Characters, Jing Tsu argues that China’s most daunting challenge was a linguistic one: the century-long fight to make the formidable Chinese language accessible to the modern world of global trade and digital technology.
Kingdom of Characters follows the bold innovators who reinvented the Chinese language, among them an exiled reformer who risked a death sentence to advocate for Mandarin as a national language, a Chinese-Muslim poet who laid the groundwork for Chairman Mao’s phonetic writing system, and a computer engineer who devised input codes for Chinese characters on the lid of a teacup from the floor of a jail cell. Without their advances, China might never have become the dominating force we know today.
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.