Reflections from 一 to 龠

Tomorrow’s Talk at Berkeley: Information Crisis in Twentieth-Century China

Tomorrow’s Talk at Berkeley: Information Crisis in Twentieth-Century China

Information Crisis in Twentieth-Century China

Thomas S. Mullaney, Associate Professor of History, Stanford University

Wednesday, October 30, 4:00pm
3335 Dwinelle Hall
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In the 1920s, China was perceived by many as being in a full-blown “information crisis,” with some arguing that the country should follow the path of Vietnam or Turkey and undergo a complete reform of the country’s character-based writing system. Republican China witnessed a proliferation of experimental Chinese character organization and retrieval systems – used to organize new Chinese dictionaries, telephone books, name lists, card catalog systems, and indeed the entire taxonomic structure of the Chinese character information environment. The “character retrieval problem,” as some referred to it, attracted a diverse group of linguists, library scientists, political authorities, and publishing houses. While their many dozens of novel systems and approaches varied greatly, a commonly held objective was the creation of a “transparent” and thoroughly disambiguated system of organizing the Chinese language – one that could be readily used by the “everyone,” and which abolished any and all uncertainties of performance. In their efforts to create a system for everyone, Republican-era language reformers necessarily ventured into a site of political contestation: defining the Chinese everyman, in terms of capacities, limitations, tendencies, instincts, etc.

The focus of this talk will be the boldest attempt to create a completely “transparent” Chinese information system: the MingKwai Chinese typewriter, invented by Lin Yutang and based on his early taxonomic experiments as a member of the “character retrieval problem” debate.

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