Kingdom of Characters: A Tale of Language, Obsession, and Genius in Modern China

Jing Tsu

In 'Kingdom of Characters: A Tale of Language, Obsession, and Genius in Modern China', Jing Tsu combines meticulous research with a compelling narrative to tell the stories of the bold innovators who adapted the Chinese language to make it accessible to a globalised, digital world. Below is an extract of the shortlisted book.


Few contemporary societies take their writing culture as seriously as China. The oldest living language spoken by the most people, and at the same time ancient and modern, Chinese is currently used by more than 1.3 billion people—not counting those around the globe who learn it as a second language. Its written form has remained largely unchanged since it was first standardized more than 2,200 years ago. By comparison, the number of letters in the Roman alphabet fluctuated until the sixteenth century, when the letter “j” split from “i” and completed the twenty-six-letter set.

Chinese heads of state are probably the only political leaders in the world who can still be seen demonstrating their cultural prowess at official occasions, in their case by dashing off a few characters or auspicious phrases with an ink brush. Deng Xiaoping was reputedly a bit shy, but his immediate predecessor and one-time rival, Hua Guofeng, devoted his late life to the practice, and former president Hu Jintao was fond of displaying his penmanship in public. Mao’s calligraphy still sits prominently on the masthead of the country’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily, and recent computerized handwriting analysis showed that Xi Jinping’s style is remarkably similar. Such showmanship not only serves as a daily reminder of the leader’s legitimacy but also reinforces the importance of a cultivated skill that has been the hallmark of China’s ruling elite since the time long before nations. Calligraphy, in fact, is one of the few practices of the Chinese tradition that survived the country’s twentieth- century revolt against its feudalistic past.

It’s hard to imagine an American president or European head of state opening an official state ceremony or visit with a show of penmanship. But in the Chinese context, literacy means something more than just knowing how to read and write. It has traditionally signaled many things: the mark of being steeped in the classics and wisdom of the ancients; a meditative craft through which to cultivate a higher self; an elite medium through which to express one’s inner character, thoughts, and emotions.

Deciphering Chinese is not only an insider’s art; it has also been a cross-continental pursuit. For more than four centuries, devoted followers of the Chinese language in the West have tried to peer into the secrets behind its ideographic capture of reality, speculating about its provenance and complex physical structure. Extravagant claims and theories met with enthusiastic reception in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe and twentieth- century America. Kings, clerics, adventurers, scholars, modern poets, and theorists of language were drawn to its strangeness and exceptionality, looking for a key to unlock its secrets through grammar and compositional laws. Sixteenth- century Jesuit missionaries labored to learn it, seventeenth-century savants were fascinated by it, and eighteenth- century Sinologists fetishized it.

How an entire civilization outside of Christendom evolved to have a writing system as complex and massive as the Chinese script has been an enduring linguistic mystery for outsiders. This inquiry poorly masks a deep suspicion: How can a people who read and write in characters ever think the way we do? Even in the late twentieth century, views like this were touted by Western experts in different fields. Alphabetic thinking, social theorists would say, explains the advent of the scientific revolution in the West. A modern theorist of networks and the digital age sees the alphabet as a conceptual technology that forms the bedrock of Western science and technology. A scholar of ancient Greece saw the signs much earlier at the fount of Western civilization, where “the alphabetic mind” was responsible for all the West’s accomplishments. Joseph Needham, a renowned British historian of Chinese science, spent his life’s work defending scientific inventions in ancient China against claims like these, but he also recognized that the Chinese language remained the greatest barrier for Westerners to understanding the minds of the Chinese. It is China’s first and last Great Wall.

The Opium War of 1839 to 1842 marked the beginning of a new course for China. During a series of crises and confrontations with the Western world that would keep China in an inferior position well into the early years of the twenty-first century, the demise of the Chinese script was foretold by many. Still, the Chinese were hesitant to accept the prospect of a future without their written language. They saw how the Chinese language, like the empire, might not be viable in a modern world increasingly transformed by various branches of Western science and new modes of electricity-powered communication, beginning with the telegraph. But the Chinese language had been the fundamental building block of China’s cultural universe. So rooted was the script in the country’s history and institutions over the millennia that it was difficult for the Chinese to consider abandoning it. From the grass roots to the highest level of the modern state, intellectuals, teachers, engineers, everyday citizens, eccentric inventors, duty-bound librarians, and language reformers embarked on one of the most extraordinary revolutions of the millennium in search of a solution. That is the subject of this book. The rude awakening of Western cannons firing at the gates; a teetering empire and the last throes of the imperialistic order; an urgency to modernize taken into overdrive by a new political ethos—all these shifts compelled the Chinese to embark on a parallel course: to get their language on the same footing as languages using the Western alphabet.

Bridging the chasm between two radically different scripts and systems of language seemed impossible at times, and the onus was mostly on the Chinese to modernize—or, what amounted to the same thing for most of the twentieth century, to westernize. The scale of the transformation was daunting. This important process lies at the core of China’s modern identity, but the burden of this assimilation may be hard to imagine for those who have not experienced it. Languages make worlds. Those who attempt to cross over into one that is different from their own often experience the same hesitation, doubt, and uncertainly China did as a nation. To gain entry into a language, one has to cross several thresholds.

Behind the grand narratives of great powers and national humiliation that occupy the contemporary understanding of China’s encounter with the West is a deeper entanglement of their script worlds. The Chinese have gone to extremes to develop and to become modern on their own terms. Key to this path was tapping into the global communications infrastructure, from telegraphy to typewriters and computers, built in the Roman alphabet’s image. In a dramatic series of language skirmishes and clever one-upmanships, of unexpected feats and crushing failures, Chinese and foreigners wrestled, struggled, and threw in their lot with the future of the Chinese script. At a time of major political and social upheavals inside and outside China, their words, ideas, and deeds exerted pressure on the center of history from the fringe. Across four centuries and spanning three continents, native speakers and foreigners alike have been engaged in a singular, shared pursuit: to crack the Chinese code in order to modernize its script. Behind every written character that can be learned and used today stands a group of human characters who went to extraordinary lengths to make sure that could happen. With no guidance other than their obsessive love for the Chinese language, their ambition opened up a world of discovery and revolution—and bold, perilous adventure.

© Jing Tsu from Kingdom of Characters: A Tale of Language, Obsession, and Genius in Modern China, Allen Lane, 2022

Kingdom of Characters: A Tale of Language, Obsession, and Genius in Modern China was shortlisted for the 2022 British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding.

Jing Tsu is the John M. Schiff Professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures & Comparative Literature at Yale, where she specialises in Chinese literature, history, culture, science and technology, and politics. She is a member of the Council on East Asian Studies at the MacMillan Centre for International and Area Studies and an affiliate faculty at the Jackson School of Global Affairs. A Guggenheim fellow, she has held fellowships and distinctions from Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton. She moved to the US from Taiwan at age nine, and now lives in New York City.

British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding shortlist event

Meet the authors shortlisted for the 2022 British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding at this special in person and online event organised in partnership with the London Review Bookshop. Join the six shortlisted authors for an exploration of urgent and globally significant topics. This event will be chaired by the award-winning journalist Rosie Goldsmith.

Sign up to our email newsletters