Jing Tsu, Kingdom of Characters: A Tale of Language, Obsession, and Genius in Modern China – Allen Lane, January 2022 [paperback January 2023 – UK; USA]
China today is one of the world’s most powerful nations, yet just a century ago it was a crumbling empire with literacy reserved for the elite few, left behind in the wake of Western technology. In Kingdom of Characters, Jing Tsu shows that China’s most daunting challenge was a linguistic one: to make the formidable Chinese language – a 2,200-year-old writing system that was daunting to natives and foreigners alike – accessible to a globalized, digital world.
Kingdom of Characters follows the bold innovators who adapted the Chinese script – and the value-system it represents – to the technological advances that would shape the twentieth century and beyond, from the telegram to the typewriter to the smartphone. From the exiled reformer who risked death to advocate for Mandarin as a national language to the imprisoned computer engineer who devised input codes for Chinese characters on the lid of a teacup, generations of scholars, missionaries, librarians, politicians, inventors, nationalists and revolutionaries alike understood the urgency of their task and its world-shaping consequences.
With larger-than-life characters and a thrilling narrative, Kingdom of Characters offers an astonishingly original perspective on one of the twentieth century’s most dramatic transformations.