Tom Mullaney's Off-Topic Reads

September 17th, 2017
Thomas S. Mullaney is Associate Professor of Chinese History at Stanford University and Founder and Director of Digital Humanities Asia (DHAsia) at Stanford University. He is the author of Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China and principal editor of Critical Han Studies: The History, Representation and Identity of China’s Majority.  Most recently, he curated and produced a museum exhibit – “Chinese in the Information Age” – which debuted at the Stanford East Asia Library in January 2016 and was widely featured in the Chinese- and English-language media, including the LA Times, The Atlantic, Sing Tao, World Journal, and more. The exhibit was quickly acquired by the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum, the Museum of Chinese in America (New York), Linda Hall Library, and the San Francisco International Airport museum (where it is being shown to more than 4,500,000 patrons until February 2018 at their Terminal 2 Exhibit Space). Tom Mullaney will discuss The Chinese Typewriter on Thursday 9/21, 6pm at the Co-op.

The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin
Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences, by Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star
The Oresteia
Black Skin, White Masks, by Frantz Fanon
Vermeer's Hat, by Timothy Brook
Generative Design, by Hartmut Bohnacker et al.
Book from the Ground, by Xu Bing

About The Chinese Typewriter: Chinese writing is character based, the one major world script that is neither alphabetic nor syllabic. Through the years, the Chinese written language encountered presumed alphabetic universalism in the form of Morse Code, Braille, stenography, Linotype, punch cards, word processing, and other systems developed with the Latin alphabet in mind. This book is about those encounters—in particular thousands of Chinese characters versus the typewriter and its QWERTY keyboard. Thomas Mullaney describes a fascinating series of experiments, prototypes, failures, and successes in the century-long quest for a workable Chinese typewriter. 

The earliest Chinese typewriters, Mullaney tells us, were figments of popular imagination, sensational accounts of twelve-foot keyboards with 5,000 keys. One of the first Chinese typewriters actually constructed was invented by a Christian missionary, who organized characters by common usage (but promoted the less-common characters for “Jesus" to the common usage level). Later came typewriters manufactured for use in Chinese offices, and typewriting schools that turned out trained “typewriter girls” and “typewriter boys.” Still later was the “Double Pigeon” typewriter produced by the Shanghai Calculator and Typewriter Factory, the typewriter of choice under Mao. Clerks and secretaries in this era experimented with alternative ways of organizing characters on their tray beds, inventing an input method that was the first instance of “predictive text.”  

Today, after more than a century of resistance against the alphabetic, not only have Chinese characters prevailed, they form the linguistic substrate of the vibrant world of Chinese information technology. The Chinese Typewriter, not just an “object history” but grappling with broad questions of technological change and global communication, shows how this happened.

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