Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern

Riverhead. Jan. 2022. 336p. ISBN 9780735214729. $28. HIST
Of all the Chinese dialects why is Mandarin the official one? Why does mainland China use simplified characters and how were they developed? Tsu (East Asian languages and literatures, Yale Univ.; Sound and Script in Chinese Diaspora) answers these questions, and others, in this fascinating history of the Chinese language from 1900 to the present. While the term “character” in the title refers to the symbols used to write the Chinese language, it could also refer to all the colorful figures who appear in this history, including Du Dingyou, who saved 300,000 books from his university library from destruction during World War II, and Zhi Bingyi, who, while in a jail cell in 1968, saw an element in the components of Chinese characters that helped him to develop the coding method for computer processing. Other topics featured in Tsu’s comprehensive history include Romanization, Chinese typewriters, telegraphy, and library classification systems. The book is rounded out with illustrations of variants of characters from Hong Kong, mainland China, and Taiwan.
VERDICT Essential reading for anyone interested in Chinese language or modern Chinese history.
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