It’s Time to Get Over QWERTY — A Q&A with Tom Mullaney on Alphabets, Chinese Characters, and Computing

Jeffrey Wasserstrom inverviews Tom Mullaney

Last month, I was one of two speakers at a lunchtime event on China held at Microsoft’s main campus outside of Seattle. The audience seemed to like my talk on censorship and other issues just fine, but another presenter, Tom Mullaney, set the room buzzing with what he had to say about Chinese characters and typewriters, telegraph codes and computing.

Afterwards, I asked him to do this Q&A with me to share some of his ideas with a wider audience. Mullaney is a professor of history at Stanford University who wrote a widely praised first book on ethnic minorities in China. For the past decade, he has been conducting pioneering research on Chinese interactions with information technologies that depend on characters instead of alphabets. His research will be showcased in two books that will be published by MIT Press. The first will focus on the Chinese typewriter, a topic he has published on in venues ranging from leading academic journals such as Technology and Culture to blogs including the China Beat. The following book will be about computing, a topic that obviously had special interest for the Microsoft crowd.

An exhibition on Chinese typewriters he curated is running now at Stanford, and he has organized a conference on global computing that will take place on his campus this weekend.


JEFF WASSERSTROM: When we spoke at Microsoft, you stressed that many things about China’s current place in the IT world fly in the face of past conventional wisdom about characters and alphabets. What exactly did you have in mind?

TOM MULLANEY: When it comes to technologies of communication and the Chinese language, we live in a time that hardly anyone could have anticipated at the dawn of the 20th century. Not only are Chinese characters still with us — they are one of the fastest, most widespread, and successful languages of the digital age. More than ever before, Chinese is a world script, and China is an IT giant. This would shock the many people who, for the past two centuries, assumed that such an outcome was conceivable only if China got rid of character-based writing and went the route of wholesale alphabetization — which it did not. This outcome was not supposed to have been possible — and yet here we are. What did we miss?

You argued at Microsoft that once we get to computers, any notion that using Chinese characters rather than letters is a disadvantage gets exploded. Would you elaborate on this — and, for those who haven’t followed these issues, say a little about the long history of claims that using characters inevitably impedes adopting new technologies ?

This is a really important question, and one that comes up a lot when I give lectures and do consultations at tech companies like Google and Microsoft. In the Q&A to my Google Tech talk back in 2011 — “A Chinese Typewriter in Silicon Valley” — we spent a good two hours on this, in fact. This is also a major inspiration for the computing and conference this weekend at Stanford (Shift CTRL: New Perspectives on Computing and New Media).

Ever since the mass manufacture of typewriters began in the U.S. in the 19th century, engineers and entrepreneurs imagined a day when this new technology would conquer the Chinese language and open up a vast new market to Remington, Underwood, Olivetti, and more — just the way it had other languages and markets in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere.

It never did (for reasons I explain in my new book coming out soon from MIT Press), and yet the fantasy didn’t die. It was renewed in the age of computing and, by the 1990s, seemed to many to have come true: computers throughout China began to look “just like ours,” even including the familiar QWERTY keyboard, which today is ubiquitous in the Chinese-speaking world.

In the Western world, people began to assume that the Latin alphabet had finally “conquered” Chinese — just like they assumed it always would. But nothing could be further from the truth.

What actually did happen?

If anything, Chinese conquered the alphabet, not the other way around.

Let’s look closely at the QWERTY keyboard in China. When we do, we find that it’s not at all how one might expect. In the Western world — or really in the “Alphabetic World” — we use the computer keyboard in a dumb, what-you-type-is-what-you-get kind of way. In all but rare instances, we assume a one-to-one correspondence between the symbols on the keys we strike and the symbols that we want to appear on the screen. Press the button marked ‘Q’ and ‘Q’ appears. It’s just that simple.

And that’s not what happens with Chinese?

No. Chinese “input” uses the QWERTY keyboard in an entirely different manner. In China, the QWERTY keyboard is “smart,” in the sense that it makes full use of modern-day computer power to augment and accelerate the input process. First of all, the letters of the Latin alphabet are not used in the same limited way that we use them in the alphabetic world. In China, “Q” (the button) doesn’t necessarily equal “Q” (the letter). Instead, to press the buttons marked Q, W, E, R, T, Y (or otherwise) is, strictly speaking, a way to give instructions to a piece of software known as an “Input Method Editor” (IME), which runs quietly in the background on your computer, intercepts all your keystrokes, and uses them as guidelines to try and figure out which Chinese characters the user wants. Using the most popular IME around today — Sougou Pinyin — the moment I strike the letter Q, the system is off and running, trying to figure out what I want. With the first clue, the IME immediately starts showing me options or “candidates” in a pop-up menu that follows me along on screen — in this case, Chinese characters, names, or phrases whose phonetic value begins with Q, such as Qingdao or Qigong.

The moment I hit the second button — let’s say U — the IME immediately changes up its recommendations, now giving me only characters that have pronunciations starting with “Qu.” There is no set, standard way to manage this process, moreover. There are many IMEs on the market, and each IME has many customizable settings. Some IMEs don’t use phonetics at all, in fact, but instead use Latin letters to indicate certain shapes or structural properties of the Chinese characters you want. And on top of all of this, there are countless abbreviations and shortcuts you can use to speed up the process (e.g., typing “Beijing” will get you the capital of China, but so will “bjing,” “beij,” or simply “bj”). And then, of course, there is “predictive text,” which as I have shown elsewhere, was developed and popularized in China decades before it was in the West.

This is a history that really no one had looked at before, though I do see my research as in dialog with stimulating work that others have been doing on related subjects, such as China specialist Chris Reed and Japanese historian Raja Adal, in their cases on the history of Chinese publishing and of Japanese typewriters, respectively. It’s been quite exciting to introduce work on the Chinese typewriter to technologists, China scholars, and students alike. You mentioned the museum exhibit I curated and opened at Stanford — well, surprisingly, this is the first exhibit in history to be dedicated to modern Chinese information technology! That’s pretty amazing to think about, particularly when considering what an IT powerhouse China has become.

Is China then in a better position than most other countries when it comes to moving forward technologically in our information age? Or are there things that could lead to the advantages that characters can provide being squandered?

I think China is in a better position, yes. Chinese “Input” is arguably the future of IT — not only in China, but globally. As I put it just now, “input” takes far greater advantage of the QWERTY keyboard than conventional “typing” does in the alphabetic world, with our century-old what-you-type-is-what-you-get mentality. The QWERTY keyboard in China is a “smart keyboard”: a device used to oversee a rapid two-part process of finding and choosing characters from a database, using ever-faster and more sophisticated techniques. This “finding and choosing” aspect of modern Chinese IT is one of the most exciting and surprising discoveries I made in my research, in fact. Namely, modern-day Chinese computing owes a tremendous debt to the work of Chinese library scientists and others back in the 1920s through 1940s — figures like Du Dingyou, Chen Lifu, and others who never knew that the computer would be invented, of course, but who obsessed over the question of how to design faster and faster ways of organizing Chinese library card catalogs, phone books, and filing systems! Little could they have known that, decades later, major companies like IBM, Microsoft, Google, Apple, Sougou, and others would dust off their methods and turn them into the engine of China’s rise as an IT giant!

By contrast, the Latin alphabetic world has spent more than two centuries congratulating itself for “Our Glorious Alphabet,” and yet at the same time has done far less to explore and push the Latin alphabet to its fullest potential. In fact, Silicon Valley is having a really hard time now convincing average computer users in the West that the keyboard is in fact an obstacle — that it’s somehow broken and that average users need to start exploring more of the clever English-language input devices now available on the market — like the absolutely brilliant ShapeWriter system invented by my friend Shumin Zhai.

What do you see happening in the future where all this is concerned?

I keep wondering how the Valley expects Western computer users to react when they realize there’s so much more to the story than the myth our IT culture came of age believing: that the alphabet was the very pinnacle of human ingenuity, and that writing systems like Chinese paled by comparison. We are like children who grew up receiving trophies every day of our lives, being told by society that we are far more advanced than the neighbor kids — what kind of effect does that have after 200-plus years?

Sure, it might be possible for the Valley to convince “early adopters” of this need to experiment — technology enthusiasts who are always looking for the next thing, and scour Maker Fair and tech summits to try and find it — but for workaday computer users like you and me, Silicon Valley is now facing a major cultural problem — not with China, but actually with the “alphabetics” of the world. We are dismissing and resisting all kinds of technological possibilities that exist now for English, French, Russian, and other alphabetic languages, simply because we unconsciously subscribe to the powerful idea, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”

“Input” is a slightly tricky thing for people to understand in the alphabetic world, and so let’s close with a metaphor from electronic music: MIDI, or the Musical Instrument Digital Interface. With the advent of computer music in the 1960s, it became possible for musicians to play instruments that looked and felt like guitars, keyboard, flutes, and so forth but that — thanks to digital computing — produced the sound of drum kits, cellos, bagpipes, and more. Just as one can play a cello with a MIDI piano, a drum kit with a MIDI woodwind, or a piano with a MIDI guitar, everyday computer users in China today use QWERTY and the Latin alphabet to “play” Chinese.

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