The Chinese Typewriter: A History

The Chinese Typewriter: A History by Thomas S. Mullaney was perhaps the most exhaustive research of its kind. An academic book of 321 pages printed in a tiny typeface with 64 pages of endnotes, The Chinese Typewriter was a slow read at first, given that Mullaney populated the first chapter with so much jargon. Academic reads tend to be repetitive–and this one was no different–yet so many new terms referred to again and again made a tiring read. Fortunately Mullaney elaborated on these terms–in painstaking detail–so by the end of the book I did not feel as if any of the material was beyond my comprehension or was addressed insufficiently. If he mentioned it, he covered it.

Mullaney started off with the myth of the football-field-size Chinese typewriter. Imagine a contraption with a keyboard so huge that you would need stairs to climb to the highest row. Chinese keyboards were never this big, in spite of the cartoonists who drew them to be as high as pyramids. The author described the earliest typewriter models and the methods each inventor used to input the language of ideograms onto paper. Mullaney gets into keyboards, of course, and we soon learn that some models of Chinese typewriters didn’t even have keys.

The mechanics and muscle memory of typing as we know it on an English keyboard–or any keyboard with letters on individual keys–is lost when compared with typing in Chinese. Mullaney covers these differences and you are left with “Oh yeah!” moments when you realize that you can’t do that in Chinese. For one, there is no blind typing in Chinese. When I learned typing in high school on a manual typewriter, we eventually grew to trust ourselves to type without looking at the keyboard or the typed page. By keeping our eyes solely on the manuscript that we were copying from, we discovered our typing speed would increase. This technique, blind typing, cannot be done in Chinese. The Chinese tray bed was too vast and required extreme precision in key selection. Even the fastest Chinese typist could never do this blindfolded.

Tray beds were customized by each typist. Chinese typists soon realized that in their jobs they would encounter certain words or phrases over and over. In PR China [1] official documents might refer repeatedly to “Chairman Mao” and “agricultural quotas”, for example. These two concepts would be composed of multiple ideograms, and it was convenient for the typist to arrange his or her own tray bed so that these ideograms were side-by-side. Mullaney revealed techniques for predictive text tray bed arrangement that cut down on ideogram search time. If one character was often used in combination with others to make multiple words, it helped to surround this character with the eight most common characters to ease the combination process. The author included tray bed organization maps provided with typewriter manuals which aided the typist to personalize his or her own machine.

Typists had to learn when to apply extra pressure to certain keys. Some ideograms–like the one designating “one”, as a perfect example–could not be struck with force for fear of causing damage:

“Each time the typist depressed the selection lever, the force of each type act had to be finely attuned to the weight of each character, a measurement that corresponded directly to the character’s stroke count. Should one type the single-stroke (and thus lighter) character yi (一 “one”) with the same force as the sixteen-stroke (and thus heavier) character long (龍 “dragon”), one would quite likely puncture the typing or carbon paper and have to begin the document anew. To type long with the same force as yi, however, would result in a faint, illegible registration (also making it ill-suited for carbon-paper copying).”

In North America and Europe, typists and office jobs were often the domain of women. In China, gender disparity still put women in the majority but at a smaller percentage. About a third of the typing workforce in China were men.

Just when the pièce de résistance typewriter model, the MingKwai, appeared in the late forties, its moment in the spotlight faded. Once the People’s Republic was established–and when PR China decided to send its soldiers to Korea to battle the UN forces in the south–then American and western European support in manufacturing evaporated. During the time Mao was in power, the typewriter became an instrument of disseminating propaganda.

My praise to Mullaney for never stooping to use the ghastly theythem or their when referring to singular persons. He always used his or her, etc., and did so with style to make the text flow smoothly. It was a pleasure to read singular pronouns when referring to singular people.

Mullaney had opened his book with cartoons and jokes about the colossal size of Chinese typewriters, and as typewriters evolved into computers, the jokes moved into the information age. In spite of the limitless world of virtual automation where even keyboards can be projected onto a flat surface by beams of light, people are still stuck on the idea of a clunky, clumsy, burdensome mechanical Chinese keyboard–even for computers. He ended his book with this observation, which I believe can also apply to the present:

“As we continue our examination of Chinese and global information technology in the age of computing and new media, then, one of our biggest challenges remains: to liberate our imaginations from a past that never actually existed.”

[1] Before the Communist Revolution I refer to both mainland China and the island of Taiwan collectively as China. After 1949 I make a distinction between mainland China, the People’s Republic of China or PR China, which is not the same as China, or the Republic of China, which occupies the island of Taiwan.

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