Drama Roll4 min read

Liz Carter reviews Tom Mullaney’s The Chinese Typewriter


Ever since the rise of personal computers in the 1980s, the typewriter has become an object of nostalgia, and commitment to one the mark of a luddite, ranging in likeability from Frank Navasky, the eccentric reporter in You’ve Got Mail (1998), to the Unabomber, who composed his letters on a Smith Corona. The Chinese typewriter, which has been even more displaced by modern word processing, is less well known, especially to those unfamiliar with the language and script.

Rather than a single machine or model, the Chinese typewriter is actually a category of machines, varying in size and shape, functions and features. They vary greatly – some have customizable character trays in which typists can determine their own layouts, while others do not. Some character trays are rectangular, others circular, still others cylindrical. All Chinese typewriters are bigger than the equivalent English models of their day, and some have levers in addition to keys.

At 418 pages – almost 100 of them notes and indices – Tom Mullaney’s The Chinese Typewriter delivers a sweeping, richly sourced history of what is essentially a battle of ideas played out during the 20th century. From the first imaginings of a Chinese typewriter to its many different conceptualizations and commercial models, the book weaves a narrative about the people behind the machines: engineers and educators, printers and ping pong champions.

The book begins by providing a primer on the Chinese script in the introduction – absolutely essential for any readers without a background in the subject – and traces the history of Chinese typewriters from initial debates and early prototypes through a series of innovations and reworkings, motivated by God and money, ideas about a Chinese identity and a love of the Chinese script. The development of the Chinese typewriter – of the many Chinese typewriters –  is a story that spans multiple world wars, China’s civil war, the rise and fall of governments and a century of incredible technological innovation.    

To make his point, Mullaney constructs a default attitude towards the Chinese typewriter, then lays out an argument in opposition to it. The problem is that most people don’t have any attitude at all towards the Chinese typewriter. Perhaps it’s easier to say “You’re wrong, and I’m right” than “You don’t think about this at all, but you should,” because with the latter, the strength of your argument rests entirely on your ability to entice the reader from where they stand, inert. (That is unless the mention of the Chinese typewriter brings to mind Lisa Simpson or MC Hammer – cultural references to the machine that many, myself included, may be unfamiliar with.) A broader audience might have been reached by tying in the history of the Chinese typewriter with modernism and capitalism more explicitly. After all, the fact that Chinese typing throughout most of the 20th century was slower and less efficient than typing in other languages was considered a crisis because of the prioritization of productivity over things less quantifiable.

Mullaney’s Chinese typewriter. (Ann Larie Valentine/Flickr)

Especially with a subject as unknown to readers as the Chinese typewriter, it can be difficult to keep things interesting while providing all of the necessary background information to make the narrative understandable. The book can occasionally fall just one step short of meeting readers where they are – the average reader is not some flavor of China specialist. China specialists have sparred over the book and the ideas espoused by its author, arguing that Mullaney’s framework obscures the challenges learners of the Chinese script continue to face, even with pinyin and other input systems. For example, using the Mac pinyin input system to type the word “typewriter” (dǎ zì jī 打字机), the user must pause after typing to manually select the second option provided. The first, the near-homophone  dǎ zìjǐ 打自己, means “to beat oneself.”

It is the focus on the granular – details about inventors’ personal affairs and technical specifications – rather than the broad strokes that shine in this volume. The unique historical focus of this book required that Mullaney build an eclectic archive from scratch, and the research for it took him all over the world, legwork reflected in volume’s thorough endnotes. The Chinese Typewriter is truly a contribution of knowledge that might otherwise have been lost to history, which is not something you can say about every history book.

I can’t help but feel Mullaney had other academics in mind when writing this book, as they are just the kind of people who would be interested in the intellectually labor intensive, unsung and often financially unrewarding struggles of people who dream of changing the world for the better, only to be thwarted repeatedly by circumstances beyond their control. I only hope that this book receives the attention it deserves. ∎

Thomas Mullaney, The Chinese Typewriter: A History (MIT Press, 2017). Feature image and photo of typewriter by Ann Larie Valentine and used under Creative Commons license.