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Cosmotechnics in the journey from Chinese Typewriter to Predictive Text.

By Helena Wee

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Linguistic technology in China has evolved from early woodblock printing-based moveable type, to the kind of predictive text seen in twenty-first century mobile phone technology. As Leroy-Gourhan Lăoshī said, technology is a lens through which we can examine changes in human civilisation and culture. (Leroy-Gourhan, 1943) One might say it is a form of Steigler Lăoshī’s epiphylogenetic memory, where the experiences of humans through history are stored and transmitted through technical objects. (Steigler, 1998) One such object is the Chinese typewriter. It exemplifies what Hui Lăoshī calls a moral cosmotechnics. This involves thinking of humans and the cosmos as being relationally mediated by technical objects. (Hui, 2016)

From the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth the Remington typewriter dominated the technolinguistic world. Each country had its own version with the keyboard modified slightly to fit their specific language. The Standard Typewriter Company who manufactured it wanted to make their product useable in all languages. Although it was fine with alphabetic script it could not handle the ancient character-based language, Chinese.

At the beginning of the twentieth century a technological information crisis was happening in China. Chinese characters were thought to be incompatible with technological modernity. Vietnamese and Turkish script had been reconfigured to fit standard typewriter models, and many thought the same would need to be done for Chinese. (Mullaney, 2012) Joseph Needham defended Chinese against against the notion that as a language it impeded the advancement of China’s science and technology, showing it was actually more efficient and expressive. Others thought Chinese characters should go altogether. A technological unconsciousness had occurred with regards to the limits of standard typewriter design. It was not because of any problem with the typewriter that it could not incorporate such an ancient and unwieldy language as Chinese. Chinese was just not modern enough. 

Over two centuries Chinese technolinguistic systems became more aligned with a moral, cosmological Dao. This helped foreground a variety of systems including dictionaries, braille, telegraphy, stenography, typesetting, typewriting and computing. The ch’i of these systems manifested with the help of ordinary workers, clerks and typists. By opening to the Dao and allowing themselves to act according to their natures, in a process of zi ran or letting things be, these workers developed a novel information infrastructure. Their experiments resulted in the modern Chinese typewriter, predictive text systems and many other differentiations of technical objects, tools or Qi; finite beings emerging in accordance with the infinite Dao.

With his Chinese colleagues “Mr Tsiang” and “Mr Cü” Presbyterian missionary William Gamble surveyed over 1.3 million characters in over four thousand pages of text, making a note each time a character appeared. He had come to Ningbo, south of Shanghai, to oversee the Presbyterian Mission Press. Through his work the “common usage” approach to Chinese technolinguistic modernity was born. He discovered that the most essential and frequently used characters numbered under six thousand, substantially reducing the size of the Chinese lexicon. (Mullaney, 2012)

As a missionary his work was motivated by his personal understanding of heaven through the heart or mind, xin; and the logic, reason or li to bring his calling into written form. The Gu Wen movement of the late Tang and Song dynasties was opposed to religion’s influence on writing. However their slogan ‘writing enlightens Dao’ here seems to be pertinent. It was Gamble Xiānshēng’s discovery of commonly used characters and their subsequent use in Chinese typewriter designs that helped start to re-establish the unity between Qi and Dao and reaffirm a moral cosmological order through the Qi of writing.

Zhou Houkun and Shu Zhendong invented the first commercially available typewriter which entered the market in 1910. Manufactured by the Shanghai-based Commercial Press company it was called the Shu Style Typewriter. Its’ rectangular tray bed held 2500 common usage characters, divided into high frequency and secondary frequency regions each arranged according to the Kangxi radical-stroke system. (Mullaney, 2017) As a manifestation of Qi it emerged through mediating and revealing Dao via the zi ran of historical technolinguistic experimentation. With the popularity of Western typewriters such as the Remington, a new form of typewriter was brought to the masses according to China’s distinct cosmology. A complex ecology of relations was being built, with sales to the Canadian Chinese Consultate and the Chinese Postal Service, echoing Descola Lăoshī’s ideas on human and non-human ecologies. (Descola, 2013) The Shu Style Typewriter was a new form of participation made according to a different cosmology. A new cosmotechnics. Other models followed including the Yu Binqi, the Japanese-built Wanneng and others based on the common usage approach.

In the 1930s, in the 1940s Lin Yutang came up with the Ming Kwai (Clear, Quick) typewriter. It was about the size of an English language typewriter, with a similar keyboard. It had 43 hidden rotating cylinders, and a viewfinder allowing users to select characters by radical, stroke and shape. (Mullaney, 2017) The rise of the Chinese Communist Party, who did not like patent rights, and the invention phonetic system Pinyin, made Lin Xiānshēng’s machine less commercially attractive and it was never mass produced. As an example of machinery triggering virtual form, or Ji Qi, in the specific Qi-Dao relations we are tracing, it is of interest in the development of predictive text. It’s action of pressing keys to reveal groups of characters was analogous to that used in mobile technologies. Lin Xiānshēng’s typewriter is an example of Simondon Lăoshī’s idea of transduction (Hui, 2016), or the progressive structural transformation of a system through internal resonances. It is one concretisation of a technological being whose functional specification is reconfigured in later mobile technologies.

Neo-Confucianist Song Yingxing’s, reformulation of the five elements meant only earth, metal and wood related to form. Fire and water were situated between form and ch’i. (Hui 2016) The transformation of formless ch’i to concrete form thus depended on combining these elements within different compositions; such as Maoism’s dynamic fire of rhetoric and its ambitious metal of the state. Typists experimented with their tray beds further refining the Chinese typewriter. In 1956 Zhang Jiying typed 4730 characters in one hour, just under eighty characters per minute. Forgoing conventional radical-stroke order he produced new arrangements of Chinese characters called natural language. Characters commonly used together, such as key names or Communist phrases, were placed next to each other in the tray bed. (Mullaney, 2012) The ‘reason of common’ sense had prevailed producing a union between Qi and Dao in the everyday life of typists. As Mou Zongsan said, the reason or ritual of li is not sufficient to set ch’i in movement, the primary force resides in the heart of xin, spirit of shen, and emotion of qing. (Hui 2016)

Abandoning the Kangxi radical-stroke method meant that characters could be reorganised in a body-centric way. Each typist re-organised the tray bed layout according to his or her body and memory. (Mullaney 2012) Leroi-Gourhan Lăoshī speaks of technics as a way of exteriorising memory and liberating organs. (Leroy-Gourhan, 1943) Through the everyday practice of typesetting and tinkering to improve typing efficiency, daily implementation of li led to improvement of the individual and the Maoist state. The typist’s continual reflection on his work enabled him to better know the Dao, to the benefit of all.

The subordination of Chinese character categorisation systems to systems designed around the body, had happened long ago with moveable type printing. In eighteenth century China Jin Jian, supervisor of the Imperial Printing Office, cut 150000 characters and duplicated 6000 commonly used characters to print 126 rare Chinese works. After frequency regions were set, Kangxi radical-stroke arrangement was implemented. As an early example of common usage character rack organisation, a new relationship between character position and body parts was born. (Mullaney, 2017)

In 1897 Devello Sheffield, a Presbyterian missionary working in Tongzhou, made the first Chinese Typewriter based on Gamble Xiānshēng’s common usage work and somatic organisation. All high frequecy characters could be reached from a static seated position. Sheffield Xiānshēng reduced the six thousand working vocabulary of Chinese scholars to 4662 commonly used characters, jettisoning the rest. His machine inscribed one character at a time, so only one copy of each was needed. The exceptions were repeated untabulated characters specific to missionary work. Three groups of characters (very common, common and less common) were created further reducing typists’ hand movements. (Mullaney, 2017)

Both Jian Xiānshēng and Sheffield Xiānshēng reconfigured the Chinese lexicon changing what Derrida Lăoshī called the subjectile of Dao. Zhang Xuecheng noted that the six ancient Chinese classical texts tell us only about the Dao at the time they were written. In order for us to inquire about the Dao of our own time, we have to look at our own societal conditions and complications arising from this. (Hui, 2016) Dao is enlightened by writing, so changes in the technics and therefore history of writing changed visibility of Dao.

The human typist could surround a space that previously had surrounded him. Although humans had invented this technical object we were also being ‘rewritten’ by it at the same time. As Heidegger Lăoshī might say, a Dasein (Heidegger, 2010) which was sedentary and dexterous within the milieu of the Chinese typewriter had been created. Further refinement of this Dasein would concentrate on the upper body, a new technosomatic domain of Chinese typewriting.

Mou Lăoshī’s critique of Dasein was Heidegger Lăoshī’s inability to show it could be finite, but also infinite at the same time. In contrast with Kant Lăoshī’s view that intellectual intuition was not possible for humans, Mou Lăoshī believed intellectual intuition to be analogous to xin or the heart (Hui, 2016), the ability to know heaven’s boundary and see beings as things-in-themselves rather than objects. This awareness of the infinite is present in the finite being, a simliar idea to Kant Lăoshī’s concept of the part-whole relation of the being.

In the 1920s, just as the typewriter came to market, many Chinese typing schools appeared in cities. Young men and women learnt how to meet the machine’s requirements, work around its limitations and utilise its capabilities. Companies promoted the idea of modern offices with young women typists (Mullaney, 2012), primordial echoes of Haraway Lăoshī’s cyborg (Haraway, 1991), adding to global gendered political narratives.

In alphabetic systems “blind typing” is possible. However Chinese typists relied heavily on sight and peripheral vision to refine their immediate future sense of the next character. 1950s Maoism brought in a decentralised community of typesetters who developed natural language arrangements of characters, dispensing with traditional radical-stroke organisation. Personal arrangements brought Chinese characters into greater accordance with their own bodies. (Mullaney, 2012) Wei Jin dynasty scholar Wang Bi speaks of four analogical pairs that exemplify Dao and Being or Dao and ch’i. One of these pairs is body-instrument. (Hui, 2016) Within the Chinese typewriter a trace of the Chinese typesetter remained.

What is evident is Leroi-Gourhan Lăoshī’s concept of a technical fact. Technical tendencies are universal propensities occurring in the techno-evolutionary process. A technical fact is a localised concretisation of this tendency with features particular to its milieu. (Leroy-Gourhan, 1943) Although the end result of Chinese typewriting was the same as that of European typewriting: printed text, the way each came about and was configured differed according to the local socio-geographic milieu.

Chinese typists constantly re-engineered their machines, their tray bed arrangements never remaining stable. Partly because of the impossibility of lexical comprehension using a common usage system, but also changing societal and cultural circumstances. The lesser used character “mao” was used more frequently during the 1930s and ‘50s due to its political significance. Special usage character sections appeared where two or more characters were put together, such as common two-character compounds and multi-character sequences like "the Republic of China" (Zhonghua minguo). (Mullaney 2017)

The Chinese typewriter was a technosomatic form caught up in the socio-political context of the Maoist era: a socio-technical assemblage, such as those described by Suchman Lăoshī. (Suchman, 2007) This affected the Dao and manifested in ever evolving arrangements of characters as manifested through the Qi of the typewriter. Ch’i was guided into forms that would not have occurred on their own. The different personalised tray beds of typists in Maoist era China were expressions of the dynamism and creativity of fire combined with the strength, persistence and ambition of metal. Qi had increased the number of technolinguistic combinations of these elementary forms.

The Communist Revolution of 1949 led to the sanction of popular knowledge, methodologies and epistemologies; with increased participation by non-elites in specialised fields. The Chinese language was radically reorganised to reflect common people’s phraseology. Ideological words such as “struggle” (douzheng) and other rhetoric was introduced, as well as language proletarianising epistomology.

The Chinese typewriter and its changing somatic relationship to its typist was what Bruno Latour would have called a quasi-object (Latour, 1993) mediating between the typist and the rhetoric of the era. Mou Lăoshī felt that the zhi ying or cognitive mind was needed for developing science and technology. In Imperial China the cosmic mind dominated. For modern scientific thought to be possible intellectual intuition had to be neutralised by self-negation through liangzhi: good conscience. Mou Lăoshī used a Buddhist expression to describe this: ‘one mind two aspects’. (Hui, 2016) Knowledge of the noumenon belongs to the cosmic mind, but knowledge of phenomena belongs to the cognitive mind. In Maoist China the influence of Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism was repressed and self-negation and development of a cognitive mind was more possible. Heidegger foresaw this stating that if communism came to China, it would become ‘free’ for technology. He regarded techne as making or praxis, a way of attaining excellence and virtue or arete. (Heidegger, 2010)

A few months after the formation of the People’s Republic Zhang Jiying reorganised his character rack through experimentation, achieving over 3000 characters per hour. Eventually he would do 4778 characters per hour, beating his own record. Zhang Xiānshēng’s ‘lianchuan’ series or chain modification of the natural language arrangement combined common characters such as names and phrases from Communist parlance. This pattern extended to his whole tray bed. Communist Party officials saw it as an opportunity to celebrate “model workers”. They demonstrated ingenuity to ordinary people, whilst also serving as a warning against complacency. (Mullaney 2012)

Using Zhang Xiānshēng’s principle of adjacency Wang Jialong extended the arrangement from a linear organisation into a two dimensional matrix of characters. The “New Typing Method” used the principle of ‘radiating compounds’. One character acted as the core with related characters radiating out from it. This opened up infinite possibilities for multi-character compounds. Systems emerged suited to each typists body reflective of political and social discourse including standard regularised Maoist phraseology. Esoteric personalised predictive-text tray beds ensured job security. Associative clusters of characters sped up typing, but were also mnemonics to remember locations. Typists engaged in ongoing, situated processes of ‘tinkering and making ad hoc arrangements’ and ‘reconfigurations’. (Mullaney, 2012) The more individuated tray beds became, the better one could embody the rote and repetitive phraseology of CCP discourse.

Experiments in natural language arrangements went as far as rearranging punctuation marks and numerals into predictive clusters. UNESCO and UN typists located punctuation marks next to associated characters. (Mullaney, 2012) Typists had created a conceptual and practical basis for predictive text or “autocompletion”; a “predictive turn” in Chinese information technology.

In the ancient Chinese text “Kao Gong Ji” or “A Study of Technics”, four elements are defined which together determine production: timing (determined by the heavens), energy (ch’i), material, and human. Even when all four are favourable technique is not a given, and must be learnt and improved. (Hui, 2016) The changes that occurred during the Maoist period when Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism were suppressed, allowed a cognitive mind to develop which led to refinement of the Chinese typewriter.

In Imperial China time was expressed seasonally, with wind and climate being indicators of political, social or intellectual activities. People thought of time as cycles or ‘you zou’: zou relates to a wagon wheel. As François Jullien said, there was no linear concept of time in China until the nineteenth century when China adopted the Japanese ‘between moments’ concept. The relationship between shí, occasions or moments, and shì, propensity, undermines the idealist tendency to think from the ‘I’ or to know, tending towards instead a transindividual relation with the outer world. This prevented China from forming concepts about Geometry, time and technics, unlike Greece. Watsuji Tetsuro of the Kyoto school thought the milieu of a population determined its character and their aesthetic judgement, or fudo, which ultimately affects their technological development. He characterised China and Japan’s fudo as misty and changeable, hiding the nature of beings, whereas Greece was sunny and bright allowing beings to be fully revealed. (Hui, 2016) After the communist victory of 1949 Mao Zedong ordered that the Gregorian calendar should be used, simultaneously putting China on the same technological time axis as Europe and America opening the door for modernisation to occur.

Between 1988-1989 there were attempts to produce a standardised predictive tray bed. The “reformed Chinese typewriter” used radiating compounds. Another project was an instruction manual conveying general principles and a blank tray bed which users filled themselves. (Mullaney 2012)

In the Maoist era there were many different personal technosomatic configurations leading to the same linguistic end of “newspeak”. Tray beds were physical manifestations of the interface mediating typists and discourse. The machines were extensions of their bodies into rhetoric, and rhetoric into their bodies; hybrid embodied cognitions. Well before the computer the technology of Chinese typewriting was a site of ongoing radical technolinguistic experimentation. It ushered the Chinese language into the age of modernity.

The advent of communism in China in 1949 brought modernisation without modernity. (Hui, 2016) Marxist philosopher and economist Yu Guangyuan translated “Dialectics of Nature” and extended the idea of humanist nature to social nature or second nature. During the Cultural Revolution, “Dialectics of Nature” was proclaimed as China’s guide to science and technology. In 1978 Deng Xiaoping came to power accelerating modernisation and economic reform, propelling China towards a socialist market economy.

As the Gu Wen movement stated: “writing enlightens the Dao”. Early internal resonances in Qi-Dao relations were indicative of a gradual transduction of the printed type system. The Chinese typewriter was a technical fact developing in parallel to the global technical tendency of alphabetic typewriters. Chinese technolinguistic experimentation during Maoism was only a small part of a longer history of human-machine co-construction within moveable type and typewriting. The suppression of religion during communism led to a self-negation through liangzhi or as Mou Lăoshī said ‘one mind two aspects’. This created a cognitive mind and the accelerated development of technolinguistic forms. The fire and metal of Maoism combined into a new sociotechnical assemblage or body-instrument, leading to the emergence of Chinese predictive text.

Image captions

Carved type for "Book from the Sky", Xu Bing (born 1955), Pearwood.

A newspaper cartoon making fun of a Chinese typewriter.

Lisa and her absurdist Chinese typewriter. From "The Simpsons", circa 2001.

A Chinese Typewriter from 1899.

Ming Kwai typewriter by Lin Yutang.

Ming Kwai typewriter keyboard.

Schematic of Lin Yutang’s Ming Kwai typewriter.

Maoist Chinese typist at his typewriter.

Young Chinese woman typing on her Chinese typewriter.

Double pigeon typewriter.

Shuang Ge Chinese typewriter.


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