Chinese Finds a Home in Digital Age! New exhibit traces the language’s techno journey

A full house listened attentively to a fascinating lecture by award-winning Stanford University history professor Thomas S. Mullaney, Feb. 21, at the Chinese Historical Society Archives Building in the Gaslamp Quarter of downtown San Diego. The lecture was part of the opening for the exhibit, “Radical Machines: Chinese in the Information Age,” on display through April 16, at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Extension of the museum, 328 J St.

“We are very excited because ours is the first museum in the country to show this exhibit to the public before it travels all around the world!” said Tiffany Wai-Ying Beres, executive director of the museum, who recently took over from retiring leader Alex Chuang. “This exhibit is highly important because this is the first time the history and significance of Chinese Information Technology (IT) has been examined in a scholarly manner.

“It was just the right combination of good luck, good fortune and good connections that brought the exhibit to our fair city.”

Tanya Aubin, the museum’s communications coordinator, added, “The exhibit is headed next to the SFO Airport Museum in San Francisco, followed by The Museum of Chinese in America in New York, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, before ending up in Beijing and Nanking.”

It consists of items from one of the world’s largest collections of materials pertaining to East Asian IT, encompassing artifacts and texts from the fields of Chinese, Japanese and Korean printing, telegraphy, typewriting and computing. Among the items on display is a pair of rare Chinese and Japanese typewriters, a 1980s Chinese word processor, an interactive Chinese character-generating computer, plus numerous books, pamphlets and posters.

Professor Mullaney introduced the exhibition by stating his purpose was to “explore how one of the oldest written languages in the world found its place in the 21st century digital world.”

“I want to demonstrate,” he continued, “how the currently popular and accepted history of IT development — which focuses on westerners such as Steve Jobs, founder of APPLE, and the like — is incomplete and erroneous because contributions from East Asia have been left out. In a nutshell, the evidence suggests that East Asians working on the development of a Chinese language typewriter made substantial contributions to IT that ended up influencing the development of the modern computer.

“My hope is that visitors will gain a deeper appreciation of the Chinese innovators who made the Chinese typewriter and word processor possible. These Chinese may have experienced a series of grand failures in developing a usable typewriter, but these failures added up to something highly significant.”

Mullaney went on to explain that 16 percent of the world’s population (about 1.2 billion people), speak Chinese, which is one of the six languages of the United Nations. Although there are many variants and dialects, the majority of speakers use “Standard Chinese,” based on the Beijing dialect.

Mullaney said Chinese is one of the world’s oldest languages, dating back over 3,000 years. Although spoken Chinese has changed quite a bit over the millennium, the written script has remained about the same. The first examples of written Chinese were found on divinatory “oracle bones,” dated to 1,250 BCE, during the Shang Dynasty. The first Chinese books, such as the “I Ching” or Book of Changes, were written during the Late Shang period.

Although the Chinese language has survived under changing conditions, people were very worried its days were numbered and it would become obsolete as humanity moved into the modern digital age. How could Chinese, a logographic form of writing with no alphabet and over 70,000 characters — and with a knowledge of at least 3,000 characters needed to read a daily newspaper — be fitted onto a keyboard for use with a computer, the Internet or cell phones?

Faced with this seemingly impossible dilemma, the Chinese got to work trying to construct such an instrument. The first Chinese typewriter, called the “Tong Xhi,” came to life in 1916. It was developed by Hou-Kun Chow, while he was studying at MIT. But it never made it into production. The second Chinese typewriter, the “Ming Kwai” or “Quick & Clear,” was built by Lin Yutang in 1946.

Wan Runnan of the Stone Typewriter Company in China developed the first usable word processor in 1984. Called the “MS2400,” it made his company one of the most successful Chinese businesses during the 1980s and 1990s.

According to Beres, “For the longest time, the idea of a Chinese typewriter was laughed at and seen as a metaphor for something that was ‘absurd, complex and backward,’ but the truth is that it’s now possible to input Chinese into a computer at a much faster rate than English — making you wonder where the future of computing just might go!”

IF YOU GO: “Radical Machines: Chinese in the Information Age,” runs through April 16 at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Extension of the Chinese Historical Society Archives Building, 328 J St. in downtown San Diego. Museum hours are 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $5, free to children. Group tours available, (619) 338-9888, e-mail or visit