On the trail of a Chinese typewriter
By JEFFREY WASSERSTROM
“How far is Irvine from the Huntington Library?”
This was the first question my friend Tom Mullaney, a fellow historian of modern China, asked me in 2012 when I invited him to come down from Stanford to speak at my campus. I initially found this curious, since the Huntington, which is about an hour up the freeway from me, has wonderful manuscript holdings, but few if any that deal with twentieth-century China; and while its gardens are world famous, Tom had never struck me as having more than a casual interest in plants. The mystery was soon resolved, however, when he explained that its collections happen to include one of the objects that had come to obsess him – Chinese typewriters.
In the end, he accepted my invitation. This meant Irvine faculty and graduate students were treated to a splendid talk on both the history of Chinese typewriters and common misconceptions about them (that they need to be gigantic devices with thousands of separate keys, one for each character, for example). This was half of a two-part symposium on China and global history that also included a presentation by me on the Chinese Boxer Crisis of 1899–1901. The highlight of his trip down south, though, came when we went up to the Huntington, where he gave the same basic talk but with a nice added twist: the curators were kind enough to bring their prize Chinese typewriter into the seminar room.
I think it’s safe to say that Tom is still obsessed with Chinese typewriters, objects he collects as well as studies, but it’s clearly an obsession that is not just draining his bank account but paying off in many ways. He has published articles on the topic, including one that makes a persuasive case for a version of predictive text having an impact in China well before it became important in the West. An interview I did with him for the Los Angeles Review of Books has recently drawn positive attention from the educational arm of National Geographic. His views on the pros as well as the cons of languages that rely on characters rather than alphabets have been spelt out in a commentary for the online edition of Foreign Policy magazine, which includes allusions to both Hegel and Lisa Simpson. MIT Press has accepted his book manuscript on the Chinese typewriter, while also agreeing to publish a sequel dealing with computers. In the latter, he will elaborate on his claim that, far from creating major obstacles to modernization as has often been asserted, using characters can be an advantage for a language in the digital age.
In addition to all this, his obsession has led to an exhibition that is currently up at Stanford’s East Asia Library, where I had a chance to see it earlier this month (it will soon travel to other sites). It is a modest-sized but richly varied exhibition, with two Chinese typewriters and a video loop showing documentary footage that illustrates how these machines are used (some allow users to combine commonly used elements to create characters, while others employ a retrieval system that allows the typist to select from a large pool of individualized full characters). Display cases provide not just information about and objects from China but also related materials associated with Japan and Korea. The exhibition also offers insights into the strategies that make communications systems originally developed with alphabets in mind work for characters. Visitors learn, for example, of a telegraphy system developed in 1871 which linked individual characters to unique four-digit numerals that could then be tapped out in Morse code; and of pinyin romanization-based techniques for rapidly inputting text on digital devices. On display is everything from early handbooks for Asian typists to a VHS box for a television movie entitled The Chinese Typewriter, which starred Tom Selleck and had nothing to do with the eponymous object.
It is interesting where obsessions can lead scholars, and to be honest I should note that, while I wanted to see Tom’s exhibition from the moment I heard about it, I’m not sure I would have if one of my own scholarly obsessions hadn’t come into play. While Tom’s finished his Chinese typewriter book, I’m still writing the one about the Boxer Crisis that was in its formative stages when he and I did our presentations in Irvine four years ago. The main reason I went up to Stanford earlier this month was to find out all I could about two students who attended that college in the 1890s, headed to Asia soon after graduating and marrying, and were swept up in that event, which began with an anti-Christian uprising and ended with an international invasion and then military occupation of North China. In the middle of 1900, these two young Americans feared for their lives, when they and other foreigners in Tianjin were held captive by a joint force of Qing Dynasty soldiers and Boxers – messianic militants who were called that in part because of their use of martial-arts techniques. The Stanford graduates and newlyweds, whose first names were Herbert and Lou, not only lived through the ordeal but went on to become occupants of the White House. For their last name was Hoover.
I knew that, among the many other things held at the Hoover Institution located on the Stanford campus, were, not surprisingly, some materials about the man for which it is named and his wife – the half of the couple whose experiences in China particularly intrigue me. I was not seeking a look at an object, but rather trying to learn more of the story behind an artefact that had come to exert a powerful hold on my imagination: a photo taken in 1900 that shows Lou Henry Hoover wearing a dark skirt, a white blouse and a cowboy hat, leaning against the giant wheel of a small mobile canon.
While there are some relevant materials about the Boxer Crisis in the Hoover Institution’s archive, the most interesting documents, such as an unpublished manuscript by Lou on her time in China, are held instead at the Hoover Presidential Library, which is in Iowa. I am now trying to figure out when I can make a trip there on what I’ve come to call my “Study the Boxers, See the World” tour. (Next stop: London, where I’ll be combining book launch events for The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China, a work I edited, with visits to archives with holdings relating to Lao She. A Beijing native best known in the West as the author of Rickshaw, Lao She taught at the precursor to SOAS in the 1920s, just over two decades after his father was killed by foreign soldiers who had come to China’s capital to suppress the Boxers.) I doubt my time in Iowa will include a side visit to anything as intriguing as Mullaney’s Chinese Typewriter exhibition. You never know, though, what you will find, or have an opportunity to do, while following a scholarly obsession.