Category Archives: China

Japanese Military Buddhist Chaplains

During one phase of his missionary career in Japan, my father worked with the pastor of Hiroshima Baptist Church, who had once been a Japanese military chaplain in Manchuria, a tidbit my father never revealed to me until much later in his life. It seemed highly unlikely that the pastor was a Christian at that time, and I had not been aware that Imperial Japan had Buddhist chaplains, but it certainly did, according to Brian Victoria in “The Emperor’s New Clothes: The Buddhist Military Chaplaincy in Imperial Japan and Contemporary America,Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies 2016(11):155-200. Here’s the abstract.

In twentieth century Japan, Buddhist military chaplains were present on the battlefield from as early as the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 and lasting up through the end of World War II. The focus of this article is less on the history of these chaplains than the manner in which they interpreted the Buddha Dharma so as to allow them and their sectarian sponsors to play this role. This is followed by a more detailed examination of the recent emergence of a Buddhist chaplaincy within the U.S. military, asking whether there are any similarities, especially doctrinally, between the military chaplaincy in the two nations.

The purpose of this examination is to identify issues related to those elements of Buddhist doctrine and practice that make the existence of a Buddhist chaplaincy both possible and, at the same time, problematic. Equally important, it reveals one facet or dimension of the manner in which institutional Buddhism has served the political and military interests of those countries in which it is present, and still does so.

The origins of the Buddhist chaplaincy in Japan go back to medieval times (pp. 160, 162):

As for actual Buddhist chaplains, one of the earliest progenitors of such figures is to be found in Japan. Japan is of particular significance because, as this article reveals, it was the Buddhist faith of Japanese-Americans that was primarily responsible for the creation of a Buddhist chaplaincy in the US military.

Japan’s Buddhist chaplains can be traced back to at least the fourteenth century. It was in 1333 that warriors loyal to Emperor Go-Daigo (1288-1339), whose political power had been usurped, revolted against the warrior-led government holding sway in Kamakura. As a result, itinerant Buddhist chaplains belonging to the Pure Land sect (J. Jōdo-shū) were assigned to warriors in the field in order to ensure that their patrons recited the name of Amida Buddha at least ten times at the time of death. In so doing, it was believed, the warrior’s rebirth in the Pure Land was assured.

As historian Sybil Thornton* notes, the activities of these chaplains quickly expanded beyond a purely religious function and they ended up burning, burying and praying for the dead, as well as caring for the sick and wounded. When their warrior patrons were not engaged in battle, the chaplains amused them with poetry and assumed a role close to that of a personal servant. Given that these chaplains appear to have been beholden to their patrons for food, clothing, and shelter, this latter role is hardly surprising.

* Sybil Thornton, “Buddhist Chaplains in the Field of Battle” in Buddhism in Practice, ed. Donald S. Lopez Jr. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995)

Given this historical background, it is not surprising that, in the modern era, Buddhist chaplains accompanied troops to the battlefield as early as the first Sino-Japanese war of 1894-5. The job was not only to give ‘morale-building’ talks to the soldiers, but also to conduct funerals for those who fell in battle, as well as notify relatives of the deceased in Japan itself. Even in times of peace, the need for chaplains was recognized, with the Nishi (West) Honganji branch of the True Pure Land Sect (Jōdo Shinshū), for example, dispatching forty-six priests to over forty military bases throughout Japan as early as 1902.

In the same year, Nishi Honganji produced a booklet entitled Bushidō as part of a series called “Lectures on Spirit” (Seishin Kōwa). The connection between the two events is clear in that Ōtani Kōen (1850-1903), an aristocrat and the branch’s administrative head, who both dispatched the military chaplains and contributed a forward to the booklet. Kōen explained that the booklet’s purpose was “to clarify the purpose of military evangelization.”

This little 豆知識 mame chishiki ‘bean of knowledge’ sprouted from the observation of a friend that the gravestones of early Korean immigrants to Hawai‘i seem rarely to show any religious insignia. The gravestones of Japanese immigrants, by contrast, often contain posthumous Buddhist names as well as occasional insignia that suggest what sect of Buddhism they adhered to. From what I can tell from online photos, South Korean military graves also contain no religious insignia, while some North Korean military graves contain red stars. However, the Korean Navy now has chaplains, presumably Buddhist as well as Christian.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, Japan, Korea, military, nationalism, religion, war

Angaur: Crucible of Pacific Arts

In researching the origins of modern Palauan music and dance, Jim Geselbracht has assembled many perspectives on the phosphate mine at Angaur, which seems to have served as a crucible where Pacific Islanders from Micronesia, Okinawa, Taiwan, and other parts of the Japanese Empire came together and learned from each other during their few precious leisure hours.

As I discussed in an earlier post, foreign workers who were brought to Palau to mine phosphate brought with them their music and dance, which in turn had a significant influence on the development of modern Palauan music.  This, I believe, was the “big bang” event in Palauan music, where it changed from chants with lyrics that were handed down from the gods (chelid) to modern, composed music (beches el chelitakl).  Let’s first explore the history of the mining operation in Angaur.

According to a USGS report [1]:

Mining of phosphate on Angaur begin in 1909 during German administration of the island and continued from 1914 to 1944 under Japanese administration.  Mechanized methods were introduced just before the start of World War II.  From June 1946 to June 1947 mining was carried out by an American contractor under the control of the US Navy.  Mining was resumed on June 30, 1949, by a Japanese company, the Phosphate Mining Co., Ltd. (Rinko Kaihatsu Kaisha).

The labor for the mining operation consisted of Palauan, Carolinian, Chamorran, Filipino and Chinese workers.  In a book on Micronesian development [2], David Hanlon describes the “troubled history” of phosphate mining on Angaur.  I’ve extracted a portion that describes the labor force used to mine the phosphate:

Begun in February 1909, the mining of phosphate and the environmental havoc it wreaked had quickly turned Angaur into the “hottest place in the Pacific.”  The construction of a railroad, drying plant, sawmill, loading dock, warehouses, thirty-two European residences and eleven workers’ dormitories further blighted a landscape already ravaged by the open-pit technique used to extract phosphate.  German overseers and mechanics drank excessively, fought each other, and openly defied their company supervisors.  The abuse of Carolinian and Chinese laborers brought to mine the island’s phosphate included low wages, frequent payment in the form of near worthless coupons rather than currency, forced purchases with these devalued coupons of overpriced goods in the mining company’s store, physical punishment and extended working hours.  By 1911, the situation had deteriorated so badly that German colonial officials elsewhere in the Carolines were refusing to assist in the recruitment of islander labor for Angaur.

Fr. Francis Hezel extends the story in his book Strangers in Their Own Land [4]:

As the German Phosphate Company made preparations to begin mining operations, the island population of 150 … were moved to a small reservation in the southeast corner of the island.  At first company officials intended to rely on Chinese labor for the Angaur mines, and they brought in eighty workers from Hong Kong.  The Chinese proved as troublesome to the German overseers on Angaur as they were on Nauru.  Dissatisfied with their working conditions and benefits, and insulted by the floggings they received, they killed a German employee and called a general strike during the first year of operations.  To provide “more complaisant material for the company than the Chinese”, the German government began recruiting Carolinians.  With the assistance of chiefs from Yap and its outer islands, a hundred men were sent to Angaur on a one-year labor contract; a second recruiting voyage produced another two hundred laborers, eighty of them from Palau and the rest from Yap.

Fr. Hezel continues:

In the evenings, during their few hours of leisure, they often entertained themselves by singing and dancing, thus passing on the stick dances, German marching dances and other stylized art forms that have come to be widespread in Micronesia today.

These dances are what are known as matamatong in Palau today.  By 1911, the initial 300 Carolinian laborers had doubled in size [4]:

the island now contained a polycultural community of 600:  a few dozen Germans, … Chinese, some Chamorros and Filipinos, and the five hundred Carolinians from various islands who worked there.

During Japanese time, the mining labor importation practices continued.  According to Hanlon [2]:

Japan’s later civilian colonial government assumed supervision of all phosphate mining on Angaur in 1927 and relied upon labor from the Marianas, Palau, Chuuk and Yap.  These island laborers were recruited by village chiefs or headmen who received a small bonus or fee as compensation for the loss of manpower from traditional activities.  Most of these laborers were drafted against their will for a year of “totally exhausting work.”

Hezel [4] describes the mix of workers on Angaur during Japanese times as a continuation of German times:

the 350 islanders at work in the mines … generally served year-long contracts and lived under slightly improved conditions … The mines had always drawn heavily on Yapese, who had the reputation of being the hardest workers in the territory, but their numbers fell off from 200 to 50 during the 1920s because of the serious population decline on the island. Chuukese were called on to provide a proportionately larger share of the labor force, at first under threat of imprisonment, but in time half-voluntarily as the allure of a salary grew among the people.

Virginia Luka describes the impact of the phophate-mining workers in Angaur in a paper written at the Southern Oregon University [3].  In it she cited the observations of Pedro [5]:

Foreign workers from places such as Guam, Saipan, Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Japan and China introduced new plants, animals, food, dancing, singing and lifestyles.  In Angaur they learned how to bake bread, sew, western dance and how to play some musical instruments such as the guitar, harmonica and accordion from the Saipanese.

Based on these accounts, the 300 to 600 Carolinian workers far out-numbered the local Angaur community of 150.  The Palauans observing and participating in the Carolinian dances likely led to the adoption of the matamatong as a Palauan dance.  Junko Konishi [dissertation in English available here] states that the word matamatong likely derives from Pohnpei [7]:

The term [matamatong] seems to have originated from the progressive form of the Pohnepeian word mwadong (mwadomwadong) meaning “to play, to take recreation” and dancing.

In fact, Junko relates that over 400 Pohnpeans were exiled to Palau in 1911 after the uprising in Sokehs and over 100 Pohnpean males were sent to Angaur to work in the mines [8].

However, Konishi developed a detailed explanation [8] of how the Marshall Islands were actually the birthplace of the marching dance, with diffusion of the dance in the early 1900s from the Marshalls to the Eastern Caroline Islands (including Pohnpei) and Nauru.  She states that:

Yapese and Palauan elders recount that Chuukese spread the marching dance in Angaur.

The matamatong dance was also picked up by Japanese settlers in Micronesia.  During the 2004 Festival of Pacific Arts, held in Palau, a Japanese dance group performed [6]:

… a dance style called Nanyo-Odori (South Seas Dance) [links go to Youtube videos of Bonin Islanders, the latter with subtitles in Japanese, with katakana for foreign words], presented as an adaption of the songs and dances from the Pacific brought back to the Ogasawaran islands of Japan by Japanese people who had sailed around the Pacific for trading … [and] lived in Micronesia during the period of Japanese occupation and control … The dance is an adaption of a Micronesian dance called the Matamatong … The dance, which was accompanied by songs in a mixture of Palauan, Japanese and English, is said to have been created in about 1914 at the end of the German era in Micronesia and continues to be popularly danced today.

A fascinating exchange [at the Festival of Pacific Arts] ensued between Palauans … and the Japanese performers, in which they compared the dance steps of the Nanyo-Odori with those of the Matamatong (as well as the words of the accompanying songs, some of which the Japanese did not understand).  A Palauan musician … Roland Tangelbad, noted that the Japanese still danced the old way, with a German soldier’s style of marching step (goose step) whereas the Palauans had since adapted theirs to the marching step of the US soldiers.

The impact of the Eastern Caroline Islanders among the Palauans went beyond the matamatong dance step [8]:

The Chuukese, who had a tradition of love songs, created many dances for love songs in Angaur during the Japanese colonial period.  And those songs, composed with lyrics in Japanese (which was the common language at that time), became popular among different island groups.

I witnessed both marching dances (call maas in Yapese) and stick dances during my fieldwork in Yap in the fall of 1974. One feature that defined both as “modern” was that men and women performed together in the same dance, and not separately as they did in traditional dances.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, economics, Germany, industry, Japan, labor, language, Micronesia, migration, military, music, Philippines, Taiwan

British Military Expansion, 1800s

From Britain at War with the Asante Nation, 1823–1900: “The White Man’s Grave” by Stephen Manning (Pen & Sword Books, 2021), Kindle pp. 16-18:

The truly massive expansion in the British Empire throughout Victoria’s long reign (1837–1901) saw British troops (‘The Soldiers of the Queen’) and naval personnel deployed across the world in such diverse countries as Russia, New Zealand, India, Canada, Egypt and South Africa, to name just a few. Such deployments were made to right a perceived wrong, to defeat a European foe, to stop a competing country securing spoils or simply to expand British prestige and power. On many such occasions British troops were placed in direct conflict with indigenous ethnic tribes or nations and the resulting military actions have become an important part of British colonial history, which some view with immense pride and others with shame or even disgust. Whatever personal views are held there is no doubting the immense bravery and fortitude of the British troops and equally these terms can be applied to their foes.

In most of the colonial wars of the Victorian age the British had a significant technology advantage in terms of weaponry over their enemies and this allowed them to achieve some crushing victories such as at the battles of Magdala (9 April 1868) and Omdurman (2 September 1898). Yet, there were occasions when despite this advantage the British were defeated, most famously at the Battle of Isandlwana (22 January 1879). When the British met defeat at the hands of an indigenous enemy such foes became respected and even achieved mythical status. This is certainly true of the British relationship with the Zulu nation, but it also applies to the Maoris of New Zealand, the Dervishes of Sudan and the Sikhs of Northern India. Less well known are the numerous conflicts that the British fought against the Asante nation in what is now modern-day Ghana in West Africa.

Whilst the Zulus did indeed inflict a crushing defeat upon the British at Isandlwana, a minor one at Intombi Drift (12 March 1879) and a more serious reversal as at the Battle of Hlobane (28 March 1879), the Asante nation was a thorn in the side of both British politicians and the military throughout the nineteenth century. Indeed, the casualties endured by the British in the various campaigns against the Asantes were comparable to those suffered during conflicts with the Zulus and the Dervishes. The Anglo-Zulu War lasted a mere seven months, although the unsatisfactory political settlement that was imposed by the British resulted in lesser conflicts which extended into the beginning of the twentieth century. By contrast, the Asante nation and the British were in both political and military conflict for over seventy years during the nineteenth century and three major wars resulted in which there were significant military reversals for the British. This volume is split into three separate parts to reflect and illustrate these wars, each of which possessed fascinating moments and challenges which are captured in this work. Whether this is the death of the British Governor, Sir Charles McCarthy, at the Battle of Nsamankow (22 January 1824), Sir Garnet Wolseley’s brilliant planned and orchestrated expedition of 1873–4, or the siege of the British fort at Kumasi in 1900, all offer a rich and engrossing history. Indeed, the 1900 siege tells a tale of bravery, fortitude and ineptitude that can stand alongside other more famous sieges of Victoria’s reign, such as Ladysmith and Peking. One particularly fascinating aspect of these three major wars is how the unsatisfactory settlements reached at the conclusion of each were the lifeblood for further conflicts.

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Britain, China, economics, migration, military, nationalism, New Zealand, South Asia, war

Soviet Campaign for Latin Scripts

From Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern, by Jing Tsu (Riverhead Books, 2022), Kindle pp. 188-192:

In 1921, twenty-two-year-old Qu Qiubai was dispatched by a Chinese news syndicate from Beijing to the Soviet Union with a mission to report on the post-Bolshevik regime. The journey would become a personal quest as well as a political pilgrimage for this rookie journalist with delicate features and a touch of melancholy. Qu unexpectedly met many compatriots on his way to Moscow, among them Chinese laborers and shopkeepers ensconced in the Far East cities of Irkutsk and Chita.

Qu was sent back to Russia in 1928 with many of his fellow Chinese Marxists to regroup under the tutelage of their Bolshevik brothers. By this time, the language question occupied the forefront of the Soviet Union’s policy toward its own national minorities. The newly unified Soviet Union included swaths of Central Asia that did not speak or read Russian. Among the groups in these regions that already had a written tradition, Arabic had been in use for almost a thousand years. Some of the national minorities in Turkic Central Asia had no script at all. Pacifying and assimilating these groups would require careful strategy from the Soviets. Reducing illiteracy with Latinized scripts became a key part of a general campaign to educate and control the population.

After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Central Asia Turkic republics began testing the Latin alphabet as a medium for their spoken languages. Many Turkic groups saw Arabic script as increasingly insufficient to meet the practical demands of modern life, much in the same way that Chinese reformers had viewed character writing as a disadvantage in the technological age. As a Soviet Tajik poet explained, the Latin alphabet flew at the speed of an airplane, while the Arabic script limped along like a weak donkey in pain. Others saw the conversion to Latin script as a matter of sharing in humanity’s survival, because written records provide continuity from the past into the present.

The Soviet Central Committee supported the Latinization of the Arabic script in pursuit of a multinational language policy. The idea was to give each group its own right to linguistic self-determination within the newly unified Soviet state. Fifty-two languages were targeted for conversion to Roman script and about seventy were eventually Latinized, spanning an area that stretched between Norway and Korea.

In truth, Latinization was also a way to divide and conquer. From the Russians’ perspective, Central Asia was about as savage and backward as a place could be—and they found its inhabitants difficult to tell apart. The Azerbaijanis were often referred to as the Tatars, Uzbeks as the Sarts, and Tajiks as the Uzbeks. If the Soviet East were to be brought to heel, the Russians thought, it would have to be purged of its Islamic influence. It was convenient to seize on the Arabic script as an object of backwardness in need of reform. And as long as the Turkic republics had their own separate writing systems—in Latin script, not the Turko-Persian Arabic that a few groups were already accustomed to—it would be harder for them to form a pan-Islamic alliance that could challenge Soviet rule. Only later, in the late 1930s, would language policy shift from Latinization to Cyrillization. Once these groups were sufficiently distant from their mother tongues, Russian control and influence could strengthen.

The Soviets were eager to include the Chinese laborers of the Amur region as a test group in their anti-illiteracy Latinization campaigns, hoping to extend their influence even further into Asia. These were the Chinese laborers whom Qu had met during his first trip to the Soviet Union. Their illiteracy rate was almost 100 percent.

The Soviet campaigns were instructive for the Chinese Communists, at the time young political upstarts. During his time in China serving the CCP, Qu had been immersed in Chinese language debates and consequently had a more informed perspective on language reforms when he returned to the Soviet Union. Yet Qu was not a trained linguist. He solicited the help of the Russian linguists Vsevolod S. Kolokolov and Aleksandr A. Dragunov. He drafted a proposal for the Latin New Script in February 1929 and distributed two hundred copies among Chinese workers. A revised version, with further input from Kolokolov, was published that October and reprinted again the year after with three thousand additional copies in distribution.

The Chinese laborers cheered the effort. Night schools opened to teach them how to recognize simple phrases like “boiled water” or “I sell dumplings,” as well as ideological questions like “To what class do poor people belong?” More than five thousand factory workers and peasants were able to read and write letters to their families by the time they graduated, thanks to the comrades who volunteered their time as instructors and administrators. Between 1931 and 1936, scores of Latin New Script textbooks and several literary works were circulated and taught. The demand was overwhelming. The language reformers could not train teachers or print textbooks fast enough. A weekly newspaper wholly printed in Latin New Script, Yngxu Sin Wenz (Support the New Alphabet), was published in Khabarovsk, with its forty-third issue appearing in late 1934.

Instruction in Latin New Script was touted as a hallmark event in an era of socialist brotherhood and mutual aid. The Soviets saw it as an opportunity to finally address the problem of illiteracy among the community of one hundred thousand Chinese laborers within their territory. As for the Chinese Marxists, they now had a linguistic instrument with which to reach their revolutionary goals: If the Chinese could read easily, they could be radicalized and converted to communism with the new script. For Qu, it was inevitable, even imperative, that Latinization would replace written characters. Unlike National Romanization, which was designed by a small coterie of academically minded intellectuals and based on fancy linguistic theories, he remarked, Latin New Script was a practical phonetic script that served every dialect and every class.

1 Comment

Filed under Central Asia, China, education, language, migration, USSR

Simplifying Chinese Characters

From Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern, by Jing Tsu (Riverhead Books, 2022), Kindle pp. 170-171, 174-175, 177-178:

Mao did not speak a word of Putonghua, the common speech derived from the northern-based Beijing Mandarin. Yet Mao went down in history as, among other things, the political figure who guided the Chinese language through its two greatest transformations in modern history. The first was character simplification, which would reduce the number of strokes in more than 2,200 Chinese characters. The second was the creation of pinyin, a standardized phonetic system using the Roman alphabet and based on the pronunciation of Putonghua (“pinyin” means “to piece together sound”). Mao would lead the country through these dramatic changes, but not by example; he would never get used to writing simplified characters in his lifetime, or even Roman letters. Following Mao, the Communists had fought and won a civil war in the name of the people—workers, peasants, and every member of the exploited underclass. At the founding of the PRC, more than 90 percent of the country was still illiterate and communicated in regional dialects. Romanization would be Mao’s way of delivering his promise to the people, and the people to their linguistic destiny. It would be a new bridge to learning Chinese characters, employed in aggressive anti-illiteracy campaigns. The Committee on Script Reform was appointed to orchestrate the effort.

While the Nationalists dawdled, the Communists took up the cause of simplification and made it their own. During the War of Resistance against the Japanese, they began to print simplified characters in the local newspapers that were circulated in the areas under their control. The use of these characters fanned out into the rest of the country after 1949. Simplified writing attracted more and more attention as discussions and debates grew. Eventually the Ministry of Education selected around five hundred simplified characters to be reviewed by experts and linguists. The task was handed over to the Committee on Script Reform for further investigation once it was established in 1952.

The committee completed the first draft of the official simplification scheme by late 1954. A list of 798 characters was formally introduced the following January to great enthusiasm. The Ministry of Education delivered three hundred thousand copies of the Preliminary Draft of Han Character Simplifications to various cultural organizations and educational institutions around the country for comment and feedback. More than two hundred thousand individuals weighed in with opinions. The Committee on Script Reform alone received more than five thousand letters. Up to 97 percent of those polled approved of the preliminary simplification scheme.

While there were reservations and objections to the simplified script—largely for cultural and aesthetic reasons—the rate of illiteracy began to decline under the twin implementation of character simplification and pinyin. By 1982, the literacy rate for people over age fifteen nationwide had risen to 65.5 percent, and it reached 96.8 percent in 2018.

Whatever support there was for character simplification among the Nationalists dwindled after 1949. After losing the mainland to the Communists and retreating to Taiwan, the Nationalists appointed themselves the true guardians of traditional culture and have kept the traditional written characters intact to this day. By distancing themselves from character simplification, they left room for the Communists to claim it as a central platform for New China.

The wounds of this contentious past are still fresh and reopen from time to time. The political weaponization of simplified scripts since 1949 on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, which divides mainland China from the proclaimed Republic of China in Taiwan, has only sharpened the differences between the old and new scripts. Proponents and opponents of simplification continue to hurl jabs and insults at one another. The character for “love” (愛 in traditional form and 爱 in simplified form) is a favorite example. The simplified version replaces the component for “heart” 心 with “friend” 友. What is love, the champions of traditional characters ask, with no heart? One online critic argues that “since the simplification of Han characters, one can no longer ‘see’ one’s ‘relatives’ (親 vs. 亲). . . . The ‘factories’ are ‘emptied’ (廠 vs. 厂 ), while ‘flour’ is missing ‘wheat’ (麵 vs. 面). ‘Transportation’ has no ‘cars’ (運 vs. 运). . . . ‘Flying’ is done on one ‘wing’ (飛 vs. 飞).”

Advocates of simplified characters, in turn, have come up with their own character tales to tell. They argue that simplified “love” is more expansive and modern, extending generously to friends and comrades rather than being narrowly guided by the selfish heart. Another case is “masses.” After some strokes were judiciously pruned away, the character is now composed entirely—and rightly—of “people” (眾 vs. 众). “To destroy” no longer has the superfluous radical of “water” (滅 vs. 灭), which served no semantic or phonetic purpose. And as for the character for “insect,” who wouldn’t want to avoid the creepy-crawly pests as much as possible? At least one is better than three (蟲 vs. 虫).

Leave a comment

Filed under China, democracy, education, labor, language, nationalism, philosophy

Early Chinese Telegraph Codes

From Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern, by Jing Tsu (Riverhead Books, 2022), Kindle pp. 91-92, 106-108, 110-111, 123-124:

In Morse code, the basic symbols were dots and dashes. The system’s twenty-six combinations of dots and dashes, ranging from one to four symbols, were meant to accommodate the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, with another ten combinations of five symbols each for numbers zero to nine.

To send a message, a telegraph operator pressed an electric switch, in the form of a key: a short tap for a dot and a long one for a dash. The message was converted into an electric current that traveled along the wires and was reverse translated into letters and numbers on the receiving end. The sound of clicking patterns could become so familiar that an experienced telegrapher could tell what word was being coded from its distinct rhythm. Telegraph costs were determined by how long they took to transmit—each dot or space was a single unit, and a dash—three times as long as a dot—was three units. As Morse explained early on, his system was designed to be cost-efficient. The most frequently used letter in English, “e,” was also the least expensive: It was represented by a single dot. The high frequency of “e” holds true for most European languages, from Italian to Dutch. But Morse code clearly favored the American English alphabet. An English letter takes up somewhere between one and thirteen units. To add even a single diacritical mark to the letter “a”—as when making the French “à”—required ten more units. So there was already plenty to disagree about among Roman alphabet users.

The inequities of Morse code were on a different scale for the Chinese. International telegraphy recognized only the Roman alphabet letters and Arabic numerals used by the majority of its members, which meant that Chinese, too, had to be mediated via letters and numbers. Whereas English could be English, and Italian mostly Italian, Chinese had to be something other than itself. Every Chinese character was transmitted as a string of four to six numbers, each of which cost more than a letter. The assigned code for a Chinese character first had to be looked up in a codebook before being converted to the dots and dashes of Morse code. Coding and converting Chinese characters into an ordinary telegram of twenty-five words required at least half an hour, whereas a comparable message in English took only about two minutes. Untold opportunity costs accrued with every telegraph that was delayed when the operator had to pause to check a character against its assigned number in a codebook or had to take extra time to correct an error.

[Septime Auguste] Viguier possessed the confidence and skill set that Great Northern [Telegraph Company (大北電報公司 / 大北电报公司 Dàběi Diànbào Gōngsī)] was looking for. He had already worked on developing a code for Chinese telegraphy years earlier for the French government in support of their failed efforts to interest the Chinese Empire in their telegraph cables. He was well versed in early word-copying machines like the Caselli pantelegraph, a precursor to the modern-day fax machine. When the French project was shelved, Viguier ended up in Shanghai—ripe for the Danes’ recruitment. He was the best candidate but not well-liked. Colleagues immediately noted his preening and boastfulness—the French way, they sneered. Viguier later also had a nasty exchange with the managing director Suenson, and his relationship with the company soured over questions of compensation and credit. Nonetheless, Viguier was able to work quickly enough to build out the Danish professor’s incomplete scheme. By June 1870, he had the first version. In 1872, he delivered the final, standardized telegraphic code table for 6,899 characters in The New Book for the Telegraph (Dianbao xinshu).

Viguier came up with a tabular form of twenty rows and ten columns per page. He assigned an arbitrary four-digit code from 0001 to 9999 to each character, with empty spaces left for potentially 3,000 more codes to accommodate customized vocabulary for individual business purposes. Each page contained 200 square spaces for listing 200 characters and their numerical codes. The code only included a relatively small number of characters out of the 45,000 or so that were extant. The mass scaling of telegraphy meant that it was geared toward the common person and the common tongue, so restricting the number of characters was not only efficient but also practical.

But Viguier’s telegraphic code did not go unchallenged. Almost immediately, the Chinese tried to outdo and improve upon it. A quiet young Chinese translator who had been part of that diplomatic mission to Europe in 1868, Zhang Deyi, became the first Chinese to do so. Zhang noted the pain of having to send Chinese messages back to the Chinese office in China in “foreign letters” whenever more urgent service was required. He also saw how Western telegrams were more secure, as secret messages were sent in numbers. That inspired Zhang to construct his own Chinese telegraphic codebook by following a similar format.

While the published version of Viguier’s work was an important landmark, Zhang zeroed in on its sloppiness. Viguier’s numbering of characters did not make them terribly easy to use for the Chinese. The continuous numbers did not separate out characters into groups, which was how the Chinese were accustomed to searching for characters in a dictionary. He decided to trim down the format of Viguier’s system and do some reorganization to make its content clearer. Zhang’s own New Method of Telegraphy (Dianxin xinfa) was published two years after Viguier came up with a draft of his telegraphic code in 1873. It reordered the characters so that the numbers were less arbitrary. Zhang used the same 214 radicals, but reselected about 7,000 characters from the Kangxi Dictionary and assigned them numbers from 0001 to 8000.

Westerners like Viguier had mapped Chinese onto numbers. Then the Chinese themselves had tried to use numbers to remap the alphabet. They kept bending the stick back and forth. Wang [Jingchun] was increasingly of the mind that one could put the Western alphabet in service of Chinese Romanization more permanently. He turned to Bopomofo, the Chinese phonetic alphabet approved at the 1913 National Language Unification Conference in Beijing, and its idea of an auxiliary phonetic alphabet formed from different styles and parts of Chinese characters. Working from this basis, Wang designed a use for Roman letters that was Latin in name but readapted to signal the three linguistic properties of Chinese characters: the phonetic representation of sound, tone, and the radical.

To indicate sound in his New Phonetic System, Wang mapped the sounds of Bopomofo—represented by symbols ㄅ, ㄆ, ㄇ, ㄈ, etc.—onto alphabet letters that shared similar starting consonant sounds. So ㄅ, ㄆ, ㄇ, ㄈ would match the letters “b,” “p,” “m,” and “f.” To show tone, Wang picked five letters to represent the five tones used in traditional and medieval phonology: “B” stands for the level or even tone; “P” marks the second or rising tone; “X” represents the third tone, which falls first then rises; “C” is fourth or falling tone; and “R” denotes the fifth or neutral tone. The last property, the radical, takes up two letters—a consonant and a vowel. Wang used two letters to spell the pronunciation of the radical part of the character only; e.g., tu for 土, li for 力, ko for 口, etc., in a way that was not dissimilar to what Wang Zhao had done with the Mandarin Alphabet. With one letter for sound, another letter for tone, and two more for phoneticizing the radical’s spelling, this system yielded a four-letter code for every character. The Chinese character could then be transmitted via telegraphy without using numbers at all. Wang’s idea took after other Romanization systems of the time, which were developed not for telegraphy per se, but to address the broader question of literacy. He borrowed from that conversation, run by linguists and ethnographers, to design a solution for what he had seen in the diplomatic arena.

During the year the Far Outliers spent in China in 1987-88, we had occasion to send a telegram to fellow teachers who were spending winter holidays in their hometown of Jingdezhen, famous for its pottery. They had written most of the text of the telegram and all we had to do was add the day and time when our train would arrive. So before we boarded the train for Jingdezhen, I handed the text of the telegram to a clerk at the telegraph office who proceeded to rewrite the message in a series of 4 digits for each Chinese character. It was very short and she had probably memorized some of the most frequent codes for ‘arrive’, ‘depart’, and dates and times, but it still looked like a tedious chore.

This interesting chapter includes a very misleading table, shown below. It shows American Morse code (also called Railroad Morse) that was standardized in 1844 and used by American railroads as late as the 1970s. Also called Morse landline code, its variable spacing and variable lengths did not travel well through undersea cables. Central Europeans used a modified code, the Hamburg alphabet, that evolved into the International Morse Code standardized in 1865. Working in the 1870s, Viguier and Zhang almost certainly used the international standard, the one where ‘SOS’ is rendered by the familiar dit dit dit dah dah dah dit dit dit.

Erroneous Morse Code


Leave a comment

Filed under China, economics, Europe, language, nationalism, North America, publishing, travel

First Chinese Typewriter Designs

From Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern, by Jing Tsu (Riverhead Books, 2022), Kindle pp. 64-69:

Zhou’s breakthrough was figuring out how to correlate the physical act of selecting and retrieving a character in a tray with the mechanical motion of preparing a character, etched onto a cylinder, to be inked and printed. The result was a single coordination of mechanical motions, optimally economized and completed by a human operator. In his article for The Chinese Students’ Monthly, Zhou documented the details of his typewriter and the technical challenges he had to overcome. He had known, of course, that he was not the first. There was Sheffield’s machine and an earlier Japanese prototype, both of which he acknowledged as having arrived at similar ideas independent of his endeavor. It was a respectful nod to those who came before him.

Just as he was preparing to publish his article, though, an unexpected challenger nearly derailed Zhou’s debut. Qi Xuan was a fellow Chinese student studying engineering at New York University. Unbeknownst to Zhou, Qi had been on a parallel track. Relying on a different set of principles for building his own Chinese typewriting machine, he figured out how to do what Zhou, Sheffield, and others thought was impossible: arrange the characters by parts.

In place of Zhou’s character grid, the keyboard of Qi’s machine had only three keys—a back spacer, a forward spacer, and one that selected the character. But Qi’s machine also relied on cylinders of type (two cylinders instead of Zhou’s four). The upper cylinder, with characters inscribed on paper, served as a guide. The lower cylinder, with corresponding characters engraved on a copper surface, made the actual impression. An operator would use a hand wheel to rotate the machine’s upper cylinder until the correct row appeared in a viewfinder on the front of the machine. Then three keys would be used to select the correct character from the row and lock the cylinders in position, aligning the corresponding character cast on the lower cylinder and stamping it on the page.

Though they looked very different, the underlying design and mechanisms of Zhou’s and Qi’s machines were very similar. And Qi’s handled 4,200 actual Chinese characters, just 200 more than Zhou’s core lexicon. Qi’s machine, however, was different in one very important respect: he had broken with the prevailing commitment to reproduce whole, complete characters. Of his 4,200 individual Chinese characters, 1,720 were in the form of character components, radicals, and their possible variant positions in a square space, which allowed his machine to generate, in theory, more versions out of the same parts. In three steps, using these keys, the operator could purportedly produce 50,000 combinations.

Operating his machine, Qi explained, was closer to spelling an English word than producing a Chinese character. If you treat radicals like groups of letters, you can play with different combinations the way you would in a word game. Let’s say you have three English words—“exist,” “expect,” and “submit.” You can generate more words by mixing and matching their parts to form new words like “sum,” “suspect,” “subsist,” “bit,” “mist,” “its,” and “sex.” Unlike modern English words, which have equal spacing for each letter and line up in a neat row, components and radicals can move around from character to character. In print they can occupy different quadrants of the square space that each character fills, which means their position, and consequently their size, can change. For example, the character for “fire,” 火, fills an entire square space when standing alone, but it becomes thinner when it is a radical put on the left of the character “braise,” shao 燒. In turn, it changes form altogether—into four flames—when placed at the bottom of the character for “hot,” re 熱. Qi accounted for possible variant positions like these by giving them separate engravings on the cylinders. Consequently, there are at least three options for “fire” to be combined with other components and thereby form a greater number of characters.

Qi challenged the idea that characters had to be individual, stand-alone units. He thought of them as more modular, like alphabet-based words, things that could be recycled to compose different characters. And once he started tinkering, some of the Kangxi radicals did not sit well with him. He took more liberties and slipped in a few radicals he had devised that he thought worked better. A bigger shift than Zhou’s was creeping in. Others would also start to ask whether exclusively using radicals for character classification still made sense.

For different reasons, Sheffield and Zhou both concluded that characters were the way they were for good reasons and preserving them was of the utmost importance. Qi’s scheme “looked well on the face of it,” Zhou cautioned, “but they forgot, that the same ‘radical’ in different characters differ [sic] not only in size but also in shape, and, furthermore, they occupy different positions in a character.” He named one example, the square-shaped radical meaning “mouth” 口, which shows up in the characters for “ancient” 古 and “cry” 哭 but in each its size and location are quite different. Consequently, one cannot use the same square for “mouth” in both cases, as they were designed to fit into different configurations. If the different sizes of 口 were forced together, they would create absurd-looking characters with overlapping strokes in all the wrong places.

Zhou’s design eventually won out.

Japanese modernizers had a much easier time adapting katakana for use in typewriters, semaphore, and telegraphy.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, economics, education, language, nationalism, U.S.

How Mandarin Became the Standard

From Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern, by Jing Tsu (Riverhead Books, 2022), Kindle pp. 37-39:

As for the best model of this everyday speech, each delegate [to the 1913 Commission on the Unification of Pronunciation] could only see the merits of his own spoken version. They all had a stake in promoting the dialectal or topolectal variant from their home provinces. The Guangdong delegates wanted Cantonese, while those from Sichuan fought hard for Sichuanese. The odds were stacked in favor of the southern speakers. Proportionally speaking, they had more representatives across similar dialect groups.

After the careful inspection of more than 6,500 samples collected from all over the country, factions emerged as the members moved to the more sensitive question of which geographical area would lead the standard pronunciation. Attendance dwindled as the deadlock persisted. It was not a contest for the fainthearted. Those with slightly weaker constitutions or who suffered from tuberculosis—a common affliction at the time—endured a few weeks of contentious lobbying before their health gave out. Some delegates fell ill from exhaustion and had to withdraw from the congress. Others spat up blood during the heated debates, unable to carry on after being cornered and humiliated by their opponents. Wang [Zhou] barely grunted through a violent flare-up of hemorrhoids from sitting for days on end. Blood, he later recalled proudly, soaked through his pants and trickled down to his ankles. Eventually, only the diehards remained.

One of the southern representatives made the appeal that no southerner could go about his business for a single day without using a particular inflection. To be a truly national pronunciation, then, his southern colleague argued, the standard had to bend toward the south. To prove his point, the man broke into an operatic demonstration. Wang had little patience for such theatrics. There was no way that the north, the seat of the nation’s capital, would cede to the south on the national tone question. Wang called a separate meeting less than half a mile away at the oldest Anglican church in Beijing. Inside those thick walls, under the famous three-tiered traditional pagoda bell tower sitting atop the sparse lines of Anglo-Saxon architecture, he carried out his mutiny. He instituted a new rule that carefully rearranged how the votes were counted. Each province would now cast only one vote, regardless of the number of delegates it sent. This maneuver didn’t just level the numerical advantage of the south, it transferred the advantage to the northern vernacular Mandarin-speaking provinces, which were greater in number. The other delegates protested when they found out what Wang had done on the sly, but it was too late.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, democracy, language, nationalism

Finding Chinese Character Sounds

From Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern, by Jing Tsu (Riverhead Books, 2022), Kindle pp. 25-26:

As part of a serious education, any learned Chinese down to Wang’s time [c. 1900] would have had to master the reverse-cut method for learning how to pronounce characters. Reverse-cut first appeared in the third century and remained in use until the early twentieth. Each Chinese character has a one-syllable sound associated with it, and all syllables have two parts: an “initial” (the consonant sound that begins a syllable) and a “final” (the rest of the syllable sound). For a guide, a novice would turn to a rhyme book, which functioned like a dictionary of pronunciation. In it, the sound of each listed character was “spelled out” by cutting together two more commonly used and familiar characters. One character’s initial sound was added to another’s final sound to indicate the pronunciation of the character in question. To pronounce the character for “east” 東 (dong), for instance, you would look up 東 in a rhyme book and it would tell you that the pronunciation is the initial of “virtue” 德 ([d]ek) combined with the final of “red” 紅 (h[ong]).

This technique used the phonetic parts of two known characters to sound out an unknown third character in the same way that (5 – 3) × (1 + 1) conveys the number 4. That’s a complicated way to arrive at 4 if all you want is the number.

The old reverse-cut phonetic system solved many problems—like accommodating the translation of the exotic sounds of Sanskrit when Mahayana Buddhism’s scriptures were introduced into China in the late seventh century—but now it had itself become the problem. It required years of rote memorization to learn and was no longer accurate—speech habits had drifted and evolved over time. “Virtue,” for example, is no longer pronounced as “dek” but as “de” in modern-day Chinese. Pronunciation also differed wildly between dialects.

The Chinese spelling system was woefully outdated. At the same time, the Western alphabet was viewed with suspicion in a climate of hostility to foreigners. A middle path had to be found. People like Wang [Zhao] realized there needed to be a system that acted like an alphabet for Chinese without simply using Roman letters.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, education, language

Chinese Orthographic Revolutionaries

From Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern, by Jing Tsu (Riverhead Books, 2022), Kindle pp. 24-25:

While working on his alphabet, Wang [Zhao] never strayed from the beliefs he had shared with the emperor back in 1898: China was losing its power because language was failing its people. Their low literacy and divided dialects impeded China’s ability to govern, negotiate with foreign powers, and keep pace with the outside world. China’s success as a nation and an international power hinged on the single issue of an accessible spoken and written language.

There had been others who shared Wang’s analysis of the problem, although they offered different answers to it. Lu Zhuangzhang, a Chinese Christian from Amoy (now Xiamen), developed the first phonetic system for a Chinese language by a Chinese. His 1892 Simple Script used fifty-five symbols, some of which were adapted from Roman letters to Chinese sound rules, to represent the southern dialect spoken in Amoy. Lu nearly went bankrupt in the process. Lu’s children would bemoan how he squandered the family’s livelihood financing his linguistic experiments.

Among those who followed in Lu’s footsteps was Cai Xiyong, an attaché to a Chinese diplomatic delegation to the United States. He developed his Quick Script for the major southern topolect group of Min, using a rapid writing system—a kind of shorthand—created by David Philip Lindsley. Shorthand, pioneered by Isaac Pitman for the English language in 1837, was a transcription system that used specially simplified notations to record phonemes, words, and phrases in real time.

The real innovator, many later thought, was Shen Xue, a brilliant medical student from Shanghai whose reputedly ingenious scheme, according to eyewitnesses, was originally written in English but has survived only as a preface printed by a Chinese journal. Shen devoted his life to propagating and offering free lessons on his Universal System at a local teahouse. He died a pauper at the tender age of twenty-eight.

Wang stood out from the rest in one important way: while he believed in giving people the power of literacy and the ability to connect with speakers of other dialects, he ultimately wanted to hold them to a single standard—Beijing Mandarin. He saw the critical importance of a unified language, and he was the first to propose Beijing Mandarin as the nation’s standard tongue. It would become the basis of the modern Mandarin, or Putonghua, that the Chinese speak today. For Wang, increasing literacy was only possible if one simultaneously created linguistic unity. To unite China’s hundreds of tongues with a single phonetic scheme would be like deconstructing China’s own Tower of Babel. Before Wang could tackle this problem, however, he had to contend with the native sound system that had been in place for centuries: a way of learning and teaching characters based on sounds called the reverse-cut method.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, education, language