Typing in Chinese

I am often asked how, given the fact that the Chinese language has no alphabet, one types in Chinese using a standard English qwerty keyboard. The answer, of course is that modern Chinese also uses a romanization system called Pinyin, which uses English letters to represent Chinese sounds. If you type a Pinyin word, a list of Chinese characters associated with that word appears. Select the correct one, and — viola! — you have typed a Chinese character.


It wasn’t always like that, of course. When I first went to China, computers and keyboards were not yet a part of everyday life (not even for Americans, if you can believe it), and Chinese typing was still done on machines pictured above. The typist would hunt for the desired character, use the contraption to grab it, move it to the paper, press it on the paper, then put it back in its proper place. As you can imagine, typing a document was a mind-numbingly laborious task.

Stanford University will be holding an exhibition on Chinese typewriters called The Chinese Typewriter: The Design and Science of East Asian Information Technology. It will run from January 20 to August 22, 2016 at the Lathrop East Asia Library. Here’s the description:

During the 19th and 20th centuries, groundbreaking information technologies like the telegraph, the typewriter, and the computer changed the world. All of these technologies were designed with the alphabet in mind, however, leaving open the question: what about China, Japan, and Korea? In this exhibition, the history of modern East Asian information technology is explored through artifacts from the personal collection of Professor Thomas S. Mullaney (History) and the Stanford East Asia Library. Opening Reception and Guest Lectures by Jidong Yang (EAL) and Thomas S. Mullaney (History) on Wednesday, January 20 at 5pm.


If you’re in the Bay Area, you might want to check it out. I’m almost tempted to fly out there to see it myself.

Image credit: Derek Fox, via Flickr and Stanford University

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