Stanford Professor gives talk on ecologies of Chinese computing

On Tuesday, Feb. 7, Dr. Thomas S. Mullaney, Associate Professor of Chinese History at Stanford University, visited Carnegie Mellon University to discuss the history and development of Chinese computing, the topic of his upcoming book, The Chinese Typewriter. Mullaney specializes in the fields of East Asia, the History of Science, and Global History, and received his PhD from Columbia University. His works have been published in Journal of Asian Studies, The Atlantic, and the Los Angeles Times.

Invited to Pittsburgh by Carnegie Mellon’s Department of History, Mullaney presented his lecture, “The Ecologies of Chinese Computing.” He began by first explaining the fundamental difference between the characters of the Chinese language, and the letters of the Latin alphabet that dominate the Western world. There is no such thing as “typing” in Chinese. The language is written electronically by input, retrieving information from a database to print something on paper or on screen.

When Chinese linguists began to develop the Chinese typewriter in the early 20th century, Mullaney explained, they considered the basic idea of typing: what you type is what you get. In the 1940s, Lin Yutang, a Chinese linguist and inventor, introduced the concept of putting only the radicals that make up characters and several common characters on a keyboard because it is impossible to fit over 50,000 characters on a keyboard, compared to the 26 characters of the Latin alphabet. Instead, a typewriter would have a database of characters and parts of characters from which a writer would retrieve by pressing the keys.

Many different innovations have contributed to the progression of Chinese computing throughout the 20th century. One innovation Mullaney presented was predictive text, which placed characters next to each other that were commonly used together. For example, each of the characters in the name 'Mao Zedong' were spread apart on the keyboard, but through predictive text, were organized next to each other, which lends to quicker, more efficient typing. Another innovation was autocompletion, similar to today’s autocorrect. Because Chinese languages are not necessarily spelt, the concept of autocompletion is a retrieval mechanism. Not all of the parts of a character are needed to arrive at an unambiguous location in the character database to print the desired character.

Mullaney continued his argument by discussing the keyboard that the Chinese government developed in the closing years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). This keyboard had 256 keys, some with full-body characters, but mostly with bits and pieces of characters, bringing back Lin Yutang’s original ideas thirty years later. This keyboard was considered a medium-sized keyboard in comparison to the QWERTY keyboard used in the West.

To bring his lecture to the present day, Mullaney conceded that in the 1990s, the Chinese input system slowly began to look just like the QWERTY keyboard. However, he labeled this era as “a nervous system of Input Wars,” when hundreds of different input systems in China were competing with one another all while standardization was becoming more common. Most of these systems were structure-based systems, not the Pinyin system — the input of romanized Chinese characters by pronunciation that we see so commonly today. One structure-based system still prominent today is the Wubi input system, which is much faster and transcends specific dialect pronunciation.

Mullaney also explained other input systems, such as shaped-based retrieval, which assigned characters to a particular shape of Latin characters, and the Double-pinyin method, which used Latin letters as variables for different elements of Chinese pronunciation. Though they are not in use, these systems are a testament of the creativity of Chinese linguists in a globalized world dominated by Latin languages, especially English.

Despite the prevalent use of the Pinyin system, Mullaney stressed that we should not assume that the 'phoneticization' of characters is complete or concrete. On the contrary, he said, the capacity of structure-based systems such as Wubi is great, beginning with their efficiency.

At the end of his lecture, Mullaney challenged the audience to think about how Chinese computing has evolved, and how it will continue to evolve in the face of constant technological advancement. Mullaney’s upcoming book, The Chinese Typewriter, will be released in the summer of 2017.