In November 1956 a typist in the central Chinese city of Luoyang accomplished an astonishing feat. Using a mechanical Chinese typewriter, the operator typed 4,730 characters in one hour, setting a new record just shy of eighty characters per minute.1 While seemingly unremarkable when considered within the more familiar context of QWERTY typewriting, the magnitude of the record becomes apparent when one considers the average speed of Chinese typists at the time: twenty to thirty characters per minute, making this accomplishment a two- to fourfold acceleration of the apparatus. The typist had achieved this record not by means of electrical automation or a new kind of typewriter, moreover, but simply by rearranging the Chinese characters on the machine’s interface. Moving away from a longstanding taxonomic practice by which Chinese dictionaries had been [End Page 777] organized since the late Qing dynasty (1644–1911), the typist in 1956— among many others in the Maoist period (1949–76)—reorganized the characters on their machines into natural-language clusters, designed to maximize the adjacency and proximity of those characters in the Chinese language that tended to go together in actual writing.
Newspapers in the opening decades of the People’s Republic of China (1949–present) were replete with stories of “model workers” in various industries, and such exuberant claims should not be accepted uncritically. In the case of the “model typist” from Luoyang, however, I will argue that the reports from 1956 were accurate, as evidenced by a diverse body of archival sources and material artifacts. The typist featured in this article was part of a broader community of largely anonymous typesetters and typists in the early Communist period who undertook a highly sophisticated, precomputing exploration of a linguistic technology that would later come to be known as “predictive text.”2
Above and beyond its significance as a fascinating and unexplored chapter within the history of information technology both inside and outside China, the history of typewriting in the Maoist period offers us a vantage point into the much broader, global history of a vast and complex Chinese information infrastructure developed during the modern period. Beginning in the early nineteenth century and persisting through the twentieth, China was enmeshed in a new global order not of its own design. During this anxiety-ridden era, Chinese reformers of multiple political persuasions engaged in a thoroughgoing, critical reevaluation of some of the most central features of Chinese civilization in an attempt to determine which ones could be transformed to ensure the country’s transition into this new global order more or less intact.3 Targets of criticism included the Confucian system of ethics, administrative-bureaucratic institutions, and the patriarchal family unit, among many others. Some of the most impassioned criticism was trained on the Chinese language. In a history that has been rather meticulously surveyed, numerous reformers regarded the abolition of Chinese characters as central to the broader abolition of what Vera Schwarcz has termed the “emotional and institutional bonds” and “habits of mind” of the past.4 For some, language was the very root of China’s problems. “In order to abolish Confucian thought,” Qian Xuantong wrote [End Page 778] famously, “first we must abolish Chinese characters. And if we wish to get rid of the average person’s childish, naïve, and barbaric ways of thinking, the need to abolish characters becomes even greater.”5 Either because of its grammatical, orthographic, or cultural features, Chinese was said to inhibit forms of cognition deemed essential to modernity. Critics operating in this tradition believed that humans were “by language possessed,” one might say, and that Chinese people had the misfortune of being possessed by one that was incompatible with modern thought.
As compared with this rather well-rehearsed history of cognition- and culture-centered criticism of the Chinese language, a second and arguably more significant line of criticism has remained largely unexamined. This line of criticism centered around the idea that Chinese script was fundamentally incompatible with the technological requirements of modernity, such as efficient systems of information organization, retrieval, duplication, and transmission. “Everyone knows that characters are hard to recognize, hard to remember, and hard to write...