Smarty Pants Podcast

Strokes of Genius

By Stephanie Bastek | January 21, 2022
Devello Zelotes Sheffield’s Chinese typewriter, which could handle 4,000 characters (from “A Chinese Typewriter” in the June 3, 1899 edition of Scientific American)
Devello Zelotes Sheffield’s Chinese typewriter, which could handle 4,000 characters (from “A Chinese Typewriter” in the June 3, 1899 edition of Scientific American)

Learning Chinese is intimidating: four tones, 3,000-odd characters or ideograms to carry on a basic conversation, a completely different orientation of words on the page … oh, and about a dozen languages classified as “Chinese” whose speakers wouldn’t understand one another. Becoming literate in any Chinese language was even more difficult at the turn of the 20th century than it is now. Then, no standard pronunciation system existed to get you started on the road to learning one of them. The story of how Mandarin won out—and how its tens of thousands of ideograms survived threats of colonization, simplification, and Romanization—is the subject of Kingdom of Characters by Jing Tsu, a professor of East Asian languages and literature at Yale. She joins us on the podcast to discuss the rebels, novelists, engineers, librarians, and fringe reformers who made modern Mandarin what it is today.

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Tune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek. Follow us on Twitter @TheAmScho or on Facebook.

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Have suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes! Our theme music was composed by Nathan Prillaman.

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