On June 30, 2009, I wrote a post entitled "Chinese Typewriter". It's time now to do an update, because on March 9, 2011, I travelled to the University of Kansas to deliver the Wallace Johnson Memorial Lecture. So what do Wallace Johnson and the University of Kansas have to do with Chinese typewriters? It's simply that Wallace Johnson is the only Westerner I know who became proficient in the use of the kind of Chinese typewriter I wrote about in my 2009 post, and he happened to teach Chinese history at the University of Kansas from 1965 to 2007. I knew Wally Johnson because of his interest in Tang period law and because he received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania under Derk Bodde, who was a good friend of mine.
When I went to Lawrence, Kansas last month to deliver a lecture in memory of Wally, aside from various scholarly and collegial activities, I was privileged to see the original rules for basketball written by Dr. James Naismith, which had recently been purchased for $4.3 million on behalf of the University by an alumnus, and I was greatly honored to see Wally Johnson's Chinese typewriter. The typewriter is kept in the office of Vickie Fu Doll, Chinese and Korean Studies Librarian in the East Asian Library of the University. When I arrived at her office, Vickie had brought out the typewriter and its many parts. She had them all laid out on a large library table. Let me tell you: I was in Chinese typewriter heaven!
(You can see more pictures of me playing with Wally's fabulous toy here.)
Vickie told me that I was the first person to type with Wally's typewriter since 1982 and added, "I don't expect any others to use it very soon."
As you can see, the typewriter is extremely complicated and cumbersome. The main tray — which is like a typesetter's font of lead type — has about two thousand of the most frequent characters. Two thousand characters are not nearly enough for literary and scholarly purposes, so there are also a number of supplementary trays from which less frequent characters may be retrieved when necessary. What is even more intimidating about a Chinese typewriter is that the characters as seen by the typist are backwards and upside down! Add to this challenging orientation the fact that the pieces of type are tiny and all of a single metallic shade, it becomes a maddening task to find the right character. But that is not all, since there is also the problem of the principle (or lack thereof) upon which the characters are ordered in the tray. By radical? By total stroke count? Both of these methods would result in numerous characters under the same heading. By rough frequency? By telegraph code? Unfortunately, nobody seems to have thought to use the easiest and most user-friendly method of arranging the characters according to their pronunciation.
For all of the above reasons, using a Chinese typewriter was (and still is!) an excruciating experience. To give Language Log readers almost palpably visual evidence of what it is like to type with a Chinese typewriter, I here present a precious photograph of Wally working at his typewriter:
And another of Wally taking a short break in place:
I consider these photos (probably taken in the late 1970s) to be classics, since they vividly convey the suffering that is naturally associated with using a Chinese typewriter. Wally's body language speaks volumes. And you'll note that he had his tools and diagrams handy.
Wally used that machine to type a number of books, including one edited by my wife Li-ching and me, An Advanced Reader in Chinese Literature (1978; see the preface). He was assisted in the typing of this and three other readers by Violetta Wong and Stella Ting.
I shall close this post by mentioning that some of the most fabulous moves of M. C. Hammer have been characterized as the "Chinese Typewriter Dance". The reason for this is that the frantic lateral movements and the hopping up and down seem to mimic the motions of the operator of a Chinese typewriter as he slides the device that picks up the pieces of type and then slams them against the paper on the platen. Whoever named the dance moves was probably not thinking of this video, however:
Here's a more advanced, electric version of the Chinese typewriter in action (note the posture of the Japanese typist, which is somewhat reminiscent of Wally's in front of his typewriter).
There's also a Tom Selleck TV Pilot, entitled "The Chinese Typewriter" (1979), but I have no idea why it is called that.
Even though electronic devices have made it easier for typists to input Chinese characters nowadays, especially with Pinyin (romanization), the sheer complexity of the script ensures that anyone who types in Chinese will have plenty of Wallace Johnson moments.
[Thanks to Leslie von Holten, Vickie Fu Doll, Becky Schulte, Dee Johnson, Ben Zimmer, Mark Swofford, Linda Wu, Tammy Mair, Brendan O'Kane, and Stefan Krasowski. The photographs of Wallace Johnson with his Chinese typewriter are used with permission of the University Archives, University of Kansas.]