Chinese typewriter, part 2

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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.]


  1. Breen said,

    April 17, 2011 @ 5:08 pm

    I've known for years a group of Anglican people who adopted as our special patron Bishop Samuel Schereschewsky, who spent many years typing a translation of the Bible into Wenli.

    I imagine that his typewriter might have been like the one you had the chance to use. Are you aware of any photos of the sort of machine he would have used?

  2. Apollo Wu said,

    April 17, 2011 @ 6:25 pm

    I was familiar with the Chinese typewriters and had many typist friends while working as a Chinese translator at the UN Headquarter in New York. The reversed image types and the sheer number of them made me feel sick and that I would never been able to use such a Chinese typewriter. I simply avoided thinking about Chinese typewriters and never asked my typist friends to disclose their experiences on learning and using them. Although modern Pinyin input approach has made the computer input of Chinese much easier, but I think the unwieldy Chinese writing system continues to bog down the Chinese intellectual efforts as if their minds are bounded by the cloth that used to bind Chinese women' s feet.

  3. Don Snow said,

    April 17, 2011 @ 7:21 pm

    My guess is that Schereschewsky wrote his Bible translation into Wenli (Classical Chinese) out by hand, and that it was then later type set. I'm fairly sure there weren't Chinese typewriters when he was doing his Bible translation.

    By the way, I also remember Chinese typewriters like those pictured above from my early years in Taiwan and mainland China, thought admit I never learned to use one.

  4. Rick Matz said,

    April 17, 2011 @ 7:44 pm

    Good grief! To use one of those things, you'd really have to mean it.

    Didn't Lin Yu Tang work on developing a Chinese language typewriter as well?

  5. julie lee said,

    April 17, 2011 @ 7:48 pm

    There is no Chinese dialect called Wenli, as far as I know. There is Wenyan or Wenyanwen, which means classical Chinese, or literary Chinese. I saw the Chinese typewriter being used by a secretary at National Taiwan University in the 1950s. It was very slow. I wondered how she could ever find a character on it.

  6. Chris Kern said,

    April 17, 2011 @ 7:49 pm

    This is the first time I've seen a picture of you — that's an awesome beard.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    April 17, 2011 @ 7:57 pm

    @Chris: The beard and mane were all shaved off on Friday, April 15, 2011. They had been growing for just a little over a year (from March 27, 2010) — the only time in my life I had ever seriously grown a beard. It wasn't a happy beard; rather it was a sad beard of penance and mourning.

  8. Ethan said,

    April 17, 2011 @ 9:06 pm

    But a great beard nonetheless. Very interesting article; I went to the Lin Yutang House when I was in Taipei a few years ago, and I have to say, they (unsurprisingly, I guess) made the typewriter sound a lot more viable when they introduced it.

  9. Ethan said,

    April 17, 2011 @ 9:20 pm

    P.S. Professor Mair: All the talk of input systems in Typewriter, Pt 1 made me look up 搜狗; unfortunately it's a Windows-only system, but while I was on their web site I stumbled across this gem: Among many other things, it offers charts of trending words and phrases. As you might expect, many of them are proper nouns – new movies and TV series – but there are also newly-created/popular words and phrases, like "伤不起" and "有木有." Thought it might be interesting to you and the visitors to this blog.

  10. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 17, 2011 @ 9:32 pm

    Interesting commentary. Tack så mycket! He says that the type is arranged so that all characters having to do with water, for example, are found in one row. Also that if you spill the type tray it takes several days to sort it out.

  11. Tom Mullaney said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 1:26 am

    Professor Mair's personal experience notwithstanding, for the dozens of inventors and investors, and the tens of thousands of proficient typists, the Chinese typewriter was no mere curiosity. Indeed, my current research reveals it to be one of the most misunderstood chapters in the history of modern information technology – and a key to understanding questions of language, technology, and modernity outside the Western world. (I'll also explain the title of the Tom Selleck movie.)

    Tom Mullaney
    Department of History
    Stanford University

  12. minus273 said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 3:47 am

    Why do we need Chinese typewriters after all? I measured once my handwriting speed, and it's like 10 characters per minute and still legible. (For those better trained in calligraphy than me, it could well have been beautiful)

  13. Victor Mair said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 7:15 am

    @ Tom Mullaney: I certainly do not think that the Chinese typewriter was a mere curiosity! Far from it, I believe that the history and nature of the Chinese typewriter are deeply revealing, and that is why I have devoted so much time to them. The comments of Apollo Wu and many others also need to be taken into account when one contemplates the ultimate significance of the Chinese typewriter.

    Several people have mentioned the Lin Yutang typewriter. This was the valiant, but vain, effort of one of China's greatest modern writers to marry the ancient Chinese script with modern information technology. Lin Yutang's typewriter was:

    1. enormously complex

    2. extremely expensive

    3. impractical

    plus it bankrupted him and never went into production.

    Important observations by Bob Bauer (note that Bob had indeed not only sensibly thought of arranging the font of his Chinese typewriter by pronunciation, he went ahead and did it!):


    Reading this makes me recall my own Chinese typewriter which I had bought for about US$100 here in Hong Kong in 1980. After carrying out the tedious, time-consuming task of rearranging all the lead type according to the pronunciations of the characters, I typed up my research questionaire and various other research instruments in conjunction with my Ph.D. research. In fall 1981 I packed up and shipped back to San Francisco this very heavy, cumbersome, and unwieldy machine in its own wooden crate, and then used it again in writing my Ph.D. dissertation.

    Just before I moved back over here in mid-1982 I put my Chinese typewriter in Jim Matisoff's office at UC-Berkeley where it remained for a while. At the time I thought it belonged in a museum, and I have no idea now where it finally ended up.

    I also remember when I was teaching at Wuhan University in 1984 that I saw Chinese typewriters being put to serious use in various offices around the university campus.
    Finally, as I recall, when we first met which was at a conference in Canada in 1986, you told me you had read my article "The Chinese typewriter and a phonetic rearrangement of the type tray" published in 1984 in the Journal of the Chinese Language Teachers' Association, XIX.2:129-143.

  14. Bruce Rusk said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 8:04 am

    A similar typewriter, one made in Japan, is on display at the Department of Asian Studies at Cornell. It is the machine Harold Shadick used to produce his Classical Chinese primer.

  15. June Teufel Dreyer said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 9:03 am

    The Journal of Asian Studies was published at U of Miami for some years in the early 1970s, and UM had a Chinese typewriter to aid in the editorial work. Someone showed me how to use it—great fun. But much, much nicer to have Chinese and Japanese software on my computer, available with a few keystrokes.

    I hate beards.

  16. Anthony said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 9:29 am

    @minus273 – The electric version, and quite possibly the manual version, would make producing carbon copies significantly easier. That seems to be about the only advantage I could see, unless the electric version has some sort of memory, so you could type stock phrases/addresses/etc over and over.

    On the other hand, organizing the type in what sounds to be the Chinese equivalent of QWERTY seems to limit its usefulness.

  17. Jackbishop said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 11:17 am

    I'm surprised that none of the devices pictured here have magnifying reticules — I'm sure familiar characters could be found almost by feel, but all the same it seems like making sure the correct tiny piece of type is in the target would be a terrible strain on the typist's eyes over time.

  18. Cyndy Ning said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

    Even though it was a sad beard, Victor, it was a handsome one. I'm glad it's been documented here for posterity.

    The typewriter seems excruciating. I think I would have preferred lining up and locking in individual characters on wooden blocks: that would at least have allowed bigger muscle movements!

  19. Graham Webster said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 6:19 pm


    The Sogou dictionary for Mac is built into the QIM system described here:

    I find it to be brilliant, but not fully compatible with OS X, so I keep the native input method for backup.

  20. Endymion Wilkinson said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 7:12 pm

    As to the arrangement of the characters on the Chinese typewriter, I suspect that the early machines (Dr Sheffield in Shandong [1888]) and the later production models at the Commercial Press in Shanghai (Zhou Houkun 周厚坤, 1915; also others in Tokyo at about this time) may have followed the system developed by William Gamble (1830–86; no relation to Sydney D. Gamble), the inventor of the electrotype process for Chinese matrices, who also conducted the first ever systematic frequency counts of Chinese characters. It would be interesting if others could correct my supposition regarding the arrangement of the characters on the early Chinese typewriters. You will recall that Gamble eventually arrived at a total of 6,000 different characters (subsequently, this was increased to 6,664). Leaving aside the 3,715 characters that occurred less than 25 times, he arranged the remaining 2,285 in 15 type-cases for compositors with the characters arranged in sets according to their frequency and Kangxi classifier. The type cases were stacked in front of the compositor like the keys and stops of an organ console, all within arm’s length, so they could be pulled out as needed. Less frequently used characters were arranged to the sides. The result was that composition could be done much more quickly than previously. This method of typesetting remained in use for the next 100 years.
    I recall visiting the typesetting room of the People’s Daily in 1965 and marveling at the speed with which the compositors selected the right character from the banked type-cases in front of them. One sign of the times was that the most common clichés, such as yi fen wei er 一分为二 (one splits into two), youhong youzhuan 又红又专 (both red and expert), Xue Lei Feng 學雷鋒 (Study Lei Feng), Nongye xue Dazhai 农业学大寨 (in agriculture learn from Dazhai), or Gongye xue Daqing 工业学大庆 (in industry learn from Daqing), were already set up, each in a single lump of leaden type and arrayed in a special tray in front of the compositor.

  21. Steven Daniels said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 7:39 pm

    @Professor Mair:

    I think organizing a Chinese typewriter by pronunciation makes a lot of sense. Did Professor Johnson rearrange the characters?

    I'd love to see pictures of the actual layout when the typewriter came out of the box.

    Did people use tables which listed what row/column a character was on? Or did you have to search for each character individually?

  22. Ethan said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 11:49 pm

    @Graham: I'm confused by a few parts of what you said. First, IS there a "Sogou dictionary for mac"? As far as I can tell, there isn't – if you've found it, definitely link me up. Second, QIM seems exactly the same as the hardware that came with my Mac when I bought it. My main issue is that 1) I don't know how to use Wubi, and it doesn't seem worth learning; and 2) ITABC doesn't allow the user to search for a character by tone marks, which makes things twice as time-consuming as they have to be. (Strangely, traditional Chinese text allows for search by tone marks… Unfortunately, I don't use traditional so much any more.)

  23. Mark S. said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 5:00 am

    When I visited Lin Yutang's house in Taipei last year I noticed that although Lin himself had invented a Chinese typewriter, when it came to adding Chinese characters to the manuscript of his dictionary he used a pencil. The rest of the entry was typed on a QWERTY manual typewriter.

  24. 小锣 said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 6:27 am

    Thanks for a fascinating post and a great MC Hammer video.

    On the theme of western pop culture and Chinese typing, I saw the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies in the late 1990s. Learning Chinese in the 2000s, I always expected to run into something like the keyboard shown at 9.08 of this clip but never did. I suspect it was made up for the film, but has anyone ever seen a keyboard like it?

  25. kareemoff said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 9:50 am

    "It wasn't a happy beard; rather it was a sad beard of penance and mourning." Well, this statement aroused my curiosity. In Islam, after someone's death men (relatives of dead) grow beard, which called "a sad beard of penance and mourning." But it's not religious duty also. I am Muslim and even i don't now the baseline of this. İt's somethig like 'tradition'.. (Yeah, why didn't i research it until this day?.. – talking to myself:)

    So, is there any religious duty or 'tradition' in Christianity like i stated above? (or.. how should i know.. are you a Muslim?:)

    I hope it's clear what i've tried to say/ask (with my poor English).

  26. Victor Mair said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 12:15 pm

    @小锣 When this film was made, there really were keyboards like that with radicals and other components of characters. You must remember that, since people began to try to input Chinese characters into computers, there have been thousands of different systems for doing so. What you see in the film is one such system.

    @kareemoff My beard just grew by itself; I didn't even think about it, except to know that it definitely was a sign of penance and mourning. After a year, the beard realized that it had been there long enough, so it came off.

  27. Ed said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

    one of my students (a native speaker of Mandarin) recently told me that while pinyin is most common among her generation, especially for brief input (texting, etc) that most people who do digital text input for a living in China use Big5 and find it to be the most efficient. was this statement true, and does it say something more about the input system or about generational differences?

  28. Derek said,

    April 26, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

    A slight digression on Japanese typewriters.
    As a student in Japan in the early 1970's, I found that computers (mainframes) used the Roman alphabet – perhaps Japanese words in Romaji, but neither Japanese alphabet (kana) nor of course characters (kanji). But the printers of the day were all formed-character printers, like a typewriter in that sense. Japanese typewriters looked then as shown in the pictures above.
    In the 1980's, visiting a patent law firm there, word-processors and dot-matrix printers had arrived, and a lot of material was "typed" to be printed by a dot-matrix printer in Japanese (kanji and kana). But the Japanese Patent Office (JPO) would not accept wrod-processed/dot-matrix printed material – I can only assume because the resolution of the time, 24-pin maybe, was not clear enough for complex kanji – so patent applications and such were all still typed on a classic typewriter. With the advent of laser printers, the JPO would accept word-processed material, and typewriting became unnecessary. I suspect the same is true in other fields; and of course all computers use laser printers. [Parenthetically, now the JPO accepts – indeed prefers – direct computer input].

  29. Tom Mullaney said,

    May 1, 2011 @ 12:37 am

    For those in the Bay Area, I would like to invite you to my upcoming talk on the Chinese typewriter. More information here:

  30. John Savard said,

    August 11, 2011 @ 7:26 am

    Lin Yutang's mechanical typewriter anticipated modern Chinese-character input methods, but because it was more expensive, sadly it was not a success on the market, and, in fact, the attempt to manufacture it was financially ruinous for the author.

    Around the same time, U.S. Patent 2,471,807 was issued to Yen Ti-Sheng for a slightly modified conventional typewriter which printed pseudo-characters with one of 62 radicals on the left-hand side, and Zhuyin Fuhao on the right-hand side.

    I've long thought that this principle would be applicable both to input methods and to script reform: retaining radicals in place of tone indication would at least allow transcription of character texts, and would allow nearly the simplicity of a pure phonetic system like Pinyin to be achieved while retaining a tie to traditional characters.

  31. Robert Pu said,

    February 6, 2012 @ 8:35 pm

    My father passed away almost 20 years ago and the time has come for me to dispose of his Chinese typewriter. It has been sitting in the basement and I am not even sure if it still works. Does anyone know of an institution or individual who would be interested in acquiring this machine? It is available to anyone who is willing to pay to have it crated and shipped from Vermont.

  32. Tom Mullaney said,

    March 4, 2012 @ 7:28 pm

    A recent talk on the Chinese typewriter:

  33. Tom Mullaney said,

    March 4, 2012 @ 7:29 pm

    Dear Robert, I would be very interested in speaking with you about your father's Chinese typewriter. If you are interested in speaking, I can be reached at tsmullaney [at] stanford [dot] edu. Sincerely, Tom Mullaney

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