Theses Doctoral

Codes of Modernity: Infrastructures of Language and Chinese Scripts in an Age of Global Information Revolution

Kuzuoglu, Ulug

This dissertation explores the global history of Chinese script reforms—the effort to phoneticize Chinese language and/or simplify the writing system—from its inception in the 1890s to its demise in the 1980s. These reforms took place at the intersection of industrialization, colonialism, and new information technologies, such as alphabet-based telegraphy and breakthroughs in printing technologies. As these social and technological transformations put unprecedented pressure on knowledge management and the use of mental and clerical labor, many Chinese intellectuals claimed that learning Chinese characters consumed too much time and mental energy. Chinese script reforms, this dissertation argues, were an effort to increase speed in producing, transmitting, and accessing information, and thus meet the demands of the industrializing knowledge economy.
The industrializing knowledge economy that this dissertation explores was built on and sustained by a psychological understanding of the human subject as a knowledge machine, and it was part of a global moment in which the optimization of labor in knowledge production was a key concern for all modernizing economies. While Chinese intellectuals were inventing new signs of inscription, American behavioral psychologists, Soviet psycho-economists, and Central Asian and Ottoman technicians were all experimenting with new scripts in order to increase mental efficiency and productivity. This dissertation reveals the intimate connections between the Chinese and non-Chinese script engineering projects that were taking place synchronically across the world. The chapters of this work demonstrate for the first time, for instance, that the simplification of Chinese characters in the 1920s and 1930s was intimately connected to the discipline of behavioral psychology in the US. The first generation of Chinese psychologists employed the American psychologists’ methods to track eye movements, count word-frequencies, and statistically analyze the speed of reading, writing, and memorizing in order to simplify and “rationalize” the Chinese writing system in an effort to discipline and optimize mental labor. Other chapters explore the issue of mental and clerical optimization by finding the origins of the Chinese Latin Alphabet (CLA), the mother of pinyin, in hitherto unknown Eurasian connections. The CLA, the pages of this work shows, was the product of a transnational exchange that involved Ottoman and Transcaucasian typographers as well as Russian engineers and Chinese communists who sought efficiency in knowledge production through inventing new scripts. Situating the Chinese script reforms at this global intersection of psychology, economy, and linguistics, this dissertation examines the global connections and forces that turned the human subject into a knowledge worker who was cognitively managed through education, literacy, propaganda, and other measures of organizing information, all of which had the script at the center.
The search for efficiency and productivity—the core values of industrialism—lay at the heart of script reforms in China, but this search was inseparable from linguistic orders and political ambitions. Even if writing, transmitting, and learning a phonetic script could theoretically be easier and more efficient than the Chinese characters, the alphabet opened a veritable Pandora’s Box around the issue of selection: given the complex linguistic landscape in China, which speech was a phonetic script supposed to represent? There were myriad languages spoken throughout the empire and the subsequent nation-state, most of which were mutually incomprehensible. Mandarin as spoken in Beijing was different from that spoken in the south, and “topolects” or regional languages such as Min or Cantonese were to Mandarin what Romanian is to English. As a linguistic life-or-death issue, phonetic scripts stood for the infrastructural possibilities and limitations in the representation of speeches. Some scripts, such as Lao Naixuan’s phonetic script composed of more than a hundred signs, were capable of representing multiple Mandarin and non-Mandarin speeches; whereas others, such as Phonetic Symbols that only has thirty-seven syllabic signs, represented only one speech, i.e., Mandarin. Using Mandarin-oriented scripts to transcribe non-Mandarin speeches was like writing English with fifteen letters, hence the acrimonious disputes that fill the pages of this dissertation. Succinctly put, it was at the level of script invention that Chinese and non-Chinese actors engineered different infrastructures not only for laboring minds but also for the social world of Chinese languages. The history of information technologies and knowledge economy in China was thus inseparable from the world of speech and language, as each script offered a new potential to reassemble the written matter and the speaking mind in a different way.
“Codes of Modernity” thus conceptualizes the script itself as an infrastructural medium. A script was not merely a passive carrier of information, but an existential artifact. Building on an expanding literature on infrastructures, it endorses the observation that infrastructures, technologies, and the social world around them work in a recursive loop. An infrastructure is not just the physical object that permits the flow of information, goods, ideas, and people, but a sociotechnical product that enables the experience of culture, while imposing constrains on it at the same time. Like electricity grids, transportation systems, and sewage canals, the experience of scripts as infrastructures is the experience of thought worlds. After a long tradition of structuralism and poststructuralism that sought to understand the world through the semiotic prism of language, “Codes of Modernity” argues that it is time for an infrastructuralism that excavates the indispensable media that enable the production of language and thought.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Zelin, Madeleine
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 2, 2018