The Atlantic

Chinese Characters Are Futuristic and the Alphabet Is Old News

The QWERTY keyboard was once the envy of the world, but not anymore.
Source: Thomas Mullaney

On a bright fall morning at Stanford, Tom Mullaney is telling me what’s wrong with QWERTY keyboards. Mullaney is not a technologist, nor is he one of those Dvorak keyboard enthusiasts. He’s a historian of modern China and we’re perusing his exhibit of Chinese typewriters and keyboards, the curation of which has led Mullaney to the conclusion that China is rising ahead technologically while the West falls behind, clinging to its QWERTY keyboard.

Now this was and still is an unusual view because Chinese—with its 75,000 individual characters rather than an alphabet—had historically been the language considered incompatible with modern technology. How do you send a telegram or use a typewriter with all those characters? How do you even communicate with the modern world? If you’re a Cambridge-educated classicist enamored with the Greeks, you might just conclude Chinese script is “archaic.” Long live the alphabet.  

But, Mullaney argues, the invention

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