Chinese Language in the Era of Information


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“Chinese characters are innocent,” said MIT-educated Chinese scholar Zhou Houkun in 1915 and quoted by the curators at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) as a radical introduction to an exhibition titled Radical Machines: Chinese in the Information Age. Set in the special exhibitions gallery, the exhibition is curated by Dr. Tom Mullaney from Stanford University. Exhibition materials range from archival documents, books, video clips, photographs, and the most eye-catching, rarely-seen vintage Chinese typewriters. Most of the items belong to Mullaney’s personal collection, which is “the largest Chinese and Pan-Asian typewriter and information and technology collection in the world” ( This collection was formed along with the development of Mullaney’s years of scholarship at the intersection of East Asian history, history of science and technology, and transnational/international affairs.

Shu Zhendong Chinese typewriter, c.1926

The radicalness, nurtured within the complex machines themselves, also sits in the nature of the Chinese language, together with many other languages from the East, being non alphabetical and thus having faced and still facing constraints in having a smooth merge with modern information technologies particularly on the end of inputting. This curatorial project as well as Mullaney’s research thus aim to be a unique introduction to this less known piece of history and a provocation to the Western dominance structured around information technologies.

Installation view, Radical Machines: Chinese in the Information Age

The exhibition was divided into multiple sections, drawing curious visitors first into an brief overview of the Chinese language, characters and phonetics, and the early history of printing press — Movable Type. Departing from there, since the base of written Chinese involves largely pictograph, morphing the characters into something more systematic emerged as one approach to “alphabetize” Chinese (see photo). On the other hand, the section titled Chinese Telegraphy introduces a second approach of assigning a combination of Latin letters to each of the commonly used characters. Traced back to 1870s, this method seems to be the starting point when the Chinese language was equated to English in order to adhere to the development of information technology and people’s communication needs.

Stroke-coded Characters
Telecoded Characters

Evolution of technology and shifting mode of communication have been increasingly intertwined. To answer the question of how communication defines social existence and shapes human development, exploring the history of communication technologies, from speech and language, writing, to printing press, gives us a developmental model to discuss Internet, as the agreed fourth one (McChesney, 69). The exhibition pretty much follows this itinerary when it takes visitors to explore the following two sections: Beyond QWERTY, The Typist in China.

Close up of keyboard on Stone Chinese Computer, c. 1990s

Beyond QWERTY exhibits several systems developed in history for inputting Chinese language, from the common word usage system, to later developed Wubi system, namely entering stroke-by-stroke. The section illustrates how information technology involves a large degree of customization due to the varying linguistic composition of languages. Therefore, learning how to type on a QWERTY keyboard becomes a less intuitive task for Chinese speakers. The Typist in China introduces the cultural history of learning to type using different methods, stroke-by-stroke Wubi or the phonetic method Pinyin. Echoing pieces of Western history, learning how to type, from textbooks and illustrations, became an appreciated skill for various professions. This is also very reminiscent for me as growing up in China, we also spent a good amount of time learning how to type and recently there’s also a discussion around that since Pinyin is easier to learn and few people can now use the Wubi method to type.

Chinese textbooks teaching typing, 1960s to 90s

Personally a highlight of this exhibition turned out to be a section in the back of the gallery, named Western Perceptions. Absolutely less discussed, this section, including historical Western views of Chinese information technology presented in the realm of media and entertainment, attends to the issue from a cultural perspective. One will find video clips of Lisa Simpson and James Bond perplexed by a Chinese keyboard, Nancy in the cartoon puzzled by a Chinese typewriter found in the city dump. These manifestations carry a strong racist overtone, mocking the Chinese language being non-systematic, irrational, and thus not modern enough to keep up with modern technology.

Lisa Simpson confronted with Chinese keyboard
The Chinese Typewriter, film, 1979

Obviously there’s issues around class and accessibility, but most often we perceive technology to be culturally neutral, or that technology even being a way to culturally collectivize human beings. Yet, Radical Machines tells us that technologies could also be racialized and the prejudice reflects what has been projected onto its users. Though framed under the umbrella ideas of language, information, and technology, the curators also sought to integrate “difficult heritage” — “pasts that are meaningful in the present but that are also contested and awkward for public reconciliation with a positive self-affirming contemporary identity” (MacDonald, 6) — into this exhibition. MacDonald in her research discusses that the task of tackling difficult heritage is indeed hard for museum and heritage institutions, in that on the one hand, museums, as public educational institutions with a sound voice, must take on the responsibility in addressing difficulty heritage, and gladly according to research observation, an increasing number of institutions are willing to do so (MacDonald, 16). On the other hand, how to address difficult heritage in a provoking yet equally inviting way always needs extensive discussion. MOCA has been an active participant in exhibiting difficult heritage: narratives in this particular section of Radical Machines resonate with those in the permanent exhibition next door, “Within a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America.”

Continuing with the socio-cultural perspective, the curator took this aspect to mark an end of this exhibition — “China is the world’s largest IT market? Isn’t it the time we knew it’s history?” Linking the past to present, Radical Machines: Chinese in the Information Age successfully raises the dialogue on information, language, and technology with a unique lens. To learn more on this topic, Dr. Tom Mullaney’s blog, though not updated in a while, has a handful of interesting articles.



MacDonald S. (2015). Is “difficult heritage” still difficult?. Museum International, 67, 6-22.

McChesney, R. W. (2013). How can the political economy of communication help us understand the Internet? In Digital disconnect: How capitalism is turning the Internet against democracy. New York: The New Press.

Museum of Chinese in America. (2018). Radical machines: Chinese in the information age. Retrieved from

Tour with METRO at BAM’s Hamm Archives

On September 14th, the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO) organized a tour, inviting professionals and students to look at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)’s Hamm Archives, located offsite in the neighborhood of Prospect Heights in Brooklyn.

View of BAM’s Hamm Archives     

After a roundtable introduction first by Davis Anderson, METRO’s Program Manager, and then by all attendees, Archives Manager Louie Fleck asked us to take a look at the archived materials that he pulled out and presented on the table. Each participant was asked to share a bit of our personal interest, whether archives, history, music or dance, and some questions about BAM or the archive, so that Louie could tailor the topics for the audience since there’s just so much to talk about.

A Table of Archived Materials

BAM opened its door in 1861, first located in an opera house in Brooklyn Heights then at the current address, neighbor to the Atlantic Barclays Center, after a tragic fire in 1903. Although there’s always been an archive within the organization, significant evolvement of the archives department took place within the last twenty plus years. Other than the 1903 fire which took away all records, another major damaging event to the archive was a flood in 1967. Since 1995, seeing the urgency of preserving the organization’s 157 years of history, BAM has done much investment in the archive, from applying grants for processing physical materials, adopting and refining a digital database, to promoting engagement with the archive to researchers and the general public.

According to Fleck, the largest and most important project the archive has taken on so far is the Harvey Lichtenstein Presidents’ Records. Lichtenstein served as the President and Executive Producer of BAM from 1967 to 1999. During the remarkable 32-year leadership, he integrated modern dance to be a renowned part of BAM, despite that it is namely a music institute. Figures such as Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, and Alvin Ailey have stopped by BAM for multiple seasons of production. The materials resulted from the span of years range from administrative records, presidents’ files, and production records. It is not exaggerating to say that records in this collection cast light on not only the entire history of that 32 years of BAM, but also the performance history of American modern dance and music.

Harvey Lichtenstein President Records
Harvey Lichtenstein President Records boxes
A Merce Cunningham Performance Program

Supported by a major grant from the Leon Levy Foundation, the archivists at BAM felt fortunate and honorable to preserve the history. Fleck suggested that the Lichtenstein Records is so far the best cataloged collection: best in terms of the amount of materials digitized and the use of standard acid-free archival materials for all physical records. Materials are cataloged on folder or box level, and majority of the records can now be accessed online with a search function.

After a thorough research, the archivists at BAM decided on Collective Access to be their main repository. Collective Access is a free open-source software targeting arts and cultural organizations. The software gives its user large amount of flexibility in customizing their own database structure and vocabularies, and this is a prominent feature that attracted BAM’s archivists to Collective Access, in that they could construct a system almost from scratch and every single aspect will be tailored to their own cataloging needs. In fact, as Fleck said, since neither of the two full-time staff could program, a major amount of grant money did go to the salary of a programmer who did extensive configurations to reach the current state of the database. In addition, Collective Access encourages hosting organizations to not only set the archived content open, but also make the already-customized system, the skeleton of the database, downloadable for other organizations. This is another feature that sounds favorable to the archivists. With this attribute, smaller organizations with diverse programming could obtain the same database that BAM uses, a fact that the archivists added to the grant application, with the idea of virtual collaboration through the sharing of database structure. “This just fabulous to us. We didn’t want something that just benefits us, but something we created that could be for all,” said Fleck proudly.

Screenshot of a Photograph on Collective Access

The tour continued with a deep dive into exploring Collective Access. Fleck demonstrated structure of the database by showing the program’s backend to us. Year-Season-Production/Special Events is the spine of the information hierarchy. Productions are then categorized according to genre of arts: music, musical, opera, dance, etc. Each production is assigned a 5-digit production ID that will be added to every item under the production as an identifier. Special  event includes artist talk, educational programs, fundraising galas and more. Fleck took an photograph item to show the differences yet between the backend and the online portal. At the backend, each photograph, other than basic information appearing on at front end such as title, date, photographer, subjects, and identifier, will also have size, a more detailed descriptive, special technique, and master status. As said, not all information is public yet, but researchers are encouraged to pay on-site visit to BAM’s archive, as many researchers have done so already.

Seeing the abundance of materials collected here while thinking about recent event such as the devastating fire wiping out the National Museum of Brazil, one archivist in the tour group asked about if BAM’s archive has sought to retrieve information lost in either the 1903 fire or the 1967 flood. Since a large number of materials are ephemera/promotional papers that highly likely have had numerous copies, by crowdsourcing or through other means, the archive may be able to recover the history bit by bit. Fleck agreed on crowdsourcing as a good approach though never done, and mentioned about the collaborations with other Brooklyn cultural institutions. BAM was able to locate relevant materials from the archives of both Brooklyn Historical Society and Brooklyn Public Library. Moreover, BAM’s archivists had a seminar with collections of Brooklyn Museum. The collaboration later resulted in the form of BAM borrowing materials from the museum, digitizing them, and returning the objects along with the images to the museum. On the other hand, for years in 20th century, BAM was under the umbrella organization – Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (BIAS) – which included three other institutions: Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and Brooklyn Children’s Museum. Through collaborating with these institutions for the archive of BIAS, BAM was also able to discover additional materials that speak to the organization’s history.

Bulletin of BIAS (Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences)

For an signature organization then and now like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, comprehensiveness of the preservation project not only benefits the organization itself but the larger arts community of Brooklyn, and of New York City. The brief tour at BAM’s Hamm Archives kindles various issues, from heritage preservation, digital construct of an archive, to inter-organizational collaboration. To learn more about the archive, please find it here: