Chinese Logographs vs. the Latin Alphabet
In my series of posts on Islamic science (the point of which was to begin a discussion about political and intellectual climates that have been, in history, most conducive to scientific and technological progress), I made the following statement about the importance of the printing press to Europe’s scientific and industrial revolutions:
Europe industrialized first because Europeans figured out how to bring theoretical knowledge together and put it to work for material, practical ends . . . The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution were made possible by neither applied technology nor pure science but by a generative relationship between both, a relationship enabled in great part by the printing press and an increased circulation of ideas.
. . . Islamic science failed to systematize its knowledge across disciplines and never bridged what today we call the pure/applied science gap. It’s probably fair to suggest that this systematization never occurred because the Muslims lacked an adequate means of circulation. Seen in this light, the printing press was perhaps the most important pre-Enlightenment invention—whichever culture developed that first was bound to systematize its fragmented knowledge first.
It was pointed out to me that the Chinese had invented movable type printing much earlier than Gutenberg. Indeed, Bi Sheng invented the world’s first true printing press in 1040 AD (“true” in the sense that it used movable types instead of wood or ceramic blocks, both of which were fragile and/or re-produced whole pages instead of characters). In the 1200s, a similar press was invented in Korea. So why didn’t East Asia industrialize? Why didn’t the printing press lead to an increased circulation of ideas in the Orient? Surely, by the time Europe began to awaken from its slumber, the Chinese had likewise accumulated enough practical and theoretical knowledge to make modern science and technology possible. They had the knowledge; they had the press. What went wrong?
The printing press was never widely adopted in China or elsewhere in the Orient. One major reason it was never widely adopted is that printing with Chinese characters is exceedingly more difficult, cumbersome, and expensive than printing with the Latin alphabet. The former would have contained around 20,000 characters; the latter contains 26 letters. In other words, alphabetic writing systems lend themselves to movable-type printing; logographic systems do not.
In practice, a single font scheme for early European printing presses required about 100 characters. And according to this fellow from Utrecht University, by the middle of the sixteenth century, highly profitable printers were already ordering font schemes that had 100,000+ types (for various special characters, including a’s and b’s, et cet.). However, huge numbers of types could be produced in Europe because smaller sets (100 or so, as I said) had already been produced and found to be extremely profitable for the printer. Chinese printers never had a chance to experiment and test the market with small type sets; for them, movable type printing was a massive and expensive undertaking from the very beginning. Also, Gutenberg had invented, along with the printing press, a hand mould which made the production of type matrices extremely easy. No such method for creating Chinese types was ever invented, in part, I assume, because Chinese characters are just so much more intricate than Latinate letters.
Another problem for Chinese writing was (is) that their logographic system is open-ended. As Steven Fischer succinctly explains in A History of Writing:
Each new word in the language automatically requires a new grapheme in the system. In contrast, a ‘closed’ alphabetic system, like the one underlying the Latin script, can phonetically reproduce every new word with a very small inventory of letters.
Even if China had experienced something similar to the scientific revolution, it might have been difficult for printers to ‘keep up’ with the constant flow of new symbols coming from the scientists and their new words, each of which would require a new type. And without a method for creating new types quickly and inexpensively, it wasn’t exactly a safe economic bet for any Chinese entrepreneurs to go into printing.
According to the same scholar I linked earlier, printing was never widely adopted in the Islamic world for two very different reasons. First, printing in Arabic script was outright banned in the Ottoman Empire until the mid-1700s (minority groups, such as the Greeks or Armenians, could apparently print in their own scripts, but that practice never became widespread, either). Second, even after the ban, Islamic scholars were purists about their calligraphy. The Arabic writing system, like the Latin one, is an alphabet, containing only 28 letters and thus suited for movable type printing. However, Arabic letters ideally run together, in cursive fashion; for most of Islamic history, not writing the alphabet in cursive is considered a bastardization of the writing system. During the printing press’s first century, there was simply no way for printers to print without separating the letters. Well, fuck that! said the Islamists. We just won’t use printing presses, then.
The invention of the printing press made possible the increased circulation of ideas necessary for the scientific and technological revolution. However, had Europe’s writing systems not been alphabetic—had they been comprised of hundreds or thousands of characters instead of just 26—then printing would have been a much riskier economic undertaking, and we probably wouldn’t have seen an explosion of printing presses opening up all over Europe. Goodbye, circulation of ideas.
It goes without saying that, throughout history, no one in Europe or China met in synod to decide once and for all what their writing systems would be like. No one took votes on whether or not to adopt an alphabet, a syllabary, or a logographic system. From the neoreactionary perspective, however, the story of the European and Chinese writing systems—and their contributions, or lack thereof, to the adoption of print culture—provides an obvious lesson: cultural systems do matter when it comes to cultural advancement and enrichment. Not all cultures are equally equipped to advance. The East Asians had higher average IQs, but they didn’t have an alphabet. The difference between adopting an alphabet and adopting tens of thousands of individual symbols was, in part, the difference between who industrialized first.
Civilization is difficult, fragile. A million things have to go right for it to emerge and a million more have to go right for it to advance. It’s never just the one thing. Even writing systems matter.