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.

26 responses

  1. spandrell

    Your points stands, but,

    Each new word in the language automatically requires a new grapheme in the system.

    Is such an ignorant pile of crap. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. 95% of new words in China are coined from existing lexemes.

    New characters have only been coined for chemical elements, because it aids in calculations. One element, one character. The rest of modern vocabulary all uses existing characters.

    July 11, 2013 at 11:03 pm

    • Thanks for the clarification. I have absolutely no knowledge of Chinese, written or spoken, and Fischer is an expert in Polynesian languages, so I do take his anyalses of other writing systems with a grain of salt.

      However, I think he was speaking historically, and I’m pretty sure he’s correct that the number of characters has at least doubled since the 1100s. And then there’s this:

      It seems to indicate there were around 46,000 characters in 1716, and there are more today, yes? I’ll defer to your expertise on that.

      When new words are added, do they use written characters that already exist? Or do they combine characters and/or create variants of them? Because even combinations or variants of existing characters would still mean needing to create new movable types.

      July 12, 2013 at 12:36 pm

      • spandrell

        Noh, the Kangxi is authoritative precisely because it was more thorough in looking for old characters.

        Of the 46.000 characters, 40.000 are misspellings, obsolete words, regional variants or dialectal words, obscure to all but dictionary compilers.

        Everyone gets around with 4-5k characters. Maybe classical poets know up to 10.000.

        With standardization of the vernacular, people get with way less characters than with classical. Not to mention simplified characters.

        New words are invariably coined by combining existing characters.
        Say internet:


        Mutual-connection-net. All very old and basic concepts.

        Lightning – brain.

        As you correctly guess, new characters would be an enormous hassle for everyone involved. Which is why there haven’t been any new characters in a thousand years.

        July 12, 2013 at 7:14 pm

      • anon

        “I have absolutely no knowledge of Chinese, written or spoken”

        ahahahahahhahaha you don’t say

        August 21, 2014 at 8:47 am

    • Anonymous

      Exactly the point I want to make. However, classic text did use a single character as distinct entities. It’s a relatively recent movement to write Chinese the same way as it is spoken, i.e. with words consisting of multiple characters.

      June 18, 2015 at 7:06 am

  2. jamesd127

    The Chinese invented cannon, the compass, and the ocean going sailing ship.

    Their sailing ships failed to cross any oceans, and a few hundred years after they invented cannon, their cannons were more dangerous to those firing them, than those being fired upon.

    You cannot blame the decline in cannon on the lack of a printing press.

    They could have built a printing press, and they could have built better cannon. What was stopping them from building adequate cannons was what was stopping them from building a printing press.

    A few hundred years

    Seems to me that what went wrong with China was exemplif

    July 12, 2013 at 1:51 am

    • Looks like you’re comment got cut off right at the important part! I’d love to hear the conclusion.

      But I’d agree with Nick Land. I’m not saying that their failure at building successful ships and canons was caused directly by the lack of a printing press. I’m saying that the lack of a printing press meant that ideas (including communication about failures, what did or did not work for various things) simply had no way of getting around quickly, widely, and in large numbers. The Reformation would have come about very differently, I think, if only a few dozen copies of Luther’s works had been made as compared to a few thousand.

      July 12, 2013 at 12:41 pm

  3. “You cannot blame the decline in cannon on the lack of a printing press.” — Can we be completely confident about that?
    If a deep cultural obstacle to the emergence of a digital infosphere — in its widest sense — occupies a central place among China’s difficulties in adapting to modernity, wouldn’t we expect it to be reflected quite generally, in a whole range of seemingly unrelated competence problems? It would, for instance, impede the development of a ‘best-practice’ culture everywhere, by massively retarding the dissemination of information, while allowing low status lessons (of a mundane, technical and pragmatic nature), to be easily extinguished.

    July 12, 2013 at 5:01 am

    • This is @ both Nick and Spandrell:

      How has Chinese writing changed or not changed to meet the demands of a digital, high-information society? And how the heck do the characters work on a computer keyboard or an iPhone?

      July 12, 2013 at 12:50 pm

      • Two things:
        (a) A complex history of ‘Romanization’ (i.e. parallel digitization), consummated in Pinyin. Every character is accompanied by an alphabetic equivalent, which can be used to interlock conveniently with whatever type of electronic language system is needed.
        (b) The electronics has solved the traditional problems from the other side, becoming so sophisticated that the old ‘Chinese typewriter’ difficulties have been laid to rest.

        Retrospectively, its clear that this topic belongs to a long but closed epoch,stretching from the origin of printing to advanced information technology. It’s hard to know how it would have worked out if China’s idiographic culture had needed to tackle it on its own — an intriguing but insoluble counter-factual. What’s certainly true is that the West, with its alphabetic script, was hugely advantaged throughout the first half-millennium of digitization, but once the electronic infosphere had consolidated (very recently) this advantage quickly dissolved towards insignificance.

        (PS. Spandrell is vastly more competent at the linguistic details — but I don’t think the basic narrative is very controversial)

        July 12, 2013 at 3:19 pm

  4. Nyk

    There is still another puzzle left; why didn’t the Koreans take off after they got their hands on both the printing press and a phonetic writing system?

    July 12, 2013 at 5:14 am

    • spandrell

      They ditched the womanly alphabet and stuck to the awesome chinese writing.
      Only when Japan invaded was Hangul popularized.

      July 12, 2013 at 7:37 am

      • Chinese writing is awesome. Aesthetically, it has a lot more merit than an alphabet. And I’m sure that, by now, the Chinese have figured out how to make it more functional, as well.

        July 12, 2013 at 12:49 pm

  5. Jefferson

    Nyk asked the question I was thinking (and Spandrell answered it), but I wonder if it isn’t the efficiency of a language (and its grammar) that matters more than its portability. It’s always struck me that Germanic languages lead to more innovation than Romance languages, for example, in spite of nearly identical alphabets.

    July 12, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    • What do you mean by “more innovation”?

      Both languages and writing systems will evolve to handle what its speakers need them to handle. Of course, certain languages/writing systems will make it easier to handle some things than will others.

      July 12, 2013 at 1:51 pm

  6. Jefferson

    Maybe it’s just the limits of my knowledge of history, but it seems like much of the scientific innovation that’s happened in the past ~500 years has been done by people who speak English or German. Languages can evolve, to an extent, but some just seem incapable of evolving to a point where they can do certain things. To use an example in my comfort zone, Arabic is an inherently imprecise, and it is difficult to even discuss hard sciences in Arabic, as compared to English. The lack of a printing press almost certainly held back Arabic sciences, but the fact that they speak in constant metaphor probably didn’t help.

    July 12, 2013 at 3:31 pm

    • Jefferson

      Are the French obnoxiously long-winded because the French language demands florid and poetic prose, or is it something innate in their genes or in their culture? My feeling is that it’s all of the above. Chinese can evolve to be like English, and it probably would have if it were spoken by the English.

      July 12, 2013 at 3:36 pm

  7. spandrell

    Modern mandarin has pinyin, which is the official romanization. Every characters has its official romanization. Say, China is 中国 Zhong guo.

    In a modern PC, there is software which converts latin characters into its chinese equivalent. Quite sophisticated algorithms make it so you can type a long sentence in latin letters in a standard QWERTY layout, and the whole sentence gets converted into chinese characters in real time.

    Same in smartphones.

    For people outside the mainland, there are other quite complex systems, which map keys in a keyboard to parts of the characters (radicals). Old people sometimes use handwriting USB pads.

    The digital word has been a boon for Chinese characters. The problems with old printing presses and typewriters made the government seriously considering ditching the whole thing and going Latin, but then computers appeared so that people can type very efficiently. Even I’m pretty fast.

    The thing is that typing today is so efficient, that you don’t need to handwrite anymore, so people today are vastly better at reading than writing. Every day you see people grabbing their smartphones to check how some characters is written, because they lack the muscle memory to handwrite it.

    July 12, 2013 at 7:20 pm

  8. More on this topic:

    July 14, 2013 at 7:42 pm

  9. Pingback: linkfest – 07/16/13 | hbd* chick

  10. The Hanzi had several advantages that encouraged its continual use (instead of adopting a romanized system).

    We hear much about Chinese dialects. I have always found dialects a funny term – Mandarin, Wu, and Cantonese are more different from each other than Spanish and Portugese. They sound different. (Cantonese, for example, has 7 tones – or 9, depending on whop you ask 😉 – while Mandarin has only 4).

    But they all write the words the same way. Think of it like the Arabic numerals 1, 2, 3, 4 etc. A person from Spain, Italy and France would pronunce those words differently, but they would all know what 1 and 2 mean when they see the symbol written out.

    This is one of those thousands of things you talk about determining the course of history. The unity of Chinese writing – which allowed people who essentially speak different languages to comunicte with each other without a hitch – was one small factor in the unity of Chinese empire. It bound together peoples who might have nationalized and drifted apart. It still does.

    Had the Chinese been given the option to switch (and they were familiar with alphabetic systems b/c of Pali and Sanskrit documents, then later Jurchen, Mongol, and Manchu script) they would have declined. Indeed, the Qing tried and failed to keep the Manchu script as the designated imperial tongue. The attempt failed miserably.

    July 17, 2013 at 5:21 am

    • A common script seems absolutely essential for uniting disparate populations. I can’t think of which countries, but I know that certain nations in Africa wanted to ditch English but still work toward some kind of pan-African unity. Political leaders quickly realized that a lingua franca must have a written form, to allow cross-dialectical communication. So they ditched English hegemony but simply replaced it with Swahili hegemony.

      July 17, 2013 at 5:56 pm

  11. Also, I do not think what some of the commentators have said about Chinese character creation is correct. There are many, many examples of new character creations. These usually use old radicals put together in new ways, but they are not compounds like “电脑”

    Just one example:

    蠇 – Scorpion.

    萬 – Ten Thousand

    The character ‘ten thousand’ originally meant scorpion. They sounded similar so they started using the character for both words. Eventually some scholar or another decided that it was time to get more specific, so they went and added the ‘bug’ radical to the left of the old character, emphasazing that it meant scorprion and not ten thousand. (The character has long gone out of use and is now only used rarely, and then only as part of a name. The current character for scorpion is 蝎). A new character is made from old radicals. This happens pretty often.

    Here is an article on how a corporation made a new character for its product:

    July 17, 2013 at 6:01 am

    • spandrell

      There are many, many examples of new character creations.

      Define “new”. Scorpions aren’t new. That characters is thousands of years old.

      July 17, 2013 at 9:23 am

    • Brilliant. Thanks for the link, as well as for the value-added commentary.

      July 17, 2013 at 5:51 pm

  12. How did ancient greek produce such culture without printing technology?

    March 3, 2014 at 5:11 pm

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