Alphabetic Thinking and Chinese Characters

Jing Tsu, 2008–2009 Radcliffe Institute Fellow

More than three-quarter century ago, renowned historian of science and technology Joseph Needham posed a question at the beginning of his mammoth endeavor in volume two of his monumental Science and Civilization in China: Did the Chinese language fundamentally shape how the Chinese approached the natural world in a way that was distinct from alphabetic thinking? This question, while reductive in nature, has nonetheless sedimented deeply into popular as well as academic perceptions about how languages create, divide, and organize social worlds—and continues to explain away, wrongly, civilizational positions of relative advancement and weakness. To reexamine the problem in the context of modern science and technology and its contemporary relevance, I propose to bring together experts in neuroscience, policy, AI, linguistics, computing, and the creative industry (Chinese font design, contemporary Chinese art, fiction writers) from China, Europe, and the US to have a preliminary conversation about how to address misconceptions of culture, science, and technology.