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  • - [Narrator] There's no Chinese alphabet.

  • Instead, each word is represented by a symbol or character.

  • (air whooshing)

  • - How on Earth did a language with tens of thousands

  • of characters fit onto this keyboard?

  • - [Narrator] Here is a world of communication,

  • tailored for your needs of today and tomorrow.

  • - [Narrator] What really accounts for China's meteoric rise

  • as a major global power?

  • - This is Shenzhen.

  • It's a city in the south of China.

  • I've actually been there.

  • But back in the 1980s,

  • this was just a sleepy fishing village

  • with less than, like 100,000 people.

  • Today, it is home to 12.5 million people,

  • a giant metropolis with huge buildings

  • and home to some of the largest tech companies

  • on the planet.

  • This city is emblematic of China's technological rise

  • over the last 40 years.

  • It's an explosion in technology and development

  • that has really never happened before in human history.

  • From an agrarian society to a technological powerhouse

  • in just a couple of decades.

  • - That's fast.

  • - This almost didn't happen.

  • China almost didn't become the technological powerhouse.

  • And what held them back is something

  • I have thought about a lot,

  • which is this keyboard.

  • This keyboard has like, 80 or so keys,

  • and the Chinese language has like

  • tens of thousands of characters.

  • So how did they fit their language onto this keyboard?

  • To answer that question,

  • you have to dive deep into modern China,

  • into Chairman Mao,

  • into the divide between Taiwan and mainland China,

  • who despite speaking the same language

  • use very different typing methods,

  • all because of geopolitics.

  • It's a story of how China took a keyboard

  • that was developed for a vastly different language system

  • and mastered it, mastered it better

  • than we did here in the West.

  • It's a fascinating story of culture and history

  • and technology, and I want to share it with you.

  • - [Narrator] Here is China.

  • - [Narrator] It's become a keystone

  • of national economic policy.

  • - [Narrator] A large part of China's population

  • lives in large cities.

  • - [Narrator] I really don't quite understand

  • everything that's happening.

  • (upbeat music)

  • - To understand how Chinese speakers type on a keyboard

  • like this, I talk to my friend Mangle Kuo,

  • who's currently in quarantine in Taiwan.

  • - I just came back and quarantine

  • in Taiwan's quarantine hotel.

  • - Oh, my gosh. Wow.

  • Mangle has lived in both China and Taiwan.

  • He's technologically savvy and helped me understand

  • how people type, not just on their keyboard

  • but on their phone.

  • - So basically growing up as a Chinese or Taiwanese,

  • you have to learn how to write those characters.

  • That's kind of the first thing first.

  • And then you learn the, like the pronunciation system

  • behind all the characters.

  • And in China, that's pinyin, and in Taiwan, that's zhuyin.

  • - So let's break this down.

  • Most languages are written with an alphabet.

  • Each letter in that alphabet represents a sound.

  • And when you string those sounds together, you make a word.

  • It seems so intuitive as if like

  • this is the only way to do it.

  • But in Chinese,

  • - There's another way.

  • - Chinese uses complex characters for each word,

  • so every word is a character.

  • Each one of these characters represents a different thing,

  • an object, the feeling, a concept, a verb.

  • All in all, there're upwards of 70 or 80 thousand

  • of these characters.

  • This system was just fine.

  • It worked in China for a really long time

  • because you can use a brush or a pen to write stuff out.

  • - I like that. It's like if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

  • - This is the qwerty keyboard.

  • It's called the qwerty keyboard

  • because I mean, just look at it.

  • This is the mechanism to which people not just communicate

  • with each other, but code the world,

  • the software and programs that we all use all the time.

  • When this started to take over, China had a real problem.

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  • Let's get back to the story.

  • They had to figure out how to fit this onto this,

  • and fast, because the world of computing

  • started to explode in the 70s, and 80s, and 90s.

  • - Hello, I'm Bill Gates.

  • - Here in the United States, the qwerty keyboard

  • was a very natural tool.

  • We were able to use our alphabet and our symbols

  • that we all are very used to,

  • to develop programming languages

  • so that we can make software.

  • And soon, more and more computers were showing up

  • into American homes.

  • (pop songs from the '80s)

  • - [Narrator] The Commodore 64 now in a family pack.

  • - Meanwhile on the other side of the planet,

  • China, a country of almost a billion people

  • only had 3000 computers in the entire country.

  • They were so far behind the West

  • when it came to computer literacy.

  • The Chinese government begins to freak out.

  • And it's like, guys we're getting absolutely destroyed

  • by the West because of this whole computer thing,

  • and you're telling me that is because we can't fit

  • our language onto this keyboard?

  • Are you kidding me? What we're gonna do about it?

  • So the Chinese government made this a huge priority.

  • And they finally started to develop somethings that worked.

  • (door opening)

  • - I got it.

  • (audience laughing)

  • - The first major system of typing used the qwerty keyboard

  • to build the shape of the characters.

  • - We call it Cangjie.

  • - Cangjie, and it was pretty darn complicated.

  • - It's basically like, puzzles.

  • - Like Legos.

  • - Yeah, kind of, like a brick. You just put them together.

  • I can write basic characters using that.

  • - The system was clever but it was complicated

  • and not very fast at first.

  • Luckily, China had a wild card up its sleeve

  • that will help get Chinese speakers

  • typing on a qwerty keyboard.

  • It had to do with this guy, Chairman Mao.

  • - [Narrator] The great Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong.

  • - History time, here we go.

  • - [Narrator] The Communist Party's propaganda machine

  • portrays the Chairman's Great Leap Forward

  • as a dazzling success.

  • - Mao was really bullish about modernizing China.

  • And one of his pet project was scrapping

  • the entire Chinese character system and replacing it

  • with a Western-style alphabet that sounds out Chinese words,

  • sort of like how we sound out our English

  • or Italian or Spanish words.

  • Now it was like learning thousands of Chinese characters

  • is hard and complicated so why don't we just have a Latin

  • or Romanized alphabet like the rest of the world.

  • So by 1949, Mao was like ready to roll, scrapping the entire

  • Chinese writing system in the name of a Roman alphabet.

  • But then, one of its close buddies,

  • former Communist dictator Joseph Stalin, convinced Mao

  • not to totally kill off the Chinese characters.

  • Stalin was like, dude, don't, dude you're gonna regret it.

  • And Mao was like, fine.

  • So he kept the Chinese characters as the main writing system

  • but for teaching literacy in school, he developed a written

  • alphabet called pinyin.

  • - Pinyin, P-I-N-Y-I-N.

  • - Where you can use the Roman letters

  • to spell out Chinese words by the way that they sound.

  • So right now you're typing out this sentence

  • in Romanized charcters in the way

  • that it would be phonetically spelt in Roman,

  • like "wo" is W-O, right?

  • - Yes.

  • - Okay. So you typed it all out,

  • - Yeah.

  • - and down there it renders it, okay. Wow.

  • So now if you want to write the word "beef",

  • which is "niu-rou".

  • - How to say "beef"?

  • - I think "niu-rou".

  • - "NIU-ROU"

  • - I've no idea, "niu-rou", "niu".

  • - "NIU-ROU"

  • - "R-rao, niu-rao". I've no idea.

  • Instead of memorizing these characters which means "beef",

  • you can just spell it out by the way it sounds.

  • This romanization of Chinese, again it's called pinyin

  • would become really helpful years later

  • when the Chinese government is trying to figure out

  • how to get people to type on Western computers.

  • But wait a minute.

  • We can't go on before we mention

  • a little bit of geopolitics.

  • (canon firing)

  • Okay, it's 1940s.

  • Mao and his Communist revolutionaries are taking over

  • mainland China in a bloody revolution and civil war.

  • And the Chinese government that they overthrow

  • and are fighting with, end up losing and retreating to

  • an island nearby called Taiwan to continue with

  • their non-Communist version of China.

  • And they both think that they're the real China

  • and they start this war that has never stopped

  • and they're still fighting this war

  • and they both think they're China.

  • Anyway, that's absolutely a story I want to tell

  • but I'm not going there.

  • Now again blinders, we're talking about qwerty keyboards.

  • - If we're trying to figure something out,

  • now we need to focus, okay?