Professor Jing Tsu talks about a highly acclaimed new book on China


Kingdom of Characters, which explores the foundations of Chinese writing, made the cover of the New York Times Book Review.

Staff journalists

Yale News

Jing Tsu aims to make the mysteries of ancient China accessible to its students. Now she translates that mission to readers beyond the classroom.

In his new book, “Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution that Made China Modern,” Professor of Modern China Jing Tsu examines the history of the Chinese language, focusing on the individuals who made the modernization of the language possible. . Tsu’s book has been reviewed by several major publications, including the Guardian and the New York Times Book Review, where she also appeared on the Book Review Podcast.

“It is gratifying to see Kingdom of Characters break through the sound barrier that often separates academic knowledge from public readership,” Tsu wrote to The News. “This is particularly relevant – and important – when it comes to understanding modern China. Compared to how much and how long China has studied and learned from the West over the past two centuries, it is remarkable to to see how little foreigners still know about China.

Tsu, a faculty member in the departments of East Asian Languages ​​and Literatures and Comparative Literature, explores Chinese linguistic, cultural and political history in his book, taking into account the development of modern Chinese writing and its relationship to technological progress and the geopolitical influence of Western powers. .

“So the story of the Chinese writing revolution and how it modernized is really – it’s a story about China and the West,” Tsu said in his podcast interview with the New York Times. “As these Western technologies arrived with imperialism and colonial rule, China had to face the fact that it had to either play along or be left out altogether.”

Tsu also recently returned from Beijing, where she was a cultural commentator for NBC during the Winter Olympics. The book was published shortly before the start of the Games. Positive reviews began to pile in, but Tsu heard very little of the kudos from inside the Olympic press bubble. Tsu didn’t get to see many reviews, including her book’s front page in the Feb. 6 issue of The New York Times Book Review, until she returned from her role as a reviewer.

“This material could, in the wrong hands, become dry,” Deirdre Mask wrote in the Times Book Review. “But Tsu weaves linguistic analysis with biographical and historical context – the ravages of imperialism, civil war, foreign invasions, diplomatic successes and disappointments. This approach not only adds background and meaning to the script debate, but also terrific color to what might otherwise have read like a textbook.

Tsu recorded the “Kingdom of Characters” audiobook at a studio in New Haven. She reflected on the experience and contextualized it in its linguistic and cultural context.

“Listening to me as a non-native English speaker narrate a book about the Chinese language, my mother tongue, was like seeing my own mirror image after it had been refracted through someone else’s eyes. “, Tsu wrote to the News. “I felt like I was closing the loop, occupying both the beginning and the end of it. It was perhaps the most fitting way to end the truly remarkable journey of writing this book.

The book was also well received by his academic colleagues at Yale.

“This is a great testament to the impact and relevance of Professor Tsu’s work for academia and the general public,” Hwansoo Kim, president of the Council on East Asian Studies, wrote in an email to students. and affiliated professors.

Kim also noted that the last Yale-published book on China to feature on the front of the journal was “The Search for Modern China” by the late scholar Jonathan Spence. Tsu described Spence, whom she met when joining Yale faculty in 2006, as a “paragon” of storytelling. Spence, who died earlier this year, is widely regarded as a leading China scholar who helped establish Yale’s dominance in the field.

Tsu is back on campus to teach several graduate seminars and plans to offer China in the World again next spring. She declined to share her next research project with the News, but described it as “looking towards the future”.


Isaac Yu writes about Yale faculty and scholars. He designs the front page of the print edition, edits News’ Instagram, and has previously covered transportation and city planning in New Haven. A native of Garland, Texas, he is a sophomore at Berkeley College majoring in American Studies.


Gavin Guerrette covers scholarship and faculty breakthroughs. He is a freshman at Branford College majoring in Humanities.


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