Any student of Chinese will sympathise with the 17th-century Jesuit priest Fr Emeric Langlois de Chavagnac when he wrote: ‘One can only endure the pain of learning it for the love of God.’ With its convoluted characters, subtle tones and numerous homonyms, it can seem as though the language just doesn’t want to be learned. Jing Tsu’s Kingdom of Characters starts from the premise that this is not merely a problem for foreigners: for millennia, the Chinese themselves have been confounded by it.
At the beginning of the last century, the literacy rate in China was only 30 per cent for men and 2 per cent for women. Those without the means to study had little chance of grasping the idiosyncratic script. Written Chinese has tens of thousands of characters — standalone ideographs that are not alphabetic or phonetic, and often look maddeningly similar.