China Beat Archive


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May 14, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright May 14, 2009 Thomas S. Mullaney. Used by permission.


Tom Mullaney, who will be familiar to regular followers of this site thanks to the podcasts he’s done for us (such as this one on the 1989 protests and this one onLast Days of Old Beijing), recently mentioned that he is currently writing a history of the Chinese typewriter, as actual and imagined object.

He sent this piece introducing the subject, which moves between popular culture and the history of technology (how often are rapper MC Hammer, IBM engineers, diplomats from China, and Homer Simpson alluded to in a single story?), while illuminating some of the directions that thinking about the challenges involved in creating machines capable of reproducing Chinese characters have led:

Propelled to international stardom by his multi-platinum single “U Can’t Touch This,” MC Hammer is perhaps not the first person one thinks of when studying Western stereotypes about China. Remarkably, however, the music video accompanying his 1990 hit featured one bit of fancy footwork that has helped perpetuate a distorted view of China dating back more than one hundred years. Known as the “Chinese typewriter,” the dance features MC Hammer side-stepping in rapid, frenetic movements, choreography that would gain immense popularity to become one of the defining dances of the early nineties.

Why the Chinese Typewriter? Hammer’s dance, the idea went, was supposed to mimic the alien virtuosity of a Chinese typist as he navigates what Hammer assumed must be an absurdly massive keyboard crowded with tens of thousands of characters.

Whereas the Oakland-born artist may be credited with bringing parachute pants into mainstream culture, the same cannot be said of his ideas regarding our Pacific neighbor. The Chinese typewriter has been an object of ridicule in the West since its inception at the turn of the century. For over a hundred years, writers in the United States and Europe have derived a unique sense of cultural and technological superiority by portraying the apparatus as absurdly large, painfully slow, and prohibitively complex.