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Numb in China, part 4: 施氏食獅史
Technoapocalype and the Chinese language
Zheng Qiao once wrote that ‘the world is of the opinion that those who know Chinese characters are wise and worthy, whereas those who do not know characters are simple and stupid.’ That was in the twelfth century, when everyone knew that there were only wastelands outside China’s borders. Today, everyone knows that most people use a writing system other than Chinese characters, but the world’s opinion hasn’t really changed. If you can read Chinese characters, you must be very wise and worthy. And the rest of us will usually feel a little simple and stupid when confronted with the lush extravagance of Chinese writing. But why is Chinese like that? Are Western linguistic categories at all usable in a Chinese context? Has the weirdness of the language been a factor in the course of Chinese history? And what does it mean when machines learn Chinese?
From now until September, Numb at the Lodge will be in China, investigating these questions and more. This edition is free, but paid subscribers can join us for the full a brain-melting tourist odyssey across the past and future of Chinas real and imagined. This is a travel blog now.
Today I’m writing from Chongqing, a small shard of the future that has wedged itself inside the year 2023.
Back in part two, I wrote that I’d expected to be as exhilarated by Beijing as I was the first time I went to New York, but I ended up finding the city to be very orderly and quiet and a little dull. Wide avenues and sedate skies, not the rush and buzz and terror of a new superpower exploding around my ears. I said that I’d heard some places in China really were the way I’d imagined, places like Chongqing. I’m here now, and this city makes New York feel very provincial and small.
Of course, Chongqing is New York, an intense, parodic, fever-dream version of New York, magnified like Dalí’s bumblebee. Jiefangbei is a vaster, brighter, denser Times Square, with food that’s actually good. Eling is a calmer, craggier Central Park. The two cities have the same shape, they even have the same yellow cabs. Or maybe it would make more sense to say that New York is just an abortive prototype of Chongqing, an attempt to mimic the future, a weird curio like the ancient Greek steam engine, born out of its time, in the weird gap in history when we pretended anything important could happen on that muddy pond we call the Atlantic.
Most of all, Chongqing is what New York only pretends to be: the cosmopolis, world-city, the world in and as a city. The Yankee way of doing this meant bringing various third-world immigrants into a first-world city and then corralling them into ethnic ghettoes, basically replicating the landscape of global hostility on a smaller scale. Haredi Jews fighting the same conflict in Crown Heights and the Hebron hills. But in Chongqing, the first and the third world are simply tangled up in the same landscape. Glassy cyberpunk office towers rise out of the chaos of stinking alleys where everything is fried in red grease. Wide plazas disappear without warning into warrens of exposed power lines, crumbling bricks, and corrugated steel. Walk half an hour into the hills and you’re suddenly in the old China, hick China, open drains and chickens pecking at their own shit in front of every house. Bright glossy food photography, but instead of hot dogs and hamburgers the food being advertised is a delicious steaming bowl of tripe or chicken feet.
This is, far more than New York, a vertical city. NYC has tall buildings, sure, but the ground they’re built on is basically flat and monotonous, griddable, domesticated. In New York, every ten-degree gradient gets called a hill. Meanwhile, Chongqing has two entirely distinct height maps: the geological piling-up of high sheer hillsides around the Yangtze, and the anthropogenic piling-up of skyscrapers. The two series seem to relate only by accident. It’s almost meaningless to talk about any building having a ground floor here, where the ground twists and whorls around you; a block might have one main entrance on the lowest floor, another on the third, another on the fifth. A two-dimensional map is worse than useless. Walking anywhere means heaving up the omnipresent staircases that mark vanished cliffs; driving is done on a perplexing maze of ramps, looping everywhere like a lifesize game of Marble Run. A city by Escher or Piranesi, where there’s an underground metro line that passes right through the middle of a skyscraper. In other words, a city where the general contradiction between humanity and nature is expressed in every paving stone, a city whose skyline contains everything you need to know about the human condition. Where it’s hot, punishingly hot, hot like our cooking planet, with dragonflies hanging in the air and huge dead cicadas on the street. Where at night the LCD displays glitter on every building, until the place looks less like a city and more like a giant interface between screens, or the internet given spatial form, where walking around gives you the same flattened vision and slight nausea as staring too long at your phone. Where propaganda posters with the hammer and sickle glow outside the Prada flagship store, where wanghongs pose in triad restaurants, where they’ve stopped building so many high-rises and started building brand-new historic districts from scratch. The entire history, prehistory, and posthistory of the world.
This is, of course, a world in which absolutely everyone is Chinese. It turns out that this doesn’t really matter; China doesn’t need anywhere else to build its cosmopoleis, and it never has. But it ought to be a problem for me, since I don’t speak a word of the language.
Actually, that’s not true. I can say ni hao, and I can say baibai, and I can say xiexie, although I keep pronouncing it wrong. I can say the last two digits of my Chinese phone number, which you need to recite every time you jump in a cab. I can say yi ge when I point at something on a menu. Other than that, I’m mute in this country, a big lumbering barbarian trapped in my gracelessly atonal language, wincing and babbling like a moron whenever anyone asks me a simple question. Before I came here, I watched a few videos produced by chirpy young Western expats who seem to make a living off speaking Chinese. They film themselves eating street food or getting a manicure, making small talk; everywhere they go, people seem utterly delighted. I wanted that. But I also had my fears. After Julia Kristeva’s visit to China in 1974, she wrote about the gaze of a peasant in Huxian, regarding her and her fellow travellers like ‘some weird and peculiar animals, harmless but insane. Unaggressive, but on the far side of the abyss of time and space. A species—what they see in us is a different species.’ I feared that the Chinese would see me the same way: like a pig on its hind legs, a human-shaped animal that can’t even speak.
It turns out that Kristeva’s abyss has almost entirely healed over. You don’t need to speak Chinese at all to make yourself understood in China; your phone can speak Chinese for you. It’s almost terrifyingly easy. You use your camera to scan a menu and it tells you exactly what’s on offer; all you have to do is point. You hold your phone up to someone’s face and gesture for them to speak, and the English words just write themselves in front of you. Or you type in a question, and the correct sinograms appear. Everyone here seems to use a Chinese app that does the same thing in reverse. It works. Not just for ordinary exchanges either. In Xi’an, I had a long conversation with a man who called himself Mark, about Chinese culture and history, British culture and history, the role of Ireland, the institution of the monarchy, and the fate of global powers. He was also a writer; he gave me a copy of a work of historical fiction he’d published set in the Ming Dynasty. He didn’t speak English. We carried on the whole exchange through our phones, writing little messages and holding them up to each other. Outwardly, we must have looked like prelinguistic savages, speaking through gestures, grunting and hooting without common words. I am not the first to notice that digital society is a new primitivism. But in the shamanic otherworld between our devices, understanding had taken place.
Obviously, sometimes the system slips up. By the Min River, I asked someone a question, and he replied: this is very stupid. Not sure what he meant, I showed him the characters, and he grinned and repeated himself more slowly. What he’d actually said was this is a ferry. It’s difficult for the machines to fully comprehend the nuances of the spoken Chinese language. But frankly, it’s a miracle they can do it at all, because the Chinese language is insane. As a means of reliably transmitting propositional information, it is almost impossibly inefficient. The only way Chinese makes sense is if you imagine it as an attempt, begun thousands of years ago, to create a language that would be illegible to digital machines, a last fortress against the mechanisation of thought. That fortress has fallen now, which is good news for me as a tourist. But it might be very bad news for our species as a whole.
This was not always the usual opinion about Chinese. The first systematic study of the language published in Europe was John Webb’s 1669 An Historical Essay Endeavouring a Probability that the Language of China is the Primitive Language. (In case he didn’t get his point across clearly enough, the second edition in 1678 was published as The Antiquity of China, or an Historical Essay, Endeavouring a Probability that the Language of the Empire of China is the Primitive Language Spoken Through the Whole World Before the Confusion of Babel.) Webb argued that in Chinese alone words had a purely natural relation to their objects; he even speculated that when babies babble before learning to talk they’re actually speaking perfect Chinese. What distinguished Chinese, for Webb, was its magnificent simplicity: ‘They are not troubled with variety of Declensions, Conjugations, Numbers, Genders, Moods, Tenses, and the like Grammatical niceties, but they are absolutely free of all such perplexing accidents, having no other rules in use than what the light of Nature hath dictated unto them.’ This was not, in Webb’s era, a particularly remarkable assertion; a century beforehand, Johannes Goropius had argued that when God spoke with Adam, they spoke to each other in Dutch. (He also placed the Garden of Eden somewhere in the vicinity of Brussels.) But Webb’s notion gained a kind of philosophical pedigree. Gottfried Leibniz—who coined the word Goropism for a ridiculous linguistic theory—was first introduced to China through Webb’s book; he later wrote that ‘if God had taught man a language, that language would have been like Chinese.’
What Leibniz appreciated about Chinese was its writing system, which he took to be ideographic—with each sinograph indicating a concept rather than a collection of sounds. (Like the stick-figure of a man and a woman that directly signifies, wherever you are in the world, and without muddying its pure universality with the messy contingencies of sound or language, a place to piss and shit.) Chinese looked like an already-working model of his characteristica universalis or alphabetum cogitationum humanarum, a proposed artificial language with a grammar that precisely mirrored the structure of logic, in which the name for every object precisely corresponded to the nature of the object itself, and in which is would be impossible to lie. (Here he followed John Wilkins’ analytical language, which produced names by a kind of alphabetical Dewey Decimal System: de refers to any element; deb refers specifically to the element of fire; deba means an individual flame. But unlike Wilkins’ language, Leibniz’s could not be built out of merely conventional alphabetical parts.) Chinese was a transcendent system of words that behaved like numbers: a gateway to the total rationalisation of thought.
But actual Chinese characters never worked the way Webb or Leibniz thought. (The latter did come to realise this; in 1679 he wrote to Johann Friedrich Hertzog that ‘at bottom these characters are undoubtedly far removed from such an analysis of thought which is the essence of my plan.’) For one, Chinese characters are not as universal as they appear. Webb had marvelled at how Chinese characters were ‘understood throughout their whole Empire, how far and wide soever it now extends, and by those people generally that were in time either colonies of theirs or conquered by them, as the Japonians, Coreans, Laios, those of Tonchin and Sumatra, with the Kingdom of Cochin-China.’ And it’s true that the same characters were used in languages as different as tonal, monosyllabic Vietnamese and inflectional, agglutinative Korean—neither of which have any genetic relationship to Chinese. But the ways they were used were weird. Sometimes a Chinese character would have the same meaning in another language as in Chinese. But sometimes it would be used to refer to a completely different word that sounded the same as its Chinese meaning, or even a word that sounded similar to the local pronunciation of its Chinese meaning. The linguist John DeFrancis imagined a scenario in which Chinese characters were used to write English. The character 二 means two and is pronounced èr; if English followed the Japanese model, you could render Alexander Pope’s line as 二二 is human.
What’s more, while 二 is clearly ideographic, most Chinese characters are not. They probably began as pictograms, but so did our own letters. The letter A began as an aleph, 𐤀, which was originally a stylised representation of an ox’s head; B was 𐤁, a house. These symbols once stood straightforwardly for oxen and houses, but ended up indicating sounds, and in fact a similar process happened in Chinese. Here’s one celebrated example. The character 黃 means yellow, but it’s also combined with the character 石, meaning stone, to form 磺, sulphur, and with the character 疒, meaning disease, to form 癀, jaundice. And sulphur is a yellow stone, while jaundice is a yellow disease: the characters do seem to work like Wilkins’ analytical language. But in fact, 黃 is there as a phonetic element.
In standard Mandarin Chinese, 黃, yellow, is pronounced huáng. 磺, sulphur, is also pronounced huáng. So is 癀, jaundice. But 潢, which stands for a pond or the process of dyeing paper, depending on context, sounds the same. So does 獚, a spaniel. And 癀, anthrax. And 簧, which might refer to either a reed or the spring in a lock. And while it doesn’t contain the yellow character, 皇, which is the Emperor’s title, is pronounced huáng too; this homonym is part of why Chinese emperors wore yellow. And the symbol 皇 appears as a phonetic marker in 偟, which means either leisure, indulge, or hurried, and is also pronounced huáng. (Why Emperor and not yellow? Not clear!) So is 凰, which refers to a mythological bird. And 惶, which is either afraid or confused. And 煌, bright. And 篁, a poetic way of referring to bamboo. And not to forget 蝗, a locust, or 隍, a dry moat, or 鰉, a species of sturgeon. There are many more, all pronounced exactly the same way.
Almost every word is like this: bursting at the seams with possible meanings. In the Classic of History, King Wu of Zhou claims that he has ten 亂臣, a phrase that can mean either rebellious ministers or order-bringing ministers. We still don’t know for certain which was meant. Many words are also perfectly comfortable being used interchangeably as a noun, verb, or adjective: the same character could mean rebellious, rebellion, rebel, or rebelling; it doesn’t help that words don’t change for singular, plural, past, present, or future. Context is everything, but sometimes—especially given the terse style of classical Chinese—the context simply isn’t there. This makes the written language fuzzy enough, but spoken Chinese is a minefield.
Chinese has the same semantic range as any other language—but its terrifying variety of distinct logograms comes with an incredibly restricted stock of spoken morphemes. The English language is capable of rendering around 100,000 syllables, with nearly 16,000 actually in use, most of which can be combined into many, many more words. You can come up with new English syllables very easily, like blointh or fleamp or croomd. All told, spoken Mandarin Chinese only has about four hundred distinct words, if tones aren’t taken into account. This is why every Westerner secretly thinks they can speak perfect Chinese by going xiao cheng wu bing chong. The language is very, very small.
These spoken units are usually called syllables, but they’re not much like the syllables of an agglutinative language like English. (The Taiwanese semiotician Han-Liang Chang insists that they’re not really syllables at all. ‘A Chinese word, or logos if you like, has three constituents: the initial, the final, and the tone, and there is no such thing as the syllable. Each word is a self-sufficient phonetic sign which cannot be subdivided into syllabic segments.’) In 1805, Lord Jeffrey wrote in the Edinburgh Review his amazement that the Chinese ‘have gone on for many thousands of years pittering to each other in a jargon which resembles the chuckling of poultry more than the language of men, and have never yet had the sense to put their monosyllables together into articulate words.’ But Chinese people do put their monosyllables together. If you want to actually say the word yellow, and make clear that you’re not referring to a locust or a pond or someone’s spaniel or the process of dyeing paper, you’re forced to say huángsè, which literally means yellow colour. Written Chinese has two distinct words for spider, 蜘, zhī, and 蛛, zhū, but since zhī can also be a surname or a possessive particle or knitting or juice, and zhū can be a bead or a tree trunk or the act of putting someone to death or the word all, a spider in spoken language is both of them together, zhīzhū. Even with all these devices, a huge amount of ambiguity remains. You could borrow McLuhan’s distinction: while English is a ‘hot’ language, in which each word occupies the full spectrum of its singular meaning, Chinese is a ‘cool’ language. Extra inputs and interactions are needed. Everything depends on context and interpretation; words are just loose markers in a shifting sea of context.
It’s not an accident that Chinese is weird in both directions, simultaneously deploying many, many written symbols and very few spoken sounds. In writing, which is a kind of language without context, the best way to represent such a hyperbolically homophonous speech is by meaning rather than sound alone. This was most famously illustrated in the 1930s by the linguist Zhao Yuanren, who composed a poem consisting of only a single sound:
石室诗士施氏 Shí shì shī shì shī shì In a stone den lived a poet called Shi Shi 嗜狮，誓食十狮. Shì shī, shì shí shí shī. Who was a lion addict, and had resolved to eat ten lions. 氏时时适市视狮。 Shì shí shí shì shì shì shī. He often went to the market to look for lions.
And so on. Shi Shi goes to the market, kills ten lions with his arrows, drags them to his den, calls for his servants to clean the place up before his meal, eats the lions, and finally realises that they were only statues of lions—all without departing from his single syllable. If you can read Chinese characters, the poem is completely comprehensible. If you try to represent it purely with sounds, it’s a meaningless mess. Zhao Yuanren’s point was that classical Chinese poetry would not survive alphabetisation: it lived in the characters, and not in the sounds associated with them.
But by the 1930s, classical Chinese poetry and its characters were becoming very unpopular. Qian Xuantong, one of the intellectual leaders of the New Culture Movement, wrote that ‘if we wish to get rid of the average person’s childish, naive, and barbaric ways of thinking, the need to abolish characters becomes even greater.’ The much-celebrated Communist writer Lu Xun called them ‘a tubercle on the body of China’s poor and labouring masses.’ (He preferred Esperanto.) There was something intrinsically backwards about the system. Other languages can arrange things alphabetically; how do you even begin to do that in Chinese? There had been attempts to order the characters by the number and sequence of strokes, but these systems usually ended up unavoidably giving the same number to several different characters. In the four-corner system, which was used to encode Chinese telegraphy, the number 7722-0 designates six entirely separate characters: 丹, 用, 同, 周, 陶, and 脚. Chinese-character typewriters were huge unwieldy machines with thousands of tiny keys. The various forms of spoken Chinese all evolve at the same pace as any other language, but the characters do not. They appeared suddenly, without any known antecedent forms, in the Oracle Bone inscriptions of the Shang dynasty, were reformed under the Qin, and again under the Han, but after that barely at all. The new characters that have emerged mostly designate scientific terms: 硅 for silicon, 熵 for entropy. Outside those, everyone has to write with symbols that are mostly over two thousand years old. In an alphabetical language, new terms can be instantly expressed in writing, but in Chinese any original character might be completely illegible unless there’s some kind of central authority to approve and promulgate changes to the language. Which might be another reason why China has historically been so centralised and undemocratic. During the Warring States period, the cohesion of the characters started to break down; maybe one of the necessary functions of the despotic state was to make sure the words kept making sense. Emperors used to boast that they had given all objects their correct names—but China had already deposed its emperors. Surely the characters would be next.
There’s still controversy over whether the characters have some blame for China’s catastrophic industrial eclipse by Europe. If the country that invented paper and printing and gunpowder failed to develop full scientific rationality, could it be because of their cumbersome language? (Joseph Needham—of the famous Needham Question—is a good Marxist materialist; he says no. ‘If the social and economic factors in Chinese society had permitted the rise of modern science, then the language would have been suitable for scientific expression.’ His collaborator Derk Bodde disagrees. Literary Chinese, with its unchanging characters and its mystic wealth of meanings, turns Chinese thought ‘away from substance and toward form, away from synthesis and generalisation and toward compilation and commentary.’) But this, I think, is looking at things backwards. Chinese isn’t a failed attempt to produce clear meanings; it’s a strategy of resistance. Against dead clarity, against the instrumentalisation of thought. A language forced to make space for the poetic. But lately, something has changed: the language that resisted the old technical regime seems to fit perfectly within the new one.
You can see the process Chinese was resisting by looking at the history of our own alphabet. The Middle Eastern ancestors of Latin letters were not actually fully alphabetical, but only represented consonants; the technical term is abjad. This is because they were created for Semitic languages like Phoenician, which are based on triconsonantal roots. Today, the Hebrew word for root is shoresh, שורש, which is formed from the root ŠRŠ. You make the plural by affixing another consonant: shoreshim. The verb to root up is l’shoresh. There’s nothing containing the consonants Š-R-Š that doesn’t have to do with rooting or rootedness. The vowels are mostly sonic filler, lubricating the space between meaningful consonants, which is why abjads like Hebrew or Arabic represent them with dots or not at all. The first true alphabet, meanwhile, was Greek—and the Greeks needed one because while Semitic languages are at least structured, the Indo-European languages are totally anarchic: the molten wreckage of speech. (T’s smtms pssbl t ndrstd nglsh wth nly cnsnnts, but a single consonant, R, can support words as semantically distinct as are, ore, oar, roe, and eerie.) But with their alphabet, the Greeks might have unleashed something demonic, the monster we call the Western intellectual tradition.
As always, magic explains everything. All forms of Western word-magic are ultimately kabbalistic: they’re based on the transformation of letters into numbers. The secret behind language is that it’s ultimately a series of computational bits. As I’ve discussed before, there’s a straight line from the Kabbalah, through as-Sabti and Ramon Llull, to Leibniz—who will inevitably keep cropping up here—and the digital computer. But the alphabet already implies a language that is not human and intersubjective, but mathematical, computational, and mechanistic. It reduces all language to a general-purpose slurry of interchangeable phonemes, atomised and decoded, combining and recombining according to no particular plan. It’s already a machine that supplants the human powers of thought.
China is different. In China, word-magic is based on meaning; significations, homophones, and puns; in fact, the entire process of signification is more or less magical. The Chinese variety of word-magic usually gets called superstition. It’s there in tetraphobia: every hotel I’ve stayed in here has been missing a fourth floor, because the word for four, sì, is a near-homophone with sǐ, which means death. The small campus of Ewha Womans University in South Korea is regularly invaded by bus-fleets full of Chinese tourists, hundreds a day, pouring into the quads, distracting the students, sometimes snapping unrequited photos of them while they’re studying in the library or on the treadmills at the gym. They’re there because the university’s name sounds similar to the Mandarin for bringing fortune. Only the Emperor, huáng, can wear yellow, huáng. It might be significant that while the earliest examples of writing in the West are bills and receipts and tax documents from Mesopotamia, paperwork before paper, the earliest written documents in Chinese are divinatory instruments. These are the Oracle Bone texts, recorded more than three thousand years ago. They worked like this: you write your question on a token, a piece of turtle shell or ox scapula, and then put the token in a fire until it cracks. The shape of the crack, properly interpreted, is your answer. Chinese characters might originally have been the echo and imitation of those cracking bones, a way of talking to the gods in their own strange polyvalent language, specific to each instant. A writing that’s inseparable from the magical processes that summon meaning out of the world, in which every written symbol is also a mystery. Every aspect of the language seems to have been designed to ward off any collapse into alphabetical decoding, the prising-apart of magic words into inert atoms of sound.
So what does it mean if computers can now speak Chinese?
For a very long time, machine-translation—or even dictionary-translation—into or out of Chinese was basically impossible. Unless there was a human who actually knew both languages, you would end up with nonsense. This was part of what gave rise to ‘Engrish,’ the bizarre faulty English common in east Asia. I’ve seen some outstanding examples here. In a train station in rural Sichuan, an intensely adorable girl, maybe five years old, waved shyly at us. Her parents, who loved her, had put her in a t-shirt that read PUBERTY SILENT. In Shaanxi, a man was happily walking down the street in a top that featured a big picture of a tropical sunset and said, for reasons that presumably made sense at some point in the design process, MOOVHH BRCFNEPS: While There Is Life Hope. In a hotel room, we had a set of light switches by the bed, all helpfully labelled in English. Bedside light, desk light, hallway. The last switch was marked, alarmingly, smallpox. I didn’t press that one. The Chinese for ceiling is 天花, tiānhuā: literally, overhead-pattern. The name for smallpox, meanwhile, means Heaven-flower, for obscure reasons; maybe the disease, which bursts like blossoms over the sufferer’s skin, was thought to be a kind of divine curse. The relevant characters are 天花: exactly the same.
Computers are not good at understanding context, and in a cool, magically-oriented language like Chinese, context is everything. John Searle’s ‘Chinese Room’ thought experiment imagines a person in a locked room being fed Chinese characters on slips of paper, looking them up in a big book, following its instructions on which characters to respond with, and shoving those characters through the same hole. An outside observer might think that the room understands Chinese, but it doesn’t; in the same way, Searle says, a computer can’t really understand anything either. It’s only applying a set of mathematical operations. Searle probably chose Chinese for the same reason philosophers always use Chinese in their thought experiments: because it’s weird and incomprehensible and spoken very far away. But if you know anything about how Chinese actually works, the thought experiment doesn’t make sense: such a room could not exist. It would not reply in Chinese, it would reply in nonsense. And yet, almost every time I hold my own little locked room to a Chinese person’s mouth, and they speak some of their four hundred words with forty thousand meanings, it transcribes them perfectly and renders them into perfect English.
What’s changed is that computers programmes are no longer programmed. A translation app isn’t just a fancy dual-language dictionary any more, following built-in rules to transpose words from one language to another; instead, they scrape vast quantities of material to train artificial neural networks that can place each individual word in the context of an appreciable fraction of everything that’s ever been said. For three thousand years, Chinese refused the mechanised, alphabetical anarchy of the programmed computer. It felt sorely outdated in the era of the typewriter and the telegraph. But the age of big data and deep learning is very different. These systems are contextual and vast, synthetic rather than analytic. Their elements appear in no particular order; what matters is the shifting network of interrelationships between them. They’re entirely comfortable with redundancy, duplication, arbitrariness, ambiguity, isomorphy, pleonasm, and polyvalence. They might be unwieldy, but the unwieldiness is the entire point. The first computers were Phoenician, but this is an age of computation whose contours are exactly the same as the Chinese language.
The Chinese language couldn’t interface with European modernity because it was always, from the oracle bones onwards, the machine-language of the future. Here in cyborg Chongqing, the buildings speak Chinese in liquid-crystal lights, and the atmosphere speaks Chinese in the perfect synthetic tones of a million blaring devices. Entropic, siliconate Chinese: a language that no longer needs to be spoken by human beings. Just total inorganic comprehension. Characters made of steel struts and carved-out hills. Digital signifiers interface fractally with the extended world, damming meaningful shapes into rivers, down to the smallest grains of dredged-up sand. 硅。熵。硅。熵。硅。熵。
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