How intensive modding ushered in China’s computer revolution

In a previous TechCrunch article, I looked at the enormous hurdles that computer developers faced when trying to cram tens of thousands of Chinese characters into a memory system built to accommodate a considerably smaller alphanumeric symbolic system. Now I will move on to the issue of Chinese character output—monitors, printers, and other computer peripherals—where engineers faced even greater hurdles in making Western-made personal computers and computer peripherals compatible with Chinese character text. While we refer to them as “peripherals,” implying a supporting function, they are at the heart of Chinese computing, from the terrible limits it suffered in the 1970s and 1980s to the enormous strides and triumphs it has achieved since the 1990s.

During the early days of the personal computer in the 1980s, no Western-made computer, printer, monitor, operating system, or another device could handle Chinese character input or output—at least not “out of the box.” All of these machines, on the other hand, showed the same kind of English-language and Latin alphabetic bias that I have seen in other areas of my research, such as the early history of telegraphic codes and mechanical typewriters.

What followed in China and the Chinese-speaking world during the 1980s was an era of aggressive hacking and modding. Engineers in China and elsewhere made Western-made computing gear and software compatible with Chinese, piece elements. It age of exploration and innovation that is messy, decentralized, and often brilliant.

Part two of our series on Chinese computing focuses on two conclusions when we look at the broader ecosystem of computing—on printers, monitors, and all of the other “things” needed to make computing work.

To begin with, the supremacy of alphabet-based computing—what I refer to as “alphabetic order”—went far beyond the issue of keyboards and computer memory. Computing equipment, languages, and protocols, like the typewriter before them, were mostly conceived in English-language environments and only afterward “extended” to other languages and writing systems other than the Latin alphabet. Chinese developers have constantly pushed against the limits of off-the-shelf computing peripherals, hardware, and software to achieve even basic functioning.

Second, I will deconstruct the oversimplified notions of Chinese “piracy” and “copycatting” that dominated Western portrayals of Chinese computers throughout this key period in the late 1970s and 1980s, as well as today. When seeing programs like “Chinese DOS,” the Western world’s first reaction has been to dismiss them as “Chinese knock-offs.” This oversimplified story ignores the fact that none of these Western-designed software suites would have worked in the environment of Chinese character computing without the kinds of “forgeries” we will look at in this article.