Highly inefficient punctuation

Chinese texts traditionally used no punctuation. A small circle (。) could be used in annotations to mark the end of sentences or phrases, and it also turned up in printed texts, to the lower right of the last character in a sentence.

Before today’s system was standardized, some publishers experimented with alternate ways of punctuating text. We can be glad that the system shown below, on the first page of the 1910 edition of New China (新中国), did not live very long:

The first page of New China by Lu Shi'e

In this text, the “。” represents a continuation: the first character of a phrase has no punctuation, but every subsequent character is marked with a “。”. The text is maddening to read, and while some of that difficulty may be due to the mark meaning roughly the opposite of what it means today (a full stop), I suspect that it may not be a very efficient system even for an experienced reader. It’s certainly not meant for hand-written texts.

In a modern edition, the opening paragraph reads:

话说宣统二年正月初一日,在下一觉醒来,见红日满窗,牌声聒耳,晓得时光不早,忙着披衣下床。开门出来,见客堂中双烛辉煌,香烟缭绕。向外挂着神轴,旁配着珊瑚笺对联。桌上十多盆高脚锡盆,满满的装着茶果。几椅台凳,都饰着红披坐垫。蜡台上红烛,已烧去二寸有余。当地铺着红毯,这都是居停主人布置的。

In rough translation:

on the first day of the first month of Xuantong’s second year I awoke a window filled with red sunlight and a grating sound in my ears so I knew it was not early and I hastened to put on my clothes and get out of bed going out I saw a pair of candles burning brightly and incense smoke wafting in the hall a scroll of a deity faced outward flanked by a couplet on coral paper a dozen high-legged nickel basins full of tea snacks several chairs draped with red cushions a red candle in the candlestick burnt down more than two inches a red carpet on the floor all of this arranged by the master of the house

New China was written by Lu Shi’e (陆士谔, 1878-1944), a Chinese herbalist, and tells the story of a man who falls asleep in 1910 and wakes up in 1951 to a fabulous new world in which China is no longer the sick man of Asia. The novella resembles Liang Qichao’s Future of New China (新中国未来记 ,1902) and other late-Qing utopian fantasies, but Lu could actually write fiction: his output ranged from martial arts romances like The Eight Swordsmen (八大剑侠) and The Flying Guillotine (血滴子) to unauthorized sequels like New Outlaws of the Marsh (新水浒) and amounted to some hundred novellas and novels.

New China was recently exploited for use in promoting the Shanghai 2010 World Expo: Lu’s novel was said to have accurately predicted that Shanghai would hold an expo of “10,000 nations” (万国博览会) one hundred years from its date of publication (i.e. in 2010). The novel actually says that Shanghai hosted a domestic expo (内国博览会) in 1928.

In April, Chen Zhanbiao (陈占彪), who has compiled a fascinating volume of eye-witness accounts of World Expos by late-Qing and early Republican Chinese travelers (清末民初万国博览会亲历记, 2010), wrote an excellent rebuttal of the erroneous claims in the China Reading Journal.

As proof, Chen’s article reproduces one of the pages from the 1910 print edition which, like the above image, uses a nearly unreadable system of punctuation.

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