A Chinese typewriter was specially acquired for the V&A exhibition China Design Now (2008) to illustrate the uniqueness and complexity of Chinese typography. It was pure good fortune that we managed to find one. We were on a research trip in China, visiting a fashion designer's showroom in Shanghai. On the same street, there were a number of shabby-looking antique shops. Nestled amongst table lamps and chairs and in the middle of this narrow street sat a Chinese typewriter! We had been looking for such a typewriter for a long time, and were about to formally borrow one from a Shenzhen-based graphic designer, so without hesitation we purchased it with the intention of acquiring it for the Museum's permanent collection.
Chinese characters could be such a mystery to someone unfamiliar with the language. For the exhibition, we felt it was important to find a object that could anchor the graphic design works on show, especially those dealing with Chinese typography. A Chinese typewriter does the job very well, as the shape faintly recalls western typewriters (especially the roller), whilst the tray with its thousands of character helps to visually elucidate how Chinese characters come about in print.
Typing in Chinese before widespread computerisation was a specialist skill. A Chinese typewriter does not have a keyboard, but instead uses a tray that contains over 2,000 characters, arranged according to 214 groups of meaning classifiers (the building blocks, or bushou, of characters). Several thousand more would be available on a second tray. The typist first aligns the tray and then presses a key, which makes an arm pick up each desired character in turn and strike it against the paper. It is a time-consuming process, however professional typists could average 3,500 characters per hour.
Link to a Taiwanese blog with good photos - 'memory of mother as a typist': http://jasonblog.tw/2009/06/memory-about-chinese-typewriter.html
V&A China Design Now original exhibition website: http://www.vam.ac.uk/vastatic/microsites/1636_chinadesignnow/the-exhibition
A touring version of the exhibition is showing at Portland Art Museum (Oregon) until 17 January 2010: http://portlandartmuseum.org/exhibitions/feature/China-Design-Now