Photo: 書集囍室, 鹿港

Does “the rise of punctuation” sound like a sad topic? Let’s try.

Similar to empty words, like “the,” “there is” etc., which can be the skeleton of a sentence even though looking quite abstract, punctuation has a unique function: to easily make reader pause. But what is the benefit of that convenience?

For a Chinese native, to use punctuation to set the timing is very modern. Not until 1920 did the system of punctuation first apply to Chinese publications, more than two thousand years after the birth of The Thirteen Classics. Haven’t any Chinese people ever puzzled about how to read those great books well? Oh, many, if not all.

The timing of pausing no doubt reflects the aesthetic consciousnesses of good writers and bad writers, and because a good reader used to detect the nuance, a true writer had to pay attention to it. Although sound and rhyme, carefully dealt with by old writers, can provide rich hints for cadence, they are the art taking effort and skill.

Punctuation, I believe, has saved writers of The Written Vernacular Chinese trouble and therefore granted the language dominant status; the newcomer promptly replaced the artful, subtle Classical Chinese. So, what is the benefit? My answer is: to set the inexorable fire of a more plain language.


The cover image as well as the below picture were shot in a second hand bookshop, 書集囍室, in Lukang.