Numeral Type for Mandarin Chinese

The Murray system, which is no longer used, is a late-nineteenth-century invention. One of the most intriguing aspects of the system is that with but little modification it can be used by those without sight as well as those with sight. Indeed, it originated as a Braille system for Mandarin Chinese.

Sample of what the Murray Braille system looks like

Chinese Braille

Sample of the same text as written in the system for sighted readers

Murray system

Shorthand of the above

Murray Chinese shorthand

"Cut style," without tones

Murray Chinese 'cut style'

Numbers are assigned to represent the some 400 different syllables of Mandarin Chinese, not including tones. People were taught to associate numbers with their sounds through a variety of mnemonic keys. Then they were taught to read and write the numbers, which are represented in the system for the blind by special patterns of Braille dots and in the system for sighted readers by symbols modelled after the Braille system.

For the first ten years from the invention of the Numeral Type in 1879, it was essentially work for the blind, and not even Mr. Murray himself suspected that this was only the initial stage, or, as he loves to call it, "his First Revelation." The Second, which is of infinitely wider importance, is the natural development of the first, namely the application of the self-same system to the use of the sighted, by connecting with visible black lines the embossed white dots prepared only for the fingers of the Blind.

It was about the close of 1889 that someone said to Mr. Murray, half in jest, "Oh, what a privilege it is to be blind, and to learn to read and write well in a few weeks, whereas sighted persons take about six years to learn to read very imperfect1y, and even then cannot write at all. Why don't you do something for poor sighted persons?"

Then his friend, Mrs. Blodget (wife of the Rev. H. Blodget, D.D., of the American Congregational Mission), suggested that surely the system which proved so simple for the Blind, would be equally so for the sighted if they could see it. Then he bethought him of using visible black lines instead of white dots, and thus produced a series of squares and angles, forming the simplest set of symbols in existence.

The origins and details of the system are set out in the 1898 book The Inventor of the Numeral-Type for China: By Use of Which Illiterate Chinese Both Blind and Sighted Can Very Quickly be Taught to Read & Write Fluently, by C.F. Gordon-Cumming. In trying to get his system established, Murray went through many travails, chiefly financial, leading Gordon-Cumming to write that "Satan seem to be continually on the alert to hinder it in every detail."

Gordon-Cumming also claimed the superiority of the Murray system over romanization, saying that "to the Chinese mind an alphabetic system is so essentially foreign as to be inherently repugnant." Moreover, she said, "the Chinese all have a natural liking for numerals."

People -- even those without any other schooling -- could be taught to read and write in less than three months. Thus, it became easier for blind people to become literate than for other Chinese with unimpaired vision to learn to read and write using Chinese characters. This is because Braille systems, including the Murray system, are based much more directly than Chinese characters in the sound of the language, though in the case of the Murray system the connection is largely arbitrary. Contrary to popular belief, Chinese characters are, more than anything else, phonetic in nature. But the phonetic roots of characters have in many cases become obscure to the casual observer. For more on this, see this site's readings section, especially "The Ideographic Myth," "Chinese," and "Sound and Meaning in the History of Characters."