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Old Taipei street sign

Pīnyīn News - Wed, 10/21/2020 - 14:24

Pinyin News reader Channing Bartlett passed along this photo he took c. 1980 in Taipei at the corner of Jianguo North Road section 1 and Chang’an East Road section 2. As you can see, inconsistencies on Taiwan street signs weren’t restricted to matters of romanization. Here we have 建國北路一段 (Jiànguó Běi Lù yī duàn) and 長安東路二段 (Cháng’ān Dōng Lù èr duàn) — or rather “段二路東安長.”

One sign is written left to right, the other right to left.

Also, if you look closely at the characters for lu and duan, you can see that the fonts are different, likely indicating the signs are of different ages. But if one sign was replaced, why not the other? Mysterious are the ways of Taiwan street signs.

Bartlett described the experience of trying to read street signs quickly back then:

As I was on a bus barreling by, I had just a quick moment to read one. But often it took up my quick moment just to see whether it was written L to R or vice versa. The practice was inconsistent, as you can see in this photo.

The Useless Suggestion Box

Laowai Chinese - Thu, 03/19/2020 - 05:38
Main Cultural Elements

Aspects of Chinese culture mentioned in this article (click on each for more information)

High Power-distance

Indirect Communication (High Context)

Low Trust

Story Time

As an American who highly values efficiency, I’ve always been annoyed by the huge number of suggestion boxes at businesses in China. They seem to be: 1) everywhere, 2) always empty. (Also, there are usually no pencils or paper provided.)

Because these seem so useless to me, when I took over as general manager of my current company 4 years ago, one of the first things I did was decide not to have a suggestion box. It had been sitting there empty for ages, the HR manager couldn’t remember it being used, the decision seemed obvious to me.

A few months ago, I reinstated it. We now have a digital employee suggestion box (it’s a QR code you scan with your phone). How much I’ve learned!


The main purpose of the suggestion box is, surprisingly, not to get suggestions. Its existence is symbolic and sends an indirect message from the leader to the rest of the people, whether they be customers or, in my case, employees. The important thing is that there is a box and it’s visible to everyone.

By NOT having a suggestion box, I was sending the indirect message to my staff: “I don’t care about your needs” or maybe, “I’m too high above you to listen to your opinions.” In the high power-distance of Chinese culture, the normal people can easily forgive the leader for not wanting to listen to everyone. But it would be better if he would.

Installing a suggestion box (with the leaders conspicuously nearby) even makes the news in China. Story Time (continued)

When I realized this (which is a different story), I asked our Chinese HR manager, “Do you think by NOT having the box, the staff feels like I don’t want to hear from them.”

She smiled slightly and said, “Maybe.” I took that to mean “yes,” but wanted to confirm so I changed tactics.

“I’m thinking of having a digital suggestion box that goes straight to me. Do you think the staff would be happy about that or would it make them uncomfortable?” She immediately replied that they would be happy and the fact that I, the general manager, would be the only one checking it is a big plus.

I discussed with her the culture of open communication we’ve worked so hard to cultivate here.

“Isn’t it kind of a failure to need something like this?” I asked her. “Shouldn’t people who have suggestions feel free to talk directly to their teammates or supervisors? Why would they need a special box to make suggestions to me, when the best person to hear the suggestions is almost certainly NOT me?”

She then confirmed my belief that it promotes goodwill to have the opportunity to submit things this way, even if no one ever does.

“Do you think anyone would use it?” I asked as a final confirmation question.

“Let’s put it up and see!” she replied enthusiastically. So we did.

Linguistic Notes

The Chinese word for “suggestion box” is yì jiàn xiāng 意见箱 which also means “complaint” box. My experience has been mostly complaints or negative suggestions go in these boxes (if any). Constructive or positive complaints don’t need to be put in a box. Chinese are happy to give those directly and be associated with giving them.

For ours, I actually used the slightly more positive word jiàn yì 建议 for “suggestion” which helps convey to my staff what I hope they’ll use it for.

The 3rd Culture

When working across cultures, sometimes the result is that a new culture is created. That is known as the “3rd Culture” since it isn’t either of the original two.

Actually, our digital suggestion box for employees violates one of the primary principles of the Chinese view of the whole point: it should be anonymous. But ours is automatically linked with your name and work ID.

This is a compromise because of the
unique corporate culture we are trying to cultivate here. In my company we have
explicitly said we prize honesty and communication very highly. We are willing
to accept criticism and complaints if they include action steps or suggestions
for how to improve.

But we have also explained that we
do not value anonymous complaints because they are difficult to follow up on,
and maybe inaccurately skewed because of the protection provided by criticizing

In a low trust culture like China’s, any criticism carries with it a fear or retaliation. “If I say something bad about my boss, then my boss will find out it was me and I will ultimately suffer for it.”

That is true everywhere. But in China, the default is not to trust anyone until he/she has slowly and consistently proven to be trustworthy. The high power-distance of the leader, makes building that trust even slower. Also, in complaining to the leader gets progressively scarier the more “levels” are skipped in the process: that many more people to retaliate.

However, I have hopefully built enough of a strong track record with my staff for them to know that they will receive as much protection as possible when lodging a formal complaint. Of course, some may feel it’s too risky even so and may decline to use the current system I’ve setup. I’m willing to miss a valid, anonymous complaint for the sake of this culture building. (Besides, if someone’s really desperate, he can just slip a note under my office door late at night.)


During the first 6 months of having our digital suggestion box, 3 people wrote notes to me. One was an actionable piece of advice (and complaint), the other two seemed to be just venting frustration. One even admitted at the end, “I don’t have any suggestion, but I feel better not that I’ve expressed this.”

My reply was the same to all 3:
“Thank you for your message. I received it!”

I did follow up with the actionable
point, and the staffs’ anonymity was protected. I went to the department head
involved and said, “I got a note in the suggestion box that said…”
I tried to make it clear that I expected the manager to investigate and make
his own decision, rather than just doing whatever the suggestion box said. In
the end, I think a small adjustment was made to the procedure in question.

So with so few suggestions submitted, do I feel it is a failure? On the contrary. I’m very happy we have it. I even want to put one up for the customers now!

My Chinese Wife’s Perspective

“We won’t usually be thinking about whether we have a suggestion box or not. But there are 3 times when we will realize we want it, and if we don’t have it, that will be perceived as the leader not caring:

1) If we want to complain about something, and don’t have a way to do it.

2) If we hear someone else complain, and we want to refer them to use the suggestion box.

3) If it gets pointed out that everyone else’s companies all have a suggestion boxes, and we’re the only ones who don’t.”

Eva Analogy and Summary

In my home culture, it feels similar
to a wedding invitation from a family member. Do I really need to
receive a wedding invitation from my own sister? No, but I might notice it if
other people got one and I didn’t. I would think it’s sending me an indirect
message that I’m not as welcome to attend as others are. The point is
not to convey information about the time and place (although it does that too),
the point is to make me feel sure I’ve been officially invited.

My mistake was thinking about the suggestion box as an information gathering tool. The Chinese, on the other hand, justify the existence of a suggestion box not because it can convey information (although, it is occasionally used for that!). It is primarily an invitation, a public sign of good will from the lofty boss to the normal people. And if it’s not there, it’s felt.

As Oscar Wilde would have said: “The Chinese feel the only thing worse than having an empty suggestion box, is NOT having an empty suggestion box.”

From the series “In Chinese Shoes,” all about decoding and sympathizing with cultural topics that baffle Westerners. See other articles from this series below.

The Importance (and Sneakiness) of Culture
This is the start of a new series: “In Chinese Shoes,” where I will explain bizarre and baffling occurrences in Chinese culture to help Westerners… Read More

The Useless Suggestion Box
As an American who highly values efficiency, I’ve always been annoyed by the huge number of suggestion boxes at businesses in China. They seem to… Read More

The Importance (and Sneakiness) of Culture

Laowai Chinese - Mon, 03/16/2020 - 03:20

This is the start of a new series: “In Chinese Shoes,” where I will explain bizarre and baffling occurrences in Chinese culture to help Westerners understand and sympathize.

Subscribe to receive email updates whenever there’s a new post.

The more I reflect on my past 15 years in China, the more I see the importance of invisible yet powerful cultural forces on my success and failures (but especially the failures). I also believe there are few good explanations for Westerners (particularly North Americans, like me) to help us understand the Chinese perspective. That’s why I’m going to try writing some, with a special focus on very specific applications.

3 Analogies about Culture in General Beach Currents

Have you ever been swimming at a beach with strong currents? You think you’ve just been staying in the same place until you try to find your towel. It’s only then that you realize you’ve been pulled along the shore, ever so slowly and imperceptibly, away from where you started.

The current sneakily pulls you.

Cultural forces are invisible and powerful like that. They’re always working, pulling you one way or another, but it’s difficult to perceive unless you have a point of reference. If you don’t know about currents when you go to the beach, it can be shocking, frustrating, baffling, and even scary. These are the same feelings I’ve felt dealing with Chinese culture.

But I mustn’t forget that my own culture is like the invisible current as well. I’m not entirely sure what I myself think or feel until I’ve run into something that strikes me as odd or unsettling. The more I understand about the currents in my own culture, the better equipped I am to understand the Chinese culture.

The Soccer Goal Keeper Rule

When I was seven (or maybe less) I joined a soccer team. I remember being really baffled that the number one rule is “You can’t touch the ball with your hands,” and yet there is a player who’s whole job seems to be “Touch the ball with your hands.” What kind of a game IS this?!

Hey! Why does she get to use her hands?

Culture is similar: there are “rules” for how the game of living in a society is played, including: the best/worst thing to do in situations, or who has authority to do various things. But there are also surface-level contradictions that can leave us feeling cheated, dismayed, and at best like we’re taking crazy pills. The greatest trap for me is to feel superior because I’m the only one smart enough to see how foolish this all is. Alas! If only the 1.5 billion people around me would arrive at the enlightenment I’ve reached!

I would call the goalie rule in soccer a “paradox,” because there actually IS a reasonable explanation for it, but it’s not obvious at a glance. In other words, to the players who really know the game of soccer and play it all the time, the fact that one player can always use his hands, makes total sense.

The REAL rule is: “You can’t touch the ball with your hands, unless it’s an accident and your arms are at your side or you’re clearly in the process of running, OR unless you’re the goalie, who has a different position than the other players.” But if you don’t have the attention-span or the guidance to get to the complicated version, you’ll probably just think “The no-hands rule is stupid and inconsistently enforced!” (as I did when I was young).

Twist Endings

Have you ever seen a movie with a great surprise ending? I won’t spoil it for you, but one of my favorites is The Sixth Sense. You actually have to watch an interview with the director M. Night Shyamalan to know the full sneakiness of the trick he played on you (including the little clues like what the color red represents).

The Sixth Sense has a great twist ending.

When you finally get the secret, there’s a great feeling of relief, achievement, and delight. “Oh! Wow! That explains so much!” Where there once was confusion, tension, and fear, we know feel the universe is back in order and we can move forward.

That’s how I feel when I finally get a really good explanation of the cultural forces at work in a given situation. And I’ve been on the other end again and again as I pass on explanations to other Westerners who are baffled by the Chinese way of doing things. It’s re-frames past and future experiences to be more meaningful and comprehensible.

In Chinese Shoes

As you probably didn’t notice, I changed the tagline of this website today.

Old: Tips and Strategies for Speaking and Understanding Mandarin

New: Tips and Strategies about the Chinese Language and Culture

The goal of my new series “In Chinese Shoes” is to create empathy for the Chinese way of doing things.

  1. By labeling these cultural forces (like the beach current), I hope to provide relief that “You’re not crazy.”
  2. By recognizing paradoxes (like the goalie rule in soccer), I hope to give you confidence that you can master these cultural “rules,” as long as you have a sufficiently nuanced explanation. The rules make sense to Chinese people, even if they don’t make sense to us at first.
  3. And by using analogies, as I have done all through this article, I hope to bring delight (like a twist ending) as you say “Oh, THAT’S why they do that!”
It’s Never Too Late

One final word of encouragement. I learned many of these things very late in my time in China (and I’m still learning!), so don’t worry if you’ve been missing some important clues when dealing with Chinese people. Everything’s obvious once you know it.

The Chinese version of “the have 20/20 hindsight” is to be a shì hòu Zhū Gěliàng 事后诸葛亮. In other words, everyone can be a genius on the level of Zhu Geliang once the event has already happened!

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More from this Series

The Useless Suggestion Box
As an American who highly values efficiency, I’ve always been annoyed by the huge number of suggestion boxes at businesses in China. They seem to… Read More

The Importance (and Sneakiness) of Culture
This is the start of a new series: “In Chinese Shoes,” where I will explain bizarre and baffling occurrences in Chinese culture to help Westerners… Read More

Follow me

Pīnyīn News - Tue, 11/12/2019 - 11:35

I ran into a reader of Pinyin.info the other day, which has had me feeling guilty for not posting anything in recent months. So here’s something I wrote nearly a year ago but never posted. The sign is now long gone, but the linguistic points remain the same.

Near the Banqiao train station is this sign, which advertises small apartments. (At just 13 or 14 ping, counting the shares of all of the “public” spaces, they are basically tiny.) It has a lot of points of note for so little text:

  • Chinese characters are used to write an English word: 發樓 (fālóu) = follow.
  • English (“Follow me”) is used as well as Mandarin.
  • Numbers are used to write a Mandarin word: 94, i.e., jiǔ sì (九四) = jiùshì (就是). Note also that this works despite the tones being different.

發樓ME (with the English “Follow me” there for clarity as well)
告別租隊友 live your life

How to find Windows files that contain Chinese characters

Pīnyīn News - Mon, 05/27/2019 - 12:19

Someone just wrote me to ask “Supposing I want to search for a Chinese name or word string across a whole DIRECTORY folder such as comes up in a windows directory search (the folder icon)?”

If you know the characters in question, the search is of course easy. Simply click in the Microsoft Windows File Explorer search box (marked in red in the image below), type in your phrase, and hit ENTER.

But what if you don’t know the phrase in question or you simply want to find all files containing Chinese characters? Normally one would turn to wildcard searches. But Windows File Explorer’s wildcard support is extremely limited, so the trick for finding Chinese characters (Hanzi) in a Microsoft Word document doesn’t work here.

I recommend running a search for an extremely common Chinese character. The most commonly used Hanzi is the one for the possessive particle de:

This won’t necessarily find every file with Chinese characters — just as searching files for the letter e won’t necessarily find every document that contains some English; but it’s the best I could think of on short notice.

I created some descriptively titled test documents and put them in a folder together:

  1. This file contains the Hanzi de but not in the title
  2. This file has many Hanzi but not the character for de
  3. This file has no Hanzi except 的 in the file name
  4. This file has no Hanzi in either the file or the file name

Then I ran a search for . The results show that Windows File Explorer uncovered the files containing 的 within the contents of the file and/or in the file name (i.e., files no. 3 and 1).

Using Windows File Explorer’s search tools to refine the criteria should help speed up searches.

An alternate to de would be the character for :

Does anyone have better or alternate approaches to recommend?

Article on early Tongyong Pinyin on Taipei street signs

Pīnyīn News - Wed, 01/30/2019 - 12:29

Reader Jens Finke recently came across a newspaper clipping from about twenty years ago, the dark ages of Taipei’s street signs. Back then most roads in the city were identified in bastardized Wade-Giles and wildly misspelled variations thereof. Two or even more spellings for one name at the same intersection was not uncommon. (Outside of Taipei, many signs were in MPS2, which is often mistaken — including in the article below — for the Yale system.) And so the foreign community of Taiwan by and large cried out for the use of Hanyu Pinyin. But that’s not what foreigners got. Instead, Taipei Mayor Chen Shui-bian decided to go with a half-baked local invention called Tongyong Pinyin.

Really, half-baked. Incredibly, not long after street signs started to go up in this system in 1998, its creator changed it. For example, the article mentions “Zhongsiao” (“Zhongxiao” in Hanyu Pinyin). Scarcely had the paint dried on the new street signs than the spelling in the supposedly same system was changed to “Jhongsiao.” This and other changes rendered most of the new signs obsolete.

But before many signs went up in the old new system or the new new system, Chen lost his December 1998 reelection bid. His successor, Ma Ying-jeou, didn’t pursue Tongyong Pinyin. Ma even took the surprising step of asking foreigners what they wanted and took action to implement the overwhelming choice of the foreign community (both then and now): Hanyu Pinyin, though unfortunately the road to this was not without monumentally foolish detours, bad ideas, and still-unfixed errors.

In 2000, Chen was elected president. He asked his minister of education, Ovid Tzeng, to decide on a romanization system for Taiwan. After Tzeng picked Hanyu Pinyin, he was given the boot. His successor saw the writing on the wall and quickly announced his support of Tongyong Pinyin. Meanwhile, Ma, who remained mayor of Taipei, said he had no plan to change to Tongyong Pinyin. This time marks the beginning of Taiwan’s romanization wars, which raged in the first decade of the century and have still not been completely resolved.

Some readers may suspect the reporter in the article below of pulling people’s legs (e.g., “Special thanks to janitorial assistant Shaw Toe-now of the Jyii Horng Bus Company in Tainan for faxing a copy of his employer’s self-designed romanization table”). But I assure you, it would be very difficult to outdo the craziness of Taiwan’s romanization situation back in those days.

Feel free to use the comments section below if you’d like to share any recollections of Taiwan’s signage mess of the 1990s and before.

In my transcription, I’ve fixed a few typos and omitted the article’s Cyrillic system for Mandarin.

Friday, May 8, 1998

It’s all Roman
By Ian Lamont

Throw out all of the new business cards, office stationery and checkbooks that you ordered a few months back to include Taipei’s new telephone numbers. Just three months after the phone company made all the city’s phone numbers eight digits long, the Taipei City Government has decided it wants to institute a new romanization system for street signs to make the city more accessible to international visitors.

Well, at least that’s the plan. Someone in the city government’s vast bureaucracy finally figured out that the screwed-up mix of Wade-Giles and Yale (the same guys who brought you “Peking”) was not really helping anything by having foreign nationals attempting to say “Jen-ai Road” or “Kien-kwo South Road” to bewildered taxi drivers.

Not that taxi drivers won’t be any less confused by the new linguistic concoctions that will result under the new system:

“I’d like to go to Her-ping West Road, please.”


“You know, Her-ping West Road. It’s on the way to Manka?”

In case you didn’t understand this little exchange, “Herping” (rhymes with “burping”) is the new Mandarin romanization for the current Hoping East/West Road, while “Manka” is the Taiwanese name for Taipei’s Wanhua neighborhood. According to the Taipei City Government, both of these names will be in common use once all the city’s street signs are replaced.

Professor Yu Boh-chuan, the Academia Sinica linguist who helped design the new system, says his way reflects the local culture while at the same time following international standards.

Currently, there is only one international standard — the hanyu pinyin system developed by China some forty years ago and now almost universally accepted as the official Mandarin romanization system by governments, universities, libraries and publishers around the world. While there are many similarities between hanyu pinyin and Taipei’s new system, there are also several glaring differences, most notably the puzzling use of the letter “r” at the end of some syllables, the omission of the palatal spirant “sh” sound in certain Mandarin words, and the inclusion of Taiwanese, Hakkanese and Aborigine place names.

Since Taipei will soon have at least three different romanization systems floating around, Weekend has decided to create a handy chart that will help readers (and potentially psychotic mail sorters) survive the sticky transition period.

As an added bonus, we’ve decided to include several other alternative spelling systems for non-Chinese speakers. Special thanks to janitorial assistant Shaw Toe-now of the Jyii Horng Bus Company in Tainan for faxing a copy of his employer’s self-designed romanization table, as well as Prof. Vladimir Torostov of the Sinitic Languages Department of Khabarovsk University in Russia for submitting a conversion table with the cyrillic spellings for Taipei street names. Dosvidanya!

Old Romanization New Romanization Mainland Jyii Horng Bus Co. Chunghsiao Zhongsiao Zhongxiao Chunggshaw Jenai Renai Renai Lenie Hsinyi/Shinyi Sinyi Xinyi Shynyii Hoping Herping Heping Huhpeeng Keelung Kelang Jilong Cheerlurng Pateh Bader Bade Patiih

Unnecessarily wordy sign

Pīnyīn News - Tue, 01/29/2019 - 12:00

Above is a directional road sign at an intersection in Taitung (Taidong), Taiwan. It reads:


Nánqū Guóshuìjú
Táidōng Fēnjú]

Taitung Branch, National Taxation
Bureau of the Southern Area,
Ministry of Finance

Although Taiwan has a lot of this sort of directional signage, I don’t think I’ve written before about why I think so many examples of it are downright awful.

Not only is the sign unnecessarily wordy, the part that receives the greatest emphasis (by appearing in large characters) is the least useful: 臺東分局. Taidong Fenju means simply “Taitung branch office.” But since the sign is in Taitung itself, mention of an office being in Taitung provides zero useful information. (It’s a safe bet that drivers will already know which part of the country they’re in and that they aren’t driving around that neighborhood looking for the Taipei office.) The same thing goes for mention of this being the office for the Nanqu (“Southern Area”).

Nor do motorists care in the least what ministry the National Taxation Bureau belongs to. They simply need to be able to comprehend quickly and easily the main point of the sign. Too much information becomes clutter, a fatal problem on signs that drivers need to be able to read and comprehend quickly and easily.

A fundamental of good signage is to keep it simple.

The sign would be much better if it read simply “國稅局 Tax Office” and had an arrow. (Also, though this would be a moot point if the line were deleted, I’d prefer 台稅局 over 臺稅局. We have Ma Ying-jeou to thank for the prevalence of 臺.)

My private word for unnecessarily wordy signs in Taiwan is “signese,” which should not be confused with the good kind of Signese.

Sorry about the poor quality of the photo. I had to quickly use a cell phone camera on zoom through a taxi windshield — not ideal.

Dungan-English Dictionary published

Pīnyīn News - Thu, 10/25/2018 - 14:50

Eastbridge Books, an imprint of Camphor Press, is pleased to announce the publication of its Dungan-English Dictionary, by Olli Salmi.

Dungan is interesting for Chinese studies because it has an alphabetic orthography. It is also important because it shows very little influence from the Chinese literary language. It has preserved original features of the local dialects of about 150 years ago. It also has loans from Persian and Arabic, from Turkic languages, and from Russian.

The Dungans are Muslims who fled China for Russian territory in Central Asia after the failure of the Dungan Revolt (1862-1877). Their language, which UNESCO classifies as “definitely endangered,” is related to northwestern Mandarin Chinese. Dungan has two main dialects: the so-called Gansu dialect, which is similar to the Muslim Chinese communal dialects in the southern part of the province of Xinjiang, and the Shaanxi dialect, which has more in common with the dialects of southern Shaanxi around Xi’an. In the Soviet Union an alphabetic orthography and a literary language was developed for the Gansu dialect.

Although Dungan is now spoken primarily outside of China and employs an alphabet rather than Chinese characters, it is not really a peripheral dialect of Chinese. The Dungan Revolt started near Xi’an, Shaanxi, the cradle of the Chinese civilization and a frequent site of the capital of the country. (This is where the terracotta soldiers were buried.) The speakers that gave rise to Gansu Dungan came from a place west of the Shaanxi speakers, but still a totally Chinese-speaking area.

This dictionary is based on words and examples collected from Dungan-language newspapers and books published before the fall of the Soviet Union. Special attention has been paid to not only vocabulary (9,945 headwords) but also grammatical features; the dictionary may even provide material for the study of syntax. An effort has been made to find characters for Dungan words in dialect dictionaries published in China.

This work is available through Camphor Press and Amazon.

Note: I am part of Camphor Press and so stand to make a small amount of money from sales of this book. But that’s not why I’m recommending it to everyone interested in Dungan.

Chinese Southern Charm

Laowai Chinese - Fri, 10/05/2018 - 06:04

In the United States, the charming southern accent is all about vowels that get swapped around or changed. I still remember this great game of Catch Phrase where the southern belle mother gave this clue “It’s long and thin” and someone guessed “pin!” She was delighted and passed the thing to the next player (her own child). “Mom! This is ‘pen’ not ‘pin’.” But the mom didn’t understand, “That’s what they said!”

It was funny to everyone because her own children (growing up in Arizona) had lost the southern accent but their mother pronounced “pen” and “pin” exactly the same.

In Southern China, the accent comprises not vowel differences, but rather consonants that the locals can’t distinguish. There are many vocabulary differences between the North and the South (and everywhere in China, for that matter), but the biggest challenge to learning Mandarin in the South is the pronunciation.

One example is: “s” and “sh” sound different to me because in my native language (English) they are different sounds (it matters very much which one you use when you tell some to “sit.”). But in Southern China “s” and “sh” sound the same to them (they are what linguists call allophones).

This makes for many misunderstandings, but also some cute jokes that are only possible in the South. For example this fruit shop’s name:

The hanzi is 随果 suí guǒ which is a mispronounciation of 水果 shuǐ guǒ (meaning fruit). You can see the “s” and “sh” switcharoo. But there’s one other thing that makes the joke possible: “shui” in the real word for fruit switched to sound like a 2nd tone because of the “double 3rd tone rule.” So these two words would sound exactly the same with a Southern Chinese accent. Clearly this is a tongue in cheek mocking of Southern pronunciation that most Chinese people I’ve talked to find pretty cute.

There are several other features of the Southern accent (enough for a whole post or book chapter just on that), but I’ll give just one more, this time, unintentional evidence of a 分不清楚 fēn bù qīng chu sound: “-n” and “-ng” at the end of a word. In English this is important because we want the church choir to “sing” not “sin,” right? But in Southern China they can’t always tell the difference. Look at the login info for a local “Lanzhou” restaurant’s WiFi:

The really interesting thing about this is: Lanzhou is in the north and you would think those running the restaurant would be too. We can only surmise that the internet was installed by a local.

If you live in Southern China, and you have some printed material showing the local pronunciation of Mandarin, please feel free to leave a comment and tell us about it!

Reasons Gwoyeu Romatzyh never caught on, part 39

Pīnyīn News - Mon, 09/03/2018 - 11:56

Eel Chyi

Here’s a sign spotted in Banqiao, Taiwan, for what would be written “Ěrqí” in Hanyu Pinyin.

“Ěrqí shíshàng” means “Erqi Fashion” (爾旗時尚), with the first word pronounced roughly like the English name “Archie.”

The doubled vowel (“ee”) is a marker of the Gwoyeu Romatzyh romanization system (or “GR” for short), in which doubled vowels indicate the third tone. Thus, “ee” in Gwoyeu Romatzyh equals “ě” in Hanyu Pinyin. As for the -l, that’s GR’s way of indicating -r. For those of you wondering why GR didn’t just use -r for -r, that’s because GR uses -r to indicate second tone … except when it uses other letters to do the same thing. It’s kinda complicated. For example:

  1. ēr = el
  2. ér = erl
  3. ěr = eel
  4. èr = ell


  1. qī = chi
  2. qí = chyi
  3. qǐ = chii
  4. qì = chih

Of course, Hanyu Pinyin’s q isn’t intuitive for most people used to reading in an alphabetic script but must be learned. Once learned, though, q is entirely consistent. And it must be noted that as quirky as Gwoyeu Romatyzh can be, its oddities are nothing compared to those of Chinese characters.

Reasons Gwoyeu Romatzyh never caught on, part 39

Pīnyīn News - Mon, 09/03/2018 - 11:56

Eel Chyi

Here’s a sign spotted in Banqiao, Taiwan, for what would be written “Ěrqí” in Hanyu Pinyin.

“Ěrqí shíshàng” means “Erqi Fashion” (爾旗時尚), with the first word pronounced roughly like the English name “Archie.”

The doubled vowel (“ee”) is a marker of the Gwoyeu Romatzyh romanization system (or “GR” for short), in which doubled vowels indicate the third tone. Thus, “ee” in Gwoyeu Romatzyh equals “ě” in Hanyu Pinyin. As for the -l, that’s GR’s way of indicating -r. For those of you wondering why GR didn’t just use -r for -r, that’s because GR uses -r to indicate second tone … except when it uses other letters to do the same thing. It’s kinda complicated. For example:

  1. ēr = el
  2. ér = erl
  3. ěr = eel
  4. èr = ell


  1. qī = chi
  2. qí = chyi
  3. qǐ = chii
  4. qì = chih

Of course, Hanyu Pinyin’s q isn’t intuitive for most people used to reading in an alphabetic script but must be learned. Once learned, though, q is entirely consistent. And it must be noted that as quirky as Gwoyeu Romatyzh can be, its oddities are nothing compared to those of Chinese characters.

US postsecondary enrollments in Mandarin fall

Pīnyīn News - Fri, 03/09/2018 - 15:20

The last time I presented the figures for people studying Mandarin in U.S. colleges and universities, the strong but over-hyped growth of the first decade of the century had stalled.

In the newest figures, recently released by the Modern Language Association of America, the number of people in Chinese classes has fallen. Although the total enrollments in languages other than English fell 9.2% between fall 2013 and fall 2016 (the second-largest decline in the history of the MLA’s census), the decline in enrollments in Mandarin classes was significantly greater than that.

The MLA says the decline between 2013 and 2016 was 13.1 percent. The true amount is greater.

MLA’s table

As I mentioned above, the drop is even greater than given in the table, because, unless one looks carefully and beyond the MLA’s summaries, the MLA gives misleading figures for enrollments in ‘Chinese’ classes. (See the previous link to understand why my figures are different than those in the MLA table above. I’ve also excluded classes in literary Sinitic from this year’s compilation, so the figures are slightly different for some years than in my previous posts.)

So here are better figures, which combine those for classes labeled “Chinese” with those for classes labeled “Mandarin.” Not included in my figures are numbers for “Chinese, Classical” or “Chinese, Pre-modern” — or for Cantonese, Taiwanese, or additional Sinitic languages other than Mandarin.

The real decline from 2013 to 2016 is 14.3 percent, not 13.1 percent.

The highest growth between 2013 and 2016 was in Korean, which is now in eleventh place, having surpassed Ancient Greek, Biblical Hebrew, and Portuguese. Note, too, that enrollments in Japanese increased in the most recent survey.


MLA undercounts enrollments in ‘Chinese’ classes

Pīnyīn News - Fri, 03/09/2018 - 12:54

The Modern Language Association recently released its figures for enrollments in languages other than English in U.S. institutions of higher education.

The information that usually receives the most attention is summarized in the report’s Table 1:

Note that the figures for “Chinese” list 61,084 enrollments in the fall of 2013 and 53,069 in the fall of 2016, a decline of 13.1 percent. Those amounts, however, undercount enrollments in a usually small but important way.

As can be seen in the notes to the table above, “Arabic,” “Greek, Ancient,” and “Hebrew, Biblical” represent aggregate numbers — a sensible approach. In the case of “Chinese,” however, only what individual schools label as “Chinese” is summed under that category. The problem is that figures for what is labeled “Mandarin” are excluded. This makes no sense. The language usually labeled “Chinese” is Mandarin. Failure to include Mandarin under “Chinese” is simply wrong.

In Britain, “Chinese” sometimes is used to indicate Cantonese rather than Mandarin. But the figures from the MLA are for the United States.

Seven of the MLA’s reports on language enrollments give figures for Mandarin as separate from “Chinese”:

Separate figures for ‘Mandarin’ and ‘Chinese’ in MLA reports YEAR MANDARIN CHINESE PERCENT MISSING FROM ‘CHINESE’ TOTAL 2016 1,179 53,069 2.17 2016 (summer) 112 5,033 2.18 2013 913 61,084 1.47 2009 1,736 59,876 2.82 1974 40 10,576 0.38 1970 88 6,115 1.42 1960 1,126 679 62.38

As can be seen from the figures above, in most years when figures for both “Mandarin” and “Chinese” are given, the MLA’s figure for “Chinese” is missing least 2 percent of the total. That might not seem like much, but it’s enough to matter, especially to those who wish to compare enrollments across languages accurately. The problem will only grow larger if the word “Mandarin” comes to be used increasingly.

Thus, total enrollments for “Chinese” classes in 2016 were not 53,069 but no less than 54,248; and enrollments in 2013 were not 61,084 but no less than 61,997. That indicates a decline of 14.3 percent, not the 13.1 percent the MLA gives in its table.

The problem is ultimately rooted not in the MLA but in the sloppy use of terms related to Sinitic languages. In part because of this, I believe that schools — indeed everyone — would be better off calling Mandarin “Mandarin” and not “Chinese.” But until that admittedly unlikely adjustment comes to pass, the MLA should be careful to aggregate “Mandarin” and “Chinese” in its tables and figures comparing enrollments across the most popular languages.

Top 10 Most Feared Questions for Chinese New Year

Laowai Chinese - Sat, 02/10/2018 - 08:44

Testing… 1, 2, 3… does this still work? Great! I still have a blog. Let me see if I can remember how to work this thing…

Walking through the Guangzhou subway the other day I saw this advertisement for real estate. it’s one of those priceless looks into Chinese culture that is so valuable because it’s Chinese people critiquing themselves.

Here’s a direct translation (with pinyin) and my commentary.

Billboard Title

xīn chūn shí lián wèn 新春十连问 = New Year’s 10 Connected Questions

My Commentary
  • Interesting they used the words “xīn chūn” for “New Year’s.” The other ways to say it are “xīn nián” 新年 and “chūn jié” 春节. I’m not entirely sure what the difference is besides combing both of them.
  • The “connected” bit means sort of “non-stop.” This is the cultural commentary. Young people heading home for the holidays are dreading the barrage and wèn huà 问话 from their family members about their economic, marital, and child-bearing progress. So this real estate company is trying to establish credibility with struggling, young workers by showing they sympathize with how NOT-fun it is to face these questions. “So why not let our real estate company help you answer at least one of them?” (the 2nd one in my list).
The (Dreaded) Questions
  1. nǐ jīn nián shōu rù duōshao a? 你今年收入多少啊?= What’s your yearly income this year?
  2. shénme shíhòu mǎi fáng a? 什么时候买房啊?= When will you by a house?
  3. mǎi chē le ma? 买车了吗?= Have you bought a car?
  4. shénme shíhòu jiéhūn a? 什么时候结婚啊? = When will you getting married?
  5. shénme shíhòu yào háizi a? 什么时候要孩子啊?= When do you want to have kids?
  6. shénme shíhòu shēng èr tāi a? 什么时候生二胎啊 = When will you have your 2nd child?
  7. shénme shíhòu jiǎn féi a? 什么时候减肥啊? = When will you lose weight?
  8. xīn nián méi qù guó wài wán ma? 新年没去国外玩吗?= You didn’t go travelling abroad for New Year’s?
My Commentary

I’m going to talk mostly about culture here.

Questions 1-3

  • You can see these are mostly about money. I’ve been asked all three of these by taxi drivers, so I can imagine that family members would be even more interested. It’s very common in China to talk openly about personal finances. But, as this billboard implies: just because it’s common doesn’t mean Chinese people enjoy it.
  • It’s commonly thought that men have to have their own house and car before getting married, so I put these questions at the top of the list.
  • The BIGGEST question on the billboard is question number one. Does that mean it’s the most feared of them all, or that it’s the most important for the remaining questions?

Questions 4-6

  • This is the order the questions will get asked. This billboard is implying that no matter what your current situation is (single, married, have one kid already) there is still one more dreaded question waiting for you.
  • Question 6: starting in 2016, the famous “One Child Policy” was officially updated to be the “Two Child Policy.” Hence, the chance to get asked about a second child. By just observing the Chinese mom’s around me, it seems like a whole bunch of families are making use of the new law!

Question 7

  • This is a hilarious and awkwardly realistic question to be asked by family members and friends. But again, just because talking openly about weight problems is common in China doesn’t mean they all enjoy it. Otherwise, why would it be on the “10 Dreaded Questions” list?

Question 8

  • There is an interesting tension in China: come home for the holidays vs. go travel for the holidays. With the growing popularity and status associated with “international” experience, I can imagine young people going home for the holidays and getting mixed messages about “nice to have you home but why aren’t you out traveling?”


  • I could only find 8 questions. Can anyone look at the picture and find the other 2…?

Gǒu Nián Kuài Lè! 狗年快乐! Happy Year of the Dog! 

Google commemorates Zhou Youguang

Pīnyīn News - Sun, 01/14/2018 - 08:13

Yesterday (January 13, 2018), Google marked the 112th birthday of Zhou Youguang, the father of Hanyu Pinyin, with one of its doodles. (Click the image to see the animated version.)

Google’s description didn’t note Zhou’s remarkable longevity. He lived to see his 111th birthday!

One bit of the description is misleading: “[Hanyu Pinyin] bridged multiple Chinese dialects with its shared designations of sound.” First, what are commonly referred to as “dialects” are actually separate languages (e.g., Cantonese, Hakka, Hoklo). Second, Hanyu Pinyin is designed for modern standard Mandarin, not for other languages, though it could be used as the basis for writing systems for Sinitic languages other than Mandarin; this did not happen on a wide scale, however, because the government of the People’s Republic of China has worked to suppress Sinitic languages other than Mandarin — to say nothing of the languages of Tibetans and other minorities.

A few points are noteworthy about the sketches, specifically the inclusion of Gǔgē, the Mandarin name for Google, written in zhuyin fuhao (a.k.a. bopomofo) (ㄍㄨˇㄍㄜ) and Gwoyeu Romatzyh (guuge) — the doubled vowel indicates third tone.

It’s also interesting that the doodle was shown on Google in Japan, China, and Singapore, but not in Taiwan, where Hanyu Pinyin is official but generally used on street signs rather than in personal names.

Thanks to Alex for the tip.

Pinyin-friendly display faces at Google Fonts

Pīnyīn News - Sat, 01/13/2018 - 08:19

As of January 9, 2018, Google Fonts had 848 font families, 183 of which are display faces. Of those, the following 20 can handle Hanyu Pinyin with tone marks.

Pinyin-friendly handwriting faces at Google Fonts

Pīnyīn News - Fri, 01/12/2018 - 11:51

As of January 9, 2018, Google Fonts had 848 font families, 80 of which are handwriting faces. Of those, just 3 can handle Hanyu Pinyin with tone marks.

  • Dekko (Caveat: Although Dekko handles some seldom-seen diacritics, it doesn’t deal well with curved apostrophes or quotation marks, so use it with caution.)
  • Itim
  • Sriracha

Pinyin-friendly monospace faces at Google Fonts

Pīnyīn News - Thu, 01/11/2018 - 11:17

As of January 9, 2018, Google Fonts had 848 font families, 7 of which are monospace faces. Of those, 4 can handle Hanyu Pinyin with tone marks.

Pinyin-friendly sans serif faces at Google Fonts

Pīnyīn News - Wed, 01/10/2018 - 12:03

As of January 9, 2018, Google Fonts had 848 font families, 134 of which are sans serif faces. Of those, 22 can handle Hanyu Pinyin with tone marks.

Pinyin-friendly serif faces at Google Fonts

Pīnyīn News - Tue, 01/09/2018 - 12:14

As of January 9, 2018, Google Fonts had 848 font families, 114 of which are serif faces. Of those, the following 22 can handle Hanyu Pinyin with tone marks.

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