sign of ignorance

I came across an article today about some sign designers working in China. The title alone, “Graphics That Bridge a Linguistic Divide”, was enough to raise a red flag (pun not intended), because for many it will evoke the widespread myth that Chinese characters transcend languages.

The designers were describing the making of a large sign for the “Suzhou International Exposition Centre” (苏州国际博览中心 Sūzhōu guójì bólǎn zhōngxīn).

Here’s a good example of the problems with their remarks:

“The last two characters for Centre–it’s interesting they went with the British spelling–are actually redundant,” Calori says. “Often you see the seventh character–it means ‘middle’–for center. But the client also added the eighth character, which is the symbol of ‘heart.’ The heart is the middle, so they reinforce each other. This was a total embellishment.” Adds Vanden-Eynden: “They wanted the warm, fuzzy heart center, as opposed to the cold, hard center of hell.”

This is so wrongheaded and absurd it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry. The client didn’t add the eighth character (心). It’s used in writing the word for “center,” which is zhōngxīn (中心). The only thing “fuzzy” here is the thinking behind this nonsense. It’s possible, though, that the designers aren’t responsible for this way of thinking; few Chinese people are aware of how their own writing system works and thus tend to believe such crap.

Colors: … “There are certain colors, you don’t use. White, for instance, is the color of death. It’s like directing people to a funeral.”

Well, yes, white can have that connotation. But white is the background color of the sign! Are the designers saying they wanted to direct people to a funeral? Of course not. The reality is that white has that connotation only in certain contexts. So what’s all this talk about leading people to a funeral? Sheesh.

Letters vs. Characters: … “Each character is really an idea,” Calori says.


“They’re called ideograms.”

Although some people, through ignorance or force of habit, might use this unfortunate term, the fact remains that Chinese characters aren’t ideograms.

The pullbox giving “character dissection” is also an embarrassment. Almost everything there is wrong or at least misleading. They couldn’t even get many of the tones right.

But the article isn’t a total washout. A few points are of interest.

Sizing: English characters tend to be heavy compositionally, while Chinese is complex and delicate. “So we always size Chinese twenty percent taller to give it balance,” Vanden-Eynden says.

Type Position: The Chinese characters appear here in the “superior” position, on the left side. “In Hong Kong, before the handover, English always appeared first,” Vanden-Eynden says. “On the mainland today, Chinese is always in the superior position, but the Chinese still want English on all their signs, even if there are no tourists around, because to them it makes it look like [they are part of] the 21st century.”

Fonts: Due to the seemingly infinite nature of Chinese, there are a limited amount of usable fonts. “Unlike here, you don’t have 10,000 readable options,” Vanden-Eynden says. “You have what they call the big five type faces.”

12 thoughts on “sign of ignorance

  1. “The last two characters for Centre. . .are actually redundant”

    that and much of what they say in the article is so ridiculously ignorant, they can’t really have been in china since 1998. it’s all so wrong, it sounds like they’re making it up as they go along. how does one spend so much time in a country, but learn next to nothing about the language spoken and written there? from their tone, it sounds like they couldn’t be bothered to learn anything from the chinese thru sheer ethnocentricity. i almost wish i hadn’t just eaten, because i think i’m going to be sick.

  2. I suspect you’re right there, Max. If those guys have trouble distinguishing more than five Chinese typefaces, they must have an awful time telling Times and Garamond apart…

  3. Doug Hofstadter’s “Metamagical Themas” (p244) addresses just this point, using 23 variants of the Chinese character for “black” from a graphic design catalogue to show the wealth of typographical variation. A limited number may well be most common – a Google suggests KaiTi, SongTi, FangSong, LiShu, HeiTi and YouYuan – but (as with the Western dominance of Roman and Helvetica and their clones) that’d be down to convention rather than legibility.

  4. It’s true that there are tons of presentation-type fonts (a brief glance at magazine covers should confirm that), but truly readable ones for body text don’t have that kind of variety – pick up two major English-language newspapers and you’ll likely find two different house typestyles, but the same can’t be said for Chinese papers. Youyuan may be fine for kids’ fable books, but it’s not that great for longer blocks of text. Lishu even less so.

    It may be convention, but it may also be simply that designing an alphabetic typestyle is far, far simpler than the effort it would take to design a consistent new style of printed Chinese characters (check out the more obscure characters in dictionaries for some truly ugly ad-hoc designs).

  5. I read the linked article on ‘ideograms’ with interest, but can I make a suggestion in defence of Champollion who is credited with originating the term? If Champollion was composing this neologism from Greek, isn’t it likely that the ‘ideo-‘ in ideogram for him reflected the meaning in Greek of he idea, namely something like ‘outward appearance, form’ and not something like the English term ‘idea’, which has all sorts of connotations that might lead to an erroneous understanding of what Champollion understood these ‘ideograms’ to do? Just a suggestion.

  6. I’m not so sure about this. It’s not a testiment to the economy of the Chinese language, it’s a function of shared Chinese culture.

    Four characters: Hua she tian zu, Draw snake add feet. Means to do something superfluously out of a feeling of inadequacy. You’d think the Chinese have said it more economically, but all you need to do is know the back story. Four guys, one bottle of wine. They had a snake drawing competition to see who got it. One guy finished first. When he saw the others still drawing, he thought there must be something missing from his drawing, so he added feet.

    I can say “too many cooks” and all the other Americans around the table know what I’m talking about. The Chinese guy has to say a lot more words to convey this.

  7. Hua she tian zu.
    Too man-y cooks.

    Looks like the same number of syllables to me. Also, the Chinese saying is complete as is, while you’ve shortened the English by half.

  8. I completely agree with your opinions on the matter, especially the thing about comprehending a BACKGROUND color as referring to a funeral (It’s as if they think if any Chinese person writes ANYTHING in red, it means “good luck”).

    And, agreeing with some other commenters, it really doesn’t seem like they lived in China since 1998. I’ve been studying Chinese just a bit over a year and I find what they’re saying slightly strange. You can’t just go up to someone and say “?” or just “?” and expect that they’ll understand that you mean “center,” the word just happens to be ??.

    They do, however, have somewhat of a point that sometimes you can understand what a compound word means by splitting it up character by character.

    However, the character dissection is somewhat funny at points, since the box there, being larger, means “enclosure” and (in the Simplified version) the ? inside means king (king in an enclosure = ? guo2 = country), while in the Traditional version ?, the inside was more of a phonetic complement to give it a “uo” sound, which can still be found in the expression ?? (hUO 4-zhe3).

  9. Patrick: Yes, red’s a good example. Some Chinese would definitely not care to receive something written in red ink, especially with their name on it (even though name chops always use red).

    As for dissecting characters, that can be useful. But people need to be careful not to conflate that with necessarily discovering the etymology or, worse, the “real meaning” of the words themselves — or to take the exercise too far. That sort of thing can lead people into the pigpen or into misunderstandings of biblical proportions.

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