New database of cross-strait differences in Mandarin goes online

Last week, on the same day President Ma Ying-jeou accepted the resignation of a minister who made some drunken lewd remarks at a w?iyá (year-end office party), Ma was joking to the media about blow jobs.


screenshot from a video of a news story on this

But it was all for a good cause, of course. You see, the Mandarin expression chu? l?ba, when not referring to the literal playing of a trumpet, is usually taken in Taiwan to refer to a blow job. But in China, Ma explained, chu? l?ba means the same thing as the idiom p?i m?pì (pat/kiss the horse’s ass — i.e., flatter). And now that we have the handy-dandy Zh?nghuá Y?wén Zh?shikù (Chinese Language Database), which Ma was announcing, we can look up how Mandarin differs in Taiwan and China, and thus not get tripped up by such misunderstandings. Or at least that’s supposed to be the idea.

The database, which is the result of cross-strait cooperation, can be accessed via two sites: one in Taiwan, the other in China.

It’s clear that a lot of money has been spent on this. For example, many entries are accompanied by well-documented, precise explanations by distinguished lexicographers. Ha! Just kidding! Many entries are really accompanied by videos — some two hundred of them — of cutesy puppets gabbing about cross-strait differences in Mandarin expressions. But if there’s a video in there of the panda in the skirt explaining to the sheep in the vest that a useful skill for getting ahead in Chinese society is chu? l?ba, I haven’t found it yet. Will NMA will take up the challenge?

Much of the site emphasizes not so much language as Chinese characters. For example, another expensively produced video feeds the ideographic myth by showing off obscure Hanzi, such as the one for ch?ng.

WARNING: The screenshot below links to a video that contains scenes with intense wawa-ing and thus may not be suitable for anyone who thinks it’s not really cute for grown women to try to sound like they’re only thwee-and-a-half years old.


In a welcome bit of synchronicity, Victor Mair posted on Language Log earlier the same week on the unpredictability of Chinese character formation and pronunciation, briefly discussing just such patterns of duplication, triplication, etc.

Mair notes:

Most of these characters are of relatively low frequency and, except for a few of them, neither their meanings nor their pronunciations are known by persons of average literacy.

Many more such characters consisting or two, three, or four repetitions of the same character exist, and their sounds and meanings are in most cases equally or more opaque.

The Hanzi for ch?ng (which looks like ??? run together as one character) in the video above is sufficiently obscure that it likely won’t be shown correctly in many browsers on most systems when written in real text: ????. But never fear: It’s already in Unicode and so should be appearing one of these years in a massively bloated system font.

Further reinforcing the impression that the focus is on Chinese characters, Liú Zhàoxuán, who is the head of the association in charge of the project on the Taiwan side, equated traditional Chinese characters with Chinese culture itself and declared that getting the masses in China to recognize them is an important mission. (Liu really needs to read Lü Shuxiang’s “Comparing Chinese Characters and a Chinese Spelling Script — an evening conversation on the reform of Chinese characters.”)

Then he went on about how Chinese characters are a great system because, supposedly, they have a one-to-one correspondence with language that other scripts cannot match and people can know what they mean by looking at them (!) and that they therefore have a high degree of artistic quality (g?odù de yìshùxìng). Basically, the person in charge of this project seems to have a bad case of the Like Wow syndrome, which is not a reassuring trait for someone in charge of producing a dictionary.

The same cooperation that built the Web sites led to a new book, Li?ng’àn M?irì Y? Cí (???????? / Roughly: Cross-Strait Term-a-Day Book), which was also touted at the press conference.

The book contains Hanyu Pinyin, as well as zhuyin fuhao. But, alas, the book makes the Pinyin look ugly and fails completely at the first rule of Pinyin: use word parsing. (In the online images from the book, such as the one below, all of the words are se pa ra ted in to syl la bles.)

The Web site also has ugly Pinyin, with the CSS file for the Taiwan site calling for Pinyin to be shown in SimSun, which is one of the fonts it’s better not to use for Pinyin. But the word parsing on the Web site is at least not always wrong. Here are a few examples.

  • “???” is given as p?oshénr (good).
  • And apostrophes appear to be used correctly: e.g., fàn’?n (??), ch?n’?n (??), and f?i’?n (??).
  • But “???” is run together as “dìèrch?n” (no hyphen) rather than as shown correctly as dì-èr ch?n.
  • And “??????” is given as yí?e tóu li?n??e dà (for Taiwan) and y??e tóu li?n??e dà (for China). But ge is supposed to be written separately. (The variation of tone for yi is in this case useful.)

Still, my general impression from this is that we should not expect the forthcoming cross-strait dictionary to be very good.

Further reading:

4 thoughts on “New database of cross-strait differences in Mandarin goes online

  1. That would match DeFrancis’ “morphosyllabic.”
    One of the odd things about Liu’s comments are that he mentioned that what has allowed Hanzi to grow as a script is the use of PHONETIC + BUSHOU, which is correct. But then he still fell back on myths.

  2. I checked the website and I don’t think it is that bad (at first glance).

    Ok, the font for Pinyin is not nice (maybe someone can create a custom css stylesheet for that?), but apart from that, it seems quite nice. It also gives seperate Taiwan/Mainland pronounciations, e.g. for ?? or ?? or ??, but unfortunately not for ??.
    Also, one cannot link directly to the entries. That’s a little unfortunately if one wants to link to differences e.g. in a internet forum.

  3. When I saw that piece of news on Ma Yingjiu explaining about the different usages, I sniggered and then told my roommate at work (in Beijing) what the story was about. She sniggered even more. Turns out chui laba can also very much mean blowjob on the mainland.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>