Chunghwa, Chunghua, Zhonghua

My previous post on postage stamps with Bopomofo (Zhuyin fuhao) mentioned Taiwan’s postal service, Chunghwa Post, which is terrifically efficient at delivering mail but which made an odd choice in romanization in its English name however many years ago . The Mandarin is Zhōnghuá Yóuzhèng in Hanyu Pinyin. But the post office spells its name


logo for Chunghwa Post Co., Ltd

Chung is clearly Wade-Giles. (It probably would be bastardized Wade-Giles; but in this case chung rather than ch’ung is correct – so, luck of the draw.) Yet hwa does not exist in Wade-Giles, which uses hua. So where is that hwa coming from? The only system that uses hwa and has been official in Taiwan is Gwoyeu Romatzyh.

The Yale system, devised by George Kennedy, also uses hwa; but despite occasional confusion by reporters and others, Taiwan has never used the Yale system. Instead, what many people mistakenly believe is Yale is instead MPS2.

I’m afraid, though, that I don’t have a definitive answer for how Taiwan ended up with the portmanteau spelling of Chunghwa. I suspect that what happened is that the initial intention was to go with the country’s official romanization system, which, way back when, was Gwoyeu Romatzyh (“GR” for short), even if you wouldn’t know that from signage or maps or just about anything but long-distance buses. But using GR would have yielded Jonghwa, which would likely struck people accustomed to seeing 中 romanized as chung as “looking weird” (even though chung is hardly an intuitive spelling for native speakers of English for what is zhong in Hanyu Pinyin). So they kept the chung but then went ahead with hwa, which is not so different than Wade-Giles’s hua. At least that’s my guess, based on having followed romanization in Taiwan for decades.

The odd choice of Chunghwa is not limited to just the postal system. The main telephone system uses it as well: Chunghwa Telecom.

logo for Chunghwa Telecom

If Taiwan ever gets a broader rectification of names under which the Republic of China (Zhōnghuá Mínguó) — not to be confused with the People’s Republic of China (Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó) — is simply called “Taiwan,” that would likely remove the issue. The spelling of Taiwan is certainly standard and the same across most romanization systems – with the notable exception of Gwoyeu Romatzyh, which would give us Tairuan. (GR’s fuunny sperlinqs strike again!)

Taiwan issues bopomofo postage stamps

On Monday, March 20, Taiwan’s Chunghwa Post (Zhōnghuá Yóuzhèng / 中華郵政) issued new stamps commemorating Zhuyin Fuhao (aka bopomofo, bopo mofo, or bpmf).

This week’s release of NT$6 (about US$0.20) stamps covers the first ten letters of bopomofo: 「ㄅ、ㄆ、ㄇ、ㄈ、ㄉ、ㄊ、ㄋ、ㄌ、ㄍ、ㄎ」.

Zhuyin Fuhao Hanyu Pinyin

On the stamps, each letter/symbol is paired with a place (e.g., (M) is for 馬公 (Magong, the capital of Penghu).

I bought a nice sheet of the stamps earlier. Get ’em while they’re hot!

Full sheet of two blocks of "5 by 2 block s of  postage stamps of various colors, each highlighting a different zhuyin fuhao/bopomofo letter/symbol. Extra material on the sheet describes the stamps and gives tone marks.

5 by 2 block of  postage stamps of various colors, each highlighting a different zhuyin fuhao/bopomofo letter/symbol.


OMG, another rabbit pun!

photo detailing ad described in the post, with cartoon rabbits and other cutesy animals outside a school

Another pun for the Year of the Rabbit

Back to Schoo!! [sic]

This is notable mainly for writing the word “tūrán” (“suddenly”) as “兔然” rather than properly as “突然”.

The key is that “兔” is the character used in writing “tùzi” (rabbit), as in the Year of the Rabbit. (I took the photo last month.) Thus, here we have a Mandarin-Mandarin pun rather than a Mandarin-English one like the one I posted earlier.

So the ad is basically saying, “Oh my god! A new year / school semester is suddenly upon us [so we’d better update our computers and get Microsoft 365].”

I wish they’d bothered to get “school” correct, though.

Turkey, Türkiye, and Chinese characters

Turkish flag

Victor Mair’s recent post at Language Log on Transcription vs. transliteration vs. translation in cartography brought to mind last year’s Turkey/Türkiye situation, which I meant to write about at the time but never did. Briefly, the Turkish government basically said, “We’d like the world to stop calling the country ‘Turkey’ and use ‘Türkiye’ instead.” (As far as I know, the government didn’t call for a revision of “Turkish.”)

A lot of countries agreed to go along with the switch. Last month the United States officially jumped on board as well — sort of. The U.S. State Department’s web page on this currently states, “The official conventional long-form and short-form names remain “Republic of Turkey” and “Turkey”, respectively. “Republic of Türkiye” should be used in formal and diplomatic contexts. The conventional names may be used in place of or alongside “Türkiye” in appropriate instances, including U.S. government cartographic products, as it is more widely understood by the American public.”

But, this being a site that focuses mainly on matters related to Mandarin, I’m more interested in what China and Taiwan did.

It turns out that both China and Taiwan agreed to adopt the form “Türkiye.” In practice, though, that relates mainly to those governments issuing releases in English. But what about the Mandarin name of the country, which has been “Tǚ’ěrqí” (written “土耳其” in Chinese characters).

As Yin Binyong, who was the main force in the orthography of Hanyu Pinyin, noted in “Transliteration of Foreign Place Names and Personal Names“:

A small number of foreign names are translated into Putonghua according to meaning, or a combination of meaning and pronunciation; the great majority are transliterated, i.e. translated according to pronunciation.

(Following Mair, though, we should read “transcription” for “transliteration.” The language of the original publication was English, which is why the quote appears as such.)

“Tǚ’ěrqí” belongs to the third category; it is just a phonetic approximation of “Turkey.” (For those unfamiliar with Pinyin or Mandarin, Tu’erqi is pronounced very roughly like “to” + “her” (minus the h sound) + the “chee” in cheese.) Among Mandarin’s 410 or so syllable sounds (not counting tones), there is nothing much like key. But the ye in Türkiye would not be a problem for Mandarin speakers.

If the governments of China and Taiwan really wanted to show their respect for the change from Turkey to Türkiye, they could come up with new Mandarin names that would do a better job of matching the pronunciation of Türkiye than Tu’erqi. But they haven’t. Tu’erqi/土耳其 remains, and this is unlikely to change. Note, for example, how the Xinhua article listed below calls “Türkiye” not the name but the foreign-language name (waiwen) of Tu’erqi.

Of course, how much respect the government of Taiwan owes the government of Turkey — er, Türkiye, which has become somewhat cozy with the PRC, might be worth considering as well. But that’s heading off-topic.

Further reading:

Pinyin, US trademark law, and myths about Chinese characters

芝麻 vs. ZHIMA

The Mandarin word for “sesame” is zhīma (written “芝麻” in Chinese characters). That’s all the Mandarin anyone will need to know for this post. But if any of you non-Mandarin speakers are curious, an approximate pronunciation would be the je in jerk + ma (with the a as in father).

OK, let’s get into it now.

Everyone knows open sesame from the story of Ali Baba and the forty thieves, thought Jack Ma, when he was deciding upon a name for his new company. Alibaba Group Holding Limited is now one of China’s and indeed one of the world’s largest companies. So it’s no surprise that “open sesame” and just plain ol’ “sesame” are still very much associated with the company. And yet the company was acting as if this were not so, at least when it comes to Pinyin.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board recently ruled finally against a trademark application by Advanced New Technologies Co. (hereafter “Applicant”), which was acting on behalf of Alibaba. The mark applied for was “ZHIMA” (as such). The application (serial no. 86832288) was originally filed on November 25, 2015; Applicant requested reconsideration after earlier rejections.

The trademark office has a longstanding rule that trademark applications must, “if the mark includes non-English wording,” include “an English translation of that wording.” But Alibaba didn’t want to do that. The U.S. trademark board ruling lists some of the claims put forth by those arguing for Alibaba.

Applicant refused to submit the required statement for the following reasons:

  1. There are no Chinese characters (or other non-Latin characters) in Applicant’s Mark;
  2. A purported meaning of Chinese characters (or any nonLatin characters of even designs or stylizations) cannot be attached to a mark that does not contain such characters);
  3. Even if similar lettering is used as a transliteration of Chinese characters, Applicant’s Mark, ZHIMA – the only wording at issue – is not a transliteration of Chinese characters;
  4. Applicant’s Mark ZHIMA is not a translation of Chinese characters;
  5. Applicant’s Mark does not mean “sesame” in English;
  6. There is no logical or acceptable reason to ascribe the meaning of any Chinese characters to Applicant’s Mark. Applicant’s Latin-character Mark is a coined word with no translation in a foreign language or meaning which can be attributed.

Applicant concludes that ZHIMA is a coined term, not a foreign word; therefore, a translation/transliteration statement is not necessary.

Although I’m not a lawyer, I do know a thing or two about Pinyin, Chinese characters, and the difference between languages (e.g., Mandarin, English, Swahili, Hebrew) and scripts (the means of writing those languages, e.g., Chinese characters, the Roman alphabet, the Hebrew alphabet). So I feel confident in stating that Alibaba’s claims were risible.

The ruling also quotes the Applicant as claiming that “it is the Chinese characters which translate to ‘sesame’ and that ‘zhima’ is merely a transliteration/pronunciation of these Chinese characters.”

The ruling sums that up as follows: “In other words, according to Applicant the Chinese characters 芝麻 pronounced ZHIMA mean ‘sesame,’ but ‘Zhima’ itself has no meaning.” Elsewhere in the ruling there is this:

Applicant argues, in essence, that while the Chinese characters pronounced ZHIMA means “sesame,” ZHIMA, in and of itself, has no meaning. This is because “the Latin characters ‘zhima’ or ‘zhi ma’ merely represent the transliteration/sounds of particular Chinese characters that are not part of the mark as filed” (i.e., ZHIMA). Without the Chinese characters, ZHIMA has no meaning.

I believe most people would have no trouble laughing at the claim that zhima (the way to write in Pinyin the Mandarin word for sesame) has “no meaning” but is merely something coined by the company. Would anyone believe that this was just some sort of coincidence?

The authorities at the Patent and Trademark Office of course had no trouble finding plenty of examples of zhima being used as such to write the Mandarin word for sesame, including by Alibaba itself. And so the application for a U.S. trademark on “ZHIMA” as a coined word that was supposedly not Mandarin at all but merely something without meaning was rejected once and for all. Importantly, this decision sets a precedent, which should help stop such claims in the future.

Although I’m pleased that the correct decision was reached, I don’t think the decision was necessarily a foregone conclusion, however obviously absurd the claims of Alibaba were. The problem is that a lot of people — including many who really should know better — actually believe nonsense like Chinese characters are necessary to convey the meaning of Mandarin words. The truth is that Mandarin is a language, and Chinese characters and Hanyu Pinyin are scripts (means for writing that language). Chinese characters are not some sort of über language. And, by extension, no matter how many times such claims are repeated, even in what would normally be considered reputable sources, there is no such thing as an “ideographic language” or a “logographic language.”

Speech is primary, not secondary, to the existence of a living language. If by some sort of quirk in the universe every single Chinese character vanished from the face of the Earth, Mandarin would still exist, hundreds of millions of people would still be speaking it with one another, and the Mandarin word for sesame would still be zhima, regardless of how one might write it or what the lawyers for a huge company claim.

Further reading: “Open Sesame” Without Translation Won’t Open Door to Trademark Registration, Lexicology, February 2, 2023

Atomic Enema Gwoyeu Romatzyh

box for a product with the English name of Atomic Enema

I know what you’re thinking: “Man, look at the weird romanization in that address!” ;-)

Say what you will against the Gwoyeu Romatzyh romanization system for Mandarin (or “GR” for short) — its quirkiness, its unnecessary complications, its counter-intuitiveness for those who don’t know its rules (much more so than with Hanyu Pinyin). But at least in the few instances where it’s still seen in the wild, it’s usually spelled correctly.

That’s not the case here.

The address for the manufacturer, the Health Chemical Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd., is given as

No.12, Yeou-4th Rd., Ta-Chia Yowshy Ind. Dist.

  • yeou = Hanyu Pinyin yǒu — misspelled GR (should be “yow,” which is “yòu” in HP); this is all the more strange given that the company gets “yow” correct elsewhere in the same line
  • ta = HP dà — essentially correct Wade-Giles (not GR)
  • chia = HP jiǎ — essentially correct Wade-Giles (not GR)
  • yow = HP yòu — correct GR
  • shy = HP shī — misspelled GR (should be syh)

This is definitely misspelled Gwoyeu Romatzyh rather than a different system (such as MPS2, which is often seen in the boondocks of Taiwan).

And the city name is given as “Taichung,” which is bastardized Wade-Giles (for what would be spelled “Taizhong” in Hanyu Pinyin). But since that is the standard spelling in Taiwan, one can’t blame the company for this.

And at least the company didn’t get “4th” wrong, which is more than can be said for the Taichung City Government, as shown by a sign near the factory. (From Google Street View.)

The source of the other misspellings will likely remain enema-migmatic.

Street sign reading 'You 4rd Rd.'

Big Pinyin on Chengdu Storefronts

Fan Yiying and Gu Peng have posted a story at Sixth Tone that is both surprising and not surprising at all: State Media Criticizes Chengdu Shop Signs in Romanized Chinese.

The main points I’d like to make about this are:

  • Word-parsing matters.
  • Hundreds of millions of people in China use Hanyu Pinyin on a daily basis but still do not know how Pinyin is meant to work as an orthographic system.
  • The government of China, though it needs Pinyin, is in many ways hostile to it.
  • The fonts available for writing the Roman alphabet (and thus Pinyin) far exceed those for writing Chinese characters, so there is nothing in the least artistically limiting about Pinyin per se. (Whether Chinese characters are intrinsically more beautiful than the Roman alphabet is another matter.)

Here are some screenshots from the video mentioned in the article. Note: This isn’t the loveliest voice ever….

Sorry about the triangles on the photos, which make the shots look like videos. I wasn’t good at capturing screenshots without pausing the video, which made the triangles appear.

signs reading DIAN XIAN DIAN LAN, etc.

signs reading HONG DA TU WEN and MIAN DAO



ER LIANG WAN ZA MIAN sign in Chinese characters

Who you callin’ “grandma”?!

Late last year a police officer in Taichung (Taizhong), Taiwan, was checking on a fifty-something-year-old woman when he made the mistake of addressing her as “ama” (Taiwanese for “grandmother,” and generally preferred here to Mandarin forms for elderly women).

Addressing a fifty-something Taiwanese woman even as “ayi” (auntie) would be inadvisable, assuming, of course, she’s not your actual aunt. But “ama”?

I pity the fool.

In response to complaints, the police have come up with guidelines for how to address members of the public, and most terms are now discouraged.

Tǒngyī lǜ dìng 4 zhǒng chēnghu, rúguǒ shì niánqīng rén, kàn shì xuéshēng, bù fēn nánnǚ, tǒngyī chēnghu “tóngxué,” rúguǒ shì niánqīng nǚxìng, tǒngyī chēnghu “xiǎojiě,” zīshēn (niánzhǎng) nǚxìng zé shì tǒngyī chēnghu “nǚshì,” zhìyú nánxìng, chúle niánqīng xuéshēng zhī wài, dōu chēnghu “xiānshēng.”


So there are now four categories:

  • young people (regardless of gender) who look like students: tóngxué (a term used to refer to students or one’s classmates)
  • young women: xiǎojiě (miss, Ms.)
  • older women: nǚshì (this one’s tricky; it’s more formal than “ma’am”; more like “madame,” I suppose).
  • men who look older than students: xiānshēng (mister, sir)

As I remarked above, “nǚshì” is a bit tricky, but not just in terms of translation. It’s quite formal and something people usually would write rather than say. Consider, for example, how one might begin a letter to a stranger “Dear [name]”; but if you were standing in front of that person you would not begin a conversation with them with the same words.

So, if in doubt, call a Taiwanese woman “xiǎojiě.” But calling a Chinese woman “xiaojie” is not a good idea these days (if not used in combination with a surname), though it was fine when I lived in China back in the early 1990s.

By the way, if you ever need to see if a font face will handle Hanyu Pinyin with tone marks well, “nǚshì” is an excellent test word, as “ǚ” is the combination of letter and tone least likely to be supported.

Further reading: