Sign in seal script

It’s time again to play What’s That Character?

Feel free to ask others what they think, though enlisting the aid of historians and calligraphy masters would count as cheating, as all of these examples are not from a museum or a calligraphy scroll but from a sign outside a building meant to be read by all.

Chinese character number one:

Chinese character number two:

And Chinese character number three:

OK? Ready?

Here are the answers:

How’d you do?


If you got even one right, hái bùcuò. That’s probably as well as or better than the average person literate in Chinese characters.

Here is the entire sign, which will probably make things much clearer.

If you’re a Mandarin speaker and used to reading Chinese characters, you can probably tell what the entire sign says without too much effort. But as this exercise may help to show, that is not because most people can truly read all the characters but because they can fill in the blanks, as it were, when presented with adequate context. Yes, those are all written in seal script, not in a modern style; but seal script is all that is given on the sign.

I want to stress that this isn’t a sign for a historical museum or even the Cultural Bureau. Nope, it’s for the Xinbei City Government’s Environmental Protection Department, here in lovely Banqiao. Those used to the ways of Taiwan (or maybe just the ways of the world) have probably already correctly guessed that it was the director who thought a seal-script font would be a good idea. (See the news stories below for more on that. Although the reports are from a couple of years ago, I took the photos just a couple of weeks ago.)

Don’t forget: If you want to put Chinese characters or tonal Pinyin in your comments, use the encoder first and copy and paste the results into the comments box.

News stories:

Dissolving Pinyin

Late last week, Victor Mair — with some assistance from Matt Anderson, David Moser, me, and others — wrote in “Lobsters”: a perplexing stop motion film about a short 1959 film from China that gives some Pinyin. In some cases, the Pinyin is presented for a second and then is quickly dissolved into Chinese characters. Since Victor’s post supplies only the text, I thought that I’d supplement that here with images from the film.

See the original post for translations and discussion.

The film often shows a newspaper. The headline (at 7:57) reads (or rather should read, since the first word is misspelled):



But since the image above doesn’t show the name of the paper, I’m also offering this rotated and cropped photo, that allows us to see that this is the “JIN YUAN DIGUO RI-BAO”

Elsewhere, there are again some g’s for q’s. For the first example of text dissolving from Pinyin to Chinese characters (at 2:11), I’m offering screenshots of the text in Pinyin, the text during the dissolve, and the text in Chinese characters. Later I’ll give just the Pinyin and Chinese characters.

Hongdang Louwang
Yipi hongdang zai daogi [sic] jiudian jihui buxing guanbu [sic] louwang




Soon thereafter (at 2:44), we get a handwritten note.


At 3:39 we’re shown the printed notice in the newspaper of the above text.


A brief glance at the newspaper at 3:23 gives us FA CHOU, which is probably referring to the stink the bad lobsters are giving off.

Here a man is carrying a copy of Zibenlun (Das Kapital), by Makesi (Marx).

Actually, it’s not really Das Kapital, just the cover of the book; inside is a stack of decadent Western material. “MEI NE” is probably supposed to be “MEINÜ” (beautiful women).

I imagine that, in the PRC of 1959, the artists for this film must have inwardly rejoiced at the chance to draw something like that for a change, and that is also why there’s a nude on the wall in one scene.

Pinyin font: Skarpa

Today’s Pinyin-friendly font is Skarpa, by Aga Silva of Poland. It’s a bit quirky (e.g., second-tone o’s and lowercase q’s) but still sharp.

Hanyu Pinyin pangram using the Skarpa font

Skarpa was later modified into Skarpa 2, which is not free but which comes in several weights and types.

Most of Silva’s other fonts also can handle Pinyin with tone marks. Those are all commercial rather than free.

AP exams: using highest and lowest scores to look at the case of Chinese

The results of the Advanced Placement exams from the College Board can give us an idea of what’s going on with the teaching of Mandarin Chinese in U.S. high schools.

As the charts below demonstrate, there’s something very different about the scores for the AP exam in Chinese Language and Culture compared with the scores for just about everything else.

The tests are graded on a five-point scale, with a 5 being the top score. Generally, a 3 is considered a pass, though some universities choose to give or deny credit based on different scores.

The first chart shows the percentage of of test takers who received a score of just 1 (lowest) on their respective AP exams. The median of the figures below for the percentage of test takers who received the lowest score is 18.2. The figure for Chinese (in green, at 3.2) is just 0.18 times that. Studio Art Drawing and Studio Art 2-D Design are at about the same level here as Chinese Language and Culture. But everything else is at least twice that — in most cases many times that.

AP Exams Taken by the Class of 2013 During High School: Percent of Exams with the Lowest Score
(click any chart to enlarge it)

So, relatively speaking, almost no one received the lowest score on the AP Chinese Language and Culture exam.

What about the highest score? The median of the figures below for the percentage of test takers who received the highest score (of 5) on their respective AP exams is 13.9. The figure for Chinese is 5.0 times that.

AP Exams Taken by the Class of 2013 During High School: Percent of Exams with the Highest Score
Advanced Placement exams, showing the percentages earning the top score on different AP tests

Finally, below is a chart putting the differences into greater perspective. It shows the ratio of highest scores to lowest scores on various AP exams.

The median of the figures below for the ratio of highest scores to lowest scores on the AP exams is 0.8. The figure for Chinese is 27.1 times that.

As is obvious from the image below, nothing else is even close.

AP Exams Taken by the Class of 2013 During High School: Ratio of Highest Scores to Lowest Scores

The reason for this massive difference is that the Advanced Placement exam for Chinese Language and Culture is taken mainly by native speakers and others who generally have not had to learn most of their Mandarin in their high school AP classes. This doesn’t bode well for newcomers to the language who want to learn. But as lopsided as the situation is, things are improving. More on that in later posts.

source: The 10th Annual AP Report to the Nation, February 11, 2014

See also Results of US AP exams: first year for Mandarin, Japanese, Pinyin News, February 14, 2008.

Pinyin font: Noto

I shouldn’t go too long without mentioning Google’s ambitious Noto project, which offers both serif and sans-serif versions: Noto Serif and Noto Sans.

When text is rendered by a computer, sometimes there will be characters in the text that can not be displayed, because no font that supports them is available to the computer. When this occurs, small boxes are shown to represent the characters. We call those small boxes “tofu,” and we want to remove tofu from the Web. This is how the Noto font families got their name.

Noto helps to make the web more beautiful across platforms for all languages. Currently, Noto covers over 30 scripts, and will cover all of Unicode in the future. This is the Sans Latin, Greek and Cyrillic family. It has Regular, Bold, Italic and Bold Italic styles and is hinted. It is derived from Droid, and like Droid it has a serif sister family, Noto Serif.

Noto fonts for many other languages are available as web fonts from the Google Web Fonts Early Access page.

Noto fonts are intended to be visually harmonious across multiple languages, with compatible heights and stroke thicknesses.

(Emphasis added.)

And it’s free, of course.



Diing Dong

A doubled vowel is a sure sign of the Gwoyeu Romatzyh romanization system — except when it’s a sign of someone wrongly omitting an apostrophe in Hanyu Pinyin or simply making a typo. But today’s example is certainly Gwoyeu Romatzyh, as, oddly enough, the side of a coach bus is one of the most likely places in Taiwan to spot an example of that romanization system. I’m seeing it less and less as the years go by, though, which saddens me.

Here, however, is a nice example that looks fairly new. I took the photo along Taidong’s lovely coastline a couple of weeks ago.

Diing Dong Bus (Pinyin: Ding3 Dong1; lit. ancient three-legged round cauldron, east)

Note, too, the mixing of Mandarin and English (rather than the loanword form of bashi), and those hideously misplaced g’s.

photo of a coach bus, with 'Diing Dong Bus' in large letters on the side, with the bottom of the descenders on the g's sitting on the baseline