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.

Emoji, language, and translation

A couple of days ago the New York Times ran a small piece, “How Emojis Find Their Way to Phones.” It contains the sort of nonsense about Chinese characters and language that often sets me off.

Fortunately, Victor Mair quickly posted something on this. J. Marshall Unger (Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth of Disembodied Meaning, The Fifth Generation Fallacy, and Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan) and S. Robert Ramsey (The Languages of China) quickly followed. But since those are in the comments to a Language Log post and thus may not be seen as much as they should be, I thought I’d link to them here.

The Language Log post itself is on Emoji Dick, which is billed as a translation of Moby Dick into emoji. As long as I’m writing, I might as well offer up a sample for you. See if you can determine the original English.


Did you try “Call me Ishmael”? Sorry. That’s not it. But if you guessed that I would choose the passage from Moby Dick that mentions Taiwan, give yourself bonus points.

Here’s what the above emoji supposedly translate:

Hereby the casks are sought to be kept damply tight; while by the changed character of the withdrawn water, the mariners readily detect any serious leakage in the precious cargo.

Now, from the South and West the Pequod was drawing nigh to Formosa and the Bashee Isles, between which lies one of the tropical outlets from the China waters into the Pacific.

Ah, of course. It’s all so clear now.

The next time you hear someone use “pictorial language,” “ideographs,” or the like in all seriousness, perhaps ask them for their own English translation of the above string of images.

Actually, Emoji Dick screwed this up some, as part belongs to the main text and part to a footnote.


Xin Tang 9

The ninth issue of Xin Tang is now available here on Pinyin.info. The journal, which was published in the 1980s, is in and about romanization. By this point in its publication most everything in it was written in Hanyu Pinyin (as opposed to Gwoyeu Romatzyh or another system). Xin Tang is interesting not just as a forum in which one can read original content in Pinyin. It’s also important for the history of Pinyin itself. Over the course of its nearly decade-long run, one can see its authors (including many top people in romanization) working out Pinyin as a real script.

Xin Tang no. 9 (December 1988)

xin tang 9

Here’s an English version of the table of contents. Note that the articles themselves are, for the most part, in Mandarin.

  • Articles
    • Wang Jun: Perfecting Hanyu Pinyin and Broadening Its Use
    • Wang Naican: “Established at Age Thirty,but the Task is Heavy and the Way is Long”
    • Apollo Wu: China Needs an Alphabetical Script
    • Zhang Liqing: Must Written Chinese Have Tones Indicated?
    • Qian Yuzhi, Li Shuo: Research on Alphabetical Spelling of Tones
    • Victor H. Mair: A Letter Concerning the Compilation of an Alphabetically Ordered Dictionary
  • Pinyin and Computers
    • Guo Xiao, Chen Zhiqiang: Welcoming the Era of the Popularization of Word Processors- An Interview with Professor Zhou Youguang
    • Yin Binyong: Pinyin Computers Force People to Change Their Writing Styles
    • Wu Yue: Using a Computerized Chinese Typewriter to Help in Creative Writing
    • Jin Huishu: Few Special Spellings Are Required for “Automatic Conversion from Pinyin to Chinese Characters”
    • It Is Not Difficult to Master Pinyin Computers (report from Henan)
    • International Computer Conference Held in Toronto in 1988 (report from Canada)
  • Children’s Corner: Literature
    • Little Xie’s Long Trunk,
    • The Adventures of Chunmei and Mimi (illustrated serial by Rui Luobin),
    • Encounter beneath the Lighthouse,
    • The Oriole and the Eagle (Liqing),
    • The Fig Tree (Xu Hongxin)
  • Classical Chinese Selection
    • A Passage from the Zhuangzi
  • Learning Mandarin
    • Lesson 1: in Peking
  • Letters from Readers
  • News
    • Commemoration of the Thirtieth Anniversary of the Promulgation of the Scheme for Hanyu Pinyin Official
    • Promulgation of the Basic Orthographical Rules for Hanyu Pinyin
    • The Bilingual Pedagogical Experiment of Zhang Zhigong
    • Hangzhou Experiments with a New Pedagogy Using Pinyin
    • Announcement of a New Book: “Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and Orthography”

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:

A quarter century of Sino-Platonic Papers

These days, with the click of a mouse one can publish something that can instantly be seen by people around the world. But despite this ease it can still feel like a major accomplishment if someone has the tenacity to keep even a blog going past its first few years.

Consider, then, the days long before user-friendly blogging software, the days before blogs even. The days before desktop publishing was in the hands of more than a few, before most people had the ability to send or receive files electronically, before most people had even heard of the Internet. The days when typewriters were still common.

So these were also the days so long before Unicode that including Chinese characters or even common diacritics in a manuscript usually meant writing them in by hand.

The days when small-scale publishing meant trips to the copy shop and long sessions spent photocopying and stapling. When the international correspondence needed to issue a small journal meant trip after trip to the post office, paying postage to send something to what might well be the other side of the globe, and having to wait weeks, months, for a reply.

The days when receiving payment for issues meant paper checks sent through the regular mail and then taken during certain hours to the bank, where you would wait in line for a teller. And heaven help you with the endless paperwork and waiting if the check was not in U.S. dollars but a foreign currency.

The days when long-distance phone calls really cost something. And international calls? Ouch!

And all that’s on top of all of the other many challenges involved in running a peer-reviewed academic journal.

Those are just some of the situations Victor Mair had to deal with when his journal, Sino-Platonic Papers, was getting off the ground. And there have certainly been many challenges since.

So I think it’s worth noting that Sino-Platonic Papers has reached the age of twenty-five and is still going strong.

There are now more than two hundred issues, the majority of which are available in full for free on Sino-Platonic Papers’ Web site. The shortest issue is just four pages, while the longest to date stretches over three volumes and comprises approximately one thousand pages.

That this journal has published all manner of authors, from internationally renowned scholars to unaffiliated researchers out in the boondocks, helps demonstrate its willingness to take risks. (But, as Cameron Crowe reminds us, that’s how you become great.)

Sino-Platonic Papers has just released its thirteenth volume of book reviews (many of which are particular favorites of mine). But what is especially notable is that it marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the beginning of this wide-ranging journal.

I congratulate SPP‘s editor, Victor Mair, on this milestone.

Here’s what the anniversary issue covers.

  • Preface
  • Ancient China and Its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History by Nicola Di Cosmo
  • The Prehistory of the Silk Road by E. E. Kuzmina, ed. Victor H. Mair
  • Mozi: A Complete Translation by Ian Johnston
  • Envisioning Eternal Empire: Chinese Political Thought of the Warring States Era by Yuri Pines
  • The Politics of Mourning in Early China by Miranda Brown
  • The Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem by Brent Landau
  • A Story Waiting to Pierce You: Mongolia, Tibet and the Destiny of the Western World by Peter Kingsley
  • Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires, ed. Walter Scheidel
  • The Camel’s Load in Life and Death: Iconography and Ideology of Chinese Pottery Figurines from Han to Tang and Their Relevance to Trade along the Silk Routes by Elfriede Regina Knauer
  • Ethnic Identity in Tang China by Marc Abramson
  • Mélange tantriques à la mémoire de Hélène Brunner/Tantric Studies in Memory of Hélène Brunner, ed. Dominic Goodall and André Padoux
  • Imperial China, 900-1800 by F. W. Mote
  • Local Religion in North China in the Twentieth Century: The Structure and Organization of Community Rituals and Beliefs by Daniel L. Overmyer
  • Tibetan Market Participation in China by Wang Shiyong
  • Chinese as It Is: A 3D Sound Atlas with First 1000 Characters by Conal Boyce
  • Language Choice and Identity Politics in Taiwan by Jennifer M. Wei
  • ABC English-Chinese, Chinese-English Dictionary, ed. John DeFrancis and Zhang Yanyin
  • Learning Chinese, Turning Chinese: Challenges to Becoming Sinophone in a Globalized World, by Edward McDonald

Disclaimer: I volunteer as SPP’s technical editor and maintain its Web site. But I certainly didn’t have any such position twenty-five years ago!

Xin Tang 6

cover of Xin Tang, no. 6My previous post linked to a new HTML version of Homographobia, an essay by John DeFrancis. The work was first published in November 1985, in the sixth issue of Xin Tang (New China).

Xin Tang (X?n Táng) is an especially interesting journal in that it is primarily in Mandarin written in romanization. A variety of romanization systems and methods are employed over the course of the journal. Indeed, over the course of its run one can see many questions of systems and orthographies being worked out.

I want to stress, though, that the journal does not restrict itself to material of interest only to romanization specialists. It also features poetry, illustrated stories, philosophy, letters to the editor, children’s material, and much more.

English and a few Chinese characters are also found; and there are even articles in languages such as Turkish (with Mandarin and English translations).

Most of what appears in English is also translated into Mandarin — romanized Mandarin, of course. So DeFrancis’s essay also appears, appropriately, in Pinyin:

Homographobia is a disorder characterized by an irrational fear of ambiguity when individual lexical items which are now distinguished graphically lose their distinctive features and become identical if written phonemically. The seriousness of the disorder appears to be in direct proportion to the increase in number of items with identical spelling that phonemic rendering might bring about….

Tongyinci-kongjuzheng shi yi zhong xinli shang d shichang, tezheng shi huluande haipa yong pinyin zhuanxie dangqing kao zixing fende hen qingchu d cir hui shiqu tamend bianbiexing. Kan qilai, zhei ge bing d yanzhongxing gen pinyin shuxie keneng zaocheng d tongxing pinshi shuliang d zengjia cheng zhengbi….

All of the issue with the DeFrancis essay is now online: Xin Tang no. 6.

illustration of a dragon reading a copy of Xin Tang, from an illustrated story
Note the occasional employment of a tonal spelling (shuui).

recent milestones for Sino-Platonic Papers

The Web site for Sino-Platonic Papers, Professor Victor Mair’s iconoclastic journal, has expanded to the point that, as of the most recent batch of reissues, it offers more than half of the journal’s 198 (and counting) issues in full and for free. So if you haven’t visited that site recently you might want to have another look.

I’ll mention just a few of the recent additions:

Other recent milestones for SPP include

Below: A chart from SPP 198, Aramaic Script Derivatives in Central Eurasia, by Doug Hitch.
chart of scripts derived from Aramaic. See SPP 198 (the link for this image) for a version of this chart with machine-readable text.

How to learn real Mandarin: an anecdote

The following is a guest post by Professor Victor H. Mair of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations.

The personal names used in the original correspondence have been changed to generational designations.

Compared to the Hànzì-centric pedagogical approach which forces little children to memorize extremely difficult and complicated characters like ?? and ?? instead of teaching them l?osh? and húdié, today I received some more hopeful and sane news.

A friend of mine is teaching her grandson Mandarin. The way she is doing it is to write out the X? yóu jì (Journey to the West) in a simple báihuà paraphrase using Pinyin only (with glosses in English for new vocabulary). My friend is a first-generation immigrant to America, and her daughter married a German who was studying in the United States, so that makes the grandson third-generation Chinese-American/German.

The other day, the grandson asked his mom out of the blue: “What’s the difference between shíji?n, shídài, and shífèn?” My friend, the grandmother, explained to me that all of these terms were in the Pinyin text that she had prepared for her grandson, and that she had glossed them as “time” or “period.” She said that the boy’s mother was very pleased, and she was tickled too, because the boy had discerned the common element shí by himself. As my friend (the grandmother) put it, “He spends very little time on Chinese, so we were pleasantly surprised.”

Hearing this account from my friend, I wrote to her: “Thank you so much for the TRULY WONDERFUL story you wrote about your grandson. This is how to learn real Chinese!!!! And you are being a real Chinese teacher to teach your grandson this way. And I’m also happy that your daughter appreciates what you and her son are doing together. Tell your grandson I’m really impressed at the intelligence of his question.”