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:


I tend to think of Hanzi being used to write English words as “Singlish,” after John DeFrancis’s classic spoof, “The Singlish Affair,” which is the opening chapter of his essential book The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. But these days the word is mainly used for Singaporean English. So now I usually go with something like “English with Chinese character(istic)s.”

For a few earlier examples, see the my photos of the dog and the butterfly businesses.

Today’s example is “Crunchy,” written as ke3 lang3 qi2 (can bright strange). Kelangqi, however, isn’t how to say “crunchy” in Mandarin (cui4 de is); it’s just an attempt to render the English word using Chinese characters, probably in an attempt to look different and cool.

Sign advertising a store named 'Crunchy' in English and 'ke lang qi' (in Chinese characters) in Mandarin

Crunchy, which is now out of business, was just a block away from the Dog (dou4 ge2) store, which is still around.

Banqiao — the Xinbei ways

Xinbei, formerly known as Taipei County and now officially bearing the atrocious English name of “New Taipei City,” has made available an online map of its territory.

Interestingly, the map is available not just in Mandarin with traditional Chinese characters and English with Hanyu Pinyin (most of the time — but more on that soon) but also in Mandarin with simplified Chinese characters. A Japanese interface is also available.

The interface for all versions opens to a map centered on Xinbei City Hall. What struck me upon seeing this for the first time was that, in just one small section, Banqiao is spelled four different ways:

  • Banqiao (Hanyu Pinyin)
  • Panchiao (bastardized Wade-Giles)
  • Ban-Chiau (MPS2, with an added hyphen)
  • Banciao (Tongyong Pinyin)

Click the map to see an enlargement.
click for larger version

I want to stress that these are not typos. These are the result of an inattention to detail that is all too common here.

The spelling for the city, er, district is also wrong in the interface, with Tongyong used. Since Banqiao is the seat of the Xinbei City Government and has more than half a million inhabitants,*, it’s not exactly so obscure that spelling its name correctly should be much of a challenge. Tongyong and other systems also crop up in some other names outside the interface.

It should be admitted, however, that the Xinbei map’s romanization is still better overall than the error-filled mess issued by GooGle.

*: including me

Google Maps switches to Hanyu Pinyin for Taiwan (sloppily)

Until very recently, Google Maps gave street names in Taiwan in Tongyong Pinyin — most of the time, at least. This was the case even for Taipei, which most definitely has long used Hanyu Pinyin, not Tongyong Pinyin. The romanization on Google Maps was really a hodgepodge in the maps of Taiwan. And it’s still kind of a mess; but now it’s at least more consistent — and more consistent in Hanyu Pinyin.

First the good. In Google Maps:

  • Hanyu Pinyin, not Tongyong Pinyin, is now used for street names throughout Taiwan
  • Tone marks are indicated. (Previous maps with Tongyong did not indicate tones.)

Now the bad, and unfortunately there’s a lot of it and it’s very bad indeed:

  • The Hanyu Pinyin is given as Bro Ken Syl La Bles. (Terrible! Also, this is a new style for Google Maps. Street names in Tongyong were styled properly: e.g., Minsheng, not Min Sheng.)
  • The names of MRT stations remain incorrectly presented. For example, what is referred to in all MRT stations and on all MRT maps as “NTU Hospital” is instead referred to in broken Pinyin as “Tái Dà Y? Yuàn” (in proper Pinyin this would be Tái-Dà Y?yuàn); and “Xindian City Hall” (or “Office” — bleah) is marked as X?n Diàn Shì G?ng Su? (in proper Pinyin: “X?ndiàn Shìg?ngsu?” or perhaps “X?ndiàn Shì G?ngsu?“). Most but not all MRT stations were already this incorrect way (in Hanyu Pinyin rather than Tongyong) in Google Maps.
  • Errors in romanization point to sloppy conversions. For example, an MRT station in Banqiao is labeled X?n Bù rather than as X?np?. (? is one of those many Chinese characters with multiple Mandarin pronunciations.)
  • Tongyong Pinyin is still used in the names of most cities and townships (e.g., Banciao, not Banqiao).

Screenshot from earlier this evening, showing that Tongyong Pinyin is still being used in Google Maps for some city and district names (e.g., Gueishan, Sinjhuang, Banciao, Jhonghe, Sindian, and Jhongjheng rather than Hanyu Pinyin’s Guishan, Xinzhuang, Banqiao, Zhonghe, Xindian, and Zhongzheng, respectively).
map of Taipei area, with names as shown above

I don’t have any old screenshots of my own available at the moment, so for now I’ll refer you to an image that Fili used in an old post of his. Compare that with this screenshot I took a few minutes ago from Google Maps of the same section of Tainan:

Note especially how the name of the junior high school is presented.

  • Previously “Jian Xing Junior High School”.
  • Now “Jiàn Xìng Jr High School”.

This is typical of how in old maps some things were labeled (poorly) in Hanyu Pinyin. (Words, not bro ken syl la bles, are the basis for Pinyin orthography. This is a big deal, not a minor error.) And now such places are still labeled poorly in Hanyu Pinyin, but with the addition of tone marks.

I’d like to return to the point earlier on sloppy conversions. Surprisingly, ??? is given as “Chéng Do? Road” rather than as “Chéngd? Road“.
screenshot from Google Maps of 'Cheng Dou [sic] Rd', near Taipei's Ximending
Although “Xinpu” might not be the sort of name to be contained in some romanization databases, there is nothing in the least obscure about Chengdu, the name of a city of some 11 million people. Google Translate certainly knows the right thing to do with ???:
screenshot from Google Translate, showing how Google will translate '???' as 'Chengdu Rd'

But Google Maps doesn’t get this simple point right, which likely points to outsourcing. Why would Google do this? And why wouldn’t it ensure that a better job was done? Because, really, so far the long-overdue conversion to Hanyu Pinyin in Google Maps for Taiwan is something of a botch.

A nose for foreign food?

Imagine some white guys in a fairly large U.S. city open a restaurant named “Mr. Taiwan Slant-Eyes Asian Cuisine.” And imagine that this restaurant specializes in distinctly Americanized dishes such as egg foo yong, fortune cookies, and California wraps. Now imagine the response. Isn’t this fun?

OK, now imagine a different situation: In Taiwan’s fifth-largest city some locals open a place specializing in Taiwanized Western food and dub their restaurant “Miss UK Cafe Pointy-Nose Foreign Food.”

As you’ve probably guessed, the second scenario is real. The “Miss UK Cafe ??? ????” (Miss UK Cafe a-tok-a yìguó m?ishí) recently opened not far from my apartment in Banqiao.

A-tok-a (???) is Taiwanese for “pointy nose” (i.e., Westerner), though perhaps the common translation of “big nose” conveys the spirit a little better. As Tempo Gain explains in the Forumosa thread on this word, “the initial ‘a’ often preceds names, and the final ‘a’ often is attached to nouns like the Mandarin ‘zi’ haizi, chezi, etc.”

Although most foreigners I know in Taiwan find the use of a-tok-a offensive to some degree, reactions are usually tempered by the knowledge that the word is very seldom used intentionally as a pejorative. It’s just the word most Hoklo speakers would use for “Westerner,” and they mean nothing bad by this and perhaps even see it as “cute” in a favorable way. So since I’m certain the restaurateurs didn’t intend any insult in choosing this name, I’m not going to carp about this any more than I already have — which is not to say that I will ever buy anything from that restaurant.

It’s still an interesting name, though. (Actually, this is probably two names: the standard one (??? ????), which is for most people, and the English one (Miss UK Cafe), which is probably there in an attempt to look modern/foreign/cool.)

For those keeping count, that’s three scripts and as many languages on just one sign.

  • Miss UK Cafe: English, in the Roman alphabet
  • ???: Taiwanese, in a mixed script of zhuyin (?) and Chinese characters
  • ????: Mandarin, in Chinese characters

The mixing of scripts in “???” is representative of the sad fact that most people in Taiwan are unsure how to write Taiwanese. Here are some of the ways this word gets written, along with the number of Google results and Baidu results for that exact phrase.

  • ??? Google 555 / Baidu doesn’t recognize the ?
  • ??? 3,440 / Baidu 1,320
  • ??? 6,730/ Baidu 13,400
  • ??? 11,300 / Baidu 2,810
  • ??? 12,500 / Baidu 24,700
  • ??? 12,500 / Baidu 24,700 (Google and Baidu apparently refuse to differentiate ? and ?)

Also interesting is the use of yìguó (??) instead of the more common wàiguó (??), for “foreign.”

  • “??” Google 1,510,000 / Baidu 14,700,000
  • “??” Google 6,420,000 / Baidu 46,500,000

Yìguó m?ishí, however, is more common than wàiguó m?ishí.

  • “????” Google 41,100 / Baidu 26,400
  • “????” Google 114,000 / Baidu 152,000

This, I suspect, is because yìguó m?ishí “sounds fancier” because of how relatively common the word waiguo is.

photo of the storefront of the restaurant discussed in this post

further reading:

Banqiao’s orificial signage

David, who for just a little while longer lives in the same Banqiao neighborhood as I, sent me a photo of a street sign in our highly populated but little-discussed city.

'Guanciao W. Rd.': streetsign in Banqiao, Taiwan, labeled in misspelled Tongyong Pinyin and English

The sign tells us this is “Guanciao” West Road. In Hanyu Pinyin this would be “Guanqiao.” Guanqiao? The only word in my biggest Mandarin-English dictionary under that spelling is gu?nqiào (??/??), which is defined as “orifices on the human body.” Hmm. Taiwan might have the questionable taste of having many a road still named after a dead dictator, but orifices?

This oddity is explained by the fact that Banqiao is simply continuing its tradition of typos — even on relatively new signs. (The style of the sign and the choice of Tongyong Pinyin both indicate this went up within the past few years.)

Guanciao (Guanqiao) should be Guancian. (In Hanyu Pinyin, ???? is written Gu?nqián X?lù.) It’s worth noting this is not a tiny lane but a road in a well-traveled part of town.

As long as I’m putting up yet another post with photos and doing further damage to my reputation of having one of the Taiwan blogosphere’s fastest-loading, least Turtonesque sites*, I might as well go ahead and add one more so I can mention something else about this sign.

Let’s look at the relative size of the Chinese characters and the alphabetic text. The majority of the letters are but one quarter of the height of the Chinese characters.

sign showing the relative percentages of the height of the letters/Hanzi on the sign

Although in this particular case the lettering might not be too small, this style often leads to nearly illegible romanization, especially on signs posted high above streets.

* Just in terms of the average number photos per post, that is. (But that’s in part because I’m a lousy photographer.) Congratulations, Michael, on reaching two thousand posts!

Banqiao signage SNAFU

Here’s an example of the mixing of romanization systems and addition of errors that used to be common in Taipei before the city switched to Hanyu Pinyin. These signs are on a corner in Banqiao, Taipei County, not far from Banqiao City Hall.

First, let’s set the scene. We have two types of signs, both with a mix of romanization and English. One set of signs gives street names; the other points toward places of possible interest.
establishing shot of signage (at one corner) discussed in this post

The blue-panel signage on the right represents something introduced during the term of the previous mayor, a member of the Democratic Progressive Party. And since the DPP backs Tongyong Pinyin for Mandarin, that’s the romanization system used most of the time on such signs. A number of the photos on these signs feature the previous mayor, who had relatively little recognition among the public since he had succeeded someone else’s term rather than being elected to his own. He put his photo on all sorts of things. But he failed to be elected to the city’s top spot. His challenger, the current mayor of Banqiao, spreads her name recognition by having her recycling speech broadcast from the city’s trash trucks.

photo of the top piece on a streetsign pole in Banqiao. It reads OK, now note the cap on the signpost. It reads “Ban ciao” in black letter. Although I spotted several of these today, I’d never seen any before, which would mean it’s very likely that a KMT-led city administration under a KMT-led county government is putting up new signs in Tongyong Pinyin, a romanization system the Kuomintang (Guomindang) opposes. (The KMT used to oppose Hanyu Pinyin as well, which is how Taiwan ended up with MPS2, the Tongyong Pinyin of the 1980s.) Similarly, Banqiao has relatively new signs in prominent places around the city that read (in a particularly clumsy script face) “Bravo Banciao.” (What exactly about Banqiao is worthy of such a cheer is not stated.) Even though the city administration is under the mistaken impression that it must use Tongyong (and it does suffer from this idea), that doesn’t mean it has to go around putting up new signage in this.

To get back to the cap, the likely story is that the transportation department had some leftover money in its budget which had to be spent lest the following year’s budget be cut; but rather than spend it on fixing errors, which would involve study and actual work, people decided to make something that the boss thinks would look cool.

I wonder, though, how many Taiwanese would even recognize this reads “Banciao” unless they had it specifically pointed out to them. A few months ago I spotted an innocent-looking teenager shopping with her mother. The girl was wearing a shirt with the following text:

'f uck you' written in black letter

Although it’s almost certain she would know both English words and understand their meaning together, I think it extremely unlikely she knew what words were on her shirt.

OK, let’s have a closer look at the signs themselves.
detail of signs discussed in this post

Here we have

  • “Zhongzheng” (Hanyu Pinyin)
  • “Simen” and “Banciao” (Tongyong Pinyin for what would be “Ximen” and “Banqiao” in Hanyu Pinyin)
  • “Panchial” (bastardized Wade-Giles of “Panchiao” plus a typo, for what would be “Banqiao” in Hanyu Pinyin)

And then there’s the matter of “The Lin’s Family Residence At Panchail,” which would be much better written simply “Lin Family Residence” or by the most commonly used English name “Lin Family Gardens.”

So that’s three romanization systems, a typo, and clumsy English on official signage at just one corner — to say nothing of how relatively small the alphabetic text is. And there’s no solution in sight.

Taiwan’s MPS2 romanization system is not the same as Yale

Taiwan does not now nor has it ever officially used the Yale romanization system. But that hasn’t stopped the relatively common belief that the Yale romanization system for Mandarin can be found on some official signage here.

What most people take as Yale is in fact MPS2, a Taiwan-devised romanization system that dates from the mid 1980s. MPS2 was developed Taiwan in a vain attempt to counter the growing popularity around the world of Hanyu Pinyin. In other words, it was basically the Tongyong Pinyin of the 1980s, though its supporters (there must have been some) never embraced it with the same level of nationalistic fervor as Tongyong Pinyin has received from some quarters. Little wonder, then, that most people — including many who really should know better — don’t seem to have noticed that MPS2 even exits, much less that a great deal of the island’s signage remains in this system.

To some degree the confusion of MPS2 for Yale is understandable, given that the two systems have many points in common on which they differ with Hanyu Pinyin. Here are some examples.

-au rather than -ao

MPS II and Yale Hanyu
au ao
bau bao
chau chao
dau dao
gau gao
hau hao

-ung rather than -ong

MPS II and Yale Hanyu
chung chong
dung dong
gung gong
hung hong

chr, jr, r, shr

MPS II and Yale Hanyu
chr chi
jr zhi
r ri
shr shi

ts- instead of c-

MPS II and Yale Hanyu
tsai cai
tsan can
tsau cao
tseng ceng
tsou cou
tsu cu
tsung cong
tsz ci

And neither uses Hanyu Pinyin’s abbreviated vowel forms (such as -ui for -uei, -iu for -iou, and -un for -uen). But here we can begin to see some of the differences between MPS2 and Yale.

MPS II Yale Hanyu
chuei chwei chui
duei dwei dui
tzuei dzwei zui

Yale often uses w as a medial where other systems would use u.

MPS II Yale Hanyu
shuei shwei shui
suan swan suan
guang gwang guang

Yale often uses y as a medial where other systems would use i

MPS II Yale Hanyu
jia jya jia
niau nyau niao
chiung chyung qiong

This sign, in Banqiao, would read Shrjyan in Yale, not Shrjian, which is MPS2.
street sign reading 'SHR JIAN RD'

To review all of the similarities and differences among these and other systems, see my comparison chart of romanization systems.

To close, here are some more signs in MPS2. What in Hanyu Pinyin is written zhong is jung in both MPS2 and Yale. What in Hanyu Pinyin is xiao, however, is written differently in MPS2 and Yale: shiau and syau, respectively.

photo of street signs in Jilong. One sign reads 'JUNG 1 RD', the other 'SHIAU 1 RD'
This photo was taken in Jilong.