Pinyin Info in the news

Nathan Bierma‘s most recent column on linguistics for the Chicago Tribune‘s Tempo section contains excerpts from an e-mail interview with yours truly.

Much of the piece focuses on Professor Victor H. Mair’s explanation, here on Pinyin Info, of how “crisis” is not “danger” plus “opportunity” in Chinese characters .

The French have a saying about incomprehensible communication. Americans say, “It’s Greek to me.” But the French say “C’est du chinois” — meaning, “It’s Chinese.”

Chinese characters are so complex that they make a good metaphor for failure to communicate. But an American copy editor living in Taiwan is trying to demystify Chinese characters and demolish a few myths about how they work.

Mark Swofford runs the Web site, a site dedicated to Pinyin, the standard system of writing Chinese words in the Roman alphabet (the alphabet used to write English).

“Most of what most people think they know about Chinese — especially when it comes to Chinese characters — is wrong,” Swofford writes at the site. “This Web site is aimed at contributing to a better understanding of the Chinese languages and how Romanization can be used to write languages traditionally associated with Chinese characters (such as Japanese, Korean and especially Mandarin Chinese).”

The Mandarin Chinese word for “crisis,” for example, is represented with an intricate symbol made with several strokes, but the word’s pronunciation can be spelled in Pinyin as “weiji” (plus a few accent marks).

Using the Pinyin system makes it easier for students to learn to speak Chinese languages, Swofford says, because Chinese characters are so complex and misunderstood — such as the frequently misinterpreted character for “weiji,” a favorite of motivational writers and speakers.

Seeking a better system

Swofford says he started his Web site in part out of frustration with the confusing and inconsistent ways street names were written in the Roman alphabet when he moved to Taiwan.

“As a professional copy editor, I found the plethora of misspellings more than just a nuisance,” Swofford says. “I started compiling lists of street and place names so that I would be able to know the correct spellings.”

Swofford’s Pinyin site features news articles about Chinese writing, original essays about Pinyin, spelling quizzes, song lyrics written in Pinyin and sample chapters of books on Pinyin.

“The Mandarin Chinese language has about 410 distinct syllables, not counting variations based on tones,” Swofford writes by e-mail from Taiwan, where he is a copy editor at Kainan University. “All can be written simply and unambiguously using the Roman alphabet.”

Swofford lists all of the syllables written in Pinyin, alongside the characters they represent, at

“One needn’t be a student of Mandarin or a scholar to make use of the readings on my site,” Swofford says. “Most of the readings are in English and require no prior knowledge of anything about the Sinitic [Chinese] languages.”

Victor Mair is an avid reader and regular contributor to Mair is professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches a course called “Language, Script and Society in China.”

Mair believes that Western teachers often overemphasize the need to learn and read Chinese characters. By learning Chinese with a Romanized alphabet instead of characters, he says, students are able to start speaking the language more quickly.

`Crisis’ clarified

Chinese characters themselves are often misunderstood, Mair says. Many students and scholars fail to realize there is a difference between Chinese characters and Chinese languages, he says, which can lead to problems because the meaning of the characters depends on the language and culture where they are used.

This confusion is partly to blame for the common claim of self-help books that the Chinese character for the word “crisis” means both “danger” and “opportunity.”

“A whole industry of pundits and therapists has grown up around this one grossly inaccurate formulation,” Mair writes at “The explication of the Chinese word for `crisis’ as made up of two components signifying `danger’ and `opportunity’ is due partly to wishful thinking, but mainly to a fundamental misunderstanding about how terms are formed in Mandarin and other Sinitic languages.”

According to the myth, to write the Chinese character for “crisis,” you combine the character for “danger” and the character for “opportunity.”

That’s based on a partial truth: the word pronounced “weiji” is made up of two characters, pronounced “wei” and “ji.” But while “wei” means danger, “ji” doesn’t mean “opportunity.”

“The `ji’ of `weiji,’ in fact, means something like `incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes),'” Mair writes. “Thus, a `weiji’ is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment. . . . A `weiji’ in Chinese is every bit as fearsome as a crisis in English.”

The word “ji” only means “opportunity” in some cases, such as when it combines with the word “hui” (“occasion”) to make the word “jihui,” for “opportunity.” Its meaning changes depending on what other word it’s blending with. The crisis-means-opportunity myth, Mair says, is founded on a faulty understanding of the way languages work.

“There will always be some degree of misinterpretation about other peoples and their languages,” Mair writes by e-mail, “but I’m hoping to reduce misunderstanding through critical thinking and clear education.”

Here’s the article: Debunking misconceptions about Chinese characters. (Reading the piece, however, requires jumping through some registration hoops. Perhaps Bierma will later add it to his archive of some of his work, which contains much of interest.) It was published in the Chicago Tribune on November 9, 2005.

writing Taiwanese: language, script, and myths

I’ve been fortunate to be able to add to this site a major essay on Taiwan’s language situation, etymology, and scripts: “How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language,” by Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania.

Here is the abstract:

The concept of guoyu (“national language”) is deeply embedded in the consciousness of everyone who has grown up in Taiwan during the past half century. Lately, however, people have begun to speak of their muyu (“mother tongue”) as being worthy of inculcation. Guoyu, of course, refers to Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), which in China is called putonghua (“common speech”). Mandarin is not native to Taiwan, yet it is the national language of Taiwan’s citizens and is the sole official written language. In contrast, the citizens of Taiwan are discouraged from writing their native languages (viz., Taiwanese, Hakka, and various aboriginal languages) and it is only recently that it has been possible to teach them in the schools. This paper will examine the complicated processes whereby the citizens of Taiwan are transformed from speakers of their mother tongues to speakers and writers of the national language. This transformation does not rely purely on educational activities carried out in the schools, but involves political, social, and cultural factors as well. The transformation of Cantonese and Shanghainese speakers into Mandarin speakers and writers will also be examined for comparative purposes.

This, however, hardly does justice to the scope of the essay.

I strongly recommend reading this. Again, here is the link to the full essay.

first anniversary of Pinyin News

Pinyin News is one year old today. (The main site, Pinyin Info, is several years older and continues to grow. But I’ve lost track of just when it began.)

I’d like to take advantage of this occasion to thank the many people who’ve written — in comments, in their own blogs, or through e-mail — about the site. I’m grateful for your interest and, well, thankful that anyone at all reads any of the things I post here.

Comments and questions are always welcome — as are links to news items of possible interest.

I hope the coming year of Pinyin News will be even better received than the first.


temporary look for Pinyin News

Dear readers,

I apologize for Pinyin News not matching the look of the rest of the site. I had to rush through an upgrade to my blogging software. So please bear with me while I get things looking the way they should.

Until I get the main navigation back, you can access the rest of the site here:

As always, I welcome your comments. But please be patient; to stop spambots, I need to read and approve everything before it appears on the site.