Early instances of misunderstandings of biblical proportions

old-style Hanzi for ?From time to time I come across references by the credulous to the supposed biblical roots of some Chinese characters. I was surprised to learn, however, that that manner of interpretation has been around for many years.

In his 1902 book China and the Chinese, Herbert A. Giles (of Wade-Giles fame) pointed out the flaw he had seen in some earlier work.

Even the early Jesuit Fathers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to whom we owe so much for pioneer work in the domain of Sinology, were not without occasional lapses of the kind, due no doubt to a laudable if excessive zeal. Finding the character ?, which is the common word for “a ship,” as indicated by ?, the earlier picture-character for “boat” seen on the left-hand side, one ingenious Father proceeded to analyse it as follows: —

? “ship,” ? “eight,” ? “mouth” = eight mouths on a ship—“the Ark.”

But the right-hand portion is merely the phonetic of the character; it was originally ? “lead,” which gave the sound required; then the indicator “boat” was substituted for “metal.”

So with the word ? “to prohibit.” Because it could be analysed into two ?? “trees” and ? “a divine proclamation,” an allusion was discovered therein to the two trees and the proclamation of the Garden of Eden; whereas again the proper analysis is into indicator and phonetic.

Nor is such misplaced ingenuity confined to the Roman Catholic Church. In 1892 a Protestant missionary published and circulated broadcast what he said was “evidence in favour of the Gospels,” being nothing less than a prophecy of Christ’s coming hidden in the Chinese character ? “to come.” He pointed out that this was composed of “a cross,” with two ?? ‘men,’ one on each side, and a ‘greater man’ ? in the middle.

That analysis is all very well for the character as it stands now; but before the Christian era this same character was written and was a picture, not of men and of a cross, but of a sheaf of corn. It came to mean “come,” says the Chinese etymologist, “because corn comes from heaven.”

Even if all the character etymologies Giles cites are not necessarily in keeping with modern scholarship, his principles here are correct.

Platform on tai?

President Ma Ying-jeou’s re-election campaign slogan is “Táiwān jiāyóu,” so one can see that all around Taiwan these days, as the election is only about two weeks away.

The Ma campaign has decided that the English translation of “Táiwān jiāyóu” is “Taiwan, Bravo,” which isn’t quite right but at least sounds positive. Of Ma’s two opponents, Tsai Ing-wen (Cài Yīngwén / 蔡英文) of the anti-Hanyu-Pinyin Democratic Progressive Party chose the somewhat cryptic English slogan of “Taiwan next,” while third-party candidate James Soong (Sòng Chǔyú / 宋楚瑜) chose as his slogan “Me, me, me!”

OK, I made that last one up, but only because I couldn’t find the real one, other than maybe it’s “Renew.” (Does anyone know for sure?)

What I really want to talk about here, though, is how Ma’s slogan gets written: 台灣加油.

There is of course nothing unusual about that — except that Ma likes to make a big deal out of using traditional Chinese characters rather than simplified ones. Every year or so Ma talks about how he wants to get the United Nations to declare traditional Chinese characters a super-duper world something-or-other. He has already purged government Web sites of versions that people in China and Singapore could read more easily than versions in traditional Chinese characters. And if he criticizes the PRC, it’s often to tell Beijing that people in China really ought to use traditional characters. Ma’s devotion to people in China being able to have traditional Hanzi reminds me of George W. Bush during the Hainan incident:

“Do the members of the crew have Bibles?” “Why don’t they have Bibles?” Can we get them Bibles?” “Would they like Bibles?”

In other words, while that might be a concern, I sometimes wonder about his priorities.

By now a lot of you are probably thinking, “But is one of those simplified characters that is not only OK to use in Taiwan but also by far more commonly seen than . So what’s strange about this?”

That’s entirely correct. In most cases there would be nothing noteworthy about using “台灣加油” rather than “臺灣加油.” It seems entirely normal. What’s strange here is that the Ma administration actually has a position on the matter of 臺 vs. 台: Although the form can be tolerated in some instances, is supposedly better and is mandatory in certain cases.

About a year ago, for example, the Ministry of Education reported that official government documents (gōngwén/公文) would have to use the form. And textbooks would need to be updated to change instances of 台灣, 台北, 台南, 台中, etc., to 臺灣, 臺北, 臺南, 臺中…. Webmasters of some government Web sites scurried to perform a whole lot of search-and-replace. There were not, however, so many instances of 台灣 to change to 臺灣 because Ma had already declared that in Mandarin pages “台灣” (Taiwan) was out and “中華民國” (Zhōnghuá Mínguó / the Republic of China) was in; so mainly this was visible in city names in addresses.

Predictably, though, lots never got changed. (“Close enough for government work.”)

Yes, I know: None of you are deeply shocked by the notion that a politician would tell people to do one thing but do something else himself. And the way the premier downplayed the policy makes me suspect many find it pointless or even embarrassing. Still, the fact remains that the administration did decide not to leave well enough alone and went out of its way to favor 臺 over 台.

Supposedly this is because after the Ministry of Education studied the origins of 臺 and 台, it decided that the tai in the name Taiwan should be written as 臺, according to Chen Hsueh-yu (Chén Xuěyù / 陳雪玉), executive secretary of the ministry’s National Languages Committee.

This doesn’t much sense. Whichever form got used first — which is a dubious method for determining the correctness of usage for something now — the tai in Taiwan doesn’t have anything to do semantically with platforms, terraces, tables, stations, etc. In the case of the origin of the name of Taiwan, there’s no more meaning inherent in than there is in — or than there is in the Roman letters Tai, either, for that matter. As Victor Mair has noted:

Superficially (according to the surface signification of the two characters with which the name is customarily written), “Taiwan” means “Terrace Bay.” That sounds nice, even poetic, but it is an inauthentic etymology and has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual origins of the name. (This is a typical instance of the common fallacy of wàngwénshēngyì 望文生義, whereby the semantic qualities of Chinese characters interfere with the real meanings of the terms that they are being used to transcribe phonetically.) The true derivation of the name “Taiwan” is actually from the ethnonym of a tribe in the southwest part of the island in the area around Ping’an. As early as 1636, a Dutch missionary referred to this group as Taiouwang. From the name of the tribe, the Portuguese called the area around Ping’an as Tayowan, Taiyowan, Tyovon, Teijoan, Toyouan, and so forth. Indeed, already in his ship’s log of 1622, the Dutchman Comelis Reijersen referred to the area as Teijoan and Taiyowan. Ming and later visitors to the island employed a plethora of sinographic transcriptions to refer to the area (superficially meaning “Terrace Nest Bay” [Taiwowan 臺窝灣], “Big Bay” [Dawan 大灣], “Terrace Officer” [Taiyuan 臺員], “Big Officer” [Dayuan 大員], “Big Circle” [Dayuan 大圓], “Ladder Nest Bay” [Tiwowan 梯窝灣], and so forth). Some of these transcriptions are clever, others are fantastic, but none of them should be taken seriously for their meanings.

I’m not sure how best to characterize — sorry — the differences between “台灣加油” and “臺灣加油.” Although using the 臺 form would definitely come across as more formal, it wouldn’t be exactly the equivalent of “Fight Fiercely, Harvard.” Yet the use of the 台 form isn’t really the equivalent of a campaigning politician droppin’ his g’s either.

臺 vs. 台

Additional sources:

Please don’t write to comment for or against simplified characters in general. This post isn’t about that really, even though 臺 could serve as a poster child for Hanzi simplification.

Gift ideas for Mandarin learners

Here are some books I recommend. You may still have time to buy some of these for others (or persuade others to buy for you) before Christmas.

In a departure from my usual practice, all of the images below are linked to Amazon — in part to make things easier for most readers of this site but also because I’m a bit curious to see if the potential kickbacks from that site would ever add up to enough to buy myself some books I’ve been wanting. Mainly, though, I’d like to see these books make it into the hands of more readers. This isn’t meant to be a complete list; but it’s a good start.

One of these days I’ll post about the works below I haven’t written about previously.


ABC English-Chinese, Chinese-English Dictionary, edited by John DeFrancis and Zhang Yanyin. This is the Mandarin-English/English-Mandarin dictionary that every student needs. Suitable for all ages and levels. It’s small enough to carry with you. And at US$20 or even less it’s a bargain too. For an e-edition, get Wenlin (see below). Description. Excerpt from Mandarin –> English half. Excerpt from English –> Mandarin half.
ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary, edited by John DeFrancis. The best large Mandarin-English dictionary. Entries are arranged alphabetically, by words, rather than head Chinese characters. Note: This is a Mandarin –> English dictionary and does not offer an English –> Mandarin section. For an e-edition (which does allow for the lookup of English words), get Wenlin (see below). Sample of what entries in this dictionary look like.
Chinese Biographies: Lang Lang, by Grace Wu. Pinyin-annotated biography of pianist Lang Lang, with English notes. There’s also a helpful Web site with additional resources. Ideal for beginning and intermediate students.
Chinese Biographies: Yao Ming, by Grace Wu. Pinyin-annotated biography of basketball star Yao Ming, with English notes. There’s also a helpful Web site with additional resources. Ideal for beginning and intermediate students.
The Besieged City (Abridged Chinese Classic Series), by Qian Zhongshu. Pinyin-annotated abridged version of a terrific Chinese novel. With notes in English, proper word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin for the entire text, simplified Chinese characters, and a CD with MP3 files of the entire book being read aloud. Excerpt.
Family (abridged and annotated edition, with full Hanyu Pinyin), by Ba Jin. With notes in English, proper word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin for the entire text, simplified Chinese characters, and a CD with MP3 files of the entire book being read aloud. Excerpt.
Spring (abridged and annotated edition, with full Hanyu Pinyin), by Ba Jin. With notes in English, proper word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin for the entire text, simplified Chinese characters, and a CD with MP3 files of the entire book being read aloud. Excerpt.
Autumn, (abridged and annotated edition, with full Hanyu Pinyin), by Ba Jin. With notes in English, proper word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin for the entire text, simplified Chinese characters, and a CD with MP3 files of the entire book being read aloud. Excerpts.
Basic Spoken Chinese: An Introduction to Speaking and Listening for Beginners, by Cornelius C. Kubler. Although this book is not in orthographically standard Pinyin, it’s nonetheless strong. A practical, real-world textbook that focuses on learning the language, not getting beginners bogged down memorizing character after character.
Fundamental Spoken Chinese, by Robert Sanders. Another excellent textbook. Audio files are available online. Excerpt.
The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, by John DeFrancis. Essential reading. This book will inoculate you against the absolute nonsense that many people — including all too many teachers — believe about Chinese characters. Excerpt.
Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma, by William C. Hannas. A wide-ranging, detailed book that discusses some of the drawbacks of the continued use of Chinese characters. Excerpt.
Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar, by Li and Thompson. Good for the linguistically inclined. Just about the only Chinese characters in this book are on the cover, which, yes, I consider to be a good thing.
Wenlin software for learning Chinese, version 4. I use this on a daily basis. This incorporates both dictionaries listed above.
Beyond This List

Here are some things not listed above, in most cases because Amazon doesn’t stock them.

  • Pinyin Riji Duanwen, by Zhang Liqing. A book of largely autobiographical short stories, written entirely in Hanyu Pinyin (except for one brief letter in English). For intermediate and advanced learners — and for native speakers of Mandarin as well. At just US$5, plus shipping, this is the least expensive work on this list. The complete text is also available for free online, though a URL just doesn’t have that same Christmas feeling as a physical book, does it?
  • Any or all of the three volumes in Y.R. Chao’s Sayable Chinese series. For intermediate and advanced learners — and for native speakers of Mandarin as well. Note: These books are in Chinese characters and Gwoyeu Romatzyh, not Hanyu Pinyin, so for most people the learning curve is steeper than for reading something in Hanyu Pinyin. With some notes in English. Excerpt (Gwoyeu Romatzyh column only).
  • Other works on my recommended readings list, which may be available at Amazon but which may or may not fit well on a list for Mandarin learners.
  • KEY5 2011 Multimedia — a different sort of software than Wenlin but one that offers excellent Pinyin support.

Google improves its maps of Taiwan

Two years ago when Google switched to Hanyu Pinyin in its maps of Taiwan, it did a poor job … despite the welcome use of tone marks.

Here are some of the problems I noted at the time:

  • 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).

I’m pleased to report that Google Maps has recently made substantial improvements.

First, and of fundamental importance, word parsing has finally been implemented for the most part. No more Bro Ken Syl La Bles. Hallelujah!

Here’s what this section of a map of Tainan looked like two years ago:

And here’s how it is now:

Oddly, “Jiànx?ng Jr High School” has been changed to “Tainan Municipal Chien-Shing Jr High School Library” — which is wordy, misleading (library?), and in bastardized Wade-Giles (misspelled bastardized Wade-Giles, at that). And “Girl High School” still hasn’t been corrected to “Girls’ High School”. (We’ll also see that problem in the maps for Taipei.)

But for the most part things are much better, including — at last! — a correct apostrophe: Y?u’ài St.

As these examples from Taipei show, the apostrophe isn’t just a one-off. Someone finally got this right.

Rén’ài, not Renai.
screenshot from Google Maps, showing how the correct Rén'ài (rather than the incorrect Renai) is used

Cháng’?n, not Changan.
screenshot from Google Maps, showing how the correct Cháng'?n is used

Well, for the most part right. Here we have the correct Dà’?n (and correct Ruì’?n) but also the incorrect Daan and Ta-An. But at least the street names are correct.
click for larger screenshot from Google Maps, showing how the correct Dà'?n (and correct Ruì'?n) is used but also the incorrect Daan and Ta-An

Second, MRT station names have been fixed … mostly. Most all MRT station names are now in the mixture of romanization and English that Taipei uses, with Google Maps also unfortunately following even the incorrect ones. A lot of this was fixed long ago. The stops along the relatively new Luzhou line, however, are all written wrong, as one long string of Pinyin.

To match the style used for other stations, this should be MRT Songjiang Nanjing, not Jieyunsongjiangnanjing.
screenshot from Google Maps, showing how the Songjiang-Nanjing MRT station is labeled 'Jieyunsongjiangnanjing Station' (with tone marks)

Third, misreadings of poyinzi (pòy?nzì/???) have largely been corrected.

Chéngd?, not Chéng D?u.
screenshot from Google Maps, showing how the correct 'Chéngd? Rd' is used

Like I said: have largely been corrected. Here we have the correct Chéngd? and Chóngqìng (rather than the previous maps’ Chéng D?u and Zhòng Qìng) but also the incorrect Houbu instead of the correct Houpu.
screenshot from Google Maps, showing how the correct Chóngqìng Rd and Chéngd? St are used but also how the incorrect Houbu (instead of Houpu) is shown

But at least the major ones are correct.

Unfortunately, the fourth point I raised two years ago (Tongyong Pinyin instead of Hanyu Pinyin at the district and city levels) has still not been addressed. So Google is still providing Tongyong Pinyin rather than the official Hanyu Pinyin at some levels. Most of the names in this map, for example, are distinctly in Tongyong Pinyin (e.g., Lujhou, Sinjhuang, and Banciao, rather than Luzhou, Xinzhuang, and Banqiao).

Google did go in and change the labels on some places from city to district when Taiwan revised their names; but, oddly enough, the company didn’t fix the romanization at the same time. But with any luck we won’t have to wait so long before Google finally takes care of that too.

Or perhaps we’ll have a new president who will revive Tongyong Pinyin and Google will throw out all its good work.

Taimali signage examples

Tai Fong Rd. ???Here are some signs in Taimali (Tàimál? / ???), Taidong County, Taiwan. In all cases of distinctive spellings, they’re in Tongyong Pinyin, even though they should have been replaced by Hanyu Pinyin years ago. When the change to Tongyong Pinyin was implemented, however, signs under national control (e.g., highway signs) were switched relatively quickly throughout the country. This, however, has not been the case with the switch to Hanyu Pinyin, especially in the south.

Note that the “Taimali” in the sign for the Taimali Railway Station is on a sticker rather than on the original sign. This is a bit odd, given that this is spelled exactly the same in all of the romanization systems commonly seen in Taiwan: Hanyu Pinyin, Tongyong Pinyin, MPS2, and bastardized Wade-Giles. So maybe what’s under the sticker was just an error. Taiwan’s signs certainly have their share of typos too. (Sometimes the authorities will even use a sticker to “correct” the right spelling with something else.)

Click any of the images below for a larger version.

two signs reading Taimali Railway Station ?????? / Jinjhen Mountain ???

closeup of two signs reading Taimali Railway Station ?????? / Jinjhen Mountain ???

directional highway signs reading ?? Jhiben / ??? Dawu

street signs reading ??? Rih Sheng Rd. / ??? Min Cyuan Rd.

street signs reading ??? Rih Sheng Rd. / ??? Tai Fong Rd.

shot of the Taimali Railway Station, showing jinzhen flowers drying on the road

Now on Pinyin.info: Weishenme Zhongwen zheme TM nan?

Earlier this year a Mandarin translation of David Moser’s classic essay Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard appeared on the Web. And then it disappeared. With the permission of both the translator and the original author, I’m placing this work back online.

It’s available here in two versions:


Maybe I’ll make a Pinyin version too one of these years.

Google Translate’s Pinyin converter: now with apostrophes

Google has taken another major step toward making Google Translate‘s Pinyin converter decent. Finally, apostrophes.

Not long ago “阿爾巴尼亞然而仁愛蓮藕普洱茶” would have yielded “Āěrbāníyǎ ránér rénài liánǒu pǔěr chá.” But now Google produces the correct “Ā’ěrbāníyǎ rán’ér rén’ài lián’ǒu pǔ’ěr chá.” (Well, one could debate whether that last one should be pǔ’ěr chá, pǔ’ěrchá, Pǔ’ěr chá, Pǔ’ěr Chá, or Pǔ’ěrchá. But the apostrophe is undoubtedly correct regardless.)

Also, the -men suffix is now solid with words (e.g., 朋友們 –> péngyoumen and 孩子們 –> háizimen). This is a small thing but nonetheless welcome.

The most significant remaining fundamental problem is the capitalization and parsing of proper nouns.

And numbers are still wrong, with everything being written separately. For example, “七千九百四十三萬五千六百五十八” should be rendered as “qīqiān jiǔbǎi sìshísān wàn wǔqiān liùbǎi wǔshíbā.” But Google is still giving this as “qī qiān jiǔ bǎi sì shí sān wàn wǔ qiān liù bǎi wǔ shí bā.”

On the other hand, Google is starting to deal with “le”, with it being appended to verbs. This is a relatively tricky thing to get right, so I’m not surprised Google doesn’t have the details down yet.

So there’s still a lot of work to be done. But at least progress is being made in areas of fundamental importance. I’m heartened by the progress.

Related posts:

The current state:
screen shot of what Google Translate's Pinyin converter produces as of late September 2011

Taiwanese romanization used for Hanzi input method

Since I just posted about the new Hakka-based Chinese character input method I would be amiss not to note as well the release early this year of a different Chinese character input method based on Taiwanese romanization.

This one is available in Windows, Mac, and Linux flavors.

See the FAQ and documents below for more information (Mandarin only).

Táiw?n M?nnány? Hànzì sh?rùf? 2.0 b?n xiàzài (?????????? 2.0???) [Readers may wish to note the use of Minnan, which is generally preferred among unificationists and some advocates of Hakka and the languages of Taiwan’s tribes.]

source: Jiàoyùbù Táiw?n M?nnány? Hànzì sh?rùf? (?????????????); Ministry of Education, Taiwan; June 16, 2010(?) / February 14, 2011(?) [Perhaps the Windows and Linux versions came first, with the Mac version following in 2011.]