Courage… Cabnap… Grunplitk: zhuyin and the movie Fearless

Many Westerners are so attracted by Chinese characters, which tend to be absurdly exoticized as symbols [sic] or ideograms [sic] of deep meaning, that they place them here and there as if they were some sort of pixie dust that bestows coolness upon any object (or body). Often when they do so, they write these characters incorrectly or are mistaken about their meaning, as Tian of Hanzi Smatter continues to note. But you’d think that at least those who make trailers for Chinese movies would be a little better informed.

Fearless (Mandarin title: Huò Yuánji? / ???), which is billed as Jet Li’s final martial-arts movie, has been out in Asia since January but won’t reach the States until later this year. (I have no plans to see this movie, which appears from the trailer to be a string of the usual clichés. And, anyway, I have yet to forgive Jet Li for appearing in Hero, which is probably the biggest cinematic valentine to totalitarianism since Triumph of the Will.) One of the trailers for Fearless features a number of Chinese characters. They’re even written correctly. But, oddly enough, interspersed with the Chinese characters are zhuyin fuhao, also known as bopo mofo, a semi-syllabic script used in Taiwan mainly to help teach children to read. Odder still, the zhuyin make absolutely no sense.

Here’s how Taiwanonymous, on whose site I found this story, puts it:

Intercut with scenes from the movie was a burnt-yellow background, suggesting aged parchment, with Chinese characters flying past. Along with the Chinese characters were some Mandarin phonetic symbols (zhuyin fuhao ????). It’s bad enough that they included phonetic symbols (which are mainly used in Children’s books) in the flying sea of what wanted to be an ancient Chinese text, but the symbols flew past in strings of gibberish! Imagine the following text dramatically moving across the screen, “Integrity… Peace… Courage… Cabnap… Grunplitk… Uwsugls.” Gives you chills just thinking about it.

Here’s a screenshot from the trailer:
gibberish zhuyin in the background

Just below COMING SOON is a giant ?. For something written in English this would be the equivalent of putting a large letter G on the screen.

Along the right side of the screen is the following, in zhuyin fuhao: ?????. This, in Hanyu Pinyin, would be “maixrici,” which is complete gibberish. The other vertical lines of text are also nonsense in zhuyin fuhao.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with how these are written. It’s just that they’re no more meaningful than a random string of letters.

Here’s one more shot:
gibberish zhuyin in the background
The zhuyin fuhao on the left read, from top to bottom, ?????, which would be “chjktp” in Hanyu Pinyin. As I think should be obvious even to those who don’t know Mandarin or any other Sinitic language, this is simply nonsense.


12 thoughts on “Courage… Cabnap… Grunplitk: zhuyin and the movie Fearless

  1. “I have yet to forgive Jet Li for appearing in Hero, which is probably the biggest cinematic valentine to totalitarianism since Triumph of the Will”

    I was under the impression that the Qin dynasty – despite it’s totalitarian nature – is seen as something “positive” (for lack of better words) due to the fact that it was the first time that China was united. I’m therefore inclined to assume this is merely a cultural tribute and not propaganda for totalitarian regimes.

  2. When I went to the mainland for vacation this summer, I had a kids’ book I was reading. Less than half the Chinese people I showed the book to had any idea what the zhuyin was, and none of them could read it. Several people thought it was Japanese kana.

    Do you know much about the history of zhuyin? Is it completely a recent Taiwanese creation, or did it have some sort of historical significance in China?

  3. Oh, and for the record, I can’t forgive Jet Li for making an entire career out of wire tricks and film speed-ups while others (cough! cough! Jackie Chan), were actually doing the stunts themselves.

  4. Hi, Mark:

    Zhuyin dates back to just after the 1911 revolution. So its roots are most definitely in China, not Taiwan, though there was an influence from kana. A draft was worked out by early 1913; but it wasn’t officially promulgated by the ROC (back when that really did mean China) Ministry of Education until 1918. Although some advocated using it as a script in its own right, the conservatives won out. Zhuyin was used then much as continues to be used in Taiwan today: for teaching children. It continued to be used in China through the 1950s, when it was replaced by Hanyu Pinyin. It came to Taiwan with the KMT.

    For details on the early history of zhuyin, see One State, One People, One Language. (This chapter predates Pinyin, so zhuyin is referred to as chu-yin. It also predates the author’s studied rejection of the term “ideographs.”)

  5. “Valentine to totalitarianism” ??? Did we see the same movie ?

    _Hero_ was exactly the opposite of a Hollywood movie. Hollywood teaches that violence solves everything; Hero says violence solves nothing.

  6. Unknown to 99% of movie-goers, Fearless actually takes part in a Matrix VR, where the Qin Dynasty is a participatory democracy and Bopomofo is one of two official Chinese scripts in an (uneasy) digraphic relationship with Pinyin. As for Hanzi, well, it turns out it is but an invention by the Machines to keep the brains of citizens occupied as they’re slowly pickled in a billion pods…. (The Machines got the idea after parsing Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.)

  7. The previous poster is definately on to something. Hanzi is like an incomplete version of Newspeak. Instead of having no words for anti-establishment ideas, we simply make the words to hard to write!

  8. I love zhuyin (bopomofo)
    English dictionaries use MPI phonetic symbols to show correct English pronunciation. So does zhuyin show exact Mandarin pronuciation. Pinyin is a sad, vague representation of Mandarin with a history of disagreement about how to capture Mandarin pronunciation. A little time spent learning zhuyin is well worth it just the way MPI is a must for Mandarin students learning english.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *