Spreading the good news

Behold, I bring you good tidings.

As I keep having to note, most of the things that are supposedly in Pinyin are terrible. This is not because Pinyin itself is inherently poor or difficult. It’s because most people who produce such things have a fundamental lack of understanding of Pinyin as a system. (And, yes, that includes most users in China.) So it is with amazement that I report today on a journal that not only offers dozens of pages in Hanyu Pinyin — good Hanyu Pinyin — but does so twice every month. It’s also well worth noting that the journal is aimed primarily at adult native speakers of Mandarin, not foreigners trying to pick up the language, though certainly it could also be read by people in the latter group.

From what I’ve seen so far, this journal gets right the things most commonly written incorrectly elsewhere, including:

And it doesn’t use the atrocious ɑ that some people mistakenly believe is required either.

Unfortunately, punctuation and alphanumerics are not included in the Pinyin. But other than that there’s very little that doesn’t follow standard Pinyin orthography, the main exception being the indication of the tone sandhi related to the special cases of and , (e.g., the journal gives “bú shì” and “búdà” instead of the standard “bù shì” and “bùdà,” and “yìhuíshì” and “yí wèi” instead of the standard “yīhuíshì” and “yī wèi“). That said, though, tone changes related to yi and bu can be something of a pain. So although this isn’t standard, I can see why it was done and am not entirely unsympathetic to this approach.

Here are a few sample lines (click to enlarge):
screenshot of some text in the journal, showing text in simplified Chinese characters with word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin above the Hanzi. Note: Yifusuoshu/以弗所書 = Ephesians

It would be nice if this were in Unicode, to help aid searches and cutting and pasting. The text, however, appears to have been made in a system devised years ago by the people at the journal. Regardless, I’m happy to see the Pinyin.

Overall, despite the lamentable absence of punctuation and Arabic numerals in the Pinyin, this is quality work, which is perhaps all the more remarkable in that the Pinyin and simplified Hanzi edition of this journal is not truly free to circulate in the land of its target audience. That’s because its publishers are Jehovah’s Witnesses, a group suppressed by the PRC (though it appears that at least at the moment their sites are not blocked by the great firewall). The journal, Shǒuwàngtái, may be more familiar to you by its English name: Watchtower. Whatever you might think of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I hope you’ll recognize the considerable accomplishment of those who put together this publication.

Getting to the Jehovah’s Witnesses Web pages that link to Shǒuwàngtái can be tricky. (Go to the magazines page, select “Chinese (Simplified)” for the language; then choose the month and file with Pinyin.) So I’m providing direct links to some documents below:

I haven’t found any Pinyin editions other than those. Perhaps old ones are taken offline.

Rénrén Dōu Xūyào Zhīdao De Hǎo Xiāoxi (I'd prefer 'de' instead of 'De' -- but that's no big deal) 人人都需要知道的好消息

With thanks to Victor Mair.

11 thoughts on “Spreading the good news

  1. It seems clear here that the pinyin is not autonomous but ruby, and as such it’s not used on the non-hanzi material. Perhaps users are meant to mostly read the characters and only look at the ruby when they need to, as with the usual Japanese uses of ruby.

  2. But seeing this, even if I like Pinyin as a romanization, I have to say that it does a terrible job at providing Ruby (like Furigana in Japanese): It is too “foreign” in a Chinese text. To me, it typographically looks almost as bad as Chinese characters in a latin text.

    Using Pinyin as a romanization, or for dictionaries, or for Pinyin only texts, ok. But using it as a pronounciation guide looks bad. For this, Zhuyin is imho better suited (Ok, it does not have Capitalization etc., but just for visual pleasure, it is better, imho. Of course, Zhuyin isn’t the prettiest thing itself…)

  3. Will someone please give me a reference for “Ruby” in this context? I haven’t heard it used that way, and Google isn’t helping.

  4. I’ve looked around, and it seem that Pinyin Bibles – including some with proper word division and capitalization, such as here: http://wordproject.org/multi/bi_en_cn_py.htm – are not uncommon.

    On the other hand, I’ve taken a look at the three Chinese Bibles in a local church library, published by major publishers in the US and South Korea. Two out of the three had pinyin, but the way the whole thing was typeset was ridiculous. Each pinyin syllable was centered above the appropriate Chinese characters, and the spacing was just enough for everything to fit. So when the pinyin syllables were short (as in ??), the Chinese chars are run together (as they normally are), but there would be extra space between pinyin syllables (” ér zi “). When the pinyin syllables are long (sh?ngmìng), the pinyin is run together, but there would be extra space between Chines chars (” ? ? “), making the text look rather un-Chinese.

  5. Thanks for your post about the pinyin editions of The Watchtower! I am one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and while I’m not a member of the team that produces the official pinyin material, it’s good to see this recognition of their conscientious efforts.

    As a user of the pinyin Watchtower material myself, and as one who knows many other users of it around the world, I can confirm that the pinyin in it is used as ruby text, one of the main purposes of which is, as Wikipedia says, “to show the pronunciation”. It’s quite evident to me that while those already fluent in Mandarin may consult it occasionally to confirm the pronunciation of the occasional unfamiliar character, the main users of the pinyin Watchtower material are actually those who are still learning Mandarin, and to such ones who still need help with pronunciation, it is a thing of beauty! While those fluent in Mandarin generally just enjoy and benefit from the Simplified and Traditional Chinese editions of The Watchtower with their full illustrations and other design features, the text-only pinyin editions are used by Mandarin-learners to help them to form comments during the discussions at our Mandarin-language Watchtower Study meetings, and even to read out the material or conduct the discussion from the platform.

    That being the main use case for the pinyin Watchtower material may help to explain some of the aspects of it that are noted in this post—the tone sandhi related to the special cases of y? and bù, while familiar to fluent speakers, are tricky for learners, while at the same time, it is good for our learners to be forced to at least be able to handle numbers in Mandarin without the help of pinyin, especially since looking up scriptures in the Bible—something we do a lot—requires familiarity with numbers.

    Not adding pinyin to numbers must also streamline production of the material, a not insignificant consideration for an organization that, while conscientious about quality, must also be careful to make good use of the voluntary donations and the volunteer manpower available to it.

    The pinyin editions of The Watchtower are undoubtedly produced using the Multilanguage Electronic Phototypesetting System (MEPS) developed and used by our organization to publish concurrently in many languages, including those that commercial companies deemed unprofitable to develop printing systems for. Work on MEPS began in 1979 and was completed in 1986, while work on Unicode apparently started in 1987, and its first release was not ready until 1991. (Hmmm, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a connection, if MEPS perhaps in some way helped to “inspire” the creation of Unicode…) Also, MEPS is a complete hardware and software phototypesetting system, not a computer text standard only, useful as Unicode has been as that!

    We have found that the pinyin Watchtower material as it is helps people, especially those still learning Mandarin, to communicate more effectively when discussing the material in The Watchtower in Mandarin, and when you get right down to it, communication is the ultimate main goal of a language such as Mandarin, and of a language-related system such as pinyin.

    PS: Re the comment on pinyin Bibles, our organization, which publishes the pinyin Watchtower, also publishes a pinyin Bible which renders pinyin in the same basic way as the pinyin editions of The Watchtower, although I think current pinyin issues of The Watchtower may incorporate adjustments made to the pinyin rendering since the pinyin Bible was published in 2004.

  6. I should also mention that in addition to pinyin editions of The Watchtower and of the New World Translation Bible, we Jehovah’s Witnesses also publish pinyin editions of many of our other publications. Mainly, they are used by people who are learning Mandarin to help in our Bible-teaching work among Mandarin-speaking people.

    Currently, the only pinyin files available on our official download site jw.org are recent pinyin issues of study editions of The Watchtower. We look forward to other pinyin publications being made available that way in the future, but for now, other pinyin publications may be ordered in good old-fashioned bound paper book form from the literature counters of Kingdom Halls of Jehovah’s Witnesses before and after meetings. (Chinese congregations would be more familiar with how to order pinyin publications than congregations of other languages would be.) Supplies may be tight, though, with so many of us learning Mandarin now around the world.

  7. Wayne,

    Thanks for the details about the Watchtower and the pinyin editions published by Jehovah’s Witnesses. I have also used these aids in my study of mandarin for many years now and find the material extremely accurate and convenient to access. Its also good to note that there are MP3 audio files (and AAC format) that go along with these that can also be downloaded and used by language learners along with the pinyin.

    The mandarin audio files do not appear to come directly from the pinyin reading however. I have listened to “a few” cases of standard pronunciation which match optional pronunciations in chinese dictionaries, but which do not match the pinyin. (By “a few” cases, I mean perhaps once every couple months or less. But it does happen.) Nonetheless, I highly recommend the audio files to help those still working on correct pronunciation as well as fluency.

    I am also amazed at the other languages are also available at this website http://www.jw.org/



  8. Hi, Scotty,

    Thanks for mentioning the Mandarin audio files available for The Watchtower and for other publications. They are certainly complementary of the corresponding pinyin files, since audio recordings and pinyin (being a phonetic system) are just different ways to record the same Mandarin speech sounds. Mandarin-learners who use corresponding audio and pinyin content together can train their ears, eyes, and minds re what is correct Mandarin.

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