Book sale

The University of Hawai’i Press is having a sale, with deep discounts on many titles, including three great books from’s list of recommended readings.

cover of the book 'Asia's Orthographic Dilemma' cover of the book 'ABC Chinese-English Dictionary' cover of the book 'Ideogram'

[Thanks to Victor H. Mair]

Terry who?

photo of a large poster on a building. It reads 'GT GOOD TiMING 郭台銘' and has a photo of Terry Gou against a blue and purple background

Terry Gou, the billionaire head of Foxconn, has been running an independent campaign for president of Taiwan. He doesn’t seem to be running this very well — but that’s not a romanization-related matter.

Anyway, I’ve been looking for an excuse to write about his name, and a photo in today’s news offers just that.

First, let’s get the biggest oddity out of the way: Why does Terry Gou misspell his own name?

His English name is “Terry Gou” (spelled as such). His Mandarin name, however, is Guō Tái-míng/ Guo Tai-ming / 郭台銘. Why is he a G-O-U and not a G-U-O (or, for that matter, not a K-U-O, the spelling most people in Taiwan with that surname use)?

Sorry, I have no answer to this. I’m just noting that it’s weird.

Both of his parents are mainlanders from Shanxi, in the north of China, so this wouldn’t be related to a Taiwanese pronunciation. No major romanization system in Taiwan for Mandarin uses G-O-U for this surname. And G-O-U doesn’t make sense as an ad-hoc spelling for G-U-O/K-U-O.


  • He just got tired of people mispronouncing his name (which correctly is pronounced a bit like English’s whoa with a g stuck in front of it) and decided that if they were going to do that, they’d do it on his terms. (In Mandarin G-O-U is pronounced much like the English word go.)
  • He thought “Gou” (go!) sounds like an appropriately dynamic name for a businessman.
  • Someone at the passport office made a typo that never got corrected.
  • Other.

Has anyone heard any stories about this?

“Good timing” and “GT,” on the other hand, are more transparent. Gou/Guo’s given name is “Tai-ming,” which is indeed pronounced much like the English word “timing.” Note too the typographic touch of using a lowercase i in “TiMING” to help indicate this is both English and not English. Nicely done. Now if only the campaign had worked a bit harder to get anyone to show up at his empty campaign building to sign the petition to put him on the ballot….

Also notable about this photo is the use of “Cing” on the streetsign at right for what would be written “Qing” in Hanyu Pinyin (as part of the name of Qīngnián Lù / Qingnian Road /青年路). The “C” indicates the presence of Tongyong Pinyin, which is standard in Kaohsiung.

Source: Guō Táimíng “Gāoxióng lián shǔ zǒngzhàn” qiāoqiāo kāizhāng gōngzuò rényuán bǐ lián shǔ mín zhòngduō (郭台銘「高雄連署總站」悄悄開張 工作人員比連署民眾多), Liberty Times, September 24, 2023

SF politicians and Chinese names

Wednesday’s San Francisco Standard has a good (and nicely referenced and illustrated) piece by Han Li on politicians in SF/Jiujinshan choosing Chinese names as a way to appeal to the significant slice of those in the community who can read them. Such names are now receiving a lot more attention from politicians than before.

The article notes the important distinction between Western names that have simply been transcribed approximately into Chinese characters, which tend to sound a bit weird and run on too long, and “authentic” names (quote marks in the original), which sound like something an actual Chinese person might have (e.g., three characters, with the “family” name coming first).

Li credits now vice president Kamala Harris with starting the trend of local politicians seeking authentic- and favorable-sounding names when she first ran for San Francisco district attorney in 2003.

Harris ditched the transliteration-based name 哈里斯 (“ha lay si”) and chose 賀錦麗 (“ho gum lai”) instead. To Cantonese speakers’ ears, the new appellation had a more celebratory and positive ring (the surname Ho, 賀, means “celebrate”), while Gum-Lai has a feminine quality (錦麗 means “beautiful”).

One of the things I especially like about the piece is how it gives primacy to Cantonese for most names, reflecting the situation on the ground.

Some rules govern the selection of names.

  • Candidates who do not already have a Chinese name can have the Department of Elections provide one.
  • The submitted names have to be in traditional Chinese characters.
  • The names cannot be the same as those of historic figures or celebrities, and they cannot lead to ambiguity or become too promotional. (So I guess 高富帥/Gāo Fùshuài wouldn’t pass muster.)

And additional rules may be coming into place.

In 2019, Assemblymember Evan Low authored legislation to regulate Chinese translations on California’s statewide ballots. The law mandates that candidates use transliteration-based names unless they can prove that they were born with a character-based name or have been using such an “authentic” style Chinese name for at least two years.

San Francisco’s Department of Elections has rules that slightly differ from Low’s legislation and has insisted his law doesn’t apply to local races, which means candidates do not need to prove that two-year usage. The City Attorney’s Office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Supervisor Connie Chan, an immigrant from Hong Kong, said she’s considering actions on the board to implement Low’s bill at the local level.

Han Li. “To Court SF Voters, Politicians Give Themselves Flowery Chinese Names.” San Francisco Standard, May 10, 2023.

cover of a book about Kamala Harris, giving her Chinese name (as discussed in the post)

Why is the ROC govt trying to make Taiwanese look like Singaporeans?

Names of people in Taiwan have had a default format for many decades. For example:

  • Lee Teng-hui
  • Chen Shui-bian
  • Ma Ying-jeou
  • Tsai Ing-wen

The similarity, however, is not in use of a single romanization system. None of those names share the exact same romanization system or combination of systems:

  • Lee (common phonetic spelling) Teng-hui (Wade-Giles)
  • Chen Shui-bian (Hanyu Pinyin!)
  • Ma Ying (Wade-Giles, probably) jeou (Gwoyeu Romatzyh)
  • Tsai (bastardized Wade-Giles) Ing (ad hoc spelling) wen (Wade-Giles, probably)

But, different as those people are and different as the romanization systems used are, all of those names share an obvious pattern that marks them as belonging to someone in Taiwan: the hyphen joining the two parts of the given name, and the use of a lowercase letter for the second part of the given name.

Around twenty years ago, during Taiwan’s romanization wars (when President Chen wanted to impose Tongyong Pinyin upon Taiwan and a great many foreigners and others reacted with dismay and disgust), a popular claim of the Tongyong supporters was, “If Taiwanese use Hanyu Pinyin for their names, no one will be able to tell Taiwanese from Chinese anymore.”

This, however, was, like most claims of Tongyong supporters, not true. (It was also pretty funny, given that the most powerful supporter of Tongyong Pinyin was Chen Shui-bian, whose name is unambiguously Hanyu Pinyin but whom no even remotely knowledgeable person would ever mistake for someone from the PRC). The style used for names in China is “Familyname Givenname” (no hyphen). All Taiwanese have to do to keep their names distinct is to preserve the hyphen (assuming they even desire to use Hanyu Pinyin, which is not now nor has ever been required here for personal names).

This is easy:

  • PRC vs. TAIWAN
  • Li Denghui vs. Li Deng-hui
  • Chen Shuibian vs. Chen Shui-bian
  • Ma Yingjiu vs. Ma Ying-jiu
  • Cai Yingwen vs. Cai Ying-wen

But a few years back the government of Taiwan announced that it would be issuing a new style of the national ID card. Based on the mock-ups the government supplied, these cards would include romanization (yea!), but romanization in a very un-Taiwanese style (argh!).

mock-up of two possible styles for Taiwan's new national ID card

What’s especially odd, though, is that the romanization clearly follows the style of names in Singapore, not Taiwan.

Here, for example, are the names of some prominent Singaporeans:

  • Lee Kuan Yew
  • Goh Chok Tong
  • Lee Hsien Loong

Again, the standard pattern for Singaporean names is easy to discern … and clearly distinct from the standard pattern of names in Taiwan.

Why is the government doing this? Switching from Taiwan style to Singapore style makes no sense — not historically, not practically (separating given names makes it harder to tell what’s the family name and what’s the given name), and not politically.

And why on earth is “林” being romanized on the card as “LING” rather than as “LIN”, and “森” as “SHENG” rather than as “SEN”? Typos in not one but both of the only two personal names given do not inspire confidence.

Her name should be given, in descending order of preference, as
CHEN Xiao-lin
Chen Xiao-lin

I had been hopeful that the cards and their new style had simply been killed off and so the problem had been effectively eliminated years ago. But according to a recent Taiwan News story, the “eID scheme is halted but not scrapped.” So this nonsense might still happen.

The only good thing I have to say about the Pinyin on the mock-ups (other than its existence) is that it is at least not prohibitively tiny, which is a common problem.

By the way, hyphens can appear in some names in Hanyu Pinyin — but not in the way many people may first guess. Two-syllable family names are written solid, not hyphenated (e.g., Ouyang and Sima, not Ou-yang and Si-ma). Rather, hyphens exist in standard names in China in Hanyu Pinyin in cases where someone decides to adopt her spouse’s name but also preserve her maiden name. So, if a Ms. Wang marries a Mr. Li but wants to have both names, she becomes Ms. Wang-Li (or Ms. Li-Wang).

Here’s what Taiwan’s national ID cards look like presently:

Taiwan national ID card -- front

Taiwan national ID card -- back

Further reading:
Contractor seeks NT$526 million in compensation for Taiwan’s halted digital ID plan. Taiwan News, May 8, 2023.

Majority supports adding English requirement for applicants for Singapore citizenship: poll

The opposition leader of Singapore, Pritam Singh, said in late February that he supported adding an English test to the requirements for applications for citizenship or permanent residency in Singapore. A recent poll of five hundred Singapore-born citizens found strong popular support for that position.

Proportionately, most of those opposing an English-language requirement were of Chinese descent. But even among that group, supporters of the requirement outnumbered those opposed by roughly 3:1.

Graph showing 400 people of various ethnicities support an English requirement for Singapore citizenship, with 100 opposed -- with most of those in opposition being Chinese.'

Only 7 percent of all respondents, however, said applicants should be able to speak, read, or write fluently in English.

Based on data from the Singapore Census 2020, 72.3 per cent of Singapore residents born outside Singapore are literate in English.

Focusing on the top three countries of origin (India, Malaysia and China), the English literacy level among those from China was the lowest at 61.8 per cent, Asst Prof [Shannon] Ang [of Nanyang Technological University] said.

“Because a large proportion (62.3 per cent) of the overall resident population is Chinese-literate, Chinese immigrants may feel little need to learn another language. But this means that members from the minority races may not be able to communicate with them,” he added.

Further reading:

Every which way

Here’s a photo (blurry, I know) of the side of a bus in Taipei. I took this because the bus has text in Chinese characters running in three different directions: top to bottom, right to left, and left to right.

Taiwanese wouldn’t find this particularly confusing, as this sort of thing is not entirely uncommon here, though right-to-left horizontal writing is seen less and less.

photo of the side of a bus in Taipei, Taiwan's Nangang district, showing text in Chinese characters running top to bottom, right to left, and left to right

same image as above, but with arrows superimposed to show the directions of the text

I’m posting this mainly so I can refer to this example later if need be.

Number of Chinese majors in U.S. universities holding steady

In 2013, a total of 706 U.S. students majoring in Chinese graduated, a gain of just 6 students over the previous year. In addition, Japanese as a major continues to attract significantly more students than Mandarin.

By way of contrast, in 2013 a total of 12,703 U.S. students graduated with degrees in Spanish.


Despite the strong growth of interest in Mandarin over the past two decades or so, only 2.34% of all students in U.S. universities majoring in a foreign language are majoring in Chinese, so the percentage of Mandarin majors among students overall is tiny indeed.


The numbers are for graduating seniors in those years.

Source: Data on Second Majors in Language and Literature, 2001–13, MLA Office of Research, Web publication, February 2015