The Three “NOTs” of Hanyu Pinyin

The Scheme for Romanized Spelling of the Han Language (Hànyǔ Pīnyīn Fāng’àn) spells the standardized Common Chinese Language. It is neither for characters, nor topolects, nor Classical Chinese; this is called the “three NOTs.” Let us take a look at the “three NOTs.”


(1) Hanyu Pinyin is not a system for spelling the shapes of characters; it is a system for spelling the sounds of the Chinese Han language.

Some people think that Hanyu Pinyin is inadequate because it cannot show the radicals as characters do. For example, the character 青 qīng (green) appears as the phonophore (sound-bearing element) in 蜻蜓 qīngtíng (dragon fly), 鲭鱼 qīngyú (a kind of fish), and 清水 qīngshuǐ (clear water). Each of the three words that include the character 青 qīng (green) has a different radical to show different meanings; and people usually can recognize the different meanings shown by the radicals instantly. Would it not be great if a radical (with the same function) were added to a syllable of Hanyu Pinyin? This way, each different spelling -- qingc (c for insects radical), qingv (v represents fish radical), and qings (s for water) would represent a different character. These words are called “semantic-plus-phonetic spelling characters.” This, however, is not the purpose of Hanyu Pinyin.

(2) Hanyu Pinyin is not used for writing different topolects but only for writing the nationally shared language, the Common Chinese Language.

Someone may say, “My accent cannot be spelled with Hanyu Pinyin!” Indeed, the nationally shared language is not every Chinese person’s mother tongue but a “teacher’s language”; non-native speakers must learn it from a teacher. It is natural that one cannot use Hanyu Pinyin to spell all the topolects that individuals speak and that are different from the Common Chinese Language (Pǔtōnghuà). However, Roman letters are able to spell the various topolects, and there are already a few different schemes of Romanization specially designed for some topolects.

Some people may say, “If the First Emperor of the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC) would have adopted “Pinyin,” China would have been split into more than ten countries long ago!” But Hanyu Pinyin spells the “nationally shared language” and is dedicated to its popularization. In other words, it is for the unification of the national language. A unified language will benefit the unification of a country. Therefore, Hanyu Pinyin is a tool for “unification,” not for “splitting.”

(3) Hanyu Pinyin is not a system for spelling Classical Chinese. It is a system for spelling modern vernacular Chinese.

We should use characters to write Classical Chinese. If we want to use a Romanized system to write Classical Chinese we have to design a “scheme for writing Classical Chinese.”

The Jesuits Henri Lamasse and Ernest Jasmin introduced Romanisation Interdialectique (Làtǐ Hànzì) from 1931 to 1932. It was precisely a system for writing Classical Chinese. Yuen Ren Chao’s General Characters (Tōngzì, in Roman letters) is also a system for writing Classical Chinese. But writing Classical Chinese is not Hanyu Pinyin’s purpose.

Based on Romanisation Interdialectique (Làtǐ Hànzì), Lexique (1933), the 77 characters pronounced yi were spelled as follows: hyc 医噫, hyec伊, hŷec 依衣, hyêc椅猗, hiaec翳, qyêc仪宜, qŷec沂, qiaec 倪霓, iêc移, iec 姨夷胰遗, ic 怡贻饴颐, qyc疑, qyh拟, hyeh 椅倚, qyeh 蚁, ih 以已, yh矣, iêh 迤, hyes 衣, qyaes 艺, qys劓, hiaes 裔缢, hys 意懿, is 异, hyaes瘗, qyaes 睨弈诣, qyês 义议谊, qyes 毅, ies 肄, iês 易, it 佾溢逸, hyt 乙一, ip揖, hyp邑挹, hyk 亿忆臆抑, ik 弋翌翼, ix 易亦弈奕役疫绎驿译, ix (iat)液掖, hyx益, and qyx逆, forty-one forms all together. The pronunciation of these characters is based on the Expanded Rhymes (Guǎng Yùn).

Yuen Ren Chao was the leader of the group that designed National Romanization. He knew that National Romanization (Guóyǔ Luómǎzì) could only write “modern vernacular Chinese,” and not Classical Chinese. In order to demonstrate this point he playfully wrote a classical essay consisting entirely of “homophones” entitled “Record of Mr. Shi Eating Lions.” The whole essay is copied as follows:

Shi2 shi4 shi1shi4 Shi1 shi4 shi4 shi1, shi4 shi2 shi2 shi1. Shi4 shi2shi2 shi4 shi4 shi4 shi1. Shi2 shi2, shi4 shi4 shi4, shi4 shi2 shi* shi1 shi4 shi4. Shi4 shi2, shi4 shi4 shi4 shi2 shi1, shi3 shi2 shi2 shi3 shi4, shi3 shi4 shi2 shi1 shi4shi4. Shi4 shi2 shi4 shi2 shi1 shi1 shi4 shi2 shi4. Shi2 shi4 shi1, shi3 shi4 shi4 shi3 shi2 shi4. Shi2 shi4 shi4. Shi4 shi3 shi4 shi2 shi4 shi2 shi1 shi1. Shi2 shi2, shi3 shi4 shi4 shi2 shi* shi1 shi1 shi2 shi2 shi* shi2 shi1 shi1. Shi4 shi2, shi4 shi3 shi4 shi4 shi4shi2. Shi4 shi4 shi4 shi4.” (The original article had no punctuation.) (* The character 硕 shuò, meaning huge, was pronounced as shí in the past.)

The vernacular translation of this essay is:

Shítou wūzi lǐ xìng Shī de shīrén xǐhuan chī shīzi, tā juéxīn yào chīdiào 10 tóu shīzi. Tā shíshí dào shìchǎng shàngqu kàn shīzi. Shí diǎn zhōng, tā dào shìchǎng, gānghǎo 10 tóu zhuàngdà de shīzi láidào shìchǎng. Zhè shíhou, tā kàn le zhè 10 tóu shīzi, yīkào 10 zhī shítou zuò de jiàn, bǎ zhè 10 tóu shīzi shāsǐ. Tā jiǎn qǐ zhè 10 tóu shīzi de shītǐ, huídào shítou wūzi lǐ qù. Shítou wūzi cháoshī. Tā jiào shìzhě mǒgān shítou wūzi. Shítou wūzi mǒgān le, tā kāishǐ chángshì chī zhè 10 tóu shīzi de shītǐ. Chī de shíhou, cái zhīdào zhè 10 tóu zhuàngdà de shīzi de shītǐ, shíjì shì 10 tóu zhuàngdà de shítou shīzi de shītǐ. Zhè shíhou, tā cái míngbai zhè jiàn shì de zhēnxiàng. Qǐng nǐ jiěshì, zhè shì zěnme huíshì?

The English translation of the essay is:

Mr. Shi, a poet who lived in a stone house, liked to eat lions. He vowed to eat ten lions. He often went to the market to look at lions. At ten o’clock, he went to the market, (and) just then ten large lions (also) came to the market. At that time, he saw these ten lions. Relying on the power of ten arrows with stone tips, he caused the ten lions to pass away. He picked up the bodies of the ten lions and went back to his stone house. The stone house was damp, so he told his servant to try and wipe it (dry). After the house had been wiped (dry), he began to try to eat the bodies of the ten lions. As he was eating, he realized that the bodies of the ten large lions were actually bodies of ten large stone lions. Only then did he understand the real situation. Can (you) explain what happened? (Translated by Victor H. Mair)

The point is that, if Chao’s classical essay were written in Hanyu Pinyin, everything would be shi and naturally no one could read and understand it. In other words, it is a kind of tour de force tongue twister. Even if it were written in characters, people still would not be able to understand it when it is read aloud. There are people who use this (playful) piece (that is forced and unnatural even in Classical Chinese) to oppose Hanyu Pinyin. They have completely misunderstood Yuen Ren Chao’s original intention!