Capitals and Entirety
28 Nov 2005
At first I was going to call this another Chinese pun, but now I’m not sure if it qualifies. It’s orthographically dependent (it won’t work when read aloud), and it involves grammar as well. But it’s still pretty easy for students of Chinese to understand.
Central to the understanding of this pun is the notion of the 多音字: a character that has multiple readings. The one you need to know for this pun is the rather basic character 都. In its adverbial usage it carries the basic meaning of “all” and is read dōu. It can also mean “capital (city),” as in 首都, in which case the character is read dū.
A friend was telling me a story about how some young Chinese students. They were learning about different cities in China and their relative importance to the nation’s economy. One city was especially important for coal production, so it was called the 煤都 (“coal capital”). The students had to memorize this. Another city was key in supplying iron ore, so it was called the 铁都 (“iron capital”). The students had to memorize this too, along with many others.
When it came time for the test, the students saw questions like this:
> 中国的煤都是 [China’s coal capital is ] > 中国的铁都是 [China’s iron capital is ]
One clever student failed in his rote memorization duties, but he found a way to answer the questions anyway:
> 中国的煤都是黑的 [China’s coal is all black ] > 中国的铁都是硬的 [China’s iron is all hard ]
What could the teacher do? Even though these were clearly not the answers sought, they were completely correct in that written form — even to someone with no knowledge of Chinese geography.