Backwards Website Promotion on a Van

25 Jul 2009

In China and Japan, it’s common to see company names printed in Chinese characters on the sides of buses and vans. Unlike English, which is always written left to right, these names frequently appear left to right on the left side of the car (running from the front end of the vehicle to the back), but right to left on the other side of the car (still running from the front end of the vehicle to the back).

I’d like to show a few normal examples of this, but I’ve found them surprisingly hard to find online. (Anyone have some examples?) It makes me suspect that photographers consciously avoid photographing the right side of a vehicle in which characters are printed right to left, simply because left to right is much more natural nowadays if there is a choice of orientation. Even so, I didn’t expect photos of the phenomenon to be hard to find.

Here’s an example of that practice where the company website is also included on the side of the van. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but this doesn’t seem like such a good idea to print the URL right to left.

Backwards URL

In normal orientation, the characters on the van read:

> 上海金帅办公家具有限公司 Http://www.sh-jinshuai.cn

(Note that the image is not reversed; the characters and letters are all facing the right way. They’re just printed right to left.)

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. I saw quite a few of these when I lived in China. Even have a picture of the characters in reverse order for Chinatown in NYC. The best I had was from Shanghai–a business with its English name backwards (and it was a long business name). I thought it was just gibberish until I took a second look at it.

  2. Maybe they’re hard to find because people don’t normally label pictures of vehicles by the orientation the writing on the side of them is in? 🙂

    The reverse English business name is strange, as is the (normally block cap) pinyin (with no spaces) of the company that you often see on signs. I never understood how TENGZHONGRUANJIANSHEJIYOUXIANGONGSI could possibly help anyone who didn’t already read Chinese (or, well, really, anyone at all).

  3. See this recent blog post from Dingle Speaks

    http://dinglespeaks.com/?p=916

  4. I’ve seen those around Hainan quite a bit. Don’t have a good photo of my own though.

    Found some backwards English on a sign: http://farm1.static.flickr.com/157/367472061_d840c6656a.jpg?v=0

    Here’s a bus with backwards Chinese but correct English:
    http://l.yimg.com/g/images/spaceball.gif

    The owner of this photo says it is backwards:
    http://l.yimg.com/g/images/spaceball.gif

    And the best one: China post backwards in English and Chinese:
    http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2102/2388943487_0d04577cdb.jpg?v=0

  5. The American flag is always supposed to have the field of stars at the front of the vehicle–as if it is flying. You’ll see on government vehicles that the right-hand-side flag is “backwards”. I wonder if this is the origin of the “backwards on the right” convention? Do pictures of Chinese flags “fly” correctly on government vehicles?

  6. @Matthew: Wow, backwards Pinyin, too? Maybe it’s to help foreigners figure out that the Chinese is written right-to-left.

    It seems odd putting things in one direction on one side and the opposite on the other side, though. I’ve always thought there should be a mirror image of signs on the front of things, though, so you can see them in the rear-view mirror.

  7. Changye Says: July 27, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    This is a stupid custom I hate to see in my country, Japan.

  8. Thanks, Matthew, those are some great examples!

  9. John B,

    Yeah, I actually tried searching that way at first, and it didn’t turn up anything. But then looking at lots of pictures of buses and trucks revealed that they were all photographed from the same side…

  10. Changye,

    Wow, you hate it, really? I always just thought of it as a minor cultural/linguistic difference…

  11. I remember being really proud when I noticed my Chinese was finally good enough to almost always immediately notice when the characters were ‘backward’ 🙂

  12. Same thing can be seen on boats, and I think airplanes also, here in Japan. Sorry, no pictures!

  13. very interesting, it is really a big culture shock.

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