Oct 2013

The (Chinese) Alcohol for (Chinese) Alcoholics

Here’s another one for the “I can’t believe they named the product that” file (see also “Cat Crap Coffee“). This one has more of a cultural differences angle, with a little bit of translation difficulty thrown in for good measure.

There’s a brand of Chinese rice wine called 酒鬼酒. Here’s a picture of it:


in Chinese, while often translated as “wine,” more generally means “alcohol.” Traditionally, it’s some kind of grain alcohol, like 白酒 (Chinese “white wine“).

A person who routinely drinks to excess is called a 酒鬼 in Chinese, which literally means “alcohol demon” or “alcohol devil” or “alcohol ghost,” depending on how you want to translate . It sounds pretty negative, but in fact, in Chinese culture this type of alcohol abuse is not nearly so stigmatized. Although the police forces of many regions in China have begun cracking down on drunk driving in recent years, alcoholism in China is not as closely linked in the public consciousness to vehicular manslaughter, domestic violence, child abuse, and the host of other evils as it often is in the west. In fact, regular heavy drinking is closely linked to some of China’s greatest poets, most famously 李白 (Li Bai).

Here’s 李白 getting his drink on:

Li Bai drinking

So it’s more in the spirit of historical drunken poetry (as opposed to inebriated abusiveness) that this brand of Chinese rice wine is called 酒鬼酒.

Translating the brand name into English is a new challenge in itself, though. If you simply translate 酒鬼 as “alcoholic” and as “alcohol,” you get “Alcoholic Alcohol,” which sounds like it means “Alcohol that Contains Alcohol,” which is just plain dumb. In fact, you can’t use the word “alcoholic” as a modifier at all for that reason, so if you don’t want to ditch the noun “alcoholic” altogether you have to say something like “Alcohol for Alcoholics,” which sounds like some kind of horrible demented “charity” to my American ears.

So what else can you do? “Booze for Boozers” and “Wino Wine” are ridiculous. “Drunk Spirits”? I’m curious what a creative translator can come up with. (Pete? Brendan?)

Anyway, 酒鬼酒 is a real company in China, and has its own Baidu Baike page (in Chinese, obviously), and is also listed on Wikipedia under “unflavored baijiu.”


Sep 2013

Cat Crap Coffee

OK, so you’ve heard of kopi luwak, right? Just in case you haven’t, here’s some Wikipedia for you:


> Kopi luwak, or civet coffee, refers to the beans of coffee berries once they have been eaten and excreted by the Asian Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus). The name is also used for marketing brewed coffee made from the beans.

Given the process by which this coffee is created, it’s not too surprising that we elect to refer to it in English by a foreign name–kopi luwak–rather than actually giving it a descriptive name. I mean, you can’t just call it “cat crap coffee,” charming as the alliteration may be, right? Well, you can in Chinese.

The Chinese name is 猫屎咖啡, literally, “cat crap coffee.” If you want to be a little cruder, the translation “cat shit coffee” is no less accurate.

What kind of blows my mind is that a coffee shop in the business of trying to sell this product (and it’s kind of expensive coffee) just straight up calls it 猫屎咖啡 (“cat crap coffee”). Don’t strain yourself too much with the marketing effort, right?

You can ask your Chinese friends if they’ve heard of 猫屎咖啡, and probably most of them have. What you won’t hear is them saying things like, “isn’t it weird that we just call it ‘cat shit coffee?'” Well, I have to hand it to the Chinese for calling a spade a spade.

But what I find even crazier is that there’s now a coffee chain expanding to multiple locations in Shanghai that goes by the very name “猫屎咖啡.” So some entrepreneur heard of this coffee, liked it, and decided he wanted the word “shit” in both his main product’s name as well as the name of his very business. Now that’s bold. Sassy, even.


The English name for the Chinese chain is, notably, “Kafelaku Coffee.”

Looks like there’s some backlash forming around this particular strain of coffee in the UK. I can’t imagine it’ll faze the Chinese market, though!


Sep 2013

Chinese Character Picture Logo for “Yin Wei”

I definitely don’t like this logo as well as the 永久 logo, but this one is still noteworthy:


The Name

The name of the Japanese restaurant is 吟味. This is kind of a strange name to me; the only Chinese word I’m very familiar with that contains the character is 呻吟, which means “moan” or “groan.” It has numerous sound-related meanings, like “sing,” “chant,” and “recite.” , of course, means “flavor.”

In Japanese, I found an entry for 吟味 (ぎんみ) which means “testing; scrutiny; careful investigation.” I guess a name like that could be comforting in a country so beset with food safety issues?

The Pictures

I found it interesting how the mouth radical () is used in the same logo to form two very different pictures. The first one is of a table reminiscent of ancestral forms of the character 口, except upside down. The second one looks like a bowl, and although looking more modern, resembles a few of the other ancestral forms of the character 口 (and not upside down this time).

The right side of 吟 (the roof combined with the kneeling Japanese figure) to me really looks more like the character than in certain calligraphic styles.

Logos like this are interesting, but to me highlights an important point: Chinese characters are not pictures. They’re not even very much like pictures. If characters were really “like pictures,” this kind of logo wouldn’t work.

Certain Chinese characters and character components are historically pictographic in nature, yes, but you can see how even a basic pictographic element like the mouth radical (口) is actually very plastic. To me, what’s so fascinating about characters is not that they’re “like pictures,” but that they’re a ridiculously complex (and yet still viable) alternative symbolic system to alphabet-based writing systems.

I’ll write more on this subject later.


Sep 2013

What is your staple food?

A while ago I was asked this question by Sinosplice reader Efraim Klamph:

> I am teaching English in a somewhat rural location in Hunan. Sometimes students ask me, “What do Americans have as their main food?” I assume by “main food” they mean 主食, which Wenlin translates as “staple/principal food”. The concept of 主食 seems very clear in Chinese cuisine; particularly at the cafeteria where I eat, you get your veggies and meat all on top of a large serving of white rice. When I think of American or Western cuisine in general, I have a hard time thinking of what could serve as the 主食. Many of the students who ask me seem to be inclined that Westerners eat bread as their 主食. But think about the meals you eat when you’re back home; at least for me, it’s not always a bunch of vegetables and tofu served on a block of rice. So I say to the students that Westerners don’t really have a 主食, we sometimes eat bread, noodles and rice, but the concept of 主食 is rather different in Western cuisine. I mean, where’s the 主食 in the classic salad, hamburger and fries? Any thoughts on this?

I think when the Chinese think “主食,” they normally think “one kind of food,” whereas westerners often think of this as “a class of foods,” AKA what society in the States currently refers to as “carbs.” So our 主食 can be pasta, or bread, or mashed potatoes, or rice, or any of a number of things. Maybe even the hamburger bun and the fries. It depends on the meal.

It sounds a little ethnocentric to say that Western food has a rich smorgasbord of “主食” (carbs), whereas China has only rice. In reality, China does have quite a bit more variety than just rice.

Typical Chinese Carbs (主食):

– rice: 米饭
– wheat noodles: 面条
mantou (steamed buns): 馒头
– glass noodles: 米线
– various “cakes”:
– various dumplings: 饺子


Photo by rprata

Typical Western Carbs (主食):

– bread: 面包
– pasta: 意大利面
– rice: 米饭
– corn: 玉米
– potatoes: 土豆

Neither of these lists are exhaustive, but clearly there’s variation in the carbs consumed in both regions. The difference lies in the fact that certain regions of China stick much more closely to one type (e.g. rice every day in the south, noodles every day in the north), whereas more of a variety is typical in “the west.” More than once, I’ve had Chinese friends from the south tell me that they “just don’t feel right” if they don’t have at least some rice every day. It’s a seriously ingrained (ha!) eating habit.

Obviously, it feels kind of ridiculous to try to sum up the eating habits of “the west” so simply, even though your Chinese friends may very well expect you to do just that. So you may have to explain that in Mexico more corn tortilla and rice is eaten as the 主食, in Poland it’s more potatoes, in Turkey it’s various types of bread, etc.

But if you’re in China for very long studying Chinese and communicating with locals, sooner or later you’re going to have the 主食 discussion. Most Chinese have heard their whole lives that western food is very uniform and boring compared to the rich culinary tapestry that is Chinese food, so you can have a little go at shattering 主食 preconceptions with this one. (Good luck!)


Aug 2013

The Yongjiu Bicycles Logo

I noticed this cleverly designed logo for the Shanghai brand 永久 recently, and had to take note:

永久 Logo

永久 means “permanent.” Here’s the logo with its English name, “Forever”:

Forever (永久)

Here’s a bit of evolution of the logo over the years (notice that it was once written right-to-left):

Forever (永久)

Finally, if you’re having trouble identifying the character elements in the logo, here’s a little deconstruction aid for you:

"Yongjiu" Logo Deconstruction


Aug 2013

On Delayed Language Acquisition

JP recently finished studying Chinese at the Monterey Institute, and he said something that caught my attention:

> Ok, how’s my Chinese now? It’s better than when I started. I’ve certainly seen a lot of vocab and patterns. A few of them are in my daily speech now. I’m not terribly worried that I haven’t internalized more of those yet… it’s not my first rodeo. I know that some of that stuff will start coming out of my mouth in the months to come.

> I actually discovered this phenomenon when I got back from France in 1993. My French had improved tremendously from the immersion experience, and I had plenty of new frenchy habits. But I was a little disappointed that my French wasn’t even better. I would go to French class in Seattle and make a lot of the same mistakes I had made before. Oh well, I thought, I didn’t get fluent, but at least it was fun.

> Fast forward to a year later, and I was totally able to speak French. So apparently the growth came after I had returned, after the immersion experience was long over.

Of course there’s a big catch. You have to keep talking, keep practicing, keep trying to improve. That’s certainly no problem for JP, but some learners may think that all the magic happens in one special context at one special time, and once extracted from that special environment, all the learning stops. Not so!

The jury is still out an exactly how closely related first and second language acquisition are, but clearly the two are related. One of the things that gives me great pleasure is watching my (not-yet-two-year-old) daughter soak up new words, earnestly taking them all in, but refusing to repeat them. And then, days or weeks later, she’ll suddenly bust out with those words in the appropriate context, much to the amazement of her audience.

No, it’s not a deliberate show. Her brain needs time to properly “digest” what she’s ingested in order to put it to use.

For me personally, some of the most interesting phenomena relate to Chinese grammar. There are certain higher-level grammar patterns that you can learn, and know, and understand in context, but then just never use yourself in normal conversation. Why bother with something like 之所以……是因为 when you can just use the regular cause-effect pattern? Or why bother extracting the object and with a 把 sentence and moving it around when you can get by with a regular SOV sentence?

Pork Chops Are Marinating

Mmmm, nuance. (photo by Merelymel13)

The answer, of course, is that all this stuff adds nuance. But you filter out nuance when you’re not ready for it. Then you marinate in nuance for a while before you’re ready to fully embrace it yourself. Then one day the nuance just pops out of you, expressing just what you meant, and you didn’t even know you had it in you.

To get to that point, you just have to keep accepting that input while continually giving yourself opportunities to communicate.


Aug 2013

Text Message Fraud (a sample)

Chinese way

Photo by .sl. on Flickr

There’s a fair amount of text message (SMS) fraud going on in China, and if you have cell phone number here, you’re likely to receive this type of text at some point. As a foreigner, though, if you have trouble reading the text, you may get too caught up in trying to decipher what it says and forget to ask yourself, “could this be a scam?

So here’s an example of a fraudulent text message I received just the other day:

> 我是房东,我换号码了, [This is the landlord. I’ve changed my number.]

> 你记一下,以后找我就打这个。 [Please write it down. In the future, you can reach me at this number.]

> 另外,这次租金请打我爱人卡上, [Also, this time please pay the rent to my spouse’s account.]

> 工行 621226.240200.6159780 [ICBC 621226-240200-6159780]

> 李敏,谢谢 [Li Min. Thanks!]

A few notes on what makes this text a little bit crafty:

1. The landlord’s changed his/her number. That’s why you don’t recognize the number. And you’re welcome to contact him/her at the number! Seems legit.

2. Oh, but now you have to send money. And the reason you don’t recognize the account is because it’s the landlord’s spouse’s account.

3. Here’s the kicker. The spouse’s name is Li Min (李敏). This is a deliberately gender neutral name (although it’s more likely to be a female name). The words for “landlord” (房东) and “spouse” (爱人) are also gender neutral. So whether your actual landlord is male or female, the message still works.

4. The spouse’s surname, Li (), is not a coincidence. It’s #1 in the list of common Chinese surnames.

Don’t fall for this stuff, guys. I receive messages like this once or twice a month. They tend to follow a very similar pattern to the one above.


Aug 2013

13 Euphemisms for Sex in Chinese

We all know that Chinese can be a little challenging to learn, and one of the reasons is cultural. Certain topics are not talked about openly by most Chinese, or at least not directly. Enter the euphemism, those delightful ways of subtly referring to a taboo topic without outright naming it (and befuddling all foreigners in the process!).

Below is a list of Chinese euphemisms (委婉语) for sex. These are all somewhat subtle, but they vary quite a bit in how modern or tactful they are. Just to be clear, if you use the words 做爱 (“make love”) or (“sex, sexuality”) or 性交 (“sexual intercourse”), you’re not being subtle, and dropping those words in polite company is likely to cause some embarrassment.

OK, so here’s the list:


  1. sex: This one needs no expanation, except that since it’s an English word, rather than a Chinese word, it loses a lot of its taboo flavor in Chinese (thus it’s counted as a euphemism when it’s really just a translation).

  2. 那个: Literally, “that.” You know… that.

    Example: 他们有没有……那个过?

  3. ML: Stands for “Make Love.” So once euphemized by translation, and then euphemized once again by abbreviation. I asked native speakers if there is a “ZA.” You know… for 做爱. Of course there isn’t. (And at first, before the clarification, native speakers were even confused about what in the world I could be talking about. “ZA”? Zā?) This one is often used online.

    Example: ML的时候

  4. happy: You may know this word as an innocuous English adjective, but in Chinese it can sometimes be a verb.

    Example: 他们今天可能要happy一下。

  5. 睡觉: This one is pretty easy to just translate, since the euphemism is directly analogous to the English “sleep with someone.” Just remember to use in Chinese: ……(somebody) 睡觉.

    Example: 她不会跟你睡觉。

  6. 爱爱: So you know how in Chinese verbs can reduplicate, like saying 看看 for “take a (quick) look”? Well, in this particular euphemism, the same little grammar trick is used for the verb . Only it’s pretty unambiguous in Chinese. Cute, huh?

    Example: 他们今天可能要爱爱。

  7. 嘿咻: This one is a little hard to explain if you’ve never heard it, but it’s the sound someone makes when engaged in some kind of hard labor. The kind where you’re breathing hard. So it’s essentially an onomatopoeia turned into a verb.

    Example: 在车里“嘿咻” [source]

  8. 办事: This one is slightly problematic because 办事 is a little bit hard to nail down even in the non-euphemistic sense. It’s kind of like “get some work done,” or “handle some (official) business.” Perhaps the most (unintentionally) appropriate translation in this particular case is “handle affairs.”

    Example: 男人、女人“办事”时喜欢开灯和不开灯的理由 [source]

  9. 发生关系: I love how spontaneous this one sounds. 发生 means “happen” or “occur,” and 关系 means “relations” or “relationship.” So sometimes “relationships happen.” The interesting thing is that this one is actually fairly formal; it can be used as an almost classy euphemism without the need for any additional chuckling or winking.

    Example: 为什么男女发生关系后一切都变了? [source]

  10. 床上运动: “Exercise in bed.” Need I say more? Often used as a noun phrase.

    Example: 床上运动一周几次才正常? [source]

  11. 上床: “Get in bed.” Again, this one isn’t too hard for an English speaker to decode. As with 睡觉, the pattern is ……(somebody) 上床.

    Example: 她不会跟你上床。

  12. 房事: Literally, “room affair.” I’ve actually never heard this one myself, but I’m assured that it is definitely used, and sometimes even by doctors. It can also be used as a verb.

    Example: 怀孕后多久不能房事,为什么? [source]

  13. 云雨: Ah, “clouds and rain.” (Yeah, you know what I’m talking about!) This one is definitely the most poetic of the bunch. To me, it smacks of “the birds and the bees,” only classier.

    I’ve got no examples for this one. My searches turn up a whole bunch of Chinese people asking how 云雨 came to mean 做爱 in ancient Chinese. It’s not normally used in spoken Chinese.

So that’s enough euphemisms for now! Next euphemism post: Chinese euphemisms for death.


Jul 2013

Tracking the Evolution of the Slang Word “Diaosi”

The Chinese slang word 屌丝 (meaning approximately “loser”) has become pretty popular in recent years, thanks to the internet. Of course it’s got its own Baidu Baiku entry (in Chinese), and you can find it in the ChinaSmack glossary (in English) too.

But there are a few weird things about this term. First, sources don’t always agree whether 屌丝 is pronounced “diǎosī” (3-1) or “diàosī” (4-1). [My personal sources usually assure me it’s 3-1.] Second, isn’t a vulgar slang term for “penis”?

Rather than delving into these issues myself, I’d like to direct you to an article on a new blog called Civil China which, as one of its first articles, takes a look at how the term has surged in popularity in recent years, and even how connotations shifted from mostly negative to not-so-negative. The article is Diaosi: Evolution of a Chinese Meme.

The post includes some very interesting textual analysis of the use of the term 屌丝 on Weibo over the past year and a half. (Complete with fancy data visualizations!)

Analysis of the term "diaosi"

For those of you actually trying to learn vocabulary (and possibly too lazy to read the whole thing), don’t miss this conclusion about the meaning of the word 屌丝:

> Although “diaosi” is often translated as “loser” in English, our analysis points to a distinction between a Chinese “diaosi” and a “loser”: losers are responsible for their own lack of success, while diaosi are made by larger social conditions. No wonder then, that “loser” remains an indisputably negative term, personal in its injury, while “diaosi” is a true meme: dynamic, complex, and current, cultural rather than personal.


Jul 2013

Help with the Chinese Usage Dictionary

Yale University has a great Chinese Usage Dictionary with 85 entries. Only problem is that it uses the deprecated HTML practice of frames, and the links in the left sidebar are not right. You actually can get to the articles by hovering over the links, noting the HTML file it points to, and then editing the URL in your browser, but that’s a bit tedious.

To make access easier, AllSet Learning has added an index page for Yale’s Chinese Usage Dictionary, and at the same time, added a few relevant Chinese Grammar Wiki links as well. Check it out!

The Chinese Usage Dictionary isn’t a full dictionary in the sense of Pleco or MDBG, and it doesn’t stick strictly to vocabulary or grammar, alternating between the two. But if you like comparisons of similar words with examples of correct and incorrect usage, or want some exercises, then definitely give it a look.


Jul 2013

Door Door

Here’s a Chinese door that not-so-subtly reminds you it’s a door:

This is a Door

“Door” in Chinese is written in traditional Chinese, and in simplified. Obviously, the character above is traditional.

Unfortunately, it’s not a door to a door shop or anything quite so fitting.


Jul 2013

The Wheely Spotted in Shanghai

I saw this guy on the street the other day in Shanghai’s Hongkou District:


A little research seems to indicate that this is the Wheely 500W by BeInMove. €899 is over 7000 RMB. Not only is that expensive, but I’ve never seen this kind of thing for sale here. I wonder where this guy got it…

Update: it seems to be selling for 2999 RMB on Taobao. (Thanks, Brad!)


Jul 2013

Meaningful Chinese Transliterations (for fun!)

One of the big headaches about learning Chinese is the relative dearth of cognates and loanwords. None of that “car” is “carro” stuff you get when you start learning Spanish. In fact, when you do learn words that were transliterated into English from Chinese (like 麦克风 for “microphone”), the result is often bizarre and a lot harder to learn than if it had been “more Chinese” (keep in mind that you also have to learn all the tones of the word transliterated into Chinese). Kind of a downer.

It seems to me that the Chinese aren’t too crazy about these transliterations either. When they can, they’ll do things like use the Chinese word 苹果 (“apple”) for the American company “Apple” rather than resorting to transliteration. But for foreigners’ names, foreign country names, foreign company names, foreign brand names, and foreign product names, you do get stuck with an awful lot of transliterations into Chinese.

Recently I came across this list of English words (probably taken from a list of vocabulary words for some horrible standardized test) that have been transliterated into Chinese in a humorous way. That is to say, the Chinese characters chosen, rather than being random or “standard transliteration characters,” were chosen for their meanings. I’ve added pinyin tooltips to the transliterations, and also English translations of the transliterations.


– pregnant (怀孕): 扑来个男的 (“throw a man on me”)
– ambulance (救护车): 俺不能死 (“I can’t die”)
– ponderous (肥胖的): 胖得要死 (“ridiculously fat”)
– pest (害虫): 拍死它 (“squash it”)
– ambition (雄心): 俺必胜 (“I must win”)
– agony (痛苦): 爱过你 (“having loved you”)
– hermit (隐士): 何处觅他 (“wherever can I seek him?”)
– strong (强壮): 死壮 (“damn strapping”)
– abyss (深渊): 额必死 (“I must die”)
– admire (羡慕): 额的妈呀 (“mama mia”)
– flee (逃跑): 飞离 (“fly away by plane”)
– gauche (粗鲁的): 狗屎 (“dog crap”)
– morbid (病态): 毛病 (“mental issues”)
– putrid (腐烂): 飘臭 (“wafting stench”)
– obtuse (愚笨): 我不吐死 (“I’m not going to puke to death”)
– lynch (私刑处死): 凌迟 (“kill by dismemberment”)
– tantrum (脾气发作): 太蠢 (“too stupid”)
– bachelor (学士/单身汉): 白痴了 (“turned dumb”)
– temper (脾气): 太泼 (“too unreasonable”)
– addict (上瘾): 爱得嗑它 (“love to the point of cracking it in your teeth”)
– economy (经济): 依靠农民 (“rely on the peasants”)
– ail (疼痛): 哎哟 (“Owww”)
– coffin (棺材): 靠坟 (“leaning on the grave”)
– appall (惊骇): 我跑 (“I’m gonna run”)


Jul 2013

The Foreign Feel of a Chinese Transliteration

Foreign words, like “Minnesota” or “Kobe Bryant” or “Carrefour” often get “translated” into Chinese in a way that uses the original sounds of the words and tries to represent those in Chinese (thus, using Chinese characters). This process is called transliteration, or sometimes transcription (音译, which breaks down character by character into “sound translation” in Chinese). Thus, the three examples above become “Mingnisuda” (明尼苏达), “Kebi Bulai’ente” (科比·布莱恩特), and “Jialefu” (家乐福) in Chinese.


These foreign names can be quite a pain for learners to remember, because the pronunciation is “off,” and they’re often quite long, plus the worst part: you have to remember all the tones for those “nonsense characters!”

But are they really nonsense characters? That depends. A carefully transliterated name will make some sort of sense in Chinese. This is almost always done with company and brand names, and is the case with Carrefour (家乐福) above; the three characters chosen mean “home,” “joy,” and “happiness,” respectively. For place names, though, the characters are a bit less lovingly selected. So Minnesota (明尼苏达) got: “bright,” “Buddhist nun,” “Suzhou,” “arrive.” Pretty random. Same goes for “Kobe Bryant” (科比·布莱恩特) in Chinese.

So a typical learner of Chinese wants to know: what’s my name in Chinese? And that’s where the tumble down the foreign name transliteration rabbit hole begins. You see, most English names already have standard translations in Chinese. So “John” is 约翰, “Mary” is 玛丽, “Richard” is 理查德, etc. Clearly, these are all transliterations; the sounds are approximated in Chinese, but not the meanings.

From the moment I first heard “约翰” (“John” in Chinese), I hated it. It didn’t sound like “John” at all! There wasn’t even a “zh” or a “j” sound in the whole name. (It does sound quite similar to “Johann,” though; I think I had early European missionaries to thank for the “standard” transliteration of my name.)

After examining the characters, there were two main things I didn’t like about 约翰:

1. The characters 约翰 didn’t make much sense (OK, they make a little sense, from a “Gospel of John” missionary perspective)
2. “Yuēhàn” just sounded weird to me, and unlike most Chinese names

These two features define most foreign names transliterated into Chinese. In fact, oftentimes the characters really are nonsensical; they’re chosen systematically from a fixed list of characters used in transliterations. This list even has its own Wikipedia page: Transcription into Chinese characters.

Looking over the list, I can’t help but feel that certain specific characters are more “foreign” (used especially often in foreigners’ names, and not so often in Chinese names), while others are more “Chinese” (equally likely to appear in Chinese names). For example, and are both common in Chinese names. and … not quite so much.

Thus, over time, as you hear more and more combinations of these “transliteration characters” (杰克, 汉克, 路易, etc.), you start to get a feel for when a “Chinese name” sounds foreign, especially compared to the growing list of authentic Chinese people’s names you’re compiling in your memory. In fact, a computer program could actually run through big long lists of transliterated foreign names and original Chinese names, and by comparing the character distributions in the two lists, assign “Chineseness” and “foreignness” values to each character, allowing for fairly accurate prediction of what “Chinese” names would sound the most foreign. You could probably increase accuracy by taking note of the position of the characters in a word, and certain repeated character sequences (like 斯坦).

But this is what your brain does unconsciously as you learn more and more names. This is how we develop a sense for when a Chinese name feels foreign.

The ironic part of all this for me personally is that after rejecting 约翰 as my Chinese name, I later settled on 潘吉. Both of those characters are in thetranscription table! (Ah, but 潘吉 is actually much more Chinese, even if a bit boring. So 潘吉 is my official Chinese name, although these days I usually just go by John.)

Rose's Revelation


Jun 2013

Strong is good

Here’s another one for the Chinese pun file:


So the name of the sugar is 浓好, a play on the expression 侬好, the Shanghainese version of 你好, or “hello” in Mandarin. 浓好 (the name of the sugar) literally means “strong is good,” where “strong” is the “strong coffee” kind of “strong.”

The character-savvy among you (who understand the necessity of radicals) will also notice that and share the phonetic element , and that in this case the person radical in and the water radical in carry meaning.

On the sugar packet we can also see it is from the “Hello Milk Tea Series.” It does make me wonder what else is in the series…


Jun 2013

Handwritten Chinese Numbers: Alternative Arabic Numerals

I mentioned before in my post “Chinese Numbers: Where 4 Meets 6” that I’d have a longer post on this topic. This is it (although not quite as long as I was hoping). Again, I don’t mean the Chinese character numbers (、etc.); I’m talking about the numbers we call Arabic numerals. In China, they can occasionally be written pretty differently from what foreigners are used to, and present serious potential for confusion and misunderstandings.

4 and 6

This is the issue I mentioned before, and illustrated with this image:


I actually had a hard time finding really good examples of this “in the wild,” but here’s a fairly representative example:


Here are some more “normal” 4s:



This one is the easiest to document, and by far the least recognizable to Westerners, in my opinion. How do you even describe it? Kind of like a cross between a “P” and a “q”? Spot the 9s!




This last one is interesting:


You’ll notice the same hand that wrote the wacky 9 also wrote 早餐 as the non-standard 早歺 (that’s a second round simplification character).


Sometimes it looks like a backwards Z, and other times it looks like a weird curvy thing with a line through it. In an un-5-like way!



One more…

As a bonus, here’s an 8 that looks like a 6:



Consider this post a little heads up. If you’re suddenly in a situation in China where you have to be reading numbers, running into these forms can be a little bewildering.

Also, I’ve been trying to collect representative examples for months, and this is all I’ve come up with. (And three of them came from ChinesePod co-host Dilu. Yes, the food-related ones were all me.) If anyone could share additional examples that I’m allowed to post, please email them to me, or link to them in the comments, and I’ll add them here as an update.

Other comments are, of course, also welcome!


Jun 2013

Valuing Vocabulary

My daughter is now one and a half years old, and while she can’t say much yet, I know that little brain of hers is hard at work acquiring language.

One thing that’s become really obvious lately is how much she values the words she already knows. Every morning, as soon as she can, it’s all “Mommy! Mommy, Mommy…” and “Daddy! Daddy, Daddy….” It’s not just that she’s happy to see us in the morning; I’ve come to realize that she’s still slightly uncertain of her mastery of her earliest words (she still occasionally fumbles with the words she knows). She wants to use these words as much as possible because she worked hard to learn them, and doesn’t want to forget them.

And I couldn’t help but wonder: how much do we learners really value the words we learn? I mean, we value them enough to “learn” them in the first place, but do we value them enough to put in the ongoing effort to keep them? When we learn words that we know are useful, do we make damn sure that we use them right away, repeatedly, so that we never let them go?

Granted, not every vocabulary word is going to be as crucial to us as the words “Mommy” and “Daddy” are to a baby. But still, with applying a fraction of that earnestness would go a long way. I’m finding myself grateful for this new daily reminder I have.


May 2013

More “more”

Photo by @biesnecker:

多 + 50%

The original character is, of course, (“more”).

(Specifically, “50% more more.”)


May 2013

OF COURSE Radicals

Please excuse a short rant.

Guys, you have to learn radicals if you want to learn to read Chinese characters. You have to.

I bring this up because over and over again, I run into claims of a “secret” to or a “new method” for learning Chinese: radicals. Yes, it’s a bit of information you might not know when you first take an interest in Chinese, so it’s definitely worth stating explicitly to any new learner. But it’s not a “revolutionary way” to learn Chinese. It’s one of the fundamental building blocks of the Chinese written language. In fact, the Chinese themselves coud not possibly commit to memory the huge quantity of characters that literate adults know if the system did not somehow build on itself (through semantic elements and phonetic elements).

So it’s not “this great way to learn Chinese”; it’s the only way to really learn Chinese characters, unless you’re going to stop at a few dozen. Just as one does not typically learn to read English by skipping the alphabet, or begin studies in classical music by skipping musical notation, one does not tackle reading Chinese without learning about radicals.

(The latest place I ran into this “secret” was a TED talk called ShaoLan: Learn to read Chinese … with ease!)

Could we use new ways of learning Chinese characters? Absolutely. But radicals, or variations of Heisig’s method are not new. Learning thousands of characters is not effortless however you slice it. But it’s totally worth it!

So yes, learn radicals. Not because they’re some new idea, but because if you’re planning to learn Chinese in all its orthographic splendor, they’re one form of ancient Chinese wisdom that you simply can’t afford to ignore.


May 2013

Support Phonemica!

My linguistically-inclined friends at Sinoglot have been quietly building out an amazing project called Phonemica. What’s Phonemica?


> Phonemica is a project to record spoken stories in every one of the thousands of varieties of Chinese in order to preserve both stories and language for future generations. We are a team of volunteers working within China and abroad.

> Our mission: Bringing the richness of oral Chinese to a wider audience, through the words of natural storytellers, from every corner of the world where Chinese is spoken.

Phonemia is beautifully designed, has great audio content in various Chinese dialects, and has a really cool custom audio player/annotator to boot. If this interests you at all, you should really check it out.

But there’s more! Phonemica has recently launched an indiegogo campaign to continue the mission and expand the project. Support Phonemica while you still can so that Phonemica can chronicle China’s linguistic riches while it still can.

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