Chinese New Year is just around the corner, and I bring you this pun/characterplay combo. Unfortunately, neither is particularly clever, but at least it’s not hard to understand!
The large text of the ad reads:
This basically just means “happy New Year,” but the 呀 on the end is a modal particle you hear a lot in Shanghai. It adds a tone of playfulness, possibly childishness.
The pun is on 好牙, which refers to “good teeth.” (The two-character word for “tooth” or “teeth” is 牙齿). And since it’s an ad for dental services, the pun on good teeth is quite appropriate.
But do you see where the 口 component of 呀 (the modal particle) is actually a tooth? That’s the characterplay aspect. But the weird thing is that if you take away the 口, what’s left actually does literally mean “tooth.”
This image has been on posters all around Shanghai’s Jing’an District this past summer:
Each character is related to traffic:
- 让: yield
- 车: car
- 慢: slow
- 停: stop
Actually, each character is merely “decorated” in the traffic theme. It’s not true “characterplay” in the sense that characters are constructed or represented in some non-standard way for artistic effect. I’ll take it, though!
How do you turn a forest into a grave? Check out this innovative ad I spotted on the Shanghai Metro:
The (altered) character is 森, meaning “forest.” The text below it reads:
If the trees all disappear, forests will turn into graves.
To understand the message, you have to know that the character 森, meaning “forest,” is made up of three 木, which each mean “tree.” And 木 does indeed look like a little cross when you take away the two diagonal strokes.
Part of what makes this interesting to me is that crosses are, of course, not a feature of Chinese graveyards at all. Here’s a picture of a Chinese cemetary:
Still, innovative ad that drives the point home. Well done.
Here’s a poster I spotted in a mall recently:
The character there is 家, meaning “house,” “home,” or sometimes even “family.”
The first thing I noticed was its Escher-like quality, updated to a modern aesthetic. (Reminded me of Monument Valley even more than Escher directly, actually.) Very cool, and not something I see much in China, for sure!
The second thing I noticed was that the stylized character on the poster is missing a few strokes. If this character is 家, then the bottom part is supposed to be 豕, which has 7 strokes. Instead, the bottom part looks more like the 5-stroke 永, minus the top stroke.
I found this odd, because this is a pretty big difference, and in my experience the Chinese don’t take character mutilation too lightly, especially when it’s not just private use. My wife’s response was just to shrug it off, though, with a, “yeah, but it’s still supposed to be 家.”
What do your Chinese friends think? Cool design, or heinous affront to the sanctity of the 10 strokes of the Chinese character 家?
This is the logo for a service called 点点啥 (Dian Dian Sha):
So this is the Chinese verb 点 (meaning “to order (food)”), reduplicated. The word 啥 is a colloquial way to say 什么 (“what”), used more in northern China.
Nice characterplay here, the second 点 replaced by the service bell, while the first 点 is modified a bit to look more like the bell.
One thing beginners might not know is that the character component consisting of four short diagonal lines (as in 点) is frequently written as a single horizontal line. You can actually see this in some PRC character simplifications:
Obviously, it’s not applied across the board, leaving us with characters like 点, 热, and 煮, which still use the four short diagonal lines in printed form. In handwritten forms (or certain fonts), even those four short lines frequently get turned into a horizontal line (usually kinda squiggly).
点点啥 (Dian Dian Sha) has an app aimed at reduced food-related wait times.
It doesn’t feel like the movie Big Hero 6 (called 超能陆战队 in mainland China) was hugely popular in Shanghai, but the character Baymax sure is! I see him everywhere these days. His Chinese name is 大白, literally, “big white.”
To me this name is cute, because it reminds me of 小白, a common name for a dog in China (kind of like “Fido” or “Spot”), except, well… bigger. When I ask Chinese friends, though, they don’t necessarily make the same connection.
The name 大白 also lends itself well to a little characterplay:
The eagle-eyed will also spot a little characterplay going on with the word 暖男, which is a relatively new slang term. Literally “warm male,” it refers to a sensitive, considerate guy. Chinese ads often go out of their way to incorporate the latest slang as much as possible.
It’s no secret that I enjoy seeing Chinese characters with some kind of visual design twist (I sometimes call it “characterplay”), and I’m getting more and more friends and readers sharing photos with me. Keep them coming!
Here’s one shared by Matt Scranton:
So the character that means “hair” is 髪 in traditional Chinese, 发 in simplified.
Here are some others I found myself around Shanghai:
This one took me a few seconds to figure out:
A play about suddenly getting rich.
A play on the phrase 霸气十足, which means something “totally dominating.” Changing the oppressive “霸气” to “爸气” (which isn’t a real word) makes it seem friendlier (and appropriate for a Father’s Day promotion), though.
Also, you have the little hearts in 买 and 送.
I recently noticed an eyeware shop called 日月眼镜 (literally, “Sun Moon” Eyeglasses”). This is a good example of a name that plays on common knowledge of characters and character components. The glasses themselves, of course, are unrelated to celestial bodies, but when you put the characters for sun (日) and moon (月) together, you get 明, a character which means “bright.”
Why “bright”? There are two reasons:
1. The word 明亮 (“bright”), is frequently used to describe attractive, alert, healthy young eyes. So it’s a good association.
2. Another association, although less direct, is that 明 can refer to eyesight itself. There’s a word 失明 (literally, “lose brightness”) which means “to lose one’s eyesight.” Logically, then, 明 can refer to eyesight, but there’s no word (of which I am aware) other than 失明 which uses 明 to mean “eyesight.”
Have you noticed any other Chinese shop or brand names that use “deconstructed characters” in their names?
省 means “save” (as in “save money,” 省钱) or “conserve” (as in “conserve electricity,” 省电).
I feel like I’ve been seeing this particular in-store advertisement in Carrefour forever, but it’s time I pointed it out, because it’s a nice simple example of characterplay:
The text reads:
Which means, “save even more” (or “saving more”). (Check out this Chinese Grammar Wiki article on 更 if it’s new to you.)
Obviously, the clever part is sneaking the ￥ sign (representing money) into the 省 character.
This Family Mart ad reads:
> 爱 ♥ 回家 [literally, “love” ♥ “return home”]
The character 回 has been converted into a little house, presumably because it’s a lot easier to do with 回 than with 家!
The ad is for a charitable group which helps poverty-stricken children get an education. More info (in Chinese) here. (The video on that page reminds me of the new free 农村生活 content in AllSet Learning’s updated Picture Book Reader iPad app.)
In case you’re wondering how one should understand the phrase “爱 ♥ 回家” grammatically, 爱 is a noun here, so it means “love returns home” rather than “[someone] loves to return home.” Ah, Chinese grammar and its flexible parts of speech…
There’s an interesting article on Pro Publica titled: How to Get Censored on China’s Twitter (“China’s Twitter,” being, of course, Weibo).
What especially caught my eye was the mention of this use of Chinese characters:
The characters involved are 自由 and 目田. The former is a real word meaning “freedom,” the letter is a nonsensical combination of two characters (“eye” + “field”), chosen for their appearance only.
I really love how creativity with characters (something I call characterplay) allows for circumvention of censorship. This case is particularly ironic, because in order to avoid automated detection you’re literally removing the top part of both characters, a nice parallel to the content removal activities going on behind the scenes at Weibo.
This situation, although more interesting, also reminded me of the word-parsing censorship problem I’ve written about before (also involving the word 自由).
Link via Sinocism.
I definitely don’t like this logo as well as the 永久 logo, but this one is still noteworthy:
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 吟 is 呻吟, which means “moan” or “groan.” It has numerous sound-related meanings, like “sing,” “chant,” and “recite.” 味, 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?
I found it interesting how the mouth radical (口) 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 令 than 今 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.
Photo by @biesnecker:
The original character is, of course, 多 (“more”).
(Specifically, “50% more more.”)
A new project called SVG Hanzi (SVG 漢字/SVG 汉子) allows anyone to piece together an image of a character by specifying its structure and component parts. Very cool!
From the site:
> SVG Hanzi is a web service that can be used to obtain a picture of any Chinese character in SVG format.
> It is only necessary to visit a link that looks like http://svghanzi.appspot.com/[Character Code].
> Character Code here should consist of an Ideographic Description Character ⿰, ⿱, ⿲, ⿳, ⿴, ⿵, ⿶, ⿷, ⿸, ⿹, ⿺, ⿻ or △
(Those weird symbols above represent the main structural patterns of Chinese characters, such as ⿰ for 知, ⿺ for 道, etc. △ is used to denote structures like 品 or 鑫.)
In case it’s not clear, this tool allows you to construct a character by just sticking a string of symbols and characters into a URL, which is then output as an SVG image.
Some examples (click through to view the resulting SVG character output in a pumped-up font size):
Those are all actual characters, of course. I quickly realized that this tool can be used to contract the character creations I love so much (and used to do the hard way, in Photoshop):
Finally, since SVG Hanzi doesn’t force you to use only character components as input (and Unicode character will work), I couldn’t resist these “hacks” (I’m using screenshots just in case SVG Hanzi ever goes down and to not hit the server so hard, but in each case, the image was originally output by SVG Hanzi and then captured by screenshot):
This all reminds me of the Character Description Language created for Wenlin, only simpler, and more universally accessible, since it uses a simple string of symbols to create an SVG, which all modern browsers can display.
Anyway, SVG Hanzi is a very cool tool, and I’m glad to see this. Not sure if it will ever be capable of representing really complex characters, but it’s already impressive as is!
Thanks to @magazeta for introducing me to this project.
ChinesePod Jenny was telling me that she read about a story told by the CEO of C-trip (携程). C-trip was trying to make a Weibo post about “independent travel” (i.e. not travel with a tour group). In China, this kind of travel is called 自由行. 自由 means “free” (as in freedom), and 行 is an abbreviation of 旅行, which means “travel.”
Well the word for “freedom” tripped the censorship filter, and the post was rejected.
So they figured that they could alter the word 自由 by using the character 游 instead of 由. 游 is a part of 旅游, another word for “travel.” That way you get 自游行 instead of 自由行. Identical pronunciation, and the meaning still comes across pretty clearly.
The post was rejected again, for having tripped the filter.
The reason is that they had unintentionally created the word 游行, which is the Chinese word for “demonstration” (as in the protest kind).
Whether or not the facts are 100% accurate, Chinese people find this kind of story quite amusing. There’s not much you can do about the current situation but grin and bear it. One does wonder how much longer this particular charade will carry on, though…
[I don’t have a link to the original article; please share it if you have it!]
A friend of a friend recently opened a restaurant in Shanghai called 斗味.
That’s 斗 as in 斗争 (struggle) or 决斗 (duel), and 味 as in 味道 (scent, taste) or 口味 (flavor).
After dinner the other night, a friend was jokingly telling me that the name could be read 二十味 or 二十口未(口味). Ah, characterplay is always welcome… This particular example reminded me of Lin Danda (a timeless classic in character ambiguity).
斗味 is pretty good, and has very reasonable lunch specials, if you live way out on the west side of Shanghai. (It has a Dianping page, but is too new to have any reviews, apparently.)
My friend Juan recently brought this amusing use of Chinese characters to my attention:
The characters used are:
– 目: mù
– 鈕 (simplified: 钮): niǔ
– 器: qì
– 明: míng
– 員 (simplified: 员): yuán
– 管: guǎn
– 自: zì
– 開 (simplified: 开): kāi
An interesting design using the characters 西 (west) and 中 (“middle”/China):
Via Sinosplice reader Érica. Photo taken in Hong Kong.
UPDATE: The original post mistakenly had 东 (east) instead of 中 in the 西. My bad!
Here’s a chart which incorporates illustrations of food into their Chinese character forms [Note: these are based on Japanese kanji, so not all apply equally to Chinese; see my notes below]:
Below are the characters involved, suped up with Sinosplice Tooltips for the readings of both the Chinese and Japanese (more notes at the bottom). I get the impression the English translations were not written by a native speaker, so I’ve added a few notes in brackets to clarify where appropriate.
||蛯 ( / 老 / 蝦)
|root [= radish]
Creating this table was a good exercise in both vocab comparison between Japanese and Chinese, and also simplified and traditional characters. A few things jumped out as I created the table above:
1. Many of the Japanese characters above are not normally written in characters (kanji). In modern Japan, many words like 林檎 (apple), 苺 (strawberry), and 蛯 (shrimp) are often just written as “りんご,” “いちご,” and “えび,” respectively, in hiragana (no characters).
2. There are words like レモン (檸檬), the word for “lemon,” which looks weird not written in katakana. And I’m not familiar with 腹詰; I’ve always encountered “ソーセージ,” which entered Japanese as a loanword from the English “sausage.”
3. 苺 means “strawberry” in Japanese, but it’s the morpheme “-berry” in Chinese, used in such words as 草莓 (strawberry), 蓝莓 (blueberry), and 黑莓 (blackberry).
4. I’m not a big fish-eater, so I’m not confident in the fish translations. Any corrections are welcome.
There’s a lot more I could say here, but unfortunately, my blogging time is limited. Comments welcome!
– Source: Endless Simmer (via Brad)
– More Chinese Vocabulary Lists on Sinosplice
– Learning Curves for Chinese and Japanese on Sinosplice
Recently I was browsing Flickr photos and came across one that looked familiar:
To my surprise, I was given credit for the original idea in the photo caption.
I looked at some of МОЛОКО’s other photos and discovered some “gay character creations”:
Some of these innocent-looking characters are pretty explicit if you go to the photos’ Flickr pages (click on the images) and mouse over the characters.
In case you’re not familiar, the “funny-looking symbols” next to the Chinese characters are zhuyin (注音).