Preferred Nomenclature

Here’s a test for your Chinese friends:


The caption says, “Where is the renxingdao?” I can’t simply translate renxingdao. That’s the whole point of this post.

I came across this problem a while ago, but I didn’t examine the question carefully until it became involved with my work. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of translation from Chinese into English. It’s not just any Chinese, but Taiwanese Chinese. This means I have to read traditional characters (which I’m happy about — it’s good practice, and not really very hard), and it also means that I have to deal with regional vocabulary variations (e.g. in Taiwan, the word 脚踏车 (jiaotache) seems to be used much more often for “bicycle” than in mainland China, where 自行车 (zixingche) is the norm).

I thought the word renxingdao might be one of those cases of different usages, but it turned out to be universally confusing, whether I was asking mainlanders or Taiwanese.

Let me cut to the chase. In my experience, if you ask a Chinese person where the renxingdao is in the above image, they’re almost equally likely to point to the crosswalk as the sidewalk.

This is kinda hard to take, because it seems like the distinction is an important one, seeing as how one of them happens to be in the middle of the road. I asked quite a few people this morning (from both sides of the strait), and I got them all embroiled in a debate as to what exactly a renxingdao is. They came up with all kinds of alternate nomenclature for both “crosswalk” as well as “sidewalk,” but came to no conclusion as to the precise meaning of renxingdao.

Ah, language issues. The translation work continues. I’m learning a lot.

NOTE: the above image is the famous Abbey Road. The image was taken from this site.


John Pasden

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


  1. Interesting, John. In Cantonese, we call sidewalks 行人路. As for crosswalks, we refer to them as 斑馬路, which literally means “zebra street”. I think we can follow the logic of that one. =)

  2. They’re called zebra crossings in the UK. Incidentally, John, you mispelt ‘sidewalk’. Should be ‘pavement’ . . .


  3. I think it is as Heidi wrote in Mandarin as well. Now can anyone help on the old “zhuan xiu” question? That one has stumped me for a long time.

  4. Actually, Heidi, banmalu was one of the alternate names given by my co-workers for “crosswalk.”

    I just don’t understand how renxingdao can be used so commonly in one society when people’s ideas of what it means are different.

  5. Gracewang Says: April 5, 2004 at 7:27 pm

    hey, John,

    Is this pic of UK road? I am currently live in London now, it looks like a place in London 🙂

    Anyway, as a Chinese and I was educated in Mainland for most of the time. We think RENXINGDAO is the sidewalk. The Crosswalk we generally refer it as BANMAXIAN(斑马线)


  6. Gracewang Says: April 5, 2004 at 7:31 pm

    sorry, just add a bit.

    I suddenly realize that maybe John’s coworkers are confused with “REN XING DAO “(人行道) with “REN XING HENG DAO”(人行横道). In mainland China, we call sidewalk “RENXINGDAO” ;we call crosswalk or pavement(which is the british way of calling crosswalk) “BAN MA XIAN ” or “REN XING HENG DAO”(人行横道).

    They sound so similar and the meaning is different, maybe that;s why it confuses your coworkers. _

    Hope this helps.

  7. Gracewang Says: April 5, 2004 at 7:35 pm

    hey Tim,

    Can you write “zhuan xiu” in Chinese so we can understand what it is?
    “zhuan xiu” could be “专修” which could mean : 1.someone or some workshop which is specilize in fixing/repairing something
    e.g. Zhuan xiu computers/laptops
    2.Some students who are studying a specific subject.
    E.g. Zhuan xiu Mathematics

  8. usually i call the sideway 人行道, and the crossway 横道线, and my friend also told me it can also be called 斑马线。
    We were taught such kind of saying in primary school with a diagram.
    Why ppl point crossway as the sideway?
    Donnot know really, and it’s really weird.

  9. That reminds me. Do you know where I could find a list of different words used in Taiwan and the mainland? I wanted to write a post about how the 冷氣 at my 國小 broke down, or how much I love to eat 鳳梨 and ride my 機車.

  10. I can’t say that I’m too flabbergasted by this. In many cases, whether it means crosswalk or sidewalk will be clear from context. If not, it’s the speaker’s responsibility to use a different word with an explicit meaning. Doesn’t this sort of thing happen in all languages? For example “There’s a car parked on the street” probably means that it’s on the bitumen, but “There’s a clown selling balloons on the street” probably means that she’s on the sidewalk.

  11. Moreover, renxingdao literally means something like “pedestrial way”. I don’t think an exact equivalent in English even exists. If you showed that picture to English speakers and asked “where do pedestrials walk”, you’d probably get divided results too. Ah, translation, what a barrel of fun.

  12. Kevin Miller Says: April 5, 2004 at 11:41 pm

    In the U.S., they sometimes have “xing” written on them or the signs noting their presence (using x = “cross”). A few years a Chinese friend noted that he assumed that just said “xing” (the second character in your title) and never thought about why they’d have pinyin in the U.S.

    Of course, it took me ages before I could look at a box of leather shoes in China with pinyin and not read the pinyin as the English word “pixie.”

  13. I think the terms Gracewang (and Heather) gives are the closest to the “proper” terms in mainland China. They’re the same ones that many of my co-workers were saying.

    But that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of Chinese people don’t know the distinction. And when enough native speakers use a word “wrong,” like it or not, that usage becomes “right.”

  14. Wayne,

    I was thinking of making a similar post too. I haven’t seen any definitive list, but I’d be very intersted.

  15. how the word “couple” in english? sure, to 80-90% of people it means precisely 2, but occasionaly you meet people who think it means “a few” or “several”: maybe 3-4

  16. besides the various names and the fact that zebra crossing seems the “best”, the confusion probably stems from the idea itself. Most Chinese don’t use crosswalks so the concept is week. Outside of a few tidy East coast cities and the very busy dowtowns of some others, in most places in China the crosswalks are just there for decoration.

  17. Grace,


    Thanks. My pinyin is not that good.

  18. what about walkway? fwit, most Chinese I know also call crosswalks banmaxian.

  19. the “crosswalk” is “人行横道”,the “sidewalk” is “人行便道”

  20. Gracewang Says: April 8, 2004 at 1:22 am

    Hey Tim,

    装修 I think basically mean decorate and change the interior of your house/room. Hope it helps

  21. Grace,

    I think maybe Tim is referring to the ambiguity of whether 装修 means “decorate” or “renovate.” Maybe.

  22. Gracewang Says: April 8, 2004 at 6:26 pm

    I think in Chinese, most of the time 装修 have both meanings (decorate and renovate). I understand for a foreigner it is quite confusing. But in China when you do 装修,we normally do more than just decorating the house. 🙂

  23. nishishei Says: April 10, 2004 at 12:07 pm

    Curious question… were your co-workers from Shanghai? In Shanghai we call sidewalk/pavement 上街沿 (IPA: zaNka’i), we typically see 人行道 (nin’indO) as referring to crosswalk, to us it is short for 人行横道, and it makes sense to us as the crosswalk is the designated place where people can walk across the street. This conflicts with Mandarin, where 人行道 refers mainly to sidewalk. Hence, a Shanghainese speaker is in predicament when seeing the characters 人行道. When I hear renxingdao, I typically think sidewalk; when I hear nin’indO I think crosswalk (in the Shanghainese pronounciation, almost never do I think of it as sidewalk). We almost never use the term 斑马线 (I didn’t know it existed until I was in high school and heard it from a Beijinger).

  24. nishishei Says: April 10, 2004 at 12:19 pm

    Maybe Taiwanese people like those in Shanghai also have a special term for sidewalk besides 人行道, and thus the confusion.

  25. So you took a photo from another site and added a sinosplice watermark? Nice. You’ve been in China way too long, their utter disregard for IP rights is rubbing off.

  26. John B,

    Hey, I added the Chinese to the top! hehe

  27. Wayne,

    In Taiwan they publish a book called 一国两字. It details all the funny things mainlanders say in putonghua but Taiwanese don’t, with the equivalent guoyu term, or if there is no term, then a definition.

    I was also taught crosswalk = 斑马线. In Taipei, people usually cross on them, especially around bigger/more heavily trafficked roads. Living in the PRC for a little while has changed how I cross the street. I just can’t believe it when cars stop for me in Taiwan. Not all of them, but some even when I don’t have right-of-way.

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