Hanzi Smatter

Hey Westerners! Did you ever wonder how Asians feel about sites like Engrish.com, a site which pokes fun of Asians’ botched attempts at using English? Well, now you don’t have to — you can experience this feeling firsthand!

Tian, a commenter on this site, has recently started up a new blog dedicated to this very topic. The title of the blog is Hanzi Smatter: 一知半解, with this short description under it: Dedicated to the misuse of Chinese characters (Han Zi; or 汉字) in Western culture.

一知半解 is a chengyu which Wenlin defines as “half-baked” and my New Age Chinese-English Dictionary defines as “having only a smattering of knowledge.” Literally it means something like “knowing but only half understanding.” (For more chengyu in a digestible dosage, check out Oneaday.org.)

If you have any examples that Tian could put in his blog, I’m sure he’d appreciate the submissions. I just sent him a photo taken in Australia of a guy’s tattoo. View Tian’s contact info for his e-mail.


John Pasden

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


  1. Thanks John for your “shout-out”.

  2. Your entire site is now a highlightable chinese idiom tooltip.

  3. Carl,

    It’s all for you, man, because I know how hard you’re studying Chinese. 🙂

  4. heh.

  5. No, John, Carl is not trying to exagerrate and say that you have a lot of tooltips on your site now. He literally means that your entire site has become one enourmous tool tip. it looks like you missed a close tag or something.

    also, the link to tian’s site doesn’t work for me, gives me a blank page.

  6. JR,

    Haha, I totally missed that. Thanks for the clarification. I feel silly now.

    I didn’t see that at all because I use Firefox, a superior browser. (It closed the span tag for me.) I have fixed, it though, so that you poor IE users see what I intended.

    As for the link to Tian’s site, I don’t know what to tell you. I doublechecked the code, and it works for me, and I know it works for other people too.

  7. Da Xiangchang Says: October 2, 2004 at 12:57 am

    I think the problem with Westerners using tattoos of Chinese character isn’t only that the characters are wrong, but also that it’s SOOOO unoriginal. They’re just trying to be cool–but since 1,000,000 other people are doing it, it AIN’T cool. Originality is cool, imitation and going with the crowd ain’t. Having a tattoo of Chinese is uncool, wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt is uncool, having a goatee is uncool. Find a t-shirt of Adam Smith, have no tattoos and be cleanshaven, and you’re cool cuz you then ain’t a poser!

  8. chengdude Says: October 2, 2004 at 2:37 am

    For the last few years, I’ve thought off and on about the need for just such a site and I’m happy to see someone who knows how to build one (unlike me) has finally done it. But then, I also wondered just how sustainable the content would be? After all, it would appear that the two most frequent targets (dyslexic tattoo artists and FAST & FURIOUS wannabes) have already been dealt with on the first page. Sorry, but for me, an inverted or reversed character just doesn’t elicit a rise…just as a backwards “r” or upside-down “e” wouldn’t make me reach for my camera with dreams of becoming famous with my very own “Chingrish” page. Let’s face it, to build on the Sinosplice Analogy, the beauty of battered English in all its forms is, variously, in the syntax, word choice, and (mostly for me) the incongruity. For the forseeable future, though, there’s just not going to be enough of the equivalent in Chinese out there to take aim at us stupid laowai’s use of it. Of course, culturally sensitive guy that I am, I would never begrudge anyone’s ire, mockery, or resentment at some moron with a backwards “loyalty” or “love” on one body part or another, but otherwise it’s going to be pretty slim pickings…I mean, hasn’t Allen Iverson tattooed 99% of his body already? Let’s hope, then, that Kimberley Clark starts printing boxes of Kleenex with mangled Chinese couplets and we start seeing stilted regulations in Chinese at Yellowstone Park…now that will make for a great website.

    (I also posted the anonymous reply taking issue with the site owner’s utterly misdirected comments at Wolfram Eberhard’s book…hopefully future entries won’t be quite so shot-from-the-hip)

  9. Chengdude,

    You make a good point. The humor we see in the stuff at Engrish.com and similar sites is often a result of attempting English that is somewhat complex. And such an attempt is only possible because of decades of English education in those countries. Obviously, the West in general has no comparable education in Chinese or any Asian language.

    So, yeah, the “laughs” are going to be of a limited caliber, and for a limited audience.

    But oh well. They’re out there.

  10. Chengdude,

    I understand your point completely. Before I started the website, I have also thought about how much material I would get. Like you pointed out in your comment, the majority of material would be coming from poorly done tattoos and “rice-rocket-racers”. But the idea behind the website is to educate Westerners through these examples and mixed in with some sarcastic humor.

    As for seeing these example in mainstream western media would be rare, since majority of Westerners done not understand. But I did manage to get couple of examples, one is the July issue of Maxim magazine


    and vintage t-shirt for sale at Urban Outfitters:


    and on sneakers:


    Also, if you like idioms, here is another one for you:



    ps. I have corrected my posting after your comment about Wolfram Eberhart.

  11. When I visited the doctor a few weeks ago, the nurse was wearing a shirt patterned with flowers and the character ¾Æ. When I saw it, I thought that’s absurd and I might have remembered wrong, but sure enough I went home and checked my dictionary, and the silly cracker indeed had flowers and alcohol all over her shirt.

  12. Tian,

    I think that, in addition to laughs and education, if you stick to it, the website could in time become a resource to non-Chinese reading folks in that they may consult you and your commenters before buying a shirt, rug, plate, or tattoo. Haha, that might be high business. For that purpose, though, you need to be a bit more thorough in explaining the right (not just the wrong) for each of your finds.

  13. Gin,

    You have a great idea. I will keep that in mind, and I tell you what: if I ever get any profit from consulting, I will give you 10% of all my earnings. How is that?


  14. excellent idea. may i suggest s spinoff? Just as the archetypal stereotype of the Native American is “natural and in touch with the earth” and all that nonsense, the archetypal stereotype of East Asian culture is inscrutable, mysterious, spiritually superior ancient wisdom. Accordingly, one hears all kinds of esoteric wisdom attributed to the ancients. I’ve always wondered how much of it is authentic and how much made up and attributed to add to its TRUTH. Would be a great public service to have a place to look up what’s real and what’s not — if you felt like taking that on, it’d be great. I can think of three off the top of my head: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” and “If you sit by the riverside long enough, you will see the corpse of your enemy float by” and “A peaasant will wait for a long time on a hillside with his mouth open waiting for a roast duck to fly in.” Always loved those — would love em more if I had any faith they were real. Whether you take on that project or not, best of luck with your site as it is. I look forward to visiting often.

  15. wow,thank God…fortunately i am a chinese and my mother tongue is chinese.After 20yrs of fighting with chinese, 4yrs of learning English and 3 months with Japanese,I fully understand…Chinese is the most complicated language in this planet.
    i know learning chinese is really a tough thing for your guys.Keep it up~!¡«^_^¡«

    PS:If you need any help,don’t hesitate to reach me.

  16. well…Learning Chinese is not easy ,u better get work on it and try hard really ,anyway good luck!

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