Not that She

I was reading an entry on Peking Duck about a man who got a harsh lesson in police “justice.” This sentence made me pause:

> She, 39, was coerced into confessing to her murder and badly beaten in prison, the China Daily said.

[I’m going to completely ignore the point of the news story here. If you want to discuss it, you’ll be very welcome on Peking Duck.]

Did you find that sentence confusing at all? “She” ( or ) may be the man’s surname, but in English it’s more commonly the feminine third person singular pronoun. When it comes at the beginning of a sentence, it’s indistinguishable from the Chinese surname written in pinyin. Similarly, “He” ( or ) is a Chinese surname as well. “You” ( or ) can also be a Chinese name. I, We, They, Him, Her, Me, etc. are not Chinese surnames, though, so the fun ends here.

I should note that of the Chinese surnames She, He, and You, none is pronounced very similarly to its English “counterpart.” The vowel sounds especially are notably different.

Still, this seems like a great setup for wordplay of some sort. It would be a welcome change from the stale Hu/who jokes which have only recently subsided.

Anyone up for the challenge?


John Pasden

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


  1. Reminds me of the story about the early days of computer searching. A searcher was looking for a Thai (?) person whose surname was ‘The’. It was the results like she got that lead to the exclusion of certain words (usually articles) from the search vocabulary.

  2. You’s pronunciation is close enough to that in English, to someone who cannot tell tones. And the bigger thing is that, although He and She are not pronounced the English way, the English way is exactly how westerners will read/say them, outside of China.

  3. My He named friends could do nothing but give up and be called Mr. Heee, partially because the e sound does not exiast in English. Same thing with my colleague Dr. Ge, it becomes Dr. Gee.

  4. I mean partly, sorry.

  5. I remember reading once about a girl named 何曼.

  6. In my newspaper reading class today I used that article for a quiz, and was worried that my students might get it confused. I resorted to writing the man’s full name, She Xianglin, in all the questions to make it absolutely clear, but some of the students still persisted in calling him ‘she’ in the discussion afterwards. But whatever the situation, Chinese students always seem to do that, don’t they?

  7. I don’t agree that the English “you” and the Chinese “you” are similar. Ignoring the tones, the English version is “yooo” and the Chinese is more like the “yo” in “yo-yo.”

  8. you’re exactly right, gin — those of us unfamiliar w/ chinese names and chinese pronunciation would read the names as we would the pronouns.

    i read that article, too (“oddly enough” from reuters, i believe), and was amused by the same thing. i wonder how non-native english speakers (ie, europeans, south americans, etc.) reading the article in english?

  9. So she wouldn’t mind being beaten and thrown into jail considering she’s dead already?

    I’ve heard of this story already but I can’t recall if i heard it first from You or read it first from you.

  10. I came across a similar situation to what Gin describes. I was in Suzhou working with a US company, talking with a Chinese employee. The employee kept on telling me about a Mr. “Hee”. For the life of me I could not think who Mr. “Hee” was, it is not a Chinese name, and it is not an English surname nor given name, so I finally just asked who is Mr. “Hee”, you are not talking about 何, are you. She said yes, it is 何. “Why do you call him ‘Hee'”, I asked. Because all the Americans call him “Hee”, so we just call him that now.

  11. Interestingly, the Chinese surname He is pronounced like the English word ‘her’ (adding to confusion).

    Wulong — it depends on your English accent… but I would agree with you… except in the case of AAVE (African American Vernacular English?) where it sometimes sounds like ‘yo’ (on movies or hiphop tracks anyway — that’s the only time i get to hear it!).

    My homestay student’s name is You1wen2 — which most people pronounce as “you win!”

  12. Kaili,

    That cracks me up! This name instantly became the No. 1 candidate for my (yet unconceived) child. 🙂


  13. Is it really a problem? Pronouns aren’t usually capitalized, so the only reason for the confusion seems to be that the name is coming at the beginning of a sentence.

    I made the mistake too, but don’t think I would have had the text previously mentioned the full name of the man in question, as the full article Richard links to does.

  14. Trevelyan: There was another sentence here: “She told the Beijing News that when he was first apprehended…,” which, when I first read it, I believed it was reporting what the wife said, since this is a much more natural sentence than the one quoted above.

    It’s probably not a big problem, but it might require just a slight alteration from the standard way of writing news.

  15. John,

    Let me take up your wordplay challenge.

    Zhwj mentioned way above a girl named 何曼. I know this girl and think her name is pretty. Her husband, on the other hand, was born in December and got a lame name, 施腊弟.

    For the benefit of those unable to read the Chinese characters, her name is He Man, and his name Shi Ladi, both with the surname first.

  16. Sort of related here is how many of my Chinese friends call me by my English name. They often wind up saying Marx instead of Max. Then, the logical conclusion is to just start calling me 马克思. When I thought that joke had finally blown over, I met a guy who took it to the next step and just started calling me “Karl”.

  17. 何曼in Cantonese is Man Ho.

    Hung is another popular girl name in Cantonese meaning red.

  18. I think when pronouns are capitalised, it indicates they are God! (normally He)

  19. I know I shouldn’t find this funny…but I cannöt stop myself.

    He Man, hee hee!


  20. er…. I don’t know where the 0‹2 came from – stupid swedish keyboard

  21. I don’t know where the ö came from

    I do; it’s the heavy metal umlaut. (Background.)

    I remember reading once about a girl named 何曼.

    I found some comics calling He-man “希曼“.

  22. schtickyrice Says: April 9, 2005 at 11:01 am

    Speaking of the western European ö, this is equivalent to the pinyin o.

    The English and western European o in the other hand is represented in pinyin as ‘ou’.

    Therefore, Mr. You in pinyin would sound like Mr. Yo in English, while Mr. Bo in pinyin would sound like Mr. Bö, not Mr. Beau.

    Considering that pinyin already uses the vowels u and ‘u with an umlaut’, I don’t see why the same has not been done with o and ö.

    Re:Mr. She and Ms. He Man, none of this confusion would exist if pinyin had adopted the Turkish ‘i without the dot on top’ (how’s one supposed to get a Turkish keyboard in Canada?) in the place of e.

  23. Further afield, but still on the subject of unfortunate names, is a report today on a woman whose husband wanted to divorce her because her name is 苏丹红, or Sudan-I, the banned coloring agent.

  24. schtickyrice Says: April 9, 2005 at 10:53 pm

    What about the speed skater 王曼丽? I remember an American sportscaster referring to her as Manli Wang.

  25. But the Pinyin ou and o are more consistent with Asian and Pacific languages, rather than European. In fact, learning Maori then Chinese, I had very little trouble with Pinyin vowels and dipthongs –they are basically the same

  26. Anonymous Says: April 12, 2005 at 9:22 am

    Interesting Maori perspective. I never thought of it that way before…if this can be extended to all Polynesian vowels in general, does this mean that Honolulu should be pronounced like pinyin? The second ‘o’ in Honolulu is usually pronounced ‘ou’, at least on American TV. I am assuming that was not the correct Hawaiian pronounciation? If we can extend this further, is there a Polynesian version of the pinyin consonant ‘c’? Perhaps there’s something better out there that the current Slavic ‘c’, as in Srebrenica. I always pity the Chinese with the surname Cai who get their names absolutely butchered in English.

    One more thing about o and ö, I notice this is used in the transliteration of Mongolian and Turkish as well. Considering the impact of Altaic languages on Mandarin pronounciation, it may not be a bad fit either…

  27. “To read about how some Central China villagers had tested HIV positive after selling their blood illegally to earn a few yuan.”

    Is this a full sentence? It is if your surname is “To”. This spelling does not exist in pinyin, but you can find it in Hong Kong. This quote comes from China Daily HK Edition: A man dedicated to caring for AIDS orphans in Central China.

  28. Todd,

    Heh, good one. That sentence definitely had me confused for a sec.

    Thanks for bringing the info to this old thread!

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