Capitals and Entirety

At first I was going to call this another Chinese pun, but now I’m not sure if it qualifies. It’s orthographically dependent (it won’t work when read aloud), and it involves grammar as well. But it’s still pretty easy for students of Chinese to understand.

Central to the understanding of this pun is the notion of the 多音字: a character that has multiple readings. The one you need to know for this pun is the rather basic character 都. In its adverbial usage it carries the basic meaning of “all” and is read dōu. It can also mean “capital (city),” as in 首都, in which case the character is read .

A friend was telling me a story about how some young Chinese students. They were learning about different cities in China and their relative importance to the nation’s economy. One city was especially important for coal production, so it was called the 煤都 (“coal capital”). The students had to memorize this. Another city was key in supplying iron ore, so it was called the 铁都 (“iron capital”). The students had to memorize this too, along with many others.

When it came time for the test, the students saw questions like this:

> 中国的煤都是         [China’s coal capital is          ] > 中国的铁都是         [China’s iron capital is          ]

One clever student failed in his rote memorization duties, but he found a way to answer the questions anyway:

> 中国的煤都是黑的 [China’s coal is all black ] > 中国的铁都是硬的 [China’s iron is all hard ]

What could the teacher do? Even though these were clearly not the answers sought, they were completely correct in that written form — even to someone with no knowledge of Chinese geography.


John Pasden

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


  1. Two perspectives:

    Me: Excellent, I love when kids find ways about stupid rote-memorization exercises forced upon them by schools.
    Kexia: The teacher should have asked the question in a way that wouldn’t let the kid cheat.

  2. That’s awesome. Gotta hand it to those Chinese kids, sometimes they do break away… That was just absolutely awesome. I still remember when I learned 首都. It was a typical night out drinking. The random “try to talk to the foreigner” Chinese guy started asking something like “美国的首都是什么?” I told him I “不明白”ed the word “首都” so he said something like 北京是中国的首都。 At that point things clicked, realized it meant capital, and answered. I miss China. Going to the Ukraine soon though…

  3. Heh funny.. so what’s the answer? (My Chinese geography knowledge isn’t what it used to be)

  4. CW,

    I tried Googling for the answer, but it just turned up all kinds of Chinese pages recounting this same joke. A few offer answers, but they’re not all in agreement.

    Answers here and here (and lots of other places too: check these and these search results.

Leave a Reply