Please speak Mandarin (or laugh at me)

Please speak putonghua t-shirt

“Please speak putonghua”

Quite a while ago I made a shirt which had 请讲普通话 (“Please speak (standard) Mandarin”) on the front, and started selling it on the Sinosplice store (through CafePress). The idea is that if you challenge the people around you to talk to you in Chinese, they probably will. It wasn’t until my last visit to the States in February that I was able to pick up my own “Please speak Mandarin” t-shirt, and not until the weather warmed up recently that I was actually able to see the effect.

The first time I used it was in a cafe, where the waiter insisted on talking to me in English, even though I initiated in Chinese. It was a classic language power struggle. I pointed to my shirt and asked him to 请讲普通话, which was incredibly awkward for me to do. He then got it, but clearly found it extremely difficult to not use English with a foreigner.

Later in the day, I caught several girls reading my shirt, laughing, and pointing it out to their friends. They didn’t talk to me.

So, it’s only been Day 1 of the experiment, but so far empirical evidence suggests that this shirt may be amusing to Chinese girls. (My wife, on the other hand, found it a little embarrassing.)

Related: Other Sinosplice original t-shirts


John Pasden

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


  1. It’s interesting to hear your explanation of the shirt, which I hand;t heard before. Until today I have a very different understanding of the shirt. Not “please speak Mandarin” but rather “please don’t speak Wu”. It never occurred to me that English had a possible connection to the meaning. But then my experience is perhaps a bit biased as I spent a huge amount of tine trying to get people to not speak Mandarin to me in favour of Wu.

    In light of the actual intent of the shirt’s message, I’m quite surprised that people resis it, given your degree of Mandarin proficiency. Maybe if you were an obviously terrible speaker, then resistance would make sense.

    • Kellen,

      Yeah, I understand that that phrase is usually understood in that context, but I think that putting it on foreigners changes things up a bit. That’s my hope, anyway!

      I find most people in Shanghai don’t have problems talking to me in Chinese; that guy in the cafe was a bit of an anomaly. But I also found that wearing this shirt didn’t cause many people to initiate conversations with me more, at least the one day I wore it. Personal initiate on the foreigner’s part is still very important; a t-shirt (or at least a relatively plain t-shirt) can’t do all the work!

      Actually, I think it would be kind of funny if you wore this shirt and then went around refusing to speak anything but Wu.

  2. i typed this on my iphone which was oddly selective about autocorrecting things. sorry. I had a different understanding, not have, obviously.

  3. deadly curious to hear more results, don’t be chicken!!!

  4. I hate it when Chinese people reply to me in English when I ask them something in 普通话. And I found THE solution : when they reply in English, I tell them, in Chinese, that SORRY, I don’t speak a word of English, I only speak French (which is my mother tongue), and Chinese.

    Their choice is then obvious, and it works !


  5. I think you’re thinking “If you find yourself speaking to me, then please do so in Mandarin,” but some might perceive the shirt as imploring them to speak to you for essentially no reason.

  6. Funny thing about Chinese grammar and I think and write in English better. I might be translating back to English or being literal but does the sentence implore people around you to speak in Mandarin (not necessarily to you) while if you used the verb “use” (用), instead of 讲, would that be more direct about the instruction? Also, as a Cantonese speaker, I’m not sure if we just 讲 a smidge differently than formal use of 讲.

  7. I still remember (and love) your power struggle post. In Brazil, most people don’t speak English very well (even if they think otherwise), the other day I stumbled upon a great solution. Someone insisted on speaking English with me, and I simply replied that I couldn’t understand him. His embarrasment at not being understood quickly overcame his desire to speak English. Power struggle won.

  8. 黄建才 Says: July 5, 2011 at 5:29 am


  9. John, I need one of these tee-shirts!! This has happened to me so many times. When I was in China, sometimes it would really drive me mad! But this has even happened to me with Chinese people I met in Paris (?!). Being in France, I would expect them to either speak French or Chinese with me (and not speak English), but the FASES “foreigners-all-speak-English syndrome” is just too strong. So I have had language power struggles in Paris too.

    • 夏天! So nice to see a comment from you!

      Well, you escaped that little issue by coming to China, right?? (OK, maybe not…)

    • 夏天, fais comme moi : dis-leur en chinois “Désolé, mais je ne parle que français ou chinois – je ne parle pas anglais” – tu verras que leur choix sera vite fait 😉


  10. this is a great shirt. i am jealous i hadn’t thought of it first.

    it really makes you appreciate the chinese that you know are great (or sometimes even fluent in english) that still speak chinese with you. it’s honoring. we’re in china. we’re honoring them by learning/speaking chinese. but, after i calm down after a ‘power struggle’, i just have to remind myself that i can understand their desire to either practice their english or show off their english. most of them don’t get much of an opportunity to use it. and although i know it’s difficult, if they really want to use it…they should go to a native english speaking country…or pay to practice/learn. 🙂

  11. Quek Sai Kee Says: July 8, 2011 at 5:46 am

    That guy in the cafe probably wants to practise speaking English 🙂

  12. I made my own T-shirt “我不会说英语,只会说中文。”it has the same effect =))

  13. Am I the only one who finds this T-shirt a little cringeworthy? I mean, by all means, we should try to grasp opportunities to practice our second language, but if a Chinese person was wearing a T-shirt that said “please speak English” I would probably go out of my way NOT to speak to them.

    • Cringe, laugh, avoid, speak… the idea is to provoke a reaction.

      And I think it’s pretty clear that on the matter of language choice and intercultural communication, western and Chinese tendencies are very different.

  14. This is playing right into the hands of the Mando Imperialists. They have this sign all over China: Putunghua (Mandarin) is the civilised language! Speak Putonghua for harmony! And as in Tibet, on school gates: I’m a Chinese child, I love speaking Mandarin! (No you’re not, you’re a Tibetan child and should be taught in your own language.)

    I know what you mean though, it’s extremely irritating to be answered in English (or whatever) when you’ve spent years learning the local language. Just know that in Hong Kong it’s a billion times worse. locals will go through a list of languages: French, Swahili, Mandarin, ANYTHING but Cantonese which is the local language of Hong Kong, when I talk to them in Cantonese. Also: Here we have suffered numerous campaigns to force people to speak Mandarin. So I would say: Please answer me in the language in which I address you! It’s your own language, dammit.

    • Yeah your shirt isn’t cool at all. You’re supporting linguicide and you’re giving us Westerners a bad name by going to someone else’s country and telling them what to do. No offense, but the shirt just makes you come off as totally arrogant.

      • Robert: Um no, John is 100% correct. Liguicide? Hardly! Your logic (or rather lack of) is silly and naive at best. I will give you the benefit of doubt of having been in China for a while and still in some type of honey-moon phase or one of those self-righteous Westerners who get upset on behalf of other people. 普通话s the national language of China, end of debate. If you still want to challenge that fact, by all mean please head directly to 中南海 and air your grievance.

        Uppity little man! haha

    • I respect your opinions, but I think you guys are taking a simple shirt way too seriously.

  15. I bought one of these shirts! But 2XL is WAY too big for me – thought they may have been made in China and been Chinese XXL…

  16. James Corey Says: August 3, 2011 at 9:20 am

    Here’s my estimate. As you say, the standard context for this phrase has to do with efforts to standardize language and encourage people not to revert to their local dialects in school etc.

    But you figured, aha, but since I’m a lao wai, when they see this shirt on me, they’ll be amused and realize I mean it in a different way, and I want to practice my language skills.

    Yet, most of them haven’t thought about it from your point of view, and this latter interpretation may happen less often than you’d like to think, so maybe the reason why the girls are giggling is “how weird and borderline creepy this lao wai is!” It’s always nice to imagine that people have something interesting going on upstairs, but maybe it never entered their heads that you are creatively re-appropriating the phrase. In their defense, lao wais are pretty weird and they have no firm reason not to take it at face value. Giving the benefit of the doubt regarding a stranger’s sensibilities is a lot to ask.

    Perhaps your wife, sensing the general public pulse, knows implicitly that a lot of people won’t make the connection, and is slightly embarrassed on your behalf, but doesn’t want to hinder you or interfere with the experiment.

    • Entirely possible!

      From what people have told me (and I’ve asked people that won’t “spare my feelings,”) it’s strange, but not creepy, and they really don’t give it much thought at all (especially along the “Mando-imperialist” line of thought).

  17. yue nan ren Says: August 27, 2011 at 9:00 am

    tian bu pa, ti bu pa, zhi pa yue nan ren dzai mei kuo shuo zhong kuo hua..

  18. Yep that’s a great shirt….now that I’m back in Australia after nearly ten years in China, many people say “oh your Chinese must be so good!”, and I need to say again and again that on the street level 没有人说普通话! They speak any of a billion dialects, and only Mandarin to YOU once they get over the incredulousness of you being able to speak any of it. Wish I’d had that shirt over there. Would have loved to have tried it out

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