Copying characters

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From a collection of photographs of Chinese school children in rural areas:

At first, when I saw this picture, I was happy, because Pinyin (Romanization) was being used to phonetically annotate characters, but the more I looked at it, the sadder I became.

The obvious poverty of the child is enough to make one cry. If you're wondering what the sores are on this child's hands, he has a very bad case of the chilblains. I know what they are firsthand, since I've lived in poor villages where most of the children's hands and feet were like this during the cold months, and I've had some pretty bad cases myself when living in reduced circumstances.

Then there is the mindless copying of characters — completely out of context, usually not even as parts of words, much less sentences. My soul aches for boys and girls who are subjected to this kind of homework. I've stayed in Chinese homes where children spend dreary hours copying characters hundreds of times every evening, instead of reading interesting stories, solving challenging problems, or playing stimulating games.

There's also the regrettable fact that the tones are wrong for both of the characters. The first character is quán 泉 ("spring; fountain"), for which the student has first tone; it should be second tone.

The second character — supposedly pronounced xì — is consistently written in such a misshapen manner as to be almost unrecognizable. It turns out that it is xī 溪 ("stream; brook; rivulet"), first tone instead of fourth tone. The semantic field of the two characters (both have water radicals, though of different shape and in different positions), plus the nature of the boy's poverty, leads me to believe that he must be from a part of China where water is scarce (e.g., the north or northwest, perhaps Gansu). My late wife, Li-ching, used to go to schools like these to teach the children (and adults too!) Pinyin so that they could acquire literacy.

I suppose that the incorrect tones are due to interference from the local topolect and the lack of a teacher trained in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM; Putonghua).

One of my graduate students from China notes:

The writing of misshapen characters also happened when I was a little kid. And I see this happen every day in my mother's kindergarten even now. Children use pencil and ballpoint pen instead of a brush to practice writing in the beginning. I think that is the main factor which makes the children to be unable to handle the shapes of the characters they write.

He has a point, since the standard forms of the characters are based upon brush-written strokes, and it is impossible to execute them completely accurately if one does not use a writing instrument with a soft, flexible tip. To tell the truth, however, it is devilishly difficult to inscribe, for example, the thirteen strokes of xī 溪 within a tiny square, while maintaining the proper proportions and correct order, especially the right side with so many components stacked on top of each other and in intricate juxtapositions. It is no wonder that the little boy cannot help but have the right half of his xī 溪 tip over diagonally and run outside of the box at the bottom right — a definite no-no which might lead to physical punishment. Never, never let the slightest stroke stray outside the confines of the square, even when writing a character such as the one that consists of four dragons 龍, two on top and two below; they all have to be stuffed into that little box.

In impoverished schools such as the one this boy attends, the inability to write characters correctly cannot be blamed on computers or cell phones (see "Character amnesia" and "Character amnesia revisited"). In the end, so long as characters constitute the official writing system for China, there's no choice but for children to practice writing them by hand over and over again, whether with a pen, pencil, or brush, as described here and here.

My plea is that character practice be done in the context of writing meaningful words and sentences, not just monosyllables, and that students be permitted to substitute Pinyin when they simply do not know how to write in characters something they want to express. This was the fundamental principle of the highly successful Z.T. experiment which, unfortunately, PRC educational authorities seem to have discontinued (see here and here).

Finally, even if a Chinese version of this German Lernstift ("learning pen") were developed, it wouldn't be much help for this child, since the second character is so poorly formed that the pen, no matter how "smart", would most likely not be able to determine what that conglomeration of strokes is meant to be.

[Thanks to Gianni Wan, Fangyi Cheng, Sanping Chen, and Gene Hill]



  1. peter said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 4:47 am

    I understand that boys typically develop fine motor control skills later in childhood than do girls, so having to write complex characters inside small boxes would physically challenge boys more than girls (on average).

  2. Daniel Ezra Johnson said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 6:59 am

    "The Male Hand" – new bestseller

  3. blahedo said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 10:47 am

    I went to that site to look at the other photos—dire poverty indeed, it's clear, but now I'm wondering: why do so many of the photographs include crying children? Two of them are actively crying and several others appear on the verge of tears, which strikes me as strange for a photo series of this sort. (Not that they don't have plenty of reason, I guess.) I don't know Chinese so I didn't know if there was anything in the captioning that might explain it.

  4. Gianni said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 11:32 am

    This photo is taken by Wang Bo 王搏, a benevolent photographer who has appealed for care of school children in poverty for more than ten years.

    Here is the original page of this photo, and it states that it was taken at Wushan, a county in Southeast Gansu Province, as Prof. Mair suggested:

    When I was in the Aixin She at Beida, our club helped him host a photo exhibition. I should have impression if I had seen this photo, but it was indeed a long time ago.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 12:12 pm

    I am deeply grateful to Gianni for providing the precise identifying information for the photo by Wang Bo.

  6. Ray Dillinger said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 1:44 pm

    Learning to write and remember characters is ridiculously hard compared to syllabaries or alphabetic systems (even convoluted ones that inherit spelling peculiarities from many languages, such as English). There are many reasons why a different writing system would be beneficial to many people.

    But the barriers in the path of a significant shift in writing style in China are many, starting with cultural identity and access to a great literary tradition, and I can't think of any way to address them all. Neither, apparently, can anyone else.

    It seems to me that there is more "pressure" to make this change in modern times than there has been in many centuries. There is more likelihood of unprecedented changes due to many new needs, faster and more universal communication, new ways of doing business, long-distance shipping, etc.

    But still … considering the many many lifetimes stretching out behind the Chinese use of characters, how likely can it be that this change will happen in the lifetime that happens to be ours?

  7. ahkow said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 5:11 pm

    Assuming that the non-Standard Mandarin tones are actually those of the local dialect, isn't that a pretty good reason against switching over to a alphabetic system?

    For Romanization / pinyinization to work you'd require speakers all speak closely related dialects that are mutually intelligible. Not all Mandarin speakers maintain a sh/s distinction, or a sh/s/x distinction, for instance, and I can't imagine that they will maintain an orthographic distinction in a pinyinized scenario either. Or Mandarin speakers with final glottal stops?

    Not saying that the current Chinese script is easy to learn, but pinyinization isn't flawless either.

  8. Gianni said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 5:55 pm


    I agree. I think the current polytonic Romanization is too complicated. Considering the Greek experience, I would prefer a Romanization without tone marks. It works well for native speaker, according to my practice in mobile messages.

  9. Steve S. said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 9:15 pm

    The long-term problem of that, however, is the fact that Chinese uses tone to differentiate words, it's not like it isn't needed. While toneless pinyin is usable for an educated user, think of it as something closer to texting shorthand, that is deliberately dropping out otherwise-vital elements for the sake of brevity. For outsiders, it would make Chinese a fortress of homophones, since it's difficult to vocalize tones when your native language lacks them…

    It's not like French, another language with a large homophone stock. There, at least, it's easy to distinguish homophones, f.ex., août (August) and (where) in writing, not just in spoken context.

  10. richard said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 10:16 pm

    There is a transcription of a 2008 interview with Wang Bo by Phoenix TV on another page of the site Gianni linked to,

    that I believe dates the photos to the mid-1990s. Someone with better Chinese than mine should double-check that–but it's an interesting interview, from what I can glean. He is a self-taught photographer, a farmer, who began taking pictures of tourists (for tourists) in the 1980s.

  11. T Zhang said,

    February 13, 2013 @ 1:58 am

    About what your graduate student said about learning to write with a brush. I highly doubt that is going to work. Mostly it will let the students write the characters bigger and possibly get a better grasp of proportions within a character, but I doubt most children would have the fine motor skills to wield a brush, and then you run into having to force the child to switch skills and learn to do the whole thing with a hard pen.

    But Chinese education, good times, I still wonder how high all of my practice notebooks will pile if I put them all together, 10-odd pages a day, for 6 years (summer homework included)…

  12. joanne salton said,

    February 13, 2013 @ 4:01 am

    The education methods in China are in general terrible – many hours are utterly wasted in the classroom. I have seen lectures in Chinese universities, for example, where somebody simply droned on at the front reading from a book in a basically inaudible voice.

    This extends to the practice of learning how to write characters. It is not necessary to write them hundreds of times, though Chinese educators seem to think so. I can write legibly, if not that beautifully, in Chinese, and I have never subjected myself to this process. I simply know the components of the characters. I therefore feel that the appropriate target for criticism is the mindless methodology and not the use of chararcters.

  13. joanne salton said,

    February 13, 2013 @ 4:27 am

    I really should have tried much harder to avoid errors in the post above.

    [VHM: There were only two tiny ones, and I've fixed them for you now. BTW, I wholeheartedly agree with all of your points.]

  14. Vanya said,

    February 13, 2013 @ 4:53 am

    It seems, judging by literacy statistics anyway, that Taiwan does a much better job educating children in written Chinese, including children born into poverty, than the mainland does. Part of Taiwan's success is probably because the Bopomofo syllabary is a huge help and plays the role that Mair would like to see Pinyin play in the mainland. It would be interesting to know though whether Taiwan (and Hong Kong) place less emphasis on rote copying. It always seems odd to me how much discussion of literacy issues in mainland China ignores the fact that there is a very succesful "alternative" Chinese-language speaking state right next door. Why recreate the wheel?

  15. Victor Mair said,

    February 13, 2013 @ 7:11 am


    "judging by literacy statistics anyway"

    Let's have 'em.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    February 13, 2013 @ 7:19 am

    From a Chinese friend, speaking about her daughter (GG) and her daughter's son (KK), i.e., her grandson:


    Yes, it is heartbreaking to see the poor child in the photograph trying to copy characters.

    I'm now in a similar situation myself. GG's 11 yr old, KK, is terribly unhappy every evening with his Chinese homework. He becomes extremely sullen, rude, and nasty.

    His teacher gives him pages of isolated characters and phrases to memorize and copy out.

    I told GG I could teach KK Chinese better. She insists he first do the homework. Every evening he spends a long time raging, sulking and throwing things around and saying "I hate Chinese, It sucks" and so forth, finally settling down to learn and copy out the characters and phrases (his characters all out of proportion) and every evening I am left with no time to teach him.

    I never had this sort of thing from JJ, GG or TT [VHM: her own three children]. I told GG all about your [VHM's] method, which was also my method, but she insists KK has to do what the Chinese teacher requires first. The teacher does teach them stories with pinyin and characters, but then she gives them lots of extra isolated characters and phrases not in the stories to learn and copy.

    This is the second private Chinese tutor GG has hired for KK. The first one was worse—pages of isolated characters to memorize and copy. KK used to be a very sweet boy. Now he's turned ugly-tempered and foulmouthed. Does his Chinese sprawling, with his head lying on the table. I'm going to work on GG to let him forget the homework.

    I really feel sorry for KK, and for GG (who's spent all this money on the tutor). He is desperately unhappy. I'm here at TT's again but will go back and work on it. KK really does his Chinese with his head lying on the table in a black mood, every evening. And that homework isn't teaching him anything, because he forgets everything again and again. I know because I've been sitting with him, and he asks me the same character or phrase again and again. (I hardly get a chance to talk to GG because she is always on the run.)

  17. Victor Mair said,

    February 13, 2013 @ 7:42 am


    "Part of Taiwan's success is probably because the Bopomofo syllabary is a huge help and plays the role that Mair would like to see Pinyin play in the mainland."

    VHM: Readers of Language Log know that I am a fan of phonetic annotation of Chinese characters for reading materials, whether Bopomofo, Pinyin, Yale, Wade-Giles, or some other system. There's no reason why Pinyin could not be employed the way that Bopomofo is in Taiwan; the effect would be similar. In fact, such phonetically annotated (with Pinyin) readers are becoming increasing popular outside China (e.g., the biographies by Grace Wu published by Cheng and Tsui), and I have every expectation that, with time, they will be used again in the PRC. Anyway, your "probably because" shows that you're just speculating and really have no empirical basis for your claim.

    "It would be interesting to know though whether Taiwan (and Hong Kong) place less emphasis on rote copying."

    VHM: Having lived for years in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore, not to mention having lots of Chinese friends in America, Europe, and elsewhere, rote copying of characters plays a very large role in all of these places. See, for example, this comment:

    "Why recreate the wheel?"

    VHM: Because it's squeaking.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    February 13, 2013 @ 7:50 am


    "Assuming that the non-Standard Mandarin tones are actually those of the local dialect, isn't that a pretty good reason against switching over to a alphabetic system?"

    We can't be absolutely certain that the tonal errors the boy has made accurately represent the local topolect either. The problem is that the boy is supposed to be learning Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM; Putonghua), but he is not being taught correctly. If the goal was to teach him the phonetic annotation for the local topolect, then there would also have to be adjustments made for the consonants and vowels too, not to mention the vocabulary.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    February 13, 2013 @ 7:59 am

    The more I look at the photograph, the more I can't avoid thinking that the boy not only has a serious case of chilblains, but may have lost most of his thumb and the better part of two of his fingers on his left hand (to frostbite or farming accident[s]?). I've tried to fold my thumb and fingers under to make my left hand look like that, but can't get the hand to lie as flat on the desk as his does.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    February 13, 2013 @ 8:18 am

    From a friend who hails from the PRC:

    A few comments on chilblains. The country boy’s hands are sad to look at, but such cases were fairly common in city schools too in the south during my childhood, even among “middle class” students. A major reason was the ridiculous official PRC policy of providing heating for urban population ONLY in the north, delineated by River Huai 淮河 and Qin mountains 秦岭, I think. This policy is still in effect today, leading to a chorus of criticism of unfairness from southerners.

    The upshot is that, in the Yangtze Delta where I grew up, the room temperature was generally below 10C (50F) on winter days, essentially the same as outdoors. So at times it may even get to and below the freezing point. Writing in an unheated classroom in such an environment was certainly conducive to developing chilblains, worsened by exposure during the long walk to and from school, and for boys at least, playing outdoors. I have had them myself, not as bad as the poor boy in the photo. But I have definitely seen equally bad cases among my schoolmates.

    The situation is a lot better now, at least in private homes in the city, in which one can run A/C in reverse as a heater (a very energy-inefficient method). I am not certain about schools, but many public places in the Yangtze Delta are still unheated in winter. An old school buddy now living in Atlanta went back last winter for a class reunion and suffered greatly as a result (coughed badly for more than a month afterwards).

    [VHM: When I stay in the area my friend is talking about -- around Hangzhou and Suzhou -- during the winter, I always very quickly use up my supply of Pond's Dry Skin Cream (the one with the blue cap) helping people cope with their chilblains. I must say, however, that I can never understand why the people in these areas often leave the doors and windows open in winter. Ditto for Sichuan, where winter chilblains are also a problem. I spend a lot of time running around closing doors and windows in schools, dormitories, cafeterias, etc., but the local people just go back and open them right up. When I ask why they persist in doing so, they give me two reasons:

    1. it's as cold inside as outside anyway

    2. we want the "fresh" air and ventilation

    To which my responses are:

    1. if you keep the doors and windows closed, the collective body heat and heat from the kitchen, etc. would at least help to raise the temperature inside a few degrees

    2. the air outside is not at all "fresh"]

  21. Victor Mair said,

    February 13, 2013 @ 8:30 am

    From Sanping Chen:

    It is a little strange that my Hangzhou dialect, heavily influenced by Henan refugees fleeing the Jurchens nearly a millennium ago, says qi1. But my wife says Shanghai people say xi as well, somewhat close to the fourth tone of Mandarin.

    I grew up steps away from the old 西溪, the family place of 沈括. All my friends call it xi-qi instead of xi-xi. The beautiful stream in now completely destroyed by shortsighted urban development.

  22. Ellen K. said,

    February 13, 2013 @ 10:07 am

    So, am I understanding right that non-Mandarin speaking Chinese students are simultaneously learning a complicated writing system, and learning Mandarin, as a single combined task? If so, that definitely sounds like a recipe for frustration.

  23. Vanya said,

    February 13, 2013 @ 10:14 am

    Here's a recent claim on very high Taiwanese literacy.

    It would stand to reason that phonetic annotation is helpful for learning characters, even without detailed empirical evidence to support that claim. Anyone who has learned Japanese can testify to that. I agree that the phonetic system – Bopomofo, Pinyin, whatever -probably makes little difference overall.

  24. julie lee said,

    February 13, 2013 @ 11:28 am

    @Victor Mair, Feb. 13,
    "I can never understand why the people in these areas often leave the doors and windows open in winter."
    They say it's because they want fresh air. Probably they've had dire warnings about carbon monoxide.
    When I lived in Guiyang, Gweizhou Province, in the center of China in the 1940s, the room was heated by a porcelain pot containing burning coal. I was six, we children all sitting around a low table. I didn't feel well and said, "I don't feel well," then my head plopped onto the table, unconscious. My mother, also at the table, said, "Quick, quick, carry her outside!!" The maid hurriedly carried me into the garden just outside the room, and I came to. Later my mother said,"Thank goodness I was there. If I didn't act so quickly, you'd have died." It was carbon monoxide from the coal. This happens in the U.S. too. Recently, in Cupertino, a woman and her small boy was found dead in their house in a pricey neighborhood (they were not poor). She had told the school for two days that they didn't feel well. They later found carbon monoxide leakage in the house.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    February 13, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

    @julie lee

    You may very well be right about this. Recently there have been tragic stories of groups of children (waifs) and impoverished medical students dying in closed rooms or containers in China. Some of these were undoubtedly due to carbon monoxide poisoning.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    February 13, 2013 @ 12:34 pm

    @Ellen K.

    That is definitely the case and is one reason why many Cantonese speakers (in Hong Kong, for example) bitterly resent having to learn Mandarin.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    February 13, 2013 @ 12:41 pm

    Additional note from my friend about her grandson KK (see

    KK is otherwise very bright and quick. (He won the "Best sportsmanship" award on his soccer team, and at 11 is being paid to be assistant to his carpentry teacher.)

    [VHM: I hope that GG's attempts to force her son KK to learn Chinese characters the old-fashioned, stubborn way doesn't ruin him. I've seen it happen with too many children.]

  28. S. Carnahan said,

    February 14, 2013 @ 9:02 am

    I feel like the creation of standard phonetic systems of regional dialects as analogues of pinyin could be very helpful to those who don't grow up fluent in MSM. I imagine the anti-unification implications of such a system would make it unlikely to catch on in mainland education, where it could have immediate benefit for the pictured child, but just having something out there may be useful for later discovery.

    This is not to say that I am volunteering for the hard work of creating such a system. On the other hand, surely, someone in the Chinese-language cell phone or computer software industry should have some interest in gaining a minor market advantage…?

    (I agree about the half-fingers – those definitely look like stumps.)

  29. Gianni said,

    February 14, 2013 @ 9:05 pm


    I wonder if you have interest in looking into some non-tonal Romanization systems, such as the Gwoyeu Romatzyh:

  30. Neil Kubler said,

    February 15, 2013 @ 10:35 am

    @ Gianni

    "Some non-tonal Romanization systems, such as the Gwoyeu Romatzyh"

    Certainly Gwoyeu Romatzyh is an innovative and fascinating system well worthy of study and reference. However, I think "non-tonal" is probably not the best description of it, since its "main claim to fame" is precisely that it does indicate tones by spelling them into syllables and words. What you must mean is "romanization systems that don't use diacritics to indicate tones", right?

  31. Gianni said,

    February 15, 2013 @ 6:09 pm


    Yeah, I agree. My expression is not accurate. I really hate diacritics, hehe. I even think that the absence of such marks is one of the reasons that makes English more widely used than other European languages.

  32. joanne salton said,

    February 16, 2013 @ 5:19 pm

    Gianni, yes, but surely it is an exceedingly small reason.

    And then Pinyin has such wonderful diacritics that you can draw in the air as you learn to speak. Much better than the IPA versions.

  33. John Hill said,

    February 16, 2013 @ 6:29 pm

    Thank you all for the illuminating discussion.

    My late father, while not a linguist, as such, was fluent in many languages and thought a great deal about why English had become such an important "lingua franca" (he loved the irony of this term) – other than just the obvious one of the huge colonial impact of the British people in recent centuries. I thought it might be of some interest here to consider his main points.

    He saw the major advantages of English as being 1. almost totally free of diacritics, 2. more condensed than other European languages (French texts, on average, being, according to him, about a third longer than their English translations), 3. possessing a simpler grammar than other European languages (and he would often remark that Chinese, while sharing both these traits, fell down because of the difficulty for foreigners to learn how to write the language), 3. actively incorporating new elements from other languages, which also encouraged people to listen for – and not ignore – unusual constructions, or new additions to the language 4. the ease of learning "basic," "simple" or "trade" English – where most communications are possible with a simple vocabulary of just a few hundred words combined with a minimal grasp of grammar, while, at the same time, having in reserve the richest vocabulary stock in the world available to describe the widest and subtlest shades of meaning when needed, 5. the existence of sophisticated, well-developed, technical jargons in almost every field of human endeavour.

    I remember him once discussing these ideas with a fully bilingual Venezuelan professor who was making the (correct and important) point that Spanish speaking children learn how to write and read far younger than English students, due to the more phonetic nature of Spanish writing. Dad's response was that they were learning a less adaptive language with more limited possibilities of expression, requiring longer, circuitous descriptions, and the use of more physical gestures plus a limited range of adjectives and adverbs, thus restricting the ability for certain types of thought processes, and frequently reducing precision of expression. This, of course, did not endear him to the professor – though he grudgingly admitted that he wrote all his poetry in English – largely to avoid having to keep repeating common adjectives and often being able to express subtler levels of emotions and feelings.

    I am aware that this discussion may seem arrogant to many (and, I should emphasize that I am not as fervent about these points as my father), but I do think they are worth a thought – especially when considering ways of making Chinese writing simpler to learn. If this could be achieved, Chinese would be well placed to becoming a true "world language", as it is already even more condensed than English, and possesses a simpler grammatical structure.

  34. Victor Mair said,

    February 17, 2013 @ 12:32 am

    Romanizations such as Hanyu Pinyin, Wade-Giles, Yale, and GR (Gwoyeu Romatzyh, National Romanization), as well as Bopomofo, etc. are all for Standard Mandarin. No matter how or whether they indicate tones, they have nothing to do with the other Sinitic languages and topolects.

    There have been some attempts to romanize other Sinitic languages than Standard Mandarin, nearly all carried out by missionaries, and some of them have been moderately successful. See, for example, my "How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language"

    for a description of and references for Church Romanization of Taiwanese.

    Relying on historical phonological principles, there have been a few efforts to come up with interdialectal romanizations. See, for instance,

    John DeFrancis, "One State, One People, One Language"

    the last box in this article for an introduction to the interdialectal romanization of the Jesuits, Lamasse and Jasmin.

    Then there is "General Chinese (Chinese: 通字 Tung-dzih) … a diaphonemic orthography invented by Yuen Ren Chao to represent the pronunciations of all major varieties of Chinese simultaneously."

    While such interdialectal romanizations are ingenious and instructive, especially for the phonologically minded, they are not very practical for functioning as romanized scripts for the various topolects.

    I believe that there is a desperate need for standardized romanizations for Cantonese, Shanghainese, and all the other major (and some minor) Sinitic languages and topolects. It is astonishing that — other than IPA — there is still no standard way to record the sounds of such an important language as Shanghainese, and IPA is really not practicable for use as a functioning orthography. Cantonese now has Jyutping

    which is fine for linguists and language learners, but, again, it is not very practicable as a functioning orthography for Cantonese because of the numerical tone indicators (which are clumsy and ungainly when used in extensive texts), the lack of rules for syllable joining and word separation, and so forth.

  35. Martin said,

    February 17, 2013 @ 3:01 am

    I really don't understand the point about nonusage of brushes contributing to misshapen characters. Chinese characters aren't meant to be written using brushes anymore than Latin characters are meant to be written using broad nibbed pens. The style of the script can (and are) adjusted for the medium, whether it be a different kind of pen or woodblock print or low resolution computer display.

    Children just don't have fine motor control of their hands in general, as can be seen in any childhood writing in any script (mine weren't so pretty in either language). The solution is to give them more space to write, and then they'll figure out the proportion after some repetitions.

    Later in school, I remember learning to write using a brush (of course, it wasn't intended for regular usage, more like calligraphy than cursive writing) by putting templates inside those booklets with the thinner flimsy pages and then copying the strokes, and it was a lot harder than regular writing! Pressure and angle are very important when using a brush if you want anything legible rather than a blob of ink, whereas they are irrelevant nonissues using a pencil.

  36. Rocco said,

    February 17, 2013 @ 6:18 am

    VHM: "I must say, however, that I can never understand why the people in these areas often leave the doors and windows open in winter. [. . .] I spend a lot of time running around closing doors and windows in schools, dormitories, cafeterias, etc., but the local people just go back and open them right up."

    This sounds just like South Korea.

  37. Victor Mair said,

    February 17, 2013 @ 1:05 pm

    It seems to me that those who scorn the remarks about the importance of learning and practicing characters with a brush (made by my graduate student from the PRC and elaborated by me in the original post above) either didn't read them carefully enough or do not realize the significance of the fact that the strokes of standard (KAISHU) Chinese characters were designed to be written with a brush.

  38. Circe said,

    February 17, 2013 @ 6:07 pm

    @John Hill:

    I think this is a bit off-topic, but I will argue that it is by no means clear to me that there are features of other major world languages "restricting the ability for certain types of thought processes, and frequently reducing precision of expression" which English somehow remedies. I am bilingual (Hindi and English) and in my considered opinion Hindi poetry offers a much wider and "subtler" range of "expressions" especially when dealing with descriptions of nature. However, I think we should be careful to chalk up such opinions not to any inherent superiority of Hindi but just to the fact that Hindi is my mother tongue; and English is not.

  39. Victor Mair said,

    February 17, 2013 @ 6:55 pm


    If you reject John Hill's (father's) listing of features that may have contributed to the rise of English as the world language, to what then do you attribute the dominance of English in the world today? British imperialism? But the British empire is long dead, and there were other large empires whose languages have not prospered globally as English has. American economic and cultural dominance? But American power is supposedly fading, while the English language continues to flourish. Is there nothing linguistic about English that lends it to be more readily accepted as the world language than other languages such as Russian, Hindi, Arabic, Chinese, etc.?

  40. Martin said,

    February 17, 2013 @ 6:56 pm

    Scorn might be too strong of a word, it was just a comment made from my experience and ignorance. But it is true that I don't understand the significance of the fact that kaishu strokes were designed for brushes, so I'd appreciate clarification there.

    In my view at least, so what if they are? A student isn't expected to replicate the variable widthness of strokes or the round ends of dots from learning material using kaishu shapes anymore than one is supposed to replicate the serifs on mingti shapes (or English letters). Actually, I doubt I ever "saw"/perceived such flourishes on characters as a child. A stroke just had a direction and a length (or multiple such for more complicated strokes), even curvature of strokes didn't exist (they were just diagonals), and as such, strokes could be carried out just fine using a pencil.

    (As a side note, stroke orders are something else altogether. Like many, I've long since internalized a rough procedure that seems "right" to me, and then I'm often amused/dismayed when I look up a character in a dictionary that happens to show stroke orders, and I've swapped some stroke order here and there, and the correct order feels so wrong!)

  41. Victor Mair said,

    February 17, 2013 @ 7:13 pm


    If you had learned and practiced extensively to write characters with a brush, you'd be more apt to get the stroke orders right too, since they are partly determined by the way that wet, flexible tip operates.

    Please do not mistake me! I'm not suggesting that everybody give up their pens, pencils, cell phones, and computers and goes back to using only brushes to write characters! What I am saying is that the KAISHU characters were designed with the brush in mind, so when you use some other instrument to write them, certainly problems will arise.

  42. Circe said,

    February 17, 2013 @ 8:08 pm

    @Vicotor Mair:

    Yes: British Imperialism and American Influence should cover most of it. My comment here will mostly draw from my experiences in India, but I believe similar statements are probably true in the context of other countries in Asia and Africa where English "flourishes".

    (1) Much of the technical literature is available in original in English and hence learning English opens up several professional opportunities. This latter is mostly due to British and later American dominance in various sciences in the last two centuries. In the early part of the 20th century, when German universities were the dominant force in Physics research, Indian physicists, much like physicists anywhere else, had to gain familiarity with German, despite its difficult grammar, and they did. It is the much the same with English today. You might add to this the fact that early computer interfaces were mostly developed in the US and were based on English.

    (2) Another reason, which is probably very specific to India, is linguistic unification. Especially in the last 50 years, India has seen much political friction on the question of Hindi being "enforced" on the Southern states, where people view it as cultural imperialism of sorts from the North. Since English is already popular for reasons I listed above, many of them see English as a "neutral" 'international" language which does not carry any overtones of cultural enforcement, and hence prefer English over privileging another Indian language for the purposes of inter-state communication. You won't find politicians in India arguing that they prefer English because it offers "subtler" forms of poetic expression or a wider range of adjectives than any other Indian language (and as I said, this last claim is not quite true). You will, however, find them arguing that since people are already learning English in addition to their local language for professional reasons, it makes sense not to force them to learn another language.

    This last point should also offers a clue why English continues to flourish despite the supposed "fading" of American influence (as an aside, I don't agree entirely that American influence plays no part in the growth of English now: see below). The growth of English has now become a self-perputating phenomenon. Given the good run English has enjoyed over the last 200 or so years, there is just too much technical literature, journalism and other "action" happening in English now for it to depend on the influence of a single nation state. For someone who wants part of this "action", learning English is just a necessary choice. To reiterate my point, no one I know in India learnt English because, e.g., as John Hill suggests, English poetry offers a "subtlety" of expression not found in Hindi or Tamil poetry, or because English has a simpler orthography or spelling or grammar than Indian languages. English flourishes because through various accidents of history, it has come to be the language of science, technology and academics.

    * Also, as I said, I do not agree that American influence has "faded" to an extent where it no more drives the growth of English. American universities still lead the world in many academic fields, and people there publish their work in English. A lot of the business in various emerging economies (especially India and China) depends upon interactions with American firms: at least in India this means that proficiency in English is a prerequisite for most professional jobs.

  43. joanne salton said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 4:27 am

    Rocco – Yes, that is my experience of Korea as well. Heaters on full blast and windows open. In these situations where the two countries match Confucious normally seems to get the blame.

    I don't really understand your point about the characters Prof.Mair. They are used without a brush all the time and problems do not arise, or at least not brush related problems, as far as I can see. The rigid attitude about stroke orders and the like – and I agree with Martin – seems to me precisely the attitude behind the unfortunate adherence to conservative teaching methods. I don't think Chinese kids always get them right, and they very often can't read "grass script", lack of ability in which may be related to unorthodox writing, but you can get by without that.

  44. Victor Mair said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 6:05 am

    @joanne salton

    Well, the point about the importance of learning and practicing characters with a brush was originally not mine, but that of a graduate student from the PRC, which is often made by Chinese pedagogues. In terms of purist exactitude, he (and many others who decry the absence of brush-writing in modern Chinese pedagogy) is probably right. Naturally, in terms of "getting by" with pen, pencil, cell phone, computer, etc., it can be done, but then you're going to have some problems with stroke order, shape, character amnesia, and so forth.

    I never had the patience to practice writing with the brush, though I did once buy a couple of cleverly made pens from Taiwan that had flexible tips which functioned a bit like brushes, but even with the latter, I wasn't willing to take the time to write the strokes with the proper "brushy" appearance. My colleague, Nathan Sivin, comes as close as anyone I know to writing characters with a pen and having them look "brushy" much of the time, but it takes a very special effort for him to achieve that effect.

    And, yes, these are definitely "conservative" attitudes, and they are attitudes that I personally do not share, but they are very prevalent among many people who care about "proper" writing of characters.

  45. Gianni said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 11:51 am


    I think the prevalent use of English is partly because what you said, the scientific revolution marked by the invention of computer and the spread of internet. No one will dispute that the US is the HUB of worldwide web and other countries being the spoke. The imperialism and political dominance you mentioned, is to me out of date, and just limited to certain geographic areas, such as the British commonwealth. Imperialism is a cliche of 20th century that has little to do with the world today. American dominance, as Professor Mair suggests, only exists in its territory and where its troops are deployed.

    But I completely agree with what you mentioned about English as a worldwide business and academic standard language. Yet this is in part because of the Fuehrer's New Order that drove most of the European talents, both businessmen and scholars, to the asylum in North America. It is so interesting that this newly found continent has been a source for refugees of generations of people from Eurasia, and later from Africa (which is more complicated because of the slave trade and connections with the Caribbeans and South America). It was not the English-speaking people themselves who ordered those from Europe to convert to English in the mid-20th century.

    It is the rise of globalized corporation in the 1990s that propels the ascension of English to the worldwide lingua franca. Before 1980s, the working languages of the Deutsche Bank and the Nomura Holdings are German and Japanese, but later they gradually become transnational and electronicalized in management. Therefore, without surprise they switched to English. It was not imperialism but adaptability that forced them to do so, and both of them succeed in becoming worldwide leaders in finance. Those "old" industries, such as the automobile and chemical engineering, might have retained their mother tongue longer, but by the beginning of the 2008 crisis most transnational companies in the world had chosen English as their working language. This is simply for survival.

    I agree that American influence has faded because corporations tends to be more and more free of government regulations. While it is still hotly debated whether Keynesianism still works, transnational corporations has become stronger than ever before. In the academic realm where most of the Language Log readers work in, using English, a language of easy grammar and written expression as well as accurate nomenclature systems as a standard, obviously facilitates research.

    Lastly, I also agree with you that English is never a subtlest language. Every language can be claimed to be the subtlest one. Although I agree with John's many observations, his assertion that English is subtler than Spanish is to me unacceptable. A fervent reader of Jorge Luis Borges, writer of both English and Spanish poems, I never think his English poems are aesthetically and emotionally better expressed than the Spanish ones. His name is deceptive in this regard, because he actually received preschool education in English first. I truly believe that all human languages have equal ability to express one's mind, whether emotion or reason, whether English, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, Aymara, Xhosa, Sioux, or Esperanto.

  46. Circe said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 12:44 pm


    I mostly agree with what you said, except that I would say that "imperialism" was also an important factor in the worldwide growth of English. I must make it clear, however, that I was not claiming it still is. I don't agree that "imperialism" is or was was a cliche: I come from a country which had to take a lot of pains to fight it off. However, as you said, and as was not clear from my post, it is largely a thing of the past.

    Now as to why I think British imperialism was also an important factor in the global growth of English. By some measures, English today has more speakers in the so called "Commonwealth" countries than in US + UK + Australia (+ NZ and whatever else one might consider the "English as first language" countries), and a very important reason English is common in these countries is that at some point, historically, it was forced upon the people. (Want to read a court judgement: too bad if you don't know English, and so on). English is as much a global language today because of its use in academia and science (my point (1) above) as well as the fact that for this vast fraction of the world's population, it was the language one had to use to deal with a global empire.

  47. Gianni said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 1:33 pm


    I am just wondering where the global empire is… I would agree if you refer to the Anglo-American supercompanies such as the Colgate Palmolive, the Coca Cola, P&G etc., wielding soft power over villages in, for example, Bihar and Gansu. Yes, even in rural areas of Gansu Province where this photo is taken, one can buy toothpastes, soft drinks and shampoos produced from local joint-venture subsidiaries of these business empires.

    However, I don't believe that any "hard" global empire, like the British Empire, exists at present.

    In fact I am not academic- or political- oriented. My concern is that 90% of the global people's first concern is to find a job. English is a business standard, so why not learn it? Also, English is just for managerial headquarters, not for local plants. It must be interesting if someone conduct large-scale research over major international corporations about their language use…. Hmmm, not very feasible because they keep their secrets. There seems not to be Wikileaks against companies…

  48. julie wei said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 7:14 pm

    About English being a world language. I think it's all about survival, and who has power in the world. People in China feel they have to learn English because they perceive it as the most important foreign language to learn if they are to survive in the modern world. When India was a British colony, Indians from families of means felt they had to learn English because it was the language of the English rulers, and would give them a better chance of survival or prosperity. This has happened time and time again, when people give up their own language for the language of their rulers–giving up Welsh for English, or Yiddish for German, and so on. I never dreamed Chinese would become a world language because it seems to be so difficult (partly because of the script). Yet more and more people everywhere are trying to learn Chinese or getting their children to learn Chinese, and they are succeeding, depending on how much time they want to spend on it. Chinese newspapers and magazines can report or describe anything in Chinese—science, finance, economics, etc. My brother, a Ph.D.(physics) in America, used to give talks in physics completely in Chinese to Chinese scientist-visitors. He prided himself in not having to use English in these technical, scientific talks. Now retired, he is studying theoretical math (number theory), including ancient Chinese texts on mathematics. He showed me some ancient texts. I was amazed at the elegant way classical Chinese was used to state a theorem in geometry. Another text (from Sima Qian in the Han dynasty) stated the mathematics of generating the scale in exquisite classical Chinese. My point is that Chinese can express anything English can. If China becomes the top power in the world, as England was and America is, it may well become a world language. If it doesn't become a world language, it will not be because it cannot express modern science or because people will find it too difficult to learn. People will always do what is necessary for survival. And they will always try to find the shortest route—in the case of Chinese, perhaps romanization of the script.

  49. Richard V Simmons said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 8:55 pm

    Regarding Romanizations for Chinese languages other than Mandarin that can serve as fairly functional orthographies, for Cantonese I like Huang and Kok's Yale Romanization (or Yip and Matthews' modified version); for Taiwanese/Amoy/Mǐnnán I like the so-called Church Romanization (used in Douglas' dictionary and in the Maryknoll textbooks); for Shanghainese I like my own! Though the chances of mine being adopted as any kind of standard are undoubtedly quite remote, I do have a brief IPA conversion chart for it up at:

  50. Apollo Wu said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 9:52 pm

    Chinese is actually not able to deal with many human/machine communication needs. No computer programming language or machine language is based on Chinese, whereas English excels in both of them. There is a saying in Chinese, 先入为主, or the first comer becomes the dorminant one. Even with a modernized script, Chinese language will still be a late comer. What could possibly make people change their language tool which they consider as the mean of survival in the particular society they are living in. Any language enable its users to be more fit to survive in the society using that language. You can feel it while in Thailand or in China. If you ask a Thai person, he or she would think that Thai language can be used handle all human knowledge. The issue here is not regional survival but global survival that depends on the geographical scope of use (related to the idea of first comers) and the rate of conversion. The perception among more and more Chinese is that English is the language for getting ahead or even long term survival, affecting personal destiny as well as national destiny. Why Singaporeans should enjoy a better life if not their ability to handle English? This is the real world situation and not the 'if' perception of some people with misplaced patriotism.

  51. Circe said,

    February 19, 2013 @ 12:40 am


    As I made very clear in my post, I am *not* saying that there is a global empire at present, or that imperialism is a major issue in the current political scenario. I was talking about how British Imperialism *was* an important factor in the adoption of English in a large part of the world 100-150 years ago.

    In fact I am not academic- or political- oriented. My concern is that 90% of the global people's first concern is to find a job. English is a business standard, so why not learn it? Also, English is just for managerial headquarters, not for local plants.

    As I said, in the age of the British Empire, this same (and, of course, very valid and genuine) concern forced a huge chunk of the world population to adopt English. If they wanted jobs in the empire, or wanted to deal with it in any way, they had to know the language. Again as I said, the adoption of English today is also due to similar pragmatics, though the causes behind that pragmatics have changed. Then, a century ago, these causes, in places like South Asia, were the political dominance of the British Empire. Today, these causes are that English has become the de facto standard of industry and science and technology, mostly as a result of the coincidence that it happened, in the past, to be the first language of two consecutive superpowers.

  52. Vanya said,

    February 19, 2013 @ 4:45 am

    "But the British empire is long dead, and there were other large empires whose languages have not prospered globally as English has. "

    There are have been no other empires with anywhere close to the global reach and legacy of the British Empire. On every continent except Latin America the richest and most dominant countries are majority English speaking and legacies of British imperialism – Nigeria and South Africa in Africa, Australia in the Pacific, the US in North America, India in Asia (and the Phillipines are a fairly important country as well). If simplified grammar and phonology were so important, than Dutch would have been a better candidate for a world language than English. Or Yiddish.

    Arabic, Spanish and Russian spread just as quickly through empire building as English did, and are still widely spoken in most of the regions that were part of those empires, but their empires had nowhere near the geographic reach of the British Empire.

  53. Rodger C said,

    February 19, 2013 @ 8:13 am

    Richard V Simmons' mention of Yip and Matthews reminds me of when I was learning Chinese literature in translation from Irving Lo (Luo Yuzheng) 40 years ago. He had occasion one day to mention Wai-lim Yip, then shook his head, said "I don't know why he wants to do that," and wrote it on the board as Wei-lin Yeh.

  54. Victor Mair said,

    February 19, 2013 @ 11:02 am

    @Rodger C

    Good lord! It's HIS name, so Wai-lim Yip can pronounce and romanize it however he sees fit. Furthermore, his native tongue is Cantonese, so by all rights he should pronounce 葉維廉 as Wai-lim Yip rather than as Yeh Wei-lien or Ye Weilian or some other bastardized Mandarin transcription (e.g., Wei-lin Yeh).

    Somebody might just as well (and foolishly) ask Irving Lo why he spelled his name THAT way rather than as Luo Yuzheng or Yucheng Lo (which he sometimes did!) or Yü-cheng Lo or some other way. I don't know where Irving Lo hailed from, but if it was not from a standard Mandarin-speaking area, then his parents and siblings and relatives and friends probably pronounced his name (羅郁正 in characters) in a quite different way than Luo Yuzheng.

    This reminds me of the distinguished professor of religion, philosophy, and culture at my alma mater, Dartmouth College, whose name was Wing-tsit Chan. Even though I didn't study anything related to Chinese when I was an undergraduate (I was an English major specializing in Chaucer), I thought that the name "Wing-tsit Chan" sounded really neat, and I delighted in repeating it. So I was really bummed out when, after I became a professional Sinologist, I heard some archly pedantic, Mandarin-centric persons refer to him as "Rongjie Chen" or "Chen Rongjie". I had no idea whom they were talking about, and I actually found it rather offensive that they would not respect the great man's wishes to be known by the native Cantonese pronunciation of his own name.

    Then there are all the famous Japanese Sinologists and authors, such as Iriya Yoshitaka, Fujieda Akira, Yoshikawa Kōjirō, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, and so on. It always drives me up the wall when people pronounce the KANJI of their names in Mandarin rather than in Japanese. First of all, it just doesn't sound right (after all, they're Japanese, not Chinese!), and secondly I don't know who in the devil they're talking about!

    Come to think of it, depending upon where you're from or your own preferences, "Rodger" ("famous / renowned for his spear") might also be spelled as Roger, Rogier, Rutger, Rogerius, Rosser, Rhosier, Hroðgar, Hróarr, Hrothgar, and so forth.

    But I think that you are perfectly entitled to spell your name as "Rodger", and no one should try to make you do otherwise.

  55. Alan Chin said,

    February 19, 2013 @ 12:19 pm

    It's funny, because as an ABC I was sent to an after-school Chinese language school here in NYC's Chinatown for 5 years as a boy…every day! (the 華僑學校 on Mott Street)

    We had to use brushes and ink for everything; no pens or pencils. Yes, this was in the 1970s and 80s! Yet my Chinese literacy is very poor, and only in recent years as I've tried to learn/re-learn as an adult has it improved.

    It was Cantonese language, traditional characters. No use of Pinyin, Wade-Giles, Jyutping, or any other romanization. Textbooks were from Taiwan as characters had Bopomofo next to them…yet our teachers never used that (or knew it, probably, not being Taiwanese or Mandarin speakers) or even explained it to us or any other romanization as they were trying to teach us "pure" Chinese as they had learned it…

    I daresay (blame anyone but myself) that my literacy would be MUCH greater if they had taught with Jyutping and Pinyin, if they had actually taught us how to read and write contemporary, useful language (e.g. "Where is the train station?") rather than have us practice calligraphy by copying classical poems that we could barely understand, if they had a concept of "legacy" language learning…

    But all that being said, I have pretty good understanding of stroke order. And can use a brush however amateurishly.

    Regarding names, my immediate family uses the Toishanese "Chin" 陳 , except my brother who was raised in Hong Kong and uses "Chan" and more recent immigrants from the mainland who use "Chen". There's your Smith / Schmidt / Schmitt for you…..

  56. Rodger C said,

    February 19, 2013 @ 1:13 pm

    @Victor Mair: Good heavens, I must say I didn't expect such a vigorous response to an anecdote which, to me, was about a mildly amusing foible of one of my favorite professors, a great scholar, teacher and fine gentleman.

    As for me, my name is frequently spelled Roger, including by people that are looking straight at it on this blog and others. Thanks for getting it right.

    Once as a boy I spelled it HROÞGAR in Anglo-Saxon runes on a piece of rock and left it in a wooded area. About 30 years later, the WV state tourism magazine … You know where this is going.

    You left out Hroðgeirr and Chrothagaisus.

  57. Martin said,

    February 19, 2013 @ 2:11 pm

    Alan, if your instruction was in Cantonese using material from Taiwan, then I'd guess the program was run by folks from Hong Kong. Hongkongers would not teach using romanization because they were never taught any romanization schemes themselves (my era of schooling was in the 90s), and if necessary, typical Hongkongers would have used an ad hoc-ish romanization scheme based on whatever it is that the HK government used for signs and such (which would've been on every street sign, MTR station, school, etc). In fact, Jyutping wasn't even developed until relatively recently!

  58. Alan Chin said,

    February 19, 2013 @ 3:02 pm


    Yes, I believe most of my teachers were either from HK (or had transited through HK in the post-1949 period) and therefore, as you point out, never used romanization schemes. And Jyutping is from the 1990s, the similar Yale system from the 1970s, both too new for my teachers and both different from what the HK government does, if I understand correctly.

    I think a lot of this has to do with the politics…Wade-Giles was the dominant Mandarin romanization system at that time…Pinyin was just beginning to be known in the West…Chiang Kai-shek in Wade-Giles becomes Jiang Jieshi in Pinyin, in Jyutping it would be Zoeng Gaai-sek!

    For myself personally, Jyutping has been a fantastic tool. I realize (as previously posters note regarding topolects) that I'm a Toishanese/Cantonese speaker simultaneously trying to learn Mandarin as well as literacy. So I'll write out characters, and note BOTH the pinyin and the Jyutping next to them in this notebook that I've been using. This is slow, laborious, and at times I'm doing double translation in my head…from English to Mandarin to Cantonese or the other way around. (!)

    Regarding English as an imperial language it should be noted that while the British Empire wasn't the only empire around, the maritime dominance of the Royal Navy and the British East India Company meant that English became the primary language of trade and commerce in much of the world. That was inherited by air travel and air traffic control as well. So even when most Europeans might have learned French a hundred years ago as a second language, on the high seas everybody had to have rudiments of English and various pidgins. English is also a language in which speaking it badly doesn't prevent (some) intelligibility. Try that with French!

  59. Ray Dillinger said,

    February 19, 2013 @ 3:56 pm

    The situation is now different than it was in previous generations. With the Internet, lines of communication are shorter. With international shipping, lines of commerce are shorter. I believe that as a result of these things the need to have a common language with a large proportion of humanity (or, conversely, the disadvantage of not having one) is much stronger than it has ever been prior to this decade.

    That need strikes at a moment when English is enjoying ascendancy, by virtue of a century and a half of outright or "hard" imperialism followed by several bits of historical happenstance that resulted in a lot of intellectual/technical output that was a lynchpin to further development being done in English simultaneously with a lot of economic or "soft" imperialism also being done in English, and an enormous amount of the world's current cultural output (from new literature to silly game shows) being done in English.

    There is no field of study now where you won't miss fully half the important papers if you don't read English. There is no market anywhere in the world where half your competition won't come from companies in whose boardrooms and stockholder meetings English is the primary language spoken. There is no business in which ignorance of English will leave you able to compete as an equal in the markets of suppliers and consumers. There is no aspect of global culture in which ignorance of one language can force you to miss more news, entertainment, and opportunities than you will miss if you don't read or understand English.

    The same is simply not true of Chinese, nor, in my opinion, is it likely that it will ever be true of any other language. Once a language has grown as dominant in the world as English is now, in the presence of an ongoing need for a "common language" that's as strong as that need is now, I don't think it can be stopped. Given the lack of any isolation of any large English-speaking communities sufficient for their dialects to fully grow into major independent languages equal to Standard English in importance, I just don't see any possibility that the dominant language of this world will ever be something other than some descendant of English.

    Well, all right. There's *one* possibility; if I learned that two centuries from now there will be no worldwide dominant language, or that the worldwide dominant language will not be some descendant of English, then I would conclude that in the meantime we had suffered a complete collapse of civilization.

  60. julie wei said,

    February 19, 2013 @ 4:39 pm

    @ Victor Mair
    I'm amazed that the name Hrothgar is an earlier version of Rodger. I've loved the name Hrothgar ever since, at the age of nine, I first read the Beowulf story (simplified) in my English textbook in a school in Calcutta, India. I'm indifferent to the name Rodger, but found the sound of Hrothgar rich and sonorous.

  61. julie wei said,

    February 19, 2013 @ 5:21 pm

    @ Roger C

    Re the Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciation/spellings of names.

    I had this experience: For some time I had been receiving e-mails from a stranger. I kept deleting them, since I don't open e-mails from people I don't know. The stranger's e-mails kept coming at intervals. One day I remembered a distant relative who had a surname similar to the stranger's. So I finally opened one to see if it was this relative. To my surprise the e-mail was from my brother on another continent. He had changed his name in his e-mail address from Mandarin to Cantonese (and didn't realize I didn't open e-mails from strangers). The last syllable of his name is "qian" in Mandarin but "heem" in Cantonese. The other syllables (characters) of his name in Mandarin were also very different from Cantonese. So I thought his e-mails were from a total stranger. Thank goodness I finally opened one.

  62. NayNay said,

    February 19, 2013 @ 7:11 pm

    I have been fascinated by the differing treatment of Korean and Chinese names in Japanese. There is never any attempt to read Chinese names in their native pronunciation. So 習近平 is read (シュウ・キンペイ) Shū Kinpei, for example. Korean names tend to be rendered in simplified katakana pronunciations, as seen here:
    and for successive generations of "Dear Leaders" up north (金正恩 = キム・ジョンウン).

    I won't hazard a guess about the origins of this distinction, but perhaps someone more knowledgeable could?

  63. julie wei said,

    February 19, 2013 @ 7:36 pm

    @Roger C
    P.S.: On why my brother changed his name from Mandarin spelling to Cantonese spelling. It was because his e-mail had been hacked and someone had stolen his identity. So he decided to disguise his name by spelling it according to Cantonese pronunciation instead of Mandarin pronunciation. To protect his privacy, I am not revealing the two vastly different spellings.

  64. Mandy said,

    February 20, 2013 @ 2:06 am

    @Victor Mair
    "葉維廉 as Wai-lim Yip rather than as Yeh Wei-lien or Ye Weilian or some other bastardized Mandarin transcription (e.g., Wei-lin Yeh)."

    Amen!!!!!! This scenario does not only apply to Cantonese but also to other minority languages commonly spoken in China. My Uyghur friends always complain about the problems they encountered when they attempted to apply for travel documents in China (already an extremely difficult procedure); but once they were granted their passports and visas, they had to confront another issue–an alien identity.

    Take, for instance, the Uyghur name Mahire Yakup (a PhD student who taught me Uyghur a while back). The name would first be translated to Mandarin/Chinese characters, and then from Mandarin back to English. The result is something completely mangled, and sounds nothing like the original Uyghur name.

    In the end, Mahire Yakup became Yakefu Mayila. Image the frustration of having the mangled version printed on your official travel documents! Yakefu Mayila is most certainly, definitely not how her name should be pronounced in her language. It's altogether a different person. And imagine when you need a driver license or school registration when you land in a western country, you have to register base on how your name is recorded on the Chinese official documents. You can, of course, stick to your "falsified" name; or petition to change/amend your name. But both are extremely emotional, complicated, and time-consuming (*if* they can even do that) ordeal.

  65. Mandy said,

    February 20, 2013 @ 2:38 am

    @Alan Chin

    "I daresay (blame anyone but myself) that my literacy would be MUCH greater if they had taught with Jyutping and Pinyin, if they had actually taught us how to read and write contemporary, useful language (e.g. "Where is the train station?") rather than have us practice calligraphy by copying classical poems that we could barely understand, if they had a concept of "legacy" language learning…"

    Hmmm…I think not giving you anything "useful" to learn to graduatlly build your language bank might be the primary reason. Up until the 1990s, no Hong Kong school kids were taught Pinyin, Jyutping or romanization, and literacy rate in Hong Kong was still one of the highest in the world. I still don't know pinyin and jyutping, and can only do romanization haphazardly. So without jyutping and pinyin, literacy can certainly be achieved, but the process would perhaps be longer — because the learning process would be more focused on recitation, listening and "feeling" the language.

    Hong Kong school kids nowadays are still not taught pinyin (unless they take Mandarin classes, but for English schools, Mandarin is not in the official curriculum) and still no jyutping, but kids' literacy have *decreased* — this has more to do with the quality of the teachers, textbooks and curriculum. For Cantonese, jyutping is hard to use because of the complex tonal systems of the language.

  66. Alan Chin said,

    February 20, 2013 @ 11:18 am


    Jyutping is really useful intuitively for me because I'm a native Cantonese speaker…I know all of the tones and words verbally…but I don't know how to WRITE them…and using Jyutping and Pinyin tigether helps me learn both literacy and Mandarin.

    People like yourself that are literate Cantonese speakers have no need for Jyutping of course, other than as an accurate system to use in the English speaking world. I think, too, that it doesn't really need the tone numbers…Gung hei faat coi for 恭喜發財 is pretty intuitively correct for an English speaker.

    Your point about "gradually build your language bank" is correct. In a place and system where the language being taught is the primary language! But for myself and my fellow students, we were American born Chinese "legacy" learners…you must be kidding!

    We could speak and understand Cantonese perfectly (or near perfectly). We could speak, read, and write English perfectly. But we did not know how to read or write Chinese characters — because this Chinese school was the place we were supposed to learn to do so — and the only incentive for us to mindlessly copy characters was "because it's good for you."

    I repeat my point: when you are teaching this demographic, isn't it much better to teach practical and useful language, with exercises that support it? Remember, we were primary-school age, little kids. All of our cultural orientation was towards assimilation into mainstream English speaking American life. Our parents had this nagging guilt that they should send us to Chinese school, but that was about it.

    Do you really think that our situation is comparable to our peers in HK? Where they achieved high literacy with the same system…yes…but they had motivation to do so. We did not.

  67. Mandy said,

    February 20, 2013 @ 3:03 pm

    @Alan Chin

    "and the only incentive for us to mindlessly copy characters was "because it's good for you."

    I repeat my point: when you are teaching this demographic, isn't it much better to teach practical and useful language, with exercises that support it? Remember, we were primary-school age, little kids. All of our cultural orientation was towards assimilation into mainstream English speaking American life. Our parents had this nagging guilt that they should send us to Chinese school, but that was about it."

    Yes, of course! I understand how you feel and can sympathize. My American born cousins here all had to go through the same phase as you. All resented going to "sunday school" at one point. It boils to what you said, the motivation. Why would there be an absence of motivation among overseas born Chinese kids learning Chinese? Because there isn't a coherent method designed to "ease" you into the language, which is to critically, gradually build up a language bank that little kids can use! I never said that your situation is comparable to mine in HK — to say so is crazy! I mentioned my experience because you mentioned how your teachers in HK learned. So I'm actually not disagreeing with you. What you proposed isn't so different from what I said in my above post.

    Even as a native Cantonese speaker growing up in a native Cantonese environment, I still "mindlessly copied characters" when I was little — the process is perhaps even more vigorous for us growing up in Hong Kong (because we don't want to be illiterate in a place where Chinese is the main language of communication), for the reason that there are no other methods to "memorize" the words and any other ways to "render" the characters because we weren't taught jyutping or any type of sensible notational(?) method to help memorize the sound. Students would invent their own romanization to help aid the memorization but that's not always accurate. If you are given a new word, say, 鬱, the HK textbook (in early 1990s) will tell you that it sounds like 屈. This is how we/I figured out the sound/tone of 鬱, but then right away, you would start mindlessly copying 鬱 in an attempt to memorize it, just like the process of how we learned 屈 before. But you wouldn't learn 鬱 until you've reached a more advance level.

    After being forced mindlessly/compusively copying characters for years, we gradually built up a language bank, then the copying became less vigorous as we advance in age/grade. They still copy characters (now voluntarily) even well into high school — they had to because when it comes to dictation time, they won't remember anything and can't write out the characters fast enough. If they linger/ponder too much on a character, they would miss everything else that's being dictated to them and get a zero as a result. Say, if a teacher dictates something that they've never read before (the worst thing being dictated to is a poem), the result of the dictation is usually really bad, because students have a problem figuring out the sounds and what characters they are supposed to use (no time to figure out the context). The literacy would drop instantly if they're being dictated something that they have never heard/read before. I don't know if jyutping will help in this situation because I've never learned to use it but to me it doesn't seem like a viable system unless you've learned pinyin and is already familiar with Chinese linguistics. Maybe they need a new system.

    Therefore, regardless of demographics, it's always better to "teach practical nd useful language, with exercises that support it," just as you said it.

  68. Victor Mair said,

    February 20, 2013 @ 6:35 pm

    From David Brophy:

    On a related note, this reminds me of an Inner Mongolian scholar I met, who got by in China with no family name, as many Mongols do, but in his passport they couldn't leave the family name slot blank, so they filled it in with XXX. When he bought plane tickets, applied for visas, booked hotel rooms etc., he would always be Mr. XXX. Which, of course, has certain connotations in the West. I think some institutions helped him out by splitting his given name in half and using the 2nd half as his family name, but as far as I know he's still officially Mr. XXX.

  69. Gianni said,

    February 20, 2013 @ 10:09 pm

    The Mongolian name example is truly of interest. I once wanted to find the English transliteration of a famous archaeologist from Inner Mongolia, 乌恩岳斯图, Wu'enyuesitu, but failed. When I had to cite his name, I don't know if I should divide it into Wu Enyuesitu, Wu'en Yuesitu, Wu'en Yue Situ or keep it Wu'enyuesitu. I think the government should standardize a Romanized form of the languages of the minorities to facilitate the non-character use of their names, such as academic citations and international travel arrangement.

  70. Roberto said,

    February 20, 2013 @ 11:54 pm

    About AC or heaters on with doors/windows left open.

    This is so common in Japan (Tokyo area), I wondered if it was moral decline (wastefulness, this was during the immediate post-earthquake energy savings campaign) or ignorance of physics.

    I surveyed the college students (N = @ 200). "What happens if the AC or heater (as the case may be) is on and the door/windows are open?"

    Options were (1) more energy will be needed to heat/cool the room, (2) less energy (3) the same, (4) I don't know. The great majority selected 2-4 (in about equal numbers). (1) was the least selected.

  71. JS said,

    February 21, 2013 @ 1:29 am

    (@Mandy) Mandarin's (and other Chinese languages') renderings of non-Chinese personal and place names (such as your Mahire Yakup > Yākèfū Mǎyìlā; I'm just guessing at tones) perhaps look like "corruptions" of a more extreme sort than occur with other language pairs due to the relatively bare syllable structure, tonal nature, etc. of the Sinitic family — but the principles at work are unremarkable. Whatever one makes of (for example!) the position of ethnic Uyghurs vis-a-vis the P.R.C. government, it is hard to take issue with the normalization of Uyghur names to the phonotactics, and simultaneously to the standard orthography, of the national tongue in official contexts (we have such processes to thank for the names of half of the U.S. states, for instance.)

    (@NayNay & whoever) As referenced by NayNay, there of course also exists the potential for distinct language communities that happen to share a script to re-render names, etc., by reference to orthography rather than to sound: hence Mandarin Dōngjīng 東京 for Tōkyō 東京, and so forth (though in the case of Japanese treatment of Chinese names there seem to be countertrends, e.g., the Mandarin surname Wáng 王 being rendered as Wan ワン rather than Ou おう, just as NayNay suggests is the typical approach to Korean names?) Such "reading pronunciation" tends to be how English treats names coming from languages who share our alphabet or a close relative thereof — so /pɛrɪs/ and the like (for which, incidentally, Mandarin has more faithful Bālí 巴黎 by phonological normalization.)

    And then, these two can come together, as when a sound-based rendering of an item of foreign vocabulary enters a Chinese language and is then adopted further afield by the orthographically-driven process — so Mandarin dīshì 的士 for English 'taxi' via Cantonese dik1si6 (?) 的士, etc. (seen also with names.)

    (oh, and neither does the "Mr. XXX" issue seem to be limited to China.)

  72. Victor Mair said,

    February 21, 2013 @ 9:18 am

    From a colleague who is a specialist on Mongolian Studies:

    I really liked the whole thread that the piece inspired (from empire to brushes to shifting names). And on the last note I recall a quip from one of my colleagues: imagine the confusion at INS when people can change identity simply by going from Wade-Giles to pinyin.

    Anyway, on the linguistic horrors inflicted on the unsuspecting "minzu." I'm on a PhD committee for a student at [a certain university] whose name is Ulaan, which becomes Wu Lan, but then this has somehow become reversed to Lan Wu. So she is now officially Lan Wu. Which is not quite Mr. XXX, but is still completely nonsensical and insane.

  73. Victor Mair said,

    February 21, 2013 @ 11:56 am

    From Chris Atwood:

    To solve Gianni’s problem, the name is Oyunyosutu or Oyuunyost, depending on whether you follow the written form or the spoken. Obviously it should be transcribed simply as one name Wu’enyuesitu. And in fact such an official Romanization actually exists, for place names, as well as for personal names, but no one uses it. For example, the archeological site “Alu Chaidamu 阿魯柴達木” is actually Ar Qaidam in the official Pinyin system (Aru Chaidam would be my preferred spelling), but no one uses it, instead just going with the Pinyin.

    [VHM: Note that, as Prof. Atwood correctly points out for Ar Qaidam, the OFFICIAL Pinyin cartographic spelling prescribes following local non-Sinitic pronunciations, e.g., Ürümqi instead of Wūlǔmùqí, but few people adhere to the rules and just go with some sort of Mandarin rendering, e.g., Kāshí (very few people use the longer Mandarinized form, Kāshígé'ěr) instead of the official Kaxgar. I have no idea why they don't chop Wūlǔmùqí down to Wūlǔ the way they truncate Kāshígé'ěr as Kāshí.]

  74. Gianni said,

    February 21, 2013 @ 12:36 pm

    @Victor Mair

    Many thanks to Dr. Atwood for the clarification.

    We call Kashgar Kāshí because it is the ancient name of that region. Ptolemy called it "Kasia", which is supposed to be an Indo-Aryan name. Kashgar, on the other hand, is a later compound word, with "gar" from a non-Indic name, perhaps Eastern Iranian? I think John Hill has a note on this toponym in his book.

    The Chinese shortened name for Wūlǔmùqí is Wūshì 烏市. I think Chinese tend to shorten four-syllable Mongolian city names to two, or at least to three. For example, Ordos city, È'ěrduōsī shì 鄂爾多斯市 is shortened to Èshì 鄂市;Hohhot, Hūhéhàotè shì 呼和浩特市 is shortened to Hūshì 呼市. Kashgar is truly an exception, perhaps because it is non-Mongolian, but more likely because the geographers already claim that the disyllabic toponym transcribed now as Kasia/Kāshí is historically the original name.

  75. Mahire said,

    February 21, 2013 @ 1:11 pm

    we also had the name such as Turaxan<Turanxan. In Chinese the name changed into 吐(split)拉(pull, better wayexplanation)汗(sweat).
    Usually people or government staff choose the most frequent or easy words ragrdless of semantic meaning. Becasue they want to 'match' phonologically.
    Truncation exists in the graph becasue the graphs are designed according to Chiense characters, in which these characters are not more than 4 or 5. However Uyghur name such as Abdukkerimaxun (usually people from Xoten have long compound names) 阿不都可里木啊哄 will be shorten as 阿不because of space problem in the graphs.
    There was a regulation of names ethnic groups, but I don't know how much it worked. It could be not acceptable by ethnic groups as following reason.
    Hui(Muslim Chinese) has Arabic names at home but the registered names are pretty much Chinese. Therefore, they have two names one for Islamic, another for registered official names.

  76. David said,

    February 21, 2013 @ 4:11 pm


    Do you have any evidence for the use of "Kashi" predating the Qing? To my knowledge there isn't any, and I think any link between Ptolemy's Kasia mountains and Kashi > Kashgar was debunked a long time ago, by Richthofen no less (See Stein, Ancient Khotan, vol. 1, p. 90). I'd suggest that Kashi is indeed a recent contraction from Kashiga'er, which means the only explanation is Chinese linguistic habit, there's no etymological or historical justification for it.

  77. julie wei said,

    February 21, 2013 @ 4:32 pm

    Digressing somewhat from the conversation on Uighur or Arab names:

    Chinese scholars have mentioned with pride that the Chinese language has a genius for abbreviation. One result is that writing something in Chinese can be very rapid, despite the difficulty or slowness of writing characters. My example is from the daily Chinese newspapers. Some years ago I was stumped by the name IBA in Chinese characters that kept popping up in front-page headlines in the Chinese newspaper (I sometimes just skim the headlines). I soon discovered it was abbreviation for "Israeli-Palestine" (dispute, etc.)—which in Chinese (Mandarin) is YI-SE-LIE BA-LE-SI-TAN (7 characters collapsed into 2, I-BA). English newspapers don't abbreviate "Israeli-Palestinian" into I-Pa or I-P. Writing IBA in Chinese characters is much faster than writing Israeli-Palestinian in English. The Chinese language and script does this kind of abbreviation all the time, and has been doing so since antiquity,

  78. Mandy said,

    February 21, 2013 @ 5:45 pm


    Obviously there are some types of "official" phonetic rules that govern the name conversion. No rules are made randomly in the PRC. I think how Yakup got changed to Yakefu is quite clear to people who are proficient in Chinese.

    I'm not a linguist (not even close) so I am not capable to suggest a viable alternative to deal with this situation. But the fundamental issue isn't *really* about the "nomalization of Uyghur names to the phonotactics" (I think we all got that here) — it's about letting people to have the freedom to keep their names based on how their names are pronounced in the native tongue. The Uyghurs are not Han Chinese to begin with. It's fine if they used their "Chinese" names in China because there really is such an administration need within the country, but it's a bit much if they are forced to assume an entirely different name (that is "nonsensical and insane", as one scholar mentioned above) when they travel abroad. It's fine if the ethnic groups themselves accept the rule, but many of them seem like they don't.

    Yes, there was a orthographic standardization process in the US, but this process, is as you said, mostly happened to place names and geographic/geological features, not personal names. So the policy is not entirely comparable to that of China. Many names that got "standardized" in the US are of Scandinavian, Germanic and Slavic origins — but people often do so willingly themselves, as there are no official US rules stating that people must get rid of the accents and diacritical marks appearing in their names.

    A Cantonese speaking person would have no problem saying Yakup as it is pronounced in the Uyghur language, while a Mandarin speaking person may have some trouble due to the syllable structure and tonal nature (as you correctly mentioned). Consider the name of the football player Beckham. In Hong Kong, he is known as 碧咸, but in mainland China, he's 贝克汉姆. This happens because Cantonese still possesses the 入声 tone, this is why the Cantonese version can still do it with 2 syllables/2 tones just as how Beckham's name is pronounced in his native language. But as Hong Kong becomes increasing politically entwined with Mainland politics, in a couple of years, you won't even see 碧咸 printed on HK news media as the characters combination looks "weird" to some Mandarin speakers because it is not linguistically intuitive to them. Westminster Abbey 西敏寺 is now officially 威斯敏斯特教堂. Hong Kong is part of China now so this language standardization process would seem to be inevitable. Once something becomes a thorn, it needs to be plucked, ie, to become standardized. They have already started changing street names in HK, reinventing names (but HKers have been using those names for like 100 years) and feeding back the "correct" rendering to HK Cantonese speakers.

  79. Mandy said,

    February 21, 2013 @ 6:16 pm


    "Usually people or government staff choose the most frequent or easy words ragrdless of semantic meaning. Becasue they want to 'match' phonologically."

    Thank you! I understand that the kh or x sound usually corresponds to 汗 "sweat" in Chinese. But what if someone doesn't like to use that character and suggest it to be substituted with some other alternatives, would the person be allowed to do so?

  80. Gianni said,

    February 21, 2013 @ 10:13 pm


    No, definitely no evidence from Chinese texts, so far as I know.

    What I meant is Kashgar was originally derived from an Eastern Iranian name meaning "Kasia Mountains", cf. Pashto ghar "mountain"; Ossetian хæрдмæ "on mountain; uphill", both are modern Eastern Iranian languages. I think you can find middle Iranian evidence from H. W. Bailey's Dictionary of Khotan Saka, 1982 as well. Ptolemy actually did not only mention Kasia Mountains but also the Kasia region (Chora in Greek, VI, 15. 3), which corresponds to the Kashgar region.

    The ancient Chinese name of the kingdom in this region is Shule 疏勒, inhabited by Eastern-Iranian people. Stein and Richthofen did rebuff the connection of the name with Sanskrit Khasa, but their alternative proposals are not satisfactory either. I remember a scholar in Europe discussed this name recently. I'll check it and get back to you soon.

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