Misprint on Chinese money

« previous post | next post »

The Taipei Times for June 27 carried the following article: "Debate rages over currency ‘misprint'".

It is a question of whether the upper part of the long form of the character for the word yī ("one"), i.e., 壹, should be written as 士 ("scholar"), the "correct" configuration, with the ends of the upper horizontal stroke extending beyond those of the lower horizontal stroke, or 土 ("land; earth"), as it appears on certain banknotes, with the ends of the upper horizontal stroke being shorter than those of the lower horizontal stroke. Fortunately, yī ("one") is usually written as 一, the simplest of all Chinese characters, consisting of only a single horizontal stroke. The complicated form 壹, with twelve strokes, is used in banking, business, and so forth, to avoid mistakes and forgery.

These kinds of controversies about the proper shapes of Chinese characters are surprisingly common, and include the following types of differences of opinion:

1. how to write certain components (e.g., rì 日 or yuē 曰)

2. how many strokes there are in a character (counts can vary fairly widely)

3. the order of strokes

4. the proper shapes of stroke (should, for example, they have a hook at the bottom?)

5. whether two strokes intersect or not

6. which of two or more variant forms is the preferred one

7. differences in the way characters have been written through time and space

8. preferences for various simplified forms

9. different possibilities for the identification of various components (e.g., does the 月 radical in certain characters mean "flesh" or "moon"?)

10. whether one line extends above / beyond another line, just barely touches it, or doesn't quite reach it

All of these things make a huge difference when one is trying to look / call up characters in shape-based dictionaries and electronic information processing systems. This is another reason (aside from speed and ease) why most people now rely on sound-based systems when looking / calling up Chinese characters and words — when they know how a given character or word is pronounced (which most of the time is the case).

Judging from the standard of rectitude in writing applied to 壹 described at the beginning of this post, there are lots of "mistakes" in the three characters (shènglùyì 聖 路易) used to transcribe the name "St. Louis" here:

But the mistakes are probably intentional stylizations, though they are stretching recognizability almost to the limit in the last character (if it appeared in isolation, many people might have a hard time figuring out what it is supposed to be)

[h.t. to Mark Swofford]



  1. Lazar said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 8:19 pm

    Do other Chinese numbers have more complicated alternate forms, or is it just "one"?

  2. JMStewy said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 8:54 pm

    The other numerals do indeed have more complicated forms. Wikipedia has a chart here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_numerals#Numeral_characters

  3. Jim Breen said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 9:15 pm

    Yes, others include 弍 for two, 弎 for three, 亖 for four.

  4. JS said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 10:15 pm

    What would be really interesting is if any complex form happened to point to the word for which the basic graph was first designed (subsequently to be borrowed, on the basis of near-homophony, to the numeral) — perhaps is an example, with designed for 'separate'?

  5. JS said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 10:17 pm

    ^ "…perhaps 捌 is an example, with 八 designed for 'separate'…"

  6. Mark S. said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 11:10 pm

    Um, "Chinese" money?

  7. David Moser said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 11:20 pm

    I remember recently on Weibo there was a post passed around noting that in the word gang1ga4 尴尬 ("awkward, embarrassing") the component in both characters that looks like 九 is actually 尢 you2, Kangxi radical 43. Nearly everyone gets it wrong. The article had a heading something like "Here's a character that nearly EVERYBODY writes incorrectly." Most people's reaction was "Gee, our character writing ability is deteriorating," but my reaction was "Why the hell should we have to CARE about this kind of thing?"

  8. leoboiko said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 12:52 am

    Same debates in Japanese, with the added complication of whether certain alternate forms are valid variants or "Chinese" forms to be avoided (though usually the variants now perceived as "Chinese" were once common in Japan-produced texts).

    @Moser: Perhaps for a similar reason that English speakers complain about spelling changes (and retain the archaic spelling): our brains are pattern-matching machines, and when we learn to match a pattern, it gives a bad feeling to have some stimulus almost but not quite match. In the case of Chinese characters, this is particularly true if you practice East Asian calligraphy. You spend a lot of time molding your æsthetic sense on specific patterns; for example, you might be drilled on the fact that vertical strokes can be thicker than horizontal ones but not the other way around; then comes a calligrapher from a different tradition and draws a 日 with heavy horizontals that seem about to snap their thin vertical stands, and you first reaction is, egads! It takes extra maturity to be open to difference.

  9. J.Xiao said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 4:11 am

    Indeed, it is this kind of structural subtlety that frustrates many learners of written Chinese, especially in the Traditional form.

    Look at this illustration in the Chinese version of Euclid's Element translated by Matteo Ricci and Xu Guangqi to get at the sentiment. Pay attention to the characters above their head.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 10:41 am

    From Brian Spooner:

    Once again, my anthropological drive to construct a comparative context for any question makes me think of the discussions Bill Hanaway and I have had about bad handwriting–in Roman, Cyrillic and Arabic scripts (we did a little on this in "Reading Nasta'liq," 1995, 2007, which is really a book about how to read bad handwriting). How do we manage to read bad handwriting, given that it often looks so different from standard forms? We have three answers: (a) we read ideographically, (b) we read what we expect or unconsciously assume has been written, and (c) we read what goes with the context. Whenever these subconscious methods don't work, we say the handwriting is unreadable. Do you think something similar might be going on with Chinese characters?

  11. T. Billings said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 10:48 am

    The illustration in the link just above is from Athanasius Kircher's 1667 *China . . . Illustrata* (not from the Euclid translation Ricci did with Xu Guangqi), but it illustrates J. Xiao's point nicely just the same. Indeed, if we didn't already know Ricci's Chinese name and style name (利瑪竇,西泰)it would be very hard indeed to read the characters over his head. It always surprises me how poorly the Chinese in these 17th-c. engravings appears since engravers were masters at copying images EXACTLY, and most of the Jesuits had pretty good handwriting. It is as though the engravers tried to "freestyle" the text as writing instead of treating it as an image to be reproduced precisely.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 11:56 am

    I've seen this engraving many times before. It's supposed to be Chinese characters, at least it is the engraver's attempt to render Chinese characters — fairly easy to recognize about half of them.

    Paste this directly into your browser: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ricci_Guangqi_2.jpg

    You can see "Li Madou" and "Xu Guangqi" with romanized annotation.

  13. Gou Tongzhi said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

    As someone who has studied Chinese in the classroom and out for over 10 years, I'm glad to hear that Chinese people have the same kinds of frustrations and debates that I do about stroke size and shape.

  14. leoboiko said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 5:02 pm

    @Mair/Spooner: Hell I think those strategies are needed when reading good Chinese handwriting—at the most cursive end of the spectrum. Though of course there are cases when we do that for sloppy handwriting too; but I think that the particular kind of bad glyphs discussed here—changing 土 for 士、 etc.—are actually easier to read than "good" cursive.

    The relationship between "bad" and "cursive" is interesting. Is artistic cursive just one kind of bad handwriting that has been traditionally codified as acceptable? Was the "bad" Nasta'liq considered bad in their culture?

    The fact that Chinese cursive is usually thought to be beautiful (which I agree) and practised with care and hard work didn't stop some people from thinking they're just sloppy, like Wieger:

    > During his campaigns against the Huns, the general 蒙恬 Mêng-t’ien is said to have invented or improved the writing-brush, the ink and the paper. This invention was fatal to the characters. […] The writing-brush galloping, the strokes were connected up, giving birth to the 連筆字 lien-pei-tzǔ; then it flew, throwing on the paper misshapen figures, which are called 草字 ts’ao-tzǔ. The fancy for these novelties became a rage. At the beginning of the Christian era, a man believed himself dishonoured if he wrote in a legible way.

  15. Bill Lee said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 8:56 pm

    Yi (one) being – can easily be converted into = (er, two) or (3 strokes, san three). Worse is making the – into + which is shi (ten)
    Ten thousand anyone?

  16. Jean-Michel said,

    July 3, 2013 @ 11:03 am

    In fact 一 can be converted fairly easily into any other basic numerical character except 八 "eight"; it works best with characters containing the same horizontal stroke, but you wouldn't need an expert forger to turn 一 into 五 "five," 七 "seven," or 九 "nine," at least as long as a pencil or a ball-point pen is used (it would be harder with a brush, which more clearly shows individual strokes). That said, characters with horizontal strokes at or near the top and none in the middle (like 四 "four" or 六 "six") would look unnaturally compressed.

  17. Jean-Michel said,

    July 3, 2013 @ 11:38 am

    (Clarification: There is no "horizontal stroke" at the top of 四–the top and right sides of the square are written as a single continuous stroke–but the top could be written as a straight horizontal stroke without altering the appearance, again provided one isn't using a brush.)

  18. leoboiko said,

    July 3, 2013 @ 5:01 pm

    With a brush you could simply draw a thicker stroke over the original one, changing its shape completely. It's also not hard for a trained hand to morph an horizontal into a bend, or to expand and retouch the stroke outilnes, painting-like (even students do this when the teacher isn't looking—not that I would know aything about it lǎoshī!)

    then again, I don't think people write cheques with a brush…

  19. Deck Zech said,

    July 4, 2013 @ 5:16 am

    @David Moser,
    The common misconception that 尴尬 is written with the component 九 is partially due to the design of the new glyph (新字形). In the old glyph (舊字形), or Kangxi Dictionary form (康熙字典體), the 尢 radical is more dissimilar than the current standard because the second and third strokes are closer together than it is now in PRC. In the new glyph of songti, these two strokes are much more apart almost like 九.
    Anyway, the misprint on TWD is only considered incorrect by modern standard. In terms of etymology, the component on top of 壹 is neither a 土 or 士. According to Shuowen Jiezi, the character 壹 is another phono-semantic compound; the semantic part derived from 壺 and the phonetic from 吉 (从壺吉聲). By looking at the small seal script of 壹, you can clearly see the character was written exactly like 壺 with 吉 inside the bottom part, 亞, as a phonetic. So the top part of 壹 is identical to 壺. As for the character 壺, it is an pictogram (象形), as in one of the six classification (六書) of a hanzi. And according to Shuowen Jiezi, the top part of this character is 大. Read: 「昆吾圜器也。象形。从大,象其蓋也。」

  20. Jean-Michel said,

    July 4, 2013 @ 11:12 pm

    @Jim Breen

    Yes, others include 弍 for two, 弎 for three, 亖 for four.

    弍 or 弎 might be okay as long as only one is used. Japan uses the very similar 弐 for "two" but 参 for "three," which works out well. But 亖—aside from being less complicated than the standard form 四—seems worthless as an "anti-fraud" character, seeing how it can easily become 壹 "one," 參/叁 "three," 陸 "six" (Hong Kong/Taiwanese form), 佰/百 "hundred," and even 萬 "ten thousand" or 億 "hundred million."

  21. The suffocated said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 11:15 pm

    @Jim Breen and @Jean-Michel

    The so-called "anti-fraud" characters from one to ten are 壹、貳、叁、肆、伍、陸、柒、捌、玖、拾. The character 亖 is not an anti-fraud character. It is 四 in Large Seal Script. It was only used in a few regions of ancient China and is practically an abandoned character today. And while 弍 is still used by some as an anti-fraud character for 二, the more formal and more widely used character in hand-written invoices or cheques is 貳.

  22. Deck Zech said,

    July 6, 2013 @ 4:49 pm

    CJK Common Numerals in Chinese characters:「〇一二三四五六七八九十」

    ROC Daxie: 「零壹貳參肆伍陸柒捌玖拾」

    PRC Daxie: 「零壹贰叁肆伍陆柒捌玖拾」

    Japanese Daiji:「零壱弐参四五六七八九拾」

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment