Don't Drive in the What, er?

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A couple of days ago, I posted about a problematic modified rebus, in the form of a heart with a skull and crossbones superimposed ("Love to Die / Death", 7/31/2009).  Now we have yet another complicated graphic combination consisting of a pictograph plus a sinographic semantic key / classifier (or radical) plus a slash over the pictograph.

The slash is undoubtedly meant to signify prohibition, and since this is a traffic sign, one would normally find the picture of what is being prohibited overlaid by a slash surrounded by a circle, the universal symbol of prohibition.

It is curious that the slash only covers the right portion of the symbol.  But never mind about that.  One seriously wonders whether anyone can make sense of the symbol without the slash, in parts or as a whole.

From the size, the placement on the sign, and the sheer effort that went into its design, it would seem that the traffic authorities were hoping that the complex symbol would convey an immediate and powerful message.  Clever though it may be, I doubt seriously that any individuals who are not literate in Chinese characters would have the faintest idea what this combination of elements is supposed to mean.  Absent the written words on the sign (in two languages, no less!), I suspect that not all individuals who are literate in Chinese characters would readily grasp the intended message.  With the written words alongside, however, the effect is one of deciphering a humorous visual riddle.

Incidentally, the arrangement of the six characters along the right side of the sign shows how firmly committed to a horizontal, left-right reading orientation the mainland Chinese are:


"It is strictly forbidden to drive (a vehicle) after (consuming) alcohol."

Given their placement along the right side of the sign, it would have been just as easy for the signmakers to align the characters vertically thus:


駕 禁

Here's how it works.  The three black strokes on the left are meant to convey the idea of "water"; they are what we call the "three-drops-water" (SAN1DIAN3SHUI3 三點水) radical or semantic key / classifier, i.e., they show that the symbol as a whole has something to do with a liquid — not necessarily "water" per se.  I should note that the bottom of the three strokes on the left has been stylized to resemble a bottle, and the two drops above it may be meant to resemble the bubbles that are found on the surface of poured beer or that emerge from an uncorked bottle of champagne.

What, then, to make of the portion on the right side?  This is even trickier.  Apparently, you are supposed to recognize the car as a transformation of QIU2 酋 ("chief [of a tribe / bandits / invaders]" — the Republic of China on Taiwan used to refer to Mao Zedong [Mao Tse-tung in those days] as the QIU2 "[bandit] chief" of Communist China).  Of course, here 酋 has nothing whatsoever to do with chieftainship.  Rather, it is serving as the phonophore ("sound-bearing element") or phonetic component of the whole graph, including the three-drops-water on the left.  Unfortunately, the 酋 in this case is not pronounced QIU2, but JIU3 (in Middle Sinitic [circa 600 AD]), QIU2 (just the phonophore [without the three-drops-water] would have been pronounced something like DZUW but with the three-drops-water added as TSUW').  So, "three-drops-water" + QIU2 ("chief") = JIU3 ("alcohol").  [VHM:  This is wrong; please see the comments below.]

The symbol as a whole is meant to be a fanciful version of the character 酒 (JIU3, Japanese SHU / SAKE ["alcohol; rice beer" — often more poetically translated as "wine," although that is technically incorrect in terms of the type of fermentation involved]).

By the time you have figured out all of that, you might well have crashed out of sheer puzzlement (if not drunkenness).

Sent to me by Neil Schmid, who took this photograph while driving on the main road from Xining (Qinghai) to Lanzhou (Gansu) in northwest China a few weeks ago.


  1. Ray Girvan said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 7:48 am

    the bubbles

    I don't know if it applies to Chinese cartoons, but in Western ones it's moderately common to depict drunkenness itself by floating bubbles. See, for instance here, here and here.

  2. John said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 7:49 am

    Very creative! I can kind of see a car in the 酋, although the middle part is a bit confusing.

    Evidently clarity wasn't high priority for this sign. Fun stuff.

  3. Nicholas Waller said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 7:55 am

    "the picture of what is being prohibited overlaid by a slash surrounded by a circle"

    Even with this fairly simple graphic a friend of mine was caught out on a European train as a teen back in the 70s. He thought the sign, a bottle in a rectangle circled in red and struck through, meant "No Alcohol/No Drinking in the Carriage", so he furtively drank his beer/whisky or whatever it was and chucked the bottle out of the window.

    Of course the sign actually means "do not throw bottles and other rubbish out of the window", the rectangle* representing the window. Luckily his bottle didn't hit a train coming the other way.

    *It was more than a simple rectangle; checking online, it probably had curved corners and a horizontal line about a quarter of the way up and looked like a window, so there's not much excuse. And he should have used his common sense.

  4. Zubon said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 7:58 am

    I doubt seriously that any individuals who are not literate in Chinese characters would have the faintest idea what this combination of elements is supposed to mean.

    It sounds like Chinese literacy makes it harder to understand. I look at the symbols and see "booze + car + no," although I am not sure if I could identify that as a car without the text. That's a reasonable set of symbels for "no drunken driving."

    Then someone tells me it is supposed to look like a Chinese character. *look for a moment* "Oh, that one next to it, in the middle? Cute. I can see it now that you mention it." As you say, probably not safe at freeway speeds.

  5. Ray Girvan said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 8:09 am

    On buses here (Devon) we have a sign "Do not consume food or drink".

    I assume it means " Do not consume-food (verb) or drink (verb)"

    but as I can't see any harm in a swig of mineral water I prefer to parse it as:

    "Do not consume (verb) food (noun) or drink (noun = alcoholic drink)".

  6. babelstone said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 8:49 am

    Surely yǒu "an ancient vase used in making and storing fermented millet liquors" to the right of the "three drops of water", not 酋 qiú !

  7. Jon Lennox said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 8:56 am

    I was in Stockholm last week, and I was rather perplexed at the sign

    which I first interpreted as "Do not hold hands with children." (It's "End of Pedestrian Area".)

  8. Jon Lennox said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 8:57 am

    Ah, apparently img tags are stripped in comments, even though they show up in the preview. I'm referring to the sign at .

  9. AJD said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 9:07 am

    Ray Girvan—

    Somehow I'm interpreting the syntax of the "food or drink" sign in the exact opposite of the way you are. If you want it to permit mineral water, read it as:

    "Do not [consume food] or [drink]"

    drink here acting as an intransitive verb meaning 'drink alcohol'. But if you want it to prohibit mineral water, read it as:

    "Do not consume [food or drink]"

    drink acting as a noun conjoined with food and meaning 'beverages of any kind'.

  10. Randy Alexander said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 9:45 am

    I agree with babelstone about the character. There aren't any "horns" above the top of the car — just a straight line. We have these signs here in Dongbei too, and the first time I saw them I was surprised that the Ministry of Transportation would actually use something creative in their signs.

    I think the English on the signs up here is weird, though, like DO NOT DRIVE DRUNKENLY or something like that. If I happen to pass one and I have a camera handy I'll send in a picture.

  11. Ginger Yellow said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 10:14 am

    What Zubon said. I had no trouble interpreting the graphics as "booze + car = NO", and it didn't even occur to me that they might be text as well as graphics. Indeed, it took me a while to figure out that's what you were talking about.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 10:49 am

    Babelstone, you are so right, and I am so embarrassed! Thanks for pointing that out.

    I'll look up the Middle Sinitic pronunciation for 酉 tomorrow.

  13. Boris said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 11:45 am

    As Jon Lennox has said, a red arrow through something may also mean "end of something" (though I've never seen this usage firsthand). Sometimes it's obvious. Sometimes not. Here in the US they put "end" above whatever it is that's ending. I always wondered whether non-programmers considered this usage weird. It almost looks like pseudocode to me. And why are they used in some places but not others? I've seen "End Coinstruction" and "End [insert highway shield]" countless times, but never "end right lane" or "end freeway". (There are also begin signs, but they seem to be limited to route designations. A few places use "begins" instead which is better, but would only make sense under the sign not above it)

  14. Yuji said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 11:47 am

    That traffic sign was easily understandable to me (being Japanese), by the way. And the right hand side is 酉, as babelstone said. This symbol might not be often used as the symbol for the alcohol receptacle any more (at least in Japan), but is used in every day life for the ninth of the "twelve earthly branch," see . where it stands for the cock. Have you ever heard of the "year of the cock" or something?

  15. Jim said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

    "I think the English on the signs up here is weird, though, like DO NOT DRIVE DRUNKENLY or something like that. "

    That may be weird, but it is a lot more accurate than the signs I have seen in English-speaking countries.

  16. Wens said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

    My Chinese is passable, and I see the word 酒 quite easily in the graphic. The word appears to me as a single entity, not radical + phonophore. I find that it makes sense for the slash to be only on the phonophore, otherwise it would have messed up the radical, and made the word less legible. It also makes sense graphically – drinking is okay, just don't get into the car.

  17. Nicholas Waller said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

    @ Boris – here in the UK, when you enter a town by road there's usually a sign telling you that, but no corresponding exit sign telling you that you've left. But in many European countries there is such an exit marker, which is the town name with a red diagonal line through it, as in <a href=""this sign on leaving a famous Austrian village. There's no circle around the word, so I guess no prohibition is implied.

  18. Rubrick said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

    Add me as another Zuban/Ginger Yellow data point. I saw a bottle, some bubbles, and a car with a slash through it, and considered it a somewhat sloppy but clear-enough pictogram for "If you drink, don't drive", with an English translation underneath and what I assumed was a Chinese translation to the right. And for the first few paragraphs of the post I was wondering what in tarnation you were going on about.

    Now that I understand, I have to say this is brilliant, if perhaps ineffective and thus misguided as a safety warning.

  19. Nathan Myers said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 2:49 pm

    Boris: Near my town, in California, is a sign that reads "Freeway ends 1/4 mile", before another warning of traffic lights ahead. I see "Lane ends, merge left" frequently. In place of "begin", we see, e.g., "construction ahead". It should be pretty clear why they don't say "construction behind". My favorite bewildering Asian knock-off T-shirt has Lucy telling Charlie Brown, "Hey! Look Behind!"

  20. Nathan Myers said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

    So, what we as literate Chinese are meant to draw from the graphic is something like "No Wet Driving"? Or, less charitably, "No Wet Cars"? That's actually pretty good.

    My first reaction, as a Chinese-illiterate, was, "those words are too close together". I suppose whitespace looks like wasted space to a Chinese sign-maker. I wonder if whitespace, as a syntactic element, is systematically abused on Chinese signage.

  21. Liam said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

    Here's a photo of a very similar sign, with a slightly more suggestive "slash":

    I took this in Tianjin in 2005.

  22. Jan said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 3:30 am

    Liam: the sign is also interesting… Did they actually wrote pinyin as "some English translation"? Or is it for the illiterates?

  23. Adam said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 5:05 am

    With regard to the "universal symbol of prohibition", most of the "no ___" signs in the UK have a red circle, but some have a red circle and slash. (I don't know why.)

  24. Leonardo Boiko said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

    I am a native Portuguese speaker and an intermediate Japanese learner. The sign somehow popped immediately as “no alcohol” to me: i.e. I immediately recognized it as a slashed 酒 (酒̸, for those of you with good Unicode support). Giving its context as a traffic sign, the intended message would have worked for me. I’m surprised by this. Perhaps I was influenced by the English “drunken” below, but in any case it was instant.

    I didn’t recognize the bottle and the car until I looked carefully, and probably wouldn’t in a highway.

  25. Leonardo Boiko said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

    Elaboration: I didn’t parse the individual meaning of the water radical at all (much less the right part as a component, either phonetic or faux-semantically as it’s common with Japanese learners). Instead, I immediately recognized the overall format of the character, much like we recognize whole words when reading in the Latin alphabet.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 3:05 pm

    Liam: very nice variant you've given us!

    Jan: excellent question! Since one could not expect many foreign drivers who are fluent in Mandarin and literate in Pinyin but illiterate in characters to be passing along that stretch of road, the Pinyin is undoubtedly for the local HANZI illiterates (of whom there are many).

  27. Val said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

    Why bother making the graphic look like the character 酒 if it is aimed at conveying the message to hanzi-illiterates? Maybe it isn't.

    Still, when I saw the sign on the highway, it was as part of a series of warning signs with cute graphics of various kinds. The others, such as one of a guy falling asleep at the wheel for 疲劳驾驶 ("driving while exhausted"), did not seem to be hanzi-based.

  28. bocaj said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 6:19 am

    I'm still hoping to see one of the 追尾危险 signs translated as "chasing tail is dangerous".

  29. James in Beijing said,

    August 8, 2009 @ 9:58 am

    I live in Beijing and see this sign whenever I come in from the airport. Even though I'm far from a native speaker of Chinese, this symbol makes perfect sense to me, and is immediately understandable. I don't think it really poses a problem for 99% of the people to whom the sign is addressed, so don't think there is a problem with it.

    [(myl) You've got the wrong blog. The peevologists are elsewhere. Victor saw the sign as an opportunity for analysis and reflection, not a "problem".]

  30. KYL said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 6:28 pm

    I've often wondered just how effective the pinyin signs are.

    There are many people in China who are illiterate, but it's unclear to me to what extent illiterate people are driving (in order to get a license I think you have to pass a written test, which makes sense since you have to read many road signs when driving, and in any event someone with the chance to drive is probably well-off and educated).

    Morever, I really don't know any Chinese adult who is literate in pinyin but not in hanzi. The illiterate in China tend to be illiterate, period. The only people I know who are literate in pinyin but not in hanzi are either foreign students of Chinese or young children. I suppose it's possible that the signs are aimed at this population, but seems unlikely.

    I'd be curious to hear from someone who has some information about the aim and success of these pinyin signs.

  31. minus said,

    September 10, 2009 @ 6:53 am

    'Cause pinyin was something big then, with all the buzz to abolish Chinese characters etc. So it was considered until 2000's good sense to write Pinyin alongside Hanzi in book titles, signs…
    It's from the low side, from the high side, no doubt, it's supposed to aid the illiterates, (who are incidentally illiterate in Pinyin as well)

  32. Vladimir Menkov said,

    September 16, 2009 @ 11:44 am

    My experience in Hubei was that you meet plenty of both kinds of road signs: Hanzi + English, or Hanzi + Pinyin (like this ), just like the Xining (English) and Dongbei (Pinyin) example. Sometimes the text in Latin script is some kind of creative English/Pinying combination, but I've never seen a sign that has 3 parallel texts (Hazi, Pinyin, and English).

    I am not sure who the target audience is – people not quite literate in characters but already fairly literate in pinyin, or non-Putonghua speakers who need to be taught to "speak civilized language"… But this is certainly an old tradition – it was universal on the 1950s posters, and I've seen photos of posters with text Hanzi + Latinxua Sin Wenz on the photos in Edgar Snow's "Red Star over China" (ca. 1937).

    Incidentally, pretty much all new Chinese (PRC) books I have seen in bookshops, either in PRC or elsewhere, have the book title (and sometimes chapter titles too) in Pinyin as well.

    In public schools, of course, Pinyin on signs is very common (and probably has always been): – there, probably it's considered a useful tool in learning characters, or in learning Standard Mandarin pronunciation.

  33. wangtian said,

    November 9, 2011 @ 4:29 am

    the right hand side of 酒 is not 酋 (qiu2, chief), but 酉 (you4, the name of the tenth element of 12 earthly branches)。

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