The mysteries of 13.5

« previous post | next post »

China is in the throes of hammering out its next five-year plan, on the model of the USSR.  For China, the current one they're working on is the thirteenth, so they refer to it as 13.5.  In Mandarin, that would be shísānwǔ 十三五.  Although the Communist bureaucrats think these five-year plans are hugely important, for the common citizen they are dreadfully boring.  For non-Chinese looking on, they are worse than boring, so — in an effort to explain and hype 13.5 to English speakers around the world, the Chinese Communist Party has sponsored the making of a glitzy-cutesy video that enjoins viewers to "pay attention to the shisanwu!"

Creating a video that can make the crafting of a five-year plan sound appealing is, to put it mildly, quite challenging.  But there's one PR firm that dares to rise to the challenge:  it's the mysterious Fuxing Road Studio.  Nobody seems to know where it's located or much else about it, but it has made a whole series of treacly videos for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

"China’s craziest English-language propaganda videos are made by one mysterious studio" (10/27/15)

Normally I wouldn't write about something so dreary as a CCP five-year plan on Language Log, even one jazzed up by the Fuxing Road Studio. But when I watched the video, as soon as I heard the chorus pronounce shísānwǔ 十三五, I was grabbed by a powerful linguistic hook:  the mispronunciation of the key expression in the video.  Since I had written about Mark Zuckerberg's faulty tones yesterday, I could not help but blog on the Fuxing Road Studio chorus's butchering of shísānwǔ 十三五 in this CCP propaganda video.

They repeat shísānwǔ 十三五 scores of times, and each time, instead of saying shísānwǔ, they say shísān'oo, leaving off the initial glide.  Ouch!  What makes it even worse is that part of the chorus repeats ad nauseam "shísān what?" and answers with a resounding "shísān'OO", as if to highlight their gaffe.  What makes the mistake still more preposterous is that, at 2:09, a big pair of lips right next to the large numerals 135 repeatedly mouths the missing glide, as if to mock the singers!

You can also find the video on Twitter, which, by the way, is outlawed for ordinary Chinese citizens, just as are Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook and countless other American websites.

Before closing, I'd like to say a few words about the name of the secretive PR firm:  Fuxing Road Studio.  You know what Fuxing sounds like when pronounced by Americans.

When I first went to China in 1981, I was tricked by some naughty girls who kept asking me how to pronounce fuxing 復興 ("rebirth, renaissance, resurgence") and what it meant in English. A major hotel in Beijing had to change its name from Fuxing Hotel to Beijing Hotel because tourists were reluctant to stay in it when it had the former appellation.

Source:  "Pinyin faux amis" (1/16/12)

I am afraid that, if the folks singing the "shísān'OO" chorus were to pronounce the name of the PR firm that hired them to make this video, it would come out sounding like "fucksing".

[h.t. Ben Zimmer; thanks to Geoff Wade]


  1. Akito said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 10:16 pm

    Pronouncing wu as [u] (and yi as [i]) isn't a problem at all. The initial w- and y- are spelling conventions and don't actually signify glides (or semivowels). The real problem is mispronouncing the final -n of san as the initial of the next syllable, resulting in [nu]. In Mandarin, initials and finals are slightly different sounds even though they may be represented by the same pinyin letters. Final [n] tip-ridge contact involves a much looser closure than initial [n], or no closure at all, only partially nasalizing the preceding vowel.

  2. Jeff W said,

    October 28, 2015 @ 4:05 am

    Well, the whole thing seems calculated to sound very “American.” Is that pronunciation of shísān'OO their idea of how American English speakers would say it? The people making the video had to have some deliberation about the pronunciation; the word—and the rhyme—are the centerpiece of the video. The string of surnames, however, seems refreshingly not at all Americanized (to me, anyway). Go figure.

    I have to say—it seems like a major advance over how I imagine Chinese propaganda films used to be (based on China propaganda posters)—“socialist realist,” “uplifting,” leaden. The media's taking notice: the Guardian, describing the video, says “a David Bowie lookalike sits atop a dinosaur, rhyming colloquially: ‘Every five years in China, man, they make a new development plan,’” while, meanwhile, the English-language government mouthpiece China Daily refers to it as “bizarre” (with a link to the video on the domestically-available Youku site).

  3. Matt said,

    October 28, 2015 @ 4:36 am

    I wonder if the anglified pronunciation of shísānwǔ isn't part of the point. It wouldn't have been hard to write lyrics using the standard translation, "Five-year plan" (sample: "If you wanna know what China's up to, man/ It's all in the thirteenth five-year plan"). It seems plausible that they went with shísānwǔ instead because they want English speakers to start using it — that is, for the English-speaking world to accommodate the jargon and worldview of the Chinese political establishment, instead of the other way around. If that's so they would want the word modeled as a loaned word (mangled to suit English phonology) rather than a foreign one.

    Of course if that was the goal, the question is why they used the hanzi for it even in the video, rather than pinyin.

  4. Garry Nixon said,

    October 28, 2015 @ 5:50 am

    Fuxing lu in Shanghai intrigued me enough to take this photo. It's in the French Concession, and therefore a likely locale for a video studio. Ex-pats who were native speakers of English pronounced it "fooshing".

  5. shubert said,

    October 28, 2015 @ 5:59 am

    shísānwǔ is easy to sing but contain some homonyms of negative meaning they may not aware of.

  6. david said,

    October 28, 2015 @ 6:05 am

    Perhaps it's supposed to suggest "new". overall it's a catchy jungle, I think I'll remember the name of this five year plan whether I want to or not.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    October 28, 2015 @ 8:14 am

    I asked South Coblin whether wǔ 五 does or does not have an initial "w-" glide. Here's his answer:


    Pronunciations vary from speaker to speaker, depending on the person's underlying dialect and/or various other factors. In the speech of some people, this syllable really does have a rounded semivowel or glide onset, and that is what people hear and characterize as w-. How audible it is depends on the degree of lip constriction, which can of course vary considerably. On the other hand, there are speakers who begin this syllable with glottal constriction, or even a full glottal stop. In this case there is normally no lip rounding, and so no “w” is audible. A good example of this is Taiwan Mandarin, as influenced by Southern Min. Some Southern Min speakers of Taiwan Mandarin pronounce wǔ with a strong initial glottal stop, and no w- is audible here. This reflects the situation in Taiwanese Southern Min, where, for example, one says [ʔu] 有. That is to say, what you have written as “ǔ” comes out phonetically something like [ʔu3] in Taiwan Mandarin.

    So, in the end, the answer to your question is that both realizations can be heard among Modern Standard Chinese speakers, and both are considered acceptable. What is important to remember is that neither the w- or the glottal stop is phonemic in whoever’s speech is under consideration. Neither phone (i.e., sound) is used to distinguish meaning in anyone’s MSC.


  8. Victor Mair said,

    October 28, 2015 @ 8:35 am

    I will have more to say about this matter of whether wǔ 五 does or does not have an initial "w-" glide in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) tomorrow after I have had a chance to survey a couple of dozen native speakers. Meanwhile, for those who are interested in the phonology of this question, please read this section on glides in Mandarin from Wikipedia:

  9. John said,

    October 28, 2015 @ 9:01 am

    For what it's worth, Taiwan Mandarin speaker here, and when I first learned what a glottal stop was in my intro to linguistics class I actually thought to myself, "oh, just like that sound at the beginning of '烏'!" I think my teacher may have even used it as an example in her lecture.

  10. JS said,

    October 28, 2015 @ 9:27 am

    My sense is English is unusual in distinguishing e.g. year and ear, wooed and oohed (___ and aahed). For reasons Prof. Coblin notes, the glide is non-phonemic in Chinese languages, meaning this distinction is difficult for Chinese learners of English to master… as I first learned when attempting to explain to Chinese students that the actress's name was not "womb-a."

  11. Victor Mair said,

    October 28, 2015 @ 10:03 am

    From a speaker of Taiwan Mandarin:


    This saying* is understandable to me. The pinyin rule requires each syllable has an initial and a final, thus added "w" for "u", "y" for "i".

    *[VHM: that there's no "w-" sound at the beginning of "wǔ", that it's really just "ǔ"]


    From Liwei Jiao, a specialist on the phonology of MSM:


    There should be a 'w' at the beginning. Some Beijing people even have a 'v' at the beginning according to a survey conducted by a Peking University professor.


  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 28, 2015 @ 12:35 pm

    The animated David Bowie lookalike (circa 1973, to judge by the facial makeup) is not at all a David Bowie soundalike, which I found a bit disconcerting. What I found more striking, though, is that combining the concepts "Five-Year Plan" and "young David Bowie" immediately summons up for me memories of his song, in which the titular time period is destined to end with the destruction of the planet and/or extinction of the human race. Which is presumably not thematically consistent with the upbeat outlook of the 十三五. Now, I assume that whoever the target audience for this video is, it probably isn't a demographic that includes me, and perhaps it quite plausibly assumes a target audience without much familiarity with the Ziggy Stardust LP, but I'm not sure all these decades later of how large an alternative target audience there might be that doesn't know the music but would nonetheless still recognize the face.

  13. Jason said,

    October 28, 2015 @ 8:41 pm

    "Bizarre" is one of those clickbait terms (like "weird trick" or "you won't believe what happens next") and almost certainly not genuine sentiment on behalf of China Daily. They are just doing their best to make this contrived, tedious and square effort at hipster irony "go viral." Clickbait overuse is helping semantically bleach words like "bizarre" to the status of "nice" or "bland".

    I wonder if some day we'll find a hidden message in the video, like, "Help, I'm a NY hipster trapped in a Chinese propaganda sweatshop!"

  14. Jeff W said,

    October 29, 2015 @ 12:42 am

    I’m not sure if the following is true or what the connection is, if any, with Fuxing Road Studio but this Twitter message, referring to this article, attributes the video or some aspect of it to the Shanghai-based US PR firm BBDO China.

    @ Jason

    "Bizarre" is one of those clickbait terms…

    Yeah, thanks, that actually did not occur to me. I thought China Daily might have been aping the Telegraph or or the Guardian (which I linked to), all of which used the word “bizarre” in their articles.

    Eurasia Group’s “China political risk researcher” Ben Wang—who has to know more about China than I do—was also confused, so I don’t feel too dopey.

    ⁂ ⁂ ⁂

    The pronunciation of 十三五 did not escape the notice of Hong Kong Free Press, at least in passing:

    As a Volkswagen Type 2 camper van slides through a nightmarish landscape of light bulb people, a David Bowie impersonator waxes lyrical about “President Xi Jinping’s new style” and the pivotal role played by “engineers who deal with poo” in the formulation of the thirteenth Five-Year Plan (“shisanwu” in Putonghua—or “shisan-oooo” in the video).

    I was too busy wondering who “Tom & Ben & Frank”* were (at 1:06 et seq.) to take in the light bulb people, I guess.

    ⁂ ⁂ ⁂

    *The NY hipsters trapped in that Chinese propaganda sweatshop, maybe? (h/t Jason)

  15. Ryan W said,

    October 29, 2015 @ 7:20 am

    I teach English at a university in Beijing, and I showed this to an undergraduate class to see how they would react.

    They said that the pronunciation of 五 sounded strange or foreign, but they didn't recognize it as belonging to a particular region. At least one student didn't notice the pronunciation until I pointed it out and replayed a bit.

    Most of my students laughed through the first minute and then were either caught up with the song (which they liked) or put their heads down in a sleeping position.

    The style of the animation didn't ring any bells for them–they just thought it was unusual. For me, however, it was reminiscent of a Kyary Pamyu Pamyu video.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    October 29, 2015 @ 7:58 am

    A very knowledgeable colleague discovered the same Tweet as Jeff W and elaborates thus:


    Judging from a now deleted Weibo post by the creative director of US-based multinational ad agency BBDO's Shanghai office, it seems that the producer of the 13•5 video was BBDO:

    Article on 中國外宣新招,當民謠遇見「十三五」

    Screenshot of Weibo post:


  17. Victor Mair said,

    October 29, 2015 @ 10:28 am

    As promised, I did a survey on how the students in my "Language, Script, and Society in China" class pronounce shísānwǔ 十三五 (13.5) and wǔ 五 (5). I was very careful to walk up to each student and stand right in front of them so that I could hear clearly and observe the movements of their lips. Over half of the twenty students in the class are from Mainland China and the others are advanced learners from various countries.

    Every single student in the room pronounced wǔ 五 (5) with an obvious initial w- glide, involving pursed lips, with about half of them doing so in an exaggerated fashion, especially when wǔ 五 was pronounced alone (in isolation). The only partial exception was one male student whose grandmother was a Cantonese speaker; his initial w- was the weakest of all the students in the class, but it was still there.

    A female student from Peking University said that one of her roommates from the Northeast always pronounced every Mandarin word beginning with w- as v-.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    October 29, 2015 @ 12:16 pm

    Fuxinglushang studio confirmed BBDO's involvement:

    "China studio says US ad firm helped with psychedelic propaganda video" (10/29/15)

  19. Wentao said,

    October 29, 2015 @ 2:01 pm

    "One of her roommates from the Northeast always pronounced every Mandarin word beginning with w- as v-."

    Beijingers pronounce it as v- too, but in my experience, only when it is followed by a or e. I've never heard "vo" for 我, or "vu" for 勿.

  20. Michael Watts said,

    October 29, 2015 @ 8:18 pm

    I figured [v] was just an allophone of /w/ for Mandarin speakers. I can only claim to have personally observed "taivan" for taiwan (speaker of northeast origin) and "venhua" for wenhua (speaker of Shanghai ("southern"?) origin). I could easily have tuned out many other examples, since I know that they're equivalent sounds. I would have been pretty surprised by 五 "vu" though.

  21. Will said,

    October 30, 2015 @ 12:31 am

    @Michael Watts Interesting, my SO and her family (from Nanjing) say {vu,vai,vei,ven} but {wa,wo,wan,wang}:

    闻的味道 wén de wèidao [vən də vedɑɔ̯]
    动物 dòngwu [tõɱvu]
    袜子 wàzi [wad͡zz̩]
    晚安 wǎn'ān [wä̃ʔan]
    And I get to hear the combination 三五 "san vu" all the time playing cards :)

  22. Victor Mair said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 9:03 pm

    Comment from a colleague who is familiar with southern Chinese languages:

    The Language Log discussion is interesting. I think that the Southern Min influence on Taiwanese Mandarin is most convincing and that the singers are Taiwanese people (possibly having grown up in the US)

  23. Victor Mair said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 10:37 pm

    The video made an appearance on the Daily Show Thursday (the 5th) night.

  24. David Marjanović said,

    November 9, 2015 @ 7:25 pm

    I wonder if wu, yi and yu in the most prestigious accent are actually syllabic approximants [w̩ j̩ ɥ̩]. That would explain a few things.

    In any case, such things as the impact in English with a Mandarin accent don't simply contain a vowel cluster [ɪɪ].

RSS feed for comments on this post