"Lobsters": a perplexing stop motion film

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Matt Anderson called my attention to a short (15:49), enigmatic 1959 Chinese film:


My initial reactions to this film were mostly in the form of puzzles and mysteries:

1. If this is a Chinese film, why are all the actors portrayed as Caucasian, but still speaking Mandarin?

2. In the film there is some writing that starts out as foreign (alphabetical), but then is quickly covered up with Chinese characters.

3. Of course, the most striking thing is the Pinyin on the newspaper, albeit without tones and having a few errors.  Why would there be Hanyu Pinyin in a foreign setting?

Regardless of my inadequate understanding of many aspects of the film, my immediate reaction was that it is important evidence for the role of Hanyu Pinyin in its first decade.

Wishing to know more about what the film is all about, I sent it around to a number of knowledgeable colleagues (several of whom wish to remain anonymous), and I received back a great deal of helpful information and explanation.  Here are some of the things they observed.


At 4:28, It looks like regular Hanyu Pinyin, albeit with an oddly written (or typo) letter Q(?).

The headline appears to be:


With tones that would be:

qìchē gǔpiào měngdiē
dàpī lóngxiā zhìxiāo

Or in Hanzi:


English translation:

Automotive stocks drop sharply
A large quantity of lobsters is selling slowly

How the words are written in the name of the newspaper is less regular; but they're still Hanyu Pinyin:

JIN YUAN DIGUO RI-BAO (will discuss and translate below)

We wouldn't expect tone marks with ALL CAPS.

Upon first consideration, it looks like this may be a case of foreign writing gets romanization even though the language is not foreign. For another example — a rather crude one — see "make romanizations, not war " (11/17/06)

See also 2:11, 2:44, and 3:38, where Pinyin texts (not all caps, no tones) morph into Hanzi.

A closer look by Matt Anderson:

I think it probably is just regular Pinyin, with some scattered but significant spelling errors.  It’s pretty early for Hanyu Pinyin, so I guess it’s not surprising that they had some trouble with it.  It’s impressive, though, that (for the most part) they get the word divisions right.  Usually, as you certainly know, decorative pinyin seems to be writ ten with syl la bles se pa ra ted out (unless all the words are run together with no spaces), but (again, for the most part) they do a great job here of writing words, rather than syllables.  I also really enjoy sinographic writing from this period, with the mixture of what today would be considered simplified and traditional characters (though I’ve seen the same in, e.g., intertitles in films from Shanghai from the 20s, long before there was a PRC to initiate a simplification campaign—really it seems like these simplifications are generally following Japanese practice).

It looks to me like this is supposed to be taking place in some imperialist country that is still oppressing righteous communists (the newspaper is called $ JIN YUAN DIGUO RI-BAO $, which I guess is supposed to be $金元帝國日報$ [VHM:  "$American Dollar Empire Newspaper$"], but which could just as easily be interpreted as 金元敵國日報 [VHM:  "$American Dollar Enemy Country Newspaper$"]), but it really looks more like (communist) Central or Eastern Europe to me—Russian and Czech stopmotion films were popular around that time, and the look of this one is very similar.  I imagine Czech and Russian animations must have been relatively popular (at least among filmmakers) in China in the 50s.

It really is impressive when the romanized writing is immediately covered up with hanzi.  I guess that’s only done when it’s important for the viewers to understand, since Hanyu Pinyin was relatively new, and most of the audience wouldn’t have been taught it in school yet.  Here are the parts that were first romanized and then covered up with hanzi, as best as I can transcribe them:

1. (Newspaper article)
Yipi hongdang zai
daogi jiudian jihui
buxing guanbu lou-

That’s not too bad.  They have “daogi” when they should have “Daoqi” and “guanbu” for “quanbu”, and “jiudian” 酒店 instead of “jiujia” 酒家, but otherwise no problems.

[VHM — rough translation:  "The red party (i.e., reds) slips through the net.  A group of reds gather in the Dodge restaurant; unfortunately they all slip through the net."]

2.  (Handwritten version of advertisement, first in romanization, then overlaid by characters)
  Makesi Zuotan hui
  Dingyu benri Xiawu qi
shi zai jinshan jiujia ju-
xing Makesi Zuotan hui
                  Zhi ming lu ju

[VHM — rough translation:  "Marx symposium scheduled to be held today at 7 p.m. at the Gold Mountain Restaurant.  Well known.

3. (Typeset version of advertisement in Pinyin and then overlaid in Hanzi)
  Makesi zuotanhui
  Dingyu benri xiawu qi
shi zai jinshan jiujia ju-
xing makesi zuotanhui
             zhi ming bu ju

Those are pretty good, too.  Strangely “zuotanhui” is broken up into two orthographic words in one, not the other (I prefer it joined, myself).  Otherwise, 不 is written as “lu” in the first one (though that may just be a quirk of the handwriting), but I didn’t notice any other obvious mistakes. Incidentally, I also really enjoy the mixture of simplified and traditional that you get in texts like this, with even the more-simplified-than-official-jiantizi 扵 in the newspaper instead of 於.

The other main texts are just the book ZI BEN LUN (Das Kapital), which is written correctly, though it’s strange they didn’t join zi and ben into ziben, and the newspaper headline.  [VHM:  I omit most of Matt's remarks concerning the headline, since it has already been covered above.]

There are a few mistakes there…, but they’re really pretty minor—confusion between G and C, I guess (just like there was earlier confusion between lowercase q and g—this seems natural for people who may have just been introduced to the roman alphabet).

There’s also another headline, but I didn’t really get a good look at it.  Maybe something like:


I didn't catch enough to follow it, but LONGXA is an obvious error.

Overall, though, this is among the most significant early uses of Hanyu Pinyin that I’ve seen.  And they do a better job of joining syllables into words than many uses I see of Pinyin today, even though the orthography seems to be new enough that some aspects of it (g vs. q, or G vs. C) seem to give them real trouble.

In addition to the above observations by Matt and other colleagues, I was pleasantly surprised to note that the handwritten character versions of the Pinyin texts often put spaces between orthographic words.  This was also noticed by a colleague who remarks:

Note that the Q oddness also appears at 2:11 (daogi/daoqi, guanbu/quanbu) but not at 3:39 (qi).

Also of interest is how the handwritten note at 2:11 retains word parsing (pretty much) when presented in Hanzi.

On the matter of morphing from one language / script to another, a colleague notes:

I'm pretty sure I've seen the translation technique before (intertitles in Metropolis? Bugs Bunny? — I can't recall).

A more recent variant is in the film Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. The title character has dyslexia when reading English but no such problem with Greek, as he discovers at a museum.  See here, here, and here.

Those images appear on this page.

As for the overall meaning of the film, a clairvoyant colleague opines:

1) No mystery. The story does not take place in China, and so neither are the characters Chinese. But the film is for Chinese consumption and so the dialogue has been translated into Chinese.

2) No foreign script. but rather: writing (one instance of which is handwriting) that first appears as Hanyin Pinyin and then is transformed into hanography. This can be read by using the cursor to stop the video just before the transformation takes place.

The Hanyu Pinyin, as was noted, gives the feeling of foreign script.

I see after writing the above that there's an article about this film on Wikipedia.

No mention of linguistic issues of course.

What I want to know is: who is "Lúdān 芦丹"?  Some leftist Fleming or German?

Reflections by David Moser:

The whole film is confusing to me.  From 1959?  What country is it set in?  A European country?  The whole atmosphere of the claymation restaurant looks vaguely French bistro-ish, or Prague maybe.  I noticed a bottle of Schlitz beer on one of the tables, not sure if there's a clue in that.  But I don't quite get the plot.  Clearly the film is making fun of the anti-communist capitalist fat cats.  All the protagonists are government or law enforcement officials (we find this out at the end), and they all respond to this notice from the restaurant with glee, thinking they'll be able to capture a lot of commies who will congregate at the restaurant to hear a discussion about Marxism.  So they all pose as communists and show up at the bistro, mistaking all the other undercover operatives as real commies.

But what I don't get is the restaurant owner's strategy.  Evidently he can't get anyone interested in his lobster (which has gone bad in the fridge) and thinks that posting a notice in the paper about a Marxist salon will attract a huge number of people to his restaurant.  Is this supposed to be a propaganda message that communism is very popular among the average people in Europe?  And that the evil capitalist powers-that-be are constantly on the lookout for secret commie meetings that they can infiltrate?  That's the only sense I can make of it.

As for why the newspaper headlines and other writing first appear in Pinyin, and then morph into Chinese characters, here is my explanation:

The action clearly takes place in a European country.  So all the newspapers would be in some European language.  The makers of the film didn't have enough foreign language skills to produce an idiomatic English/French/German/etc. headline.  So they simply used Pinyin to "code for" or evoke "foreign script."  Presumably most of the audience for this film could not yet read Pinyin, and so for most viewers the strings of roman alphabet text would indeed seem foreign and incomprehensible.  The screen blur/wipe or whatever you call it, changing from Pinyin to Chinese characters, is just a cinematic device to signal to the viewer "This newspaper is in a foreign language, but here is what it says in our familiar Chinese."  Of course, we can tell the the "foreign language" is just Chinese in romanized form, but most of the audience wouldn't know that.  Or if they would, they would see the device as just a psychological signalling as a "translation" from alphabetic (i.e. foreign) text to Chinese text.

That's my best guess.

But what's the moral of the whole thing?   That's what I'm not too sure about.  Was the restaurant owner just an a-political businessman who tried to use the lure of Marxist soft power to gain customers?  Or was he a communist sympathizer?  His waitress Jennie or Jeanie or whatever seemed a-political herself, and her boyfriend who arrives at the end turns out to be merely a traveling salesman.  So is the joke on the virulently anti-commie public officials who went undercover in vain, finding no nasty commies but only themselves?  And what did the spoiled lobster have to do with anything?  Some kind of metaphor here?  Or just a Hitchcockian "McGuffin"?

At any rate, a truly fascinating historical piece.

I have to agree with David.  Even though we don't understand everything about the film, it is clearly of great importance for understanding the development and use of Hanyu Pinyin.  Now, to better understand its underlying message, we have to call in the historians.

[Thanks to Mark Swofford for Herculean help on documenting and analyzing diverse aspects of this film, including providing screen shots for the texts in three stages:  1. Pinyin, 2. Hanzi overlaid on the Pinyin, captured at the perfect moment when both can be seen 3. Hanzi alone.  Thanks also to Dehuai Yao]


  1. Dan Lufkin said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 12:49 pm

    There's also an ad for Lucky Strikes in the background of the scene where the dog (cat?) nuzzles the paper.

  2. fs said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 1:57 pm

    Speculation: (Cooked) lobsters are red; reds = commies; commies about to be caught / rot in the restaurant?

  3. Ralph Hickok said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 2:49 pm

    In response to Victor Mair's question 1. If this is a Chinese film, why are all the actors portrayed as Caucasian, but still speaking Mandarin?

    Would you be surprised if an American film portrayed actors as Chinese, but had them speaking English?

  4. shubert said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 5:04 pm

    Impressed again for your proficiency

  5. Calvin said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 6:12 pm

    In the opening (0:15) it has the attribution of adaptation from the play of same title ("根据芦丹同名话剧改编").

    A bit more searching revealed that the original play was written in 1957 by 芦丹, and categorized as a "satire about international political struggle" ("国际政治斗争题材的讽刺剧") in《中国现代文学简史》 and 建国以后十七年的戏剧文学. I would speculate this could be about McCarthyism that dominated the American politics in the 1950s, hence the Caucasian characters and the "Coca Cola (Coke)" signage (3:05) in the film.

  6. Matt Anderson said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 7:25 pm

    The more I think about it, the more I think this is supposed to take place in the US—Lucky Strikes, Schlitz, Coca-Cola, the fact that the newspaper has "US Dollar" in its name. It's true that it looks nothing like America, but all imperialist countries might look alike, and it looks like Prague, which was in a communist country, but which might look like cities in other more imperialist European countries, which then might be close enough to suggest the US.

  7. david said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 9:07 pm

    Re: "Gold Mountain Restaurant. Well known."

    Gold Mountain could be a reference to the U.S. Apologies if this is what was meant by the link, I couldn't tell by following it.

  8. Mark S. said,

    November 12, 2015 @ 9:41 am

    I've added If anyone is interested in seeing relevant screenshots from the film, I've posted some here: Dissolving Pinyin.

  9. Mark S. said,

    November 12, 2015 @ 9:41 am

    If anyone is interested in seeing relevant screenshots from the film, I've posted some here: Dissolving Pinyin.

  10. Don Clarke said,

    November 14, 2015 @ 8:07 pm

    Here's my two cents:

    Q. Why are the characters Caucasian, but speaking Chinese?
    A. This is not mysterious. It's a film about people living under fascistic capitalism, so it's got to be in a foreign country, not China, which is a socialist paradise. But it's for a Chinese audience. Nobody wonders why the characters in Julius Caesar all speak Shakespearean English instead of Latin. You are meant to think they are speaking their local language, not Chinese. But through the telepathic miracle of movies, you can actually understand what they're saying, and by golly, it's as transparent as if they were speaking Chinese. Same with the writing.

    Q. What was the restaurant owner trying to do with his ad?
    A. He made it clear he wasn't thinking of it as an ordinary ad – when his waitress expressed skepticism, he said, "你不懂,其中自有奥妙." (You don't understand; this will have something special to it.) Thus, I don't think he was trying to attract people in general, or even people who might want to check out the Red Party discussion group. Seems to me pretty clear that he was anticipating precisely the result that he got: his restaurant would be flooded with customers from the security services. Obviously the Reds themselves wouldn't show up. Serving the police lobster that had gone bad might have been his little act of microrebellion against the capitalist oppressors. (If not, it seems uncomfortably reminiscent of food safety scandals in China today, where restaurants cheerfully serve their customers all kinds of alarmingly tainted stuff.)

    Q. What's the deal with the tragic ending?
    A. You've got me there. I was expecting it would end with all the bad guys getting sick over the spoiled lobster. Instead we see the arrest of an innocent man who doesn't even give us the heroics of a true Communist, with his sister left weeping in the street and the owner despairing in the wreckage of his shot-up restaurant. This isn't how the revolution was supposed to turn out. Any thoughts from commenters?

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