Chinese "No Smoking" sign in Central Park

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Zach Hershey sent in this photograph of a sign in Central Park NYC:

Zach remarks:

While I was in New York this weekend to see the Chinese Art Exhibition at the Met, I took a walk through Central Park and made a curious observation. Of the many regulatory signs that I saw in the park, the only one that I found that was also written in Chinese was the attached "No Smoking within the Park" sign. I saw numerous other signs written only in English such as "Do not Walk on the Grass," but this one stuck out to me.

The Chinese on the sign says:

Zài gōngyuán lǐ jìnzhǐ xīyān 在公園裏禁止吸煙
("it is forbidden to smoke inside the park")

Note that the writing is in traditional characters. In simplified characters the sign would look like this:


I asked several graduate students from China what they thought of the language on this sign. One of them replied thus: "I think the language is soft and friendly comparing to those signs in China."

I agree with him. As to what makes this sign seem less peremptory than comparable signs in China, I think that it is the inclusion of the location where you're not supposed to smoke at the beginning of the notice. Although the language of this sign, which is a direct and accurate translation from the English, is grammatically correct, I doubt that you would ever find such wording on a sign in China.

[Thanks to Fangyi Cheng]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    November 9, 2015 @ 11:42 pm

    Another graduate student wrote to say that, although the wording on the sign is correct, she preferred the following readings:

    gōngyuán lǐ jìnzhǐ xīyān 公园里禁止吸烟

    jìnzhǐ zài gōngyuán lǐ xīyān 禁止在公园里吸烟

    The meaning of all three is roughly the same, though with slightly different nuances.

  2. Ye said,

    November 10, 2015 @ 12:17 am

    I agree with the graduate student you cite in the first comment. My first thought upon seeing the sign was: "why zài?" It would be more natural (to me) without that particle.

    And I concur that the language is quite friendly compared to standard Chinese signs.

  3. Laura Morland said,

    November 10, 2015 @ 12:45 am

    Victor Mair,

    For those of us unversed in Chinese language(s), could you please give a translation of

    gōngyuán lǐ jìnzhǐ xīyān 公园里禁止吸烟

    jìnzhǐ zài gōngyuán lǐ xīyān 禁止在公园里吸烟

    As well, what is the "zài" of which Ye speaks?

  4. Doctor Science said,

    November 10, 2015 @ 1:20 am

    Is the "friendliness" of the NYC sign translatable? Do you think the friendly tone is deliberate, or does it come from the English-to-Chinese translation process?

  5. vivian said,

    November 10, 2015 @ 1:52 am

    I agree that the following two are more natural.
    gōngyuán lǐ jìnzhǐ xīyān 公园里禁止吸烟
    jìnzhǐ zài gōngyuán lǐ xīyān 禁止在公园里吸烟

  6. Duncan said,

    November 10, 2015 @ 4:24 am

    @ Doc Science:

    As "TFA" (f=friendly, here, making it topical =:^) states in the last paragraph, the friendliness is attributed to the inclusion of the location where smoking is prohibited.

    And at least to me, the same friendliness point comes thru in English. Consider:

    * No smoking within the park

    * No smoking

    At least to me, the first seems friendlier in English as well, with the only difference being the the inclusion of the location, so that has to be it. The second seems far more arbitrararily demanding, again, at least to me.

    But as TFA also pointed out, such location qualifications are apparently so rare as to be effectively unseen in China, while the point that we're discussing it at all, based on a sign with the location included in Central Park, NYC, would seem to support the position that it's not nearly that rare in the US at least, and thus, the friendliness probably much less noticable, to the point that people wouldn't think of it at all, were it not pointed out in a discussion such as this. But being so rare as to be effectively nonexistent in China, the friendliness contrast to what they're used to seeing probably leaps out at them.

    Other than that, there's nothing really to translate, and that bit was already in the article, so I'm not sure quite why you asked… unless of course you don't see the friendliness contrast between the two alternatives above, that I do. Yet even then it was still in the article, so I guess I still don't understand the question, in the context of the article at least.

  7. rgove said,

    November 10, 2015 @ 8:07 am

    Since nobody's said it directly yet, I think it's worth stating that the conventional translation of "No Smoking" in China would just be those last 4 characters "禁止吸烟", which you can find many images of if you search.

  8. Scott McClure said,

    November 10, 2015 @ 8:08 am

    I shouldn't claim to know too much about Spanish, but am I right in thinking that at least some Spanish speakers would find 'Se prohibé fumar dentro del parque' to be 'nicer' than 'No fumar dentro del parque'?

  9. David said,

    November 10, 2015 @ 9:47 am

    Scott, although "Se prohibe fumar dentro del parque" is gramatically correct, i find it weird to use it in a prohibition (i'm a native spanish speaker). It's better the "No fumar" in the picture. "Prohibido fumar dentro del parque" would be fine too.

  10. cameron said,

    November 10, 2015 @ 10:10 am

    Those signs have been up in City parks for a couple of years now. What I always noticed about them was the slight disfluency of the word "within". I think a simple "in" would have been more idiomatic.

    There was another slightly off usage in a taped message played on City buses last year. "Please be courteous of your fellow passengers" was the phrase used. The speaker was plainly a native speaker of English, but clearly not fluent in more formal registers of the language.

  11. Mr Punch said,

    November 10, 2015 @ 10:13 am

    I think "within the park" is not quite necessary but certainly useful in conveying the message. In general, smoking bans apply indoors, but smoking is allowed outdoors — except in places that are considered "inside," such as restaurant terraces. "Within the park" suggests an enclosed space, reinforcing and justifying the prohibition.

  12. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 10, 2015 @ 10:25 am

    The usual Spanish (in Spanish-speaking countries) for NO SMOKING is PROHIBIDO FUMAR, though NO FUMAR and even the courteous SE RUEGA NO FUMAR are sometimes found. In any case, semi-official Spanish in the US has developed its own forms, often calqued on English.

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 10, 2015 @ 11:34 am

    I'm not sure who in the various branches of NYC gov't decides on what basis what signs should be monolingual, what signs should be bilingual, and what signs should be tri-or-more lingual. But "Chinese" at least as a lumped together macro-language is these days clearly the 3d most common in NYC (pretty far behind Spanish but pretty far ahead of whatever's in 4th (probably Russian on a citywide basis, although the ordering behind Spanish varies a fair amount from borough to borough). The census bureau has just released a bunch of detailed data on which non-English languages are spoken by how many people in different parts of the US:, which I would think would be of interest to many LL fans. To the government's credit, they do try to break down their numbers for "Chinese" into Mandarin, Cantonese, "Formosan" and other topolects, but that only goes so far because their data collection is mostly based on self-reporting and the majority of self-reported "Chinese" speakers do not specify a topolect.

  14. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 10, 2015 @ 11:51 am

    Separately, from an English-language perspective I would not view the "within the park" language as limiting the meaning of the sign (much less making it more polite), but rather expanding it. Smoking bans for outdoor areas are a newer thing than indoor smoking bans, and I expect the default pragmatic reading of a "No Smoking" sign remains "no smoking within fairly close proximity to this sign, or within the specific localized area it plausibly seems in context to relate to." By contrast, "No smoking anywhere within a park that extends for over 800 acres, whether or not you are within eyesight of this or another sign saying so" is a sufficiently non-obvious reading (partially because until only a few years ago such a policy would have seemed bizarre) it needs to be forced by more explicit wording.

  15. cameron said,

    November 10, 2015 @ 12:58 pm

    When they introduced the so-called "Select" bus service on the M15 line a few years ago, the MTA's instructional signage was almost all in Chinese and Spanish. The signs on the actual curbside machines where you used your MetroCard to pay, were in English and Spanish, but there was also extensive signage explaining the concept that was pasted on the bus shelters, and that was almost all in Chinese, at least in my neighborhood (which is heavily Chinese).

  16. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 10, 2015 @ 1:28 pm

    The website for the NYC public schools is currently, um, I guess the word would be decilingual, presumably aimed at a best guess of the ten most common languages readable by parents of kids in the system. The non-English options are Arabic, Bengali, "Chinese" (MSM), French, Haitian Kreyol (some of the L1 speakers of which may prefer to receive reading material in standard French), Korean, Russian, Spanish, and Urdu.* But ten options is too many to be practical in many contexts (like a no smoking sign), which as I said makes the decision as to when to use how many (and how much to focus on prevalence in specific neighborhood v. citywide) interesting.

    *The New York state tax authorities' website drops Arabic, Bengali, standard French, and Urdu, but adds Italian. Not sure if that's because statewide demographics are different than citywide, or because e.g. the LEP population that is literate in Italian is more likely to be elderly and thus no longer have school age kids but still need to deal with taxes.

  17. Ethan said,

    November 10, 2015 @ 1:59 pm

    It is an interesting point that the distribution of languages needed to communicate with older adults is different from the distribution relevant to communicating with school families. The Seattle public schools website offers parallel pages in

    Spanish Cantonese French German Italian Tagalog Vietnamese Korean Russian Hindi Arabic Somali

    It is not clear whether that ordering has any significance. I would be surprised if French/German/Italian were that strongly represented in the school population here. Parent outreach material for entering students is available in a somewhat different set of languages.

    English Spanish Chinese (I suppose Cantonese again since it uses traditional characters) Vietnamese Tagalog Cambodian Arabic Marshallese Somali Oromo Tigrigna Amharic Korean Russian

  18. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 10, 2015 @ 2:12 pm

    I do think I've noticed (consistent with the M15 example above) that the people who run the NYC subways do at least temporary signage (posters giving advance warning that such and such station or portion of such-and-such line will be out of service over the weekend or late at night due to maintenance work) in a very context-sensitive way. If the specific location within the city of the particular line/stations affected means a Korean or Bengali or Russian etc. version of the sign will likely be helpful to some minimum critical mass of affected riders, it will be provided, but not otherwise.

  19. julie lee said,

    November 10, 2015 @ 2:20 pm

    @Laura Morland

    To answer your question, here are translations into English:

    gōngyuán lǐ jìnzhǐ xīyān 公园里禁止吸烟
    Literally: "Park inside forbidden smoke cigarette"
    Idiomatic English: "In the park no smoking"

    jìnzhǐ zài gōngyuán lǐ xīyān 禁止在公园里吸烟
    Literally: "Forbidden in park smoke cigarette"
    Idiomatic: "No smoking in the park"

    What is the "zài" of which Ye speaks?
    "Zai" means "in" .

  20. julie lee said,

    November 10, 2015 @ 2:52 pm

    @Laura Morland

    p.s. Some commenters above have said "Why zai?" That it's more idiomatic without the 'zai'
    here. True.
    The Mandarin sentence in the park says:
    Word for word translation:
    zai gongyuan li jingzhi xiyan
    在 公园 里 禁止 吸烟
    "In park in prohibit smoking"
    which means "In the park no smoking."
    The Mandarin for "in, within" here is "在 zai…里 li" ( "in….in") . Both "zai" and "li" mean "in, inside"
    and used together as in "zai park li" (zai…li, "in park in" ) also mean "in, inside". But it is more idiomatic here to drop the "zai (in)" because "li" also means "in".

  21. Doctor Science said,

    November 10, 2015 @ 10:51 pm


    I wouldn't say the difference between "No Smoking" and "No Smoking Within the Park" is that the latter is *friendlier*, that wouldn't occur to me. It's *more specific*, clearer perhaps, but not notably friendly. So why does it come across as friendly in Chinese?

  22. Duncan said,

    November 11, 2015 @ 1:07 am

    @ Doc Science, JW Brewer:

    With a bit more thought I think the reason "No Smoking Within the Park" seems friendlier to me, and compare what JW Brewer posted to the opposite end, is that "within the park" places a limit on things. Without that, while I know no one can (yet?) prohibit smoking entirely within a suitably large area (city, state, nation), the implication I take from the unlimited version is that the author at least /wishes/ to prohibit the reader from smoking /period/, and would almost certainly do so if they could.

    JW Brewer OTOH reads the locality-unspecified version as implicitly limited, to the building, or as this is out doors, perhaps the area of the bench or the block or similar. Meanwhile, Central Park being rather large (I'm not local to the area but that agrees with what I've read), "within the park" for him thus serves as extender of the implied location, while to me it's a restriction on the implied location.

    Assuming this train of thought is headed in the right direction, riding it further, one could consider the authority level of those in power. While the US is certainly more authoritarian than many argue it should be, if anyone here with relevant authority has even seriously proposed something like the censorship or level of control in other areas (guns!) that China claims and attempts to enforce as a matter of course…

    Thus, in the US, a threat to prohibit smoking (tobacco at least) entirely seems rather ridiculous, indeed, the politics of prohibition appear to be headed the other direction, see the various states legalizing pot, etc, even while the peer pressure to avoid smoking tobacco has apparently continued to grow (indeed, there's plenty of pot users and non-using legalization supporters that consider tobacco a far nastier and less healthy habit), thus perhaps favoring Brewer's "limitation impled" reading, with the "within the park" expanding that. But arguably in a(n arguably) more authoritarian system like China's, where many more things are entirely prohibited, the "within the park" phrase is more likely to be interpreted with the limitation meaning I took it to be, thus making it "friendlier", while a bare "no smoking" is more likely to be seen as a challenge to what would here in the US be considered a (limited) personal right, and thus less friendly.

    But I do owe both of you some thanks, as I really did need some help seeing the other viewpoint, and now it is much clearer to me. Hopefully I've been able to do the same for you. =:^)

    Of course now that I see the other viewpoint as well, I too would love to see what one of those who offered the original "friendlier" opinion would say, if asked to (try to) explain why. That may confirm my offered potential explanation, or provide an entirely /different/ angle I hadn't yet even imagined, much as I really hadn't been aware of JW Brewer's (tho I certainly didn't consider mine the only one possible, just perhaps naturally self-evident, a conceit now helpfully eliminated!), previous to this discussion. =:^)

  23. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 11, 2015 @ 11:01 am

    Perhaps part of the larger context is also the common genre of prohibitory signs aimed at drivers of cars, which at least in the US context are typically phrased absolutely (No Parking, No U-Turns, No Right Turn On Red) but are always understood contextually as limited to their fairly immediate physical vicinity (a "No Parking" sign at a maximum will apply only to the block it's on and only to the specific side of the street it's on, and often context may make it clear it doesn't even apply that broadly) There is a town near mine that is on the waterfront and during the summer attracts a lot of out of town visitors, whom the locals want to make sure park only in designated parking lots (which will charge them money during high season) and not randomly in front of people's houses on residential streets. So there is actually a "border" located maybe a half mile away from the beach with signs that say more or less "No Parking On Any Street Beyond This Sign Between May 15 and September 15" (or something like that; I may have the exact cut-off dates wrong). So this is another example about how the unusual degree of specificity is extending the prohibition beyond what an absolute/unqualified sign would be conventionally taken to mean.

  24. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 11, 2015 @ 11:41 am

    Duncan: in many parts of the US restrictions on tobacco smoking have continued to increase even while restrictions on cannabis smoking have loosened, which I personally would agree is nonsensical and counterintuitive, but politics can be like that, and it makes it particularly hard to have good intuitions about what the default-unless-otherwise-specified policy is likely to be when policies are known to be in a state of flux and not necessarily evolving in a coherent way. Which is a problem because often regulatory signs of the "no smoking" variety do require broad underlying social consensus on what the default is in order to be accurately interpreted. A different example for American drivers: if you are driving on a road without a speed-limit sign in sight, it doesn't mean "drive as fast as you want," it means "adhere to the default-unless-otherwise-specified speed limit that is applicable in context." But what that limit is varies quite considerably within the US and the broad patterns (generally higher in rural areas than built-up ones etc) aren't sufficient to tell you e.g. that on the street where I live it's 30 mph but on a similar-looking street less than half a mile away but on the other side of a relevant political boundary it's 25 mph.

  25. Jeff W said,

    November 11, 2015 @ 10:19 pm

    There’s a psychology experiment from the late 1970s (PDF here) which showed that people were more likely to let someone else jump in and make copies at a copy machine when that person said “May I use the copy machine because I have to make copies?” (“placebic” information—why else would one use a copy machine?) than when that person simply said “May I use the copy machine?” Maybe requests—or, in this case, an injunction—with qualifications (“because I have to make copies,” “in the park”) seem “friendlier” because they appear to address, however superficially, why the statement is being made; they take into account the viewpoint of the person to whom the request or injunction is made—they’re not just peremptory statements.

    I wonder if the Chinese wording in the sign is to keep that translation “on par” with the other two—in other words, the translator could have used the wording without the location as would be found in a comparable sign in China but then we’d be asking—or maybe perfectly bilingual Chinese-English speakers would be asking—(possibly) why that translation doesn’t say what the other two versions say. (Or maybe the people at the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation who asked for the sign to be translated in the first place would be asking that.)

  26. Chas Belov said,

    November 13, 2015 @ 2:48 am

    @Ethan: The Seattle Public Schools site appears to me to be translating into simplified Chinese, and using machine translation at that. Traditional would not necessarily imply Cantonese, as Taiwan also uses traditional; you would need to look for specifically Cantonese characters like 冇.

    @Duncan: My take is where we're reducing restrictions on what you can smoke and increasing restrictions on where.

  27. Chas Belov said,

    November 13, 2015 @ 2:55 am

    Actually, once you hit the (Google) translation, there's an option for traditional, and it's apparently Mandarin (我們 for "we") not Cantonese. I don't believe Cantonese translation is available in Google Translate, and any time I've fed it Cantonese text it makes a mess of it.

  28. Chas Belov said,

    November 13, 2015 @ 2:56 am

    Including just now 冇 (not have) to nuisance.

  29. BZ said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 5:50 pm

    I don't think there would be "no smoking" signs if smoking is forbidden (almost) everywhere. There would be "smoking is allowed here" signs in the few places where it's still permitted, as there already are in designated areas outside buildings. In general, though, permissive signs seem to be a lot more rare than prohibitive ones, I think, because a blanket prohibition of something is a lot less likely to have exceptions than blanket permission.

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