Clogged drains and "Uncle Hanzi"

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I spotted this photograph in an article that I'll describe below:

Before I introduce the article, during the course of which I'll identify the gentleman in the photograph, it is incumbent upon me to explain what all that red and black writing on the wall is about.  Here's what it says:

tōng xiàshuǐ dǎyǎn 通下水打眼 85337719

shūtōng gǎidào dǎyǎn 疏通改道打眼 27275572

Basically, they both mean "(we) open / unclog drains", with the second implying that, if your drain is beyond unclogging, they'll make a new line for draining away the water that is backing up, i.e., they can also install new drainpipes.  Since I've seen thousands of such stencilled signs in apartment buildings in China, clogged drains must be a huge problem there.

I described the phenomenon of massive advertising for fake certificates and seals on sidewalks and walls in Chinese cities in this post:

"Pinyin spam text message " (10/18/15)

Now, on to the article where I saw the above photograph:

"Měiguó 'Hànzì shūshu' zìfèi chuàngjiàn Hànzì wǎng  wèi cǐ qióngkùn lǎodǎo 美国'汉字叔 叔'自费创建汉字网 为此穷困潦倒" ("American 'Uncle Hanzi' creates a Hanzi website with his own funds  As a result, he ends up impoverished") (4/15/15)

The person pictured above and featured in the article is Richard Sears, who is the creator of a much visited website for looking up the early forms of Chinese characters.  I wrote about his website in this post:

"Chinese 'Etymology'" (1/17/11)

I admire Sears' determination and his valuable contribution to the study of the development of the Chinese writing system.  I have supported his work in the past and will undoubtedly do so again in the future.  May his drains never be clogged!

[Hat tip Sun Yitian]


  1. Bathrobe said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 4:26 am

    A story both inspiring and dispiriting.

    The reception from haughty experts who can't believe that a foreigner might something to teach them about their own tradition, and unscrupulous operators who see him only as a way to make a quick buck, both sadly speak volumes about modern China.

    The article is dated April 2015, three months before Sears' contract was due to run out. Did he find a new job?

  2. leoboiko said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 6:52 am

    I'm adding a small but regular donation to's Paypal account. I've been using it since forever, and it has significantly contributed to my personal kanji studies. It's one of the sites I link to in my search tool, kanjigen. Sear's graphological hypotheses may not be always up to academic rigor, but I find them to be serviceable, and the database itself is an Herculean work; it's my first stop to get ancient glyphs of the characters.

  3. Adrian said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 9:47 am

    Is it really legal to deface people's property like that?

  4. Bathrobe said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 8:26 pm

    Despite being a "totalitarian State", it's amazing how much illegal activity or activity that is a public nuisance goes unchecked in China.

  5. JS said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 12:17 am

    Geez… I wish Hanzi Shushu the best. Fascinating read…

    except for 斯睿德住的村子,叫诺克斯维尔,非常僻静,常常散步两三个小时,都碰不见一个人 "The village where Sears lived was called Knoxville; it is extremely remote, and one often walks for two or three hours without meeting another person." ??

    And I'm with leoboiko as far as the site goes; the presentation of data alone is tremendously valuable. For those interested in drilling some early character forms, google image search (for example) " B" (B being for bronze) and have at it.

  6. Jean-Michel said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 3:15 am

    I recently lived in an old-ish apartment building in China ("old-ish" meaning late '80s, though the presence of such stenciled advertising doesn't correlate to the building's age but rather the level of upkeep and security—many apartment buildings in China, particularly but not exclusively older ones, are completely open to anyone who wants to walk in). The walls of all seven floors were covered with these ads, not just for plumbers but also for locksmiths. I was actually grateful for these eyesores on the multiple occasions when I locked myself out of my apartment…

  7. Bathrobe said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 4:43 am

    Would locksmiths let you in if you didn't have proof you lived there?

  8. Victor Mair said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 10:28 am


    In China, just about anything goes. The one thing that is not tolerated is anything that has the slightest political implications that the government disapproves of.

  9. leoboiko said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 10:35 am

    I think that's less of a "China" thing and more of a "poor people, dysfunctional government" thing. I see the same kind of advertising all the time in Brazil; yes, it's illegal, but that sounds like a quite "gringo" thing to say – most people wouldn't even think about legality in such a context.

  10. Jean-Michel said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 1:01 pm

    Would locksmiths let you in if you didn't have proof you lived there?

    The first time it happened, I had a neighbor with me because my Chinese wasn't up to scratch, so I suppose they vouched for me. But later on I handled it myself and I don't recall even being asked for proof of residence, which I wouldn't be able to supply anyway. (The only thing I had that proved I actually lived there was a copy of the lease, which I didn't carry around with me–for whatever reason, the employer that handled my residence and work permit applications gave my residence as the company's address instead of my actual apartment.)

  11. Eidolon said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 12:42 pm

    @Bathrobe I think the standard definition of China is an authoritarian state, not a totalitarian state in the sense of 1984. The Chinese police defends the interests of the government and has no respect for privacy, but does not inspect/control every aspect of people's lives.

  12. Bathrobe said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 3:36 pm

    @ Eidolon

    Yes, I realise that. That's why I put "totalitarian State" in inverted commas. It's not something I myself would say, but you find uninformed people saying just that. "Authoritarian State" is a more accurate description.

    I back both Victor Mair's and leoboiko's comments. The Western concept of "rule of law" (which includes submission of the Party to the law) and the Party's preferred concept of "rule by law" (ensuring obedience to the law by the population at large) are still both distant ideals in China today.

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