Some difficulties of painting Chinese characters on streets

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Ryan Kilpatrick has an interesting article in Hong Kong Free Press:

"Taiwan city promises to ‘correct’ simplified road sign after public outcry" (12/7/15)

It includes this photograph, which illustrates some of the problems:

The sign reads:

jīchē yōuxiān 機車优先 ("scooters have priority")

In the present instance, the main issue is with the third character from the top, where the sign painters have used the simplified character yōu 优 instead of the traditional character yōu 優.  Considering how hard it is to paint intricate characters on the street (see below), one can sympathize with the sign painters who substituted the six-stroke character 优 for 優, which has seventeen strokes.  Moreover, although 优 is not officially recognized in Taiwan, it is used informally and was actually in circulation during the Republican period on the mainland, before the large scale simplification of characters under the People's Republic of China starting in the 50s, as attested in the following two works by Chén Guāngyáo 陳光堯:

Jiǎnzì lùnjí 簡字論集 (Collected Papers on Simplified Characters) (1931)

Chángyòng jiǎnzì biǎo 常用簡字表 (List of Commonly Used Simplified Characters) (1936)

Still and all, yōu 优 rarely appears in public space in Taiwan (it does occur in private writing).

Next, we may note that the yōuxiān 优先 ("priority") is painted over zhuānyòng 專用 ("reserved / dedicated / specially for"), which has been scraped away.  Perhaps this change was also to make it easier for the painters when they were redoing the sign.

The topmost character is jī 機 ("machine"), part of the word for jīchē 機車 ("scooter").  Its sixteen strokes are painted in an ungainly fashion, but, once again, one must sympathize with the sign painters.

Here are a couple of jpg images of jī 機 painted on streets.

Here is a video about how to paint characters on the road.  It isn't easy!

Before wrapping up, just a few notes about scooter terminology in Taiwan.  It is usual to refer to these little motorized two-wheeled vehicles in Taiwanese as "sukhuta", after the Japanese transcription of the English word, sukūtā スクーター, particularly when the engine displacement is less than 250 c.c.  There are many different types and categories, about which I could write a separate post (but won't).  I'll simply add that another common word is o͘tó͘bái 歐逗麥, from Japanese ōtobai オートバイ, which in turn derives from English "autobike".  The most comprehensive term for all these motorized cycles seems to be mótuōchē 摩托車.  The term painted on the sign in the photograph at the beginning of this post, Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) jīchē 機車, is seldom heard in its Taiwanese pronunciation, kichhia.

Incidentally, jīchē 機 車 (in Mandarin) is slang in Taiwan for "annoying / hard to get on with" as in wǒmen gōngsī lǎobǎn hěn jīchē 我們公司老闆很機車 ("our boss is a pain in the arse"), but the etymology (at least to me) is opaque.

The road sign which caused such an uproar is in front of the Jhen Dong Elementary School in the town of Douliu, Yunlin County.  This was especially irksome to opponents of the simplified characters, as though the "wrong" character in the sign would lead the students astray. Note in this Google Maps view of the school that it uses "JHEN DONG" (Tongyong Pinyin, which was the official romanization of MSM in Taiwan from 2002-2008).  But that probably is a consequence of when the sign went up rather than a conscious choice for Tongyong Pinyin over Hanyu Pinyin (Zhendong) or hyphenless Wade-Giles (Chentung).

Here is an article (in Chinese) from the Apple Daily that explains why the use of simplified characters in public space is an especially sensitive matter at this particular time — right before the general election which has such enormous implications for Taiwan-Mainland relations.

See "Ma-Xi –> MaXi " (11/9/15).

Finally, when all is said and done, the yōu 优 that was painted on the street and caused such a fuss did not come out very well, with the last stroke (bottom right) lacking the obligatory hooked extension, making it look a bit like fú 伏 ("prostrate; conceal; submit").  Pity the poor painters!

[h.t. Ben Zimmer; thanks to Michael Cannings, Mark Swofford, Chia-hui Lu, and Grace Wu]


  1. CraigF said,

    December 10, 2015 @ 6:09 pm

    zhuānyòng 專用 to yōuxiān 优先 brings to mind when they changed a "Bikes and Buses Only" lane in downtown Minneapolis to "Bikes and Buses Only. And right turns." Without a scope of how soon you must be making a right turn, you can imagine how well this works for keeping the lane open for bicyclists. Does help that the Taiwanese lane has thick white lines to further stress the "priority" given to scooters.

  2. Mat Bettinson said,

    December 10, 2015 @ 7:17 pm

    I spent a lot of time riding a scooter in Taiwan. I hadn't given 優先/优先 any thought since I was originally trained in simplified and it's not uncommon to see simplified appearing in commercial contexts, large signs and that sort of thing. I'm always constantly amazed the sorts of stylizing effects in fonts which appear to lose critical information. If one takes that character alone then it looks unambiguously like 伏 (fu) as in 伏法 or 伏辜 (both meaning execute). It's not just the hook, the hooked stroke intersects with the left side. However I don't think native speakers will notice, there is an asymmetry on the rendered character which wouldn't be there on 伏, and of course there's the context and priming factors.

    On 機車, I found that just a couple of hours out of Taipei in Miao Li county, people used 摩托車. In every day speech, in signs and so on. Also hearing the use of 機車 to mean "pain in the arse" caused me much confusion… but then one quickly gets used to that in Taiwan.

  3. Belial Issimo said,

    December 10, 2015 @ 7:48 pm

    Something else that is interesting is that the Taiwanese road marking appears with the first character at the top, i.e. farthest from the approaching vehicle. US standard is the reverse, with multi-line road markings done with the first line closest to the vehicle.

    A moment's research reveals that the DOT even has a standards manual for this which requires "If a pavement marking word message consists of more than one line of information, it should read in the direction of travel. The first word of the message should be nearest to the road user."

  4. Lazar said,

    December 10, 2015 @ 10:10 pm

    Tangentially related: I always mentally pronounce the "XING" of pedestrian crossing signs as /ʃɪŋ/, as if it were pinyin.

  5. John said,

    December 11, 2015 @ 12:33 am

    I'm pretty sure 機車 as "pain in the ass" derives from the Taiwanese obscenity usually written as 機掰, kind of like how "darn" became repurposed as a less-profane alternative to "damn."

  6. Dan said,

    December 11, 2015 @ 12:47 am

    Hi, long time listener first time caller. I enjoy the discussion on chinese characters on this post, but as a paint chemist by trade, I'd like to chime in on the painting itself. For asphalt roads, they probably used thermoplastic paints, which is usually in solid powder or pellet form, and then heated to 200 degrees centigrade to turn it to a viscous liquid, and then poured by a special truck or machine.

    It is relatively easy to "write" with the machine so it is not too difficult to reapply the sign with the proper character. Removing the previous marking can be more difficult, and the picture shows it is not perfectly removed. Thermoplastic paints are tough and can last years before it is needed to be replaced.

  7. Brian said,

    December 11, 2015 @ 7:33 am

    I can't figure out why they even write on the road in the first place. If all it says is "Scooters Have Priority", why not just put a pictogram of a scooter the way they do the same for bike lanes in Canada and USA? From a language standpoint (especially when driving at 50 km/h), that would make much more sense. I never realised how different Canada was in this respect, as very little writing is used on signage, and none on roads; instead, globally recognisable pictorial representations are used when it makes sense (obviously only for simple concepts like "Right lane ends in 300m, merge left", or "Airport" (as a jet plane) on overhead freeway signs).

  8. Bean said,

    December 11, 2015 @ 8:29 am

    @Dan: do they use stencils or guides of some sort, or do they have to judge the layout by eye?

  9. Dan said,

    December 11, 2015 @ 9:30 am


    You usually just chalk the layout and then use the machine to pour it on the asphalt. Some use masking/painter's tape, but that isn't as good, since you have to strip it off after pouring and sometimes it's already fused to the half-cured thermoplastic.

  10. Stephen said,

    December 11, 2015 @ 9:36 am

    @Belial Issimo
    "Taiwanese road marking appears with the first character at the top, i.e. farthest from the approaching vehicle. US standard is the reverse, with multi-line road markings done with the first line closest to the vehicle."

    I am sure this has come up before. AFAIUI the US is very unusual in the practise. The total number of characters in a road marking is small and people don't read short phrases word by word but take in the whole sign in one go. Especially as there is a relatively small number of them, which have been (in the majority of cases) seen many times before.

    "Removing the previous marking can be more difficult"
    A friend who was a traffic engineer said that their planning figure was that it would cost three times as much to remove as to put down.

    I think it is a mixture of both. If you look in the video you can see them using a machine to put down the markings. If such a line just ends then it normally stops quite cleanly but (as you can see at c. 54 secs & c. 64 secs) when one line touches another one a small ridge forms.

    Ridges like that in road markings are common here (UK) so I assume that hey use similar machines.

    In the video c. 1:20 they seem to be using a stencil. For more complex, or just curved, shapes that will probably be easier.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    December 11, 2015 @ 10:03 am


    We've discussed xíng 行 several times on LLog, most recently here:

    "Stop and go" (10/28/15)

  12. Victor Mair said,

    December 11, 2015 @ 10:22 am


    Does 機掰 in Taiwanese sound anything like 機車 in Mandarin? I found 掰 pronounced pué on the MOE website:

  13. Victor Mair said,

    December 11, 2015 @ 10:33 am


    Thank you very much for joining in. We greatly appreciate your highly specialized knowledge. The problem in this case is not with the technology of the paint application, but with being able to "draw" the characters, to form the intricate, closely bunched, sharply curved, hooked strokes of varying widths.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    December 11, 2015 @ 10:34 am

    @Bean, @Dan

    The video that I included in the o.p. shows exactly how the road sign painters on Taiwan do their job. It includes a combination of stencils, chalked lines, and other devices.

    [Update: I see that Stephen also addresses this issue, utilizing the clear demonstration in the video.]

  15. jo lumley said,

    December 11, 2015 @ 11:06 am

    I wondered whether 優先 gets written on roads in Japan, since as far as I know the simplification 优先 has little currency there. Otherwise, it would seem potentially possible to use kana (either ゆう先 or ゆうせん) as another way of making it easier to write the word, but I couldn't (easily) find any evidence that this is used in practice.** A reasonably clear picture I found is this one showing バス優先, a bus priority lane, with 優 seemingly written in full.

    (** In contrast, "stop" (tomare) is often written on road surfaces entirely in kana (とまれ), even though with kanji (止まれ) it isn't especially complicated. Obviously the other difference is that とまれ or 止まれ doesn't change the space needed to write the word, whereas changing 優 to ゆう does.)

  16. V said,

    December 11, 2015 @ 2:35 pm

    Thanks to the above comment, I discovered and got sucked into the rabbit hole of this ( disturbingly exhaustive photographic compilation of traffic signs and road markings broken up by Japanese prefecture.

    I was unable to find any 優先 markings (専用 seems to be way more common) but there are some other interesting finds, such as this very weird-looking "四輪":

  17. Victor Mair said,

    December 11, 2015 @ 2:50 pm

    On that last one, the 四, with only five strokes, surprisingly looks worse than the 輪, with fifteen strokes. What this shows about painting Chinese characters on roads, as I mentioned in previous comments, is that it's very difficult to handle curves and even slightly hooked lines as well as different thicknesses (even of straight lines).

  18. Milan said,

    December 11, 2015 @ 3:10 pm

    Those pictograms, together with a set of largely arbitrary signs, are common all over Europe. Her it is common for people from one linguistic area to travel into another one, so that written signs would cause serious problem. In fact, I think this has been discussed on language log a couple of years ago.

  19. liuyao said,

    December 11, 2015 @ 4:07 pm

    The 四 would look fine from the driver's angle.

    They might as well go for drawing four wheels, as the archaic pictograph for 車.

  20. David Marjanović said,

    December 11, 2015 @ 6:11 pm

    I never realised how different Canada was in this respect, as very little writing is used on signage, and none on roads; instead, globally recognisable pictorial representations are used when it makes sense (obviously only for simple concepts like "Right lane ends in 300m, merge left", or "Airport" (as a jet plane) on overhead freeway signs).

    The other way around: the US and apparently Taiwan are the two exceptions to using traffic signs that I know of.

  21. Jeff W said,

    December 11, 2015 @ 6:54 pm

    Next, we may note that the yōuxiān 优先 ("priority") is painted over zhuānyòng 專用 ("reserved / dedicated / specially for"), which has been scraped away. Perhaps this change was also to make it easier for the painters when they were redoing the sign.

    Well, there is a difference between a “shared lane” and a “dedicated bike lane” in the US, at least (e.g., see this explanation from Bike Cleveland) so that change might reflect some actual difference in how the lane is designated, i.e., cars can use the priority lanes so long as they “give priority” to bikes but they can’t use the “reserved/dedicated” lanes. (The recommended marking for a shared lane—with a double chevron—is not supposed to be used for a designated bike lane, so the two are supposed to be somewhat distinguished, sign-wise, in the US.) It’s hard to tell from the images alone which one that lane in Taiwan might be.

    And, very tangentially, since we’re on the topic of road markings, from a few years back: how long are each of those dashed lines that delineate lanes on the highway? Take a guess. Not you, Dan. (The answer is here.)

  22. Victor Mair said,

    December 11, 2015 @ 11:44 pm


    "The 四 would look fine from the driver's angle."

    Not really. The two internal lines of the character would still look vertical from the driver's angle, not flaring toward left and right as in the actual character. Of course, though, such flaring lines are much more difficult to paint within a confined space (box shape), so that is why they must have avoided them and substituted purely vertical lines.

    @Jeff W

    Naturally there's a difference between yōuxiān 优先 ("priority") and zhuānyòng 專用 ("reserved / dedicated / specially for"). That's painfully obvious to anyone with an ounce of brain. But, when it comes to applying gooey, heated, plasticky stuff to the road in a confined square of the same space, which do you think the painters would prefer, 优 or 專?

  23. Alan Shaw said,

    December 12, 2015 @ 4:26 am

    In my US idiolect a "motorcycle" is a two-wheeled vehicle that you straddle, a "scooter" is one on which your feet rest on a floor, a "bike" is either a motorcycle or a bicycle, but a "bike lane" is for bicycles. I'd hope that if I rented a 摩托車 in Taiwan it would not turn out to be a scooter.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    December 12, 2015 @ 12:37 pm

    From Sophie Ling-chia Wei:

    The character 优 is only for scribbling down or taking notes informally. In Taiwan, for the printed information, 優 is still most commonly used. In this case, I heard from the TV news that the workers feel it is too troublesome and time-consuming to paint the whole character 優 on the ground, so they chose 优 .

    Please also take a look at this webpage. There is another example using simplified character, "左弯."

  25. Bean said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 10:12 am

    Thanks all for the explanations about line-painting. I actually STILL haven't had a chance to watch the video… they usually don't come through the firewall very well so I don't bother clicking on them from work.

  26. A-gu said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 6:56 pm

    I also believe 機車 is derived from Holo Taiwanese chi-bai 膣屄, which is quite vulgar. Hence, it was first softened to the minced oath chi-oai [ㄐㄧ ㄨㄞ] before being substituted with the more harmless and far less offensive 機車. So, while even pre-teen and teenage kids could call their (foreign) teacher 機車 in class without being seen as rude — they can even just use their right hand to make the motion of giving the motorcycle gas a few times — they would not use chi-bai 膣屄 the same way anymore. In fact, even when cursing, I'd say minced oath chi-oai is probably four or five times as common as chi-bai 膣屄.

    Strongest actively-used Taiwanese curse sequence that I'm aware of: 幹你娘老膣屄

  27. Rachel said,

    December 20, 2015 @ 4:38 am

    Isn't there a relationship between 機車 and 扯 ? They seem to be mentioned in close proximity by a lot of Taiwanese folks. I get the impression that a lot of people believe there's an etymology there, whether or not there actually is.

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