Hangzhou Mayor's Aphrodisiac Shop

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Hangzhou seems to be blessed with an abundance of droll Chinglish signs, as we've seen recently on Language Log.

However, if you find yourself in Hangzhou and you keep your eyes open, you'll discover that there are also some unintentionally humorous Chinese signs, such as this one:

The sign reads:


That could be romanized as:

1. Hángzhōu shìzhǎng chūnyào diàn

2. Hángzhōu shì chángchūn yàodiàn

3. Hángzhōu shì Chángchūn yàodiàn

The respective English translations of these three romanized versions are:

1. Hangzhou Mayor's Aphrodisiac Shop

2. Hangzhou City Long / Lasting Spring Pharmacy

3. Hangzhou City Changchun Pharmacy

Google Translate essentially understood the sign in the same fashion as number 3: Hangzhou Changchun Pharmacies. Changchun is the capital of Jilin Province; it is conceivable that a pharmaceutical firm there might have established an outlet in Hangzhou, so this is a possible reading of the sign.

Since sinographic writing does not have capitalization, a reader cannot distinguish between "Changchun" (city name) and "changchun" (long / lasting spring). It is worth noting, however, that during part of the 20th century, Chinese typographers used a combination of straight and wavy underlines to signify italics and capitals for book titles and proper names. Nowadays, such aids to the reader are encountered only rarely.

The romanization feature of Google Translate rendered the sign exactly as in number 1: Hángzhōu shìzhǎng chūnyào diàn. Evidently a lot of human beings have also read the sign that way, since this string of seven characters has been circulating on Sina's microblog service recently as a topic for amusement among China's netizens.

Here are some typical comments:

I suggest that they set up branch shops in major cities all over the country.

In order to ensure the health of mayors, we should promote the Hangzhou experience throughout the whole country.
为保障市长身体健康, 应将杭州经验全国推广

There really is such a shop! When I first heard about this from my buddies, I thought that they were joking. Long live the Chinese language! Long live! Long, long live!
这个店还真的有呀,原来听杭州的同行说,还以为是笑话,中国语言万岁!万岁! 万万岁!

Hah, hah! It's very important how you divide up a sentence. It's a polysyllabic term we're talking about here. Not everybody has this talent.
呵呵,断句很重要。还是个多音字儿。 不是谁都有这本领。

Indeed, problematic parsing is one of the many perils that await the unwary reader of Chinese texts. The first reading is not always the best.

[Thanks to Joel Martinsen for calling the Sina discussion to my attention.]


  1. Lareina said,

    May 22, 2010 @ 8:05 am

    I am the first one to post a comment. Very Excited!!
    杭州/市长/春药店 was my first thought…
    Dividing a phrase is important, a sentence is even more confusing
    i.e. the famous example 下雨天留客天留人不留

  2. Richard said,

    May 22, 2010 @ 11:32 am

    When I first looked at the sign which you write as


    I saw instead


    in which "农春药" I imagined to be classical 'spring plowing medicine', i.e. a country euphemism for 'aphrodisiac'.

    So, there's more ambiguity than just segmentation. Especially to my bookish eye.

    The cursive 长 and 农 do look a lot like, no?

  3. J. Goard said,

    May 22, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

    Hm, don't know hanja well, but that must correspond to 정욕 (jeong yok) 'lust' in Korean. So it means 'aphrodisiac (n)' all by itself in Chinese? The word for 'aphrodisiac' in Korean is 최음… the first part means 'induce' or 'urge'. I had assumed the second part was 'drink', but it doesn't look like that in the dictionary.

    Ah, apparently it's 음란한 음, so 'lewd, obscene'.

    So Korean 'aphrodisiac' is this: 催淫, which Google translate renders as 'Reminder prostitution' (similarly in Korean). LOL.

  4. arthur waldron said,

    May 22, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

    I read it as spring plowing medicine too. I will never forgive Mao and Co; for "simplifying" Chinese characters, making them crude and more difficult to distinguish (because redundancy is reduced). I'm glad however that one way or another the really major challenges facing Chinese society are being addressed.

  5. B. Ma said,

    May 22, 2010 @ 7:24 pm


    春药 in Hangul is 춘약, and means Spring / Youth Medicine. However, synonyms in Chinese include 催淫藥 and 催情藥.

    The Hanja for your suggestion, 정욕, is 情慾 which does mean lust in Chinese as well. According to wikipedia, the Japanese equivalent is 媚薬 (biyaku).

  6. B. Ma said,

    May 22, 2010 @ 7:26 pm

    Oops, substitute "can be literally translated as" for "means" in my first sentence, and I meant "the Japanese equivalent for aphrodisiac" in the last.

  7. B. Ma said,

    May 22, 2010 @ 7:34 pm

    Just to add again, a more accurate "Google" translation might of 催淫 might be to incite promiscuity. It's interesting that Korean has dropped the "yak" from the compound (i.e. promoting-sex-medicine just becomes promoting-sex), turning what might nominally be a verb into a noun.

  8. Adara said,

    May 22, 2010 @ 8:11 pm

    J. Goard,
    The hanja is 春药, 춘약 in hangeul, lit. "spring medicine", meaning (edible) aphrodisiac in both languages.

  9. Adara said,

    May 22, 2010 @ 8:12 pm

    Damnit, my browser didn't display the latter comments. Well, now you have two explanations to rely on!

  10. J. Goard said,

    May 22, 2010 @ 11:33 pm

    Ah… thanks B. Ma and Adara! I guess I should have known it was 약, given the context of the post (a pharmacy)…

  11. xyzzyva said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 3:22 pm

    I've often wondered: have you ever seen word-spacing in Chinese text?
    Such a text would be useful at least to nonnative learners, much like the short vowel markings in Arabic.

  12. Kaiwen said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 9:28 am

    I disagree with translating "还是个多音字儿" as "It's a polysyllabic term." I can't think of a concise English term for 多音字, but it refers to a character with more than one reading.



  13. Myopractic said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 9:53 pm

    I choose to believe it's aphrodisiac, as that's more interesting and amusing :D

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