Sun Yat-sen Swam Here

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If you know your modern East Asian history at all well, the name Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) will be familiar to you as that of the man chiefly responsible for the overthrow of the last imperial dynasty, the Manchu Qing, and the father of the Republic of China.  Like most Chinese with any pretensions to cultural dignity, Sun Yat-sen has many names (the renowned 20th-century author Lu Xun had over a hundred).  His real (genealogical) name was Sūn Démíng 孫德明 (Sun Virtue-Bright).  Sun Yat-sen, the name by which he is best known in English, is actually derived from the Cantonese pronunciation of one of his pseudonyms, 逸仙 (Leisurely Immortal; pronounced Yìxiān in Modern Standard Mandarin).  Most ironically, the name by which he is best known in China, Zhōngshān 中山 (Middle Mountain) is based on his Japanese name, Nakayama Shō 中山樵 (Woodcutter Nakayama).

Revered on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, Sun Yat-sen is the object of widespread veneration, such that practically anything and any place associated with him is liable to become a tourist spot (like wherever George Washington, the father of the United States of America, slept).  One of these places is an old swimming hole on Dinghu Mountain in Zhaoqing, Guangdong (Canton) Province.  Dinghu Mountain became a popular tourist attraction after Sun and his wife, Song Qingling, took a swim there in 1923.

There are two signs SCMP (July 10, 2010) in the vicinity of Sun Yat-sen's old swimming hole, one on a wooden plaque against a grey brick wall, the other a bronze plate against a block of pink marble .  In Chinese, they both designate the location of the famed tourist spot thus:  Sūn Zhōngshān yóuyǒng chù 孫中山游泳處 ("Place where Sun Yat-sen Swam").

The sign on the wooden plaque renders this line as follows:  "Sun swim Department."  The strange translation of the last word is due to the fact that chù means both "place" and "department."

Except for a slight modification of the standard form of the great man's name in English, the translation of the sign on the bronze plate is basically acceptable:  "Sun Yat Sin Swimming Spot."

The sign with the inferior rendering also mistranslates the only other line on the wooden plaque, Yóu cǐ lù xiàshān 由此路下山, as "This mountain road."  It should be "Go down the hill from here."

The Ding Hu Travel Service, which was presumably responsible for the translation on the bronze plate, doubtless has qualified English speakers on its staff.  In contrast, the sign on the wooden plaque was done by someone who knows little or no English, and was relying on inadequate translation software.


  1. J. Goard said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 8:50 am

    Must be something in the water at that hole, because his famous 1924 speech in Japan is a jaw-dropping combination of moral cluelessness and awful prognostication. He essentially argues that no real oppression (in the European imperialist sense) takes place among Asian peoples, because of the willing moral deference which weaker members of this more righteous race naturally give to a nearby "greater nation". (Of course, he conveniently fails to mention Korea even once.) The icing on the cake is a nod to Russia (right in the middle of the backstabbing power struggle following Lenin's death), which he portrays as ostracized by Europe for being the first European power attempting to embrace Right over Might. A colossal mess.

    For what it's worth, I loathe Theodore Roosevelt about as much. Bloody racists who had the ability to know better, but chose power and lots of lies.

  2. Leonardo Boiko said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 9:22 am

    Just to clarify to casual readers, in the expression “ 孫德明 (Sun Virtue-Bright)”, “Virtue-Bright” is a translation of his given name but Sun is just the Chinese family name, not the English word for a celestial body; that is, it’s not [sʌn] but sun1 ([su̯ən], I guest? I don’t know Chinese).

    “Sun Yat Sin Swimming Spot” is delightfully alliterative and rhythmic!

  3. Bob Violence said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 9:37 am

    Yes, it's a family name. It does have other meanings ("descendant", "grandchild") but it doesn't correspond to the English "sun". AFAIK it's pronounced [su̯ən˥], but I have to count on Wiki for this since I'm not up on my IPA.

  4. Randy Alexander said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 10:35 am

    [suə̆n] is the correct pronunciation, the breve marking the weaker element of the diphthong.

  5. Rubrick said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 3:29 pm

    J. Goard: Given that this is a linguistics blog, I assume "prognostication" was a typo for "pronunciation".

  6. Jongseong Park said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 6:16 pm

    Koreans know him by his birth name 孫文, either in the form Son Mun (손문 [son mun]) using the traditional Sino-Korean sound values for Chinese characters or in the form Ssun Won (쑨원 [s͈un wʌn]) following the transcription system for Chinese names based on the modern Mandarin pronunciation (Sūn Wén).

    According to the official rules, the names of Chinese people from the past are supposed to be written according to the Sino-Korean sound values, while those of the modern era are to be transcribed according to the modern Mandarin pronunciation. Sun straddles the two categories (the Chinese Revolution of 1911 marks the arbitrary division of the two), but the official preference seems to be for the latter, and that is how his name appears in most textbooks today.

  7. latinist said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 6:25 pm

    Am I unusual in thinking "Sun Yat-Sin Swimming Spot" still isn't quite right? To me, that sounds like a place now available for swimming, named for Sun Yat-Sin. A different noun in place of "spot" (maybe "site"?) might work better, or maybe you could make it "Sun Yat-Sin*'s* swimming spot" (though that may be ambiguous in other ways), but maybe there's a reason that the George Washington sites use sentences rather that noun-phrases.

  8. 艾力來自屋崙 said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 7:01 pm

    There is a statue of Sun Yat-sen in SF Chinatown that is awesome. It was done by Benjamin Bufano, who kicks ass.

  9. J. Goard said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 12:30 am


    If I had also called the speech "Orwellian", would it have been okay?


  10. ~flow said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 4:07 am

    i'd like to offer the transscription [suᵊn] for 孫; that is, [u] is the most prominent part of the syllable nucleus; there is an audible schwa when nasalization sets in. the final [n] is commonly more like a slowly increasing nasalization, and voicing commonly stops before the oral cavity is completely blocked by the tip of the tongue.

  11. PKA said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 2:07 am

    To people above,
    First of all, Chinese is NOT a language.
    If it was a language, Germanic is a language too.

    "Sun Yat-sen, the name by which he is best known in English, is actually derived from the Cantonese pronunciation of one of his pseudonyms, 逸仙"
    Sun Yat Sen is a Hakka. Just because he was from Canton province doesn't mean that he is a Cantonese.
    仙 sen is HAKKA pronunciation.

  12. PKA said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 2:17 am

    The linguocide by the Northern Chinese is so successful that people only use Mandarin to think of Southerner's culture.
    This is Hakka.

  13. Alan Chin said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 11:22 am

    Isn't Sun Zhongshan (中山)simply derived from his home county of Zhongshan in Guangdong?

  14. Guy said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

    Wrong way round! The city was renamed after him. It used to be called 香山 :)

  15. Alan Chin said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 6:35 pm

    Right! I never knew that; my Cantonese family did always call him Sun Yat-sen (逸仙) so I always thought that the "Sun Zhongshan" was a more polite honorific describing his home town, kind of like the British aristocratic custom of adding place names to titles, "Lord Mountbatten of Burma," etc.

    These days, 香山 (Fragrant Hills) as a name is better known perhaps as the area in Beijing where the old Summer Palace was burned in 1860 during the Second Opium War?

  16. miki said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 3:32 am

    Are you sure Mr Sun is a Hakka? he spoke Cantonese and couldn't speak a word of Hakka.

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