Pinyin for disambiguation

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David Moser sent me this photograph of a sign on the side of a Beijing bus:

Before explicating the sign, I should note that many Chinese characters have two, three, or more pronunciations, some of which may be very different from each other, being neither phonologically nor semantically related.  Generally, though, the different pronunciations are phonologically linked and the meanings they convey are cognate.  Still, only context can indicate which of the several pronunciations (and meanings) are relevant in a particular instance.  Sometimes, however, sentence context is not enough, in which case ambiguity may result. Such is the case with the current example.

The sign reads:

Chángtú yào piányi / biànyi


1. "Long distance should be cheap"
2. "Long distance should be convenient"

The reference, of course, is to long distance telephone calls, which ought to be both cheap and convenient.  In this ad, the 便 has two readings, where piányi is "cheap" and biànyi is "convenient".  Without the disambiguating pinyin, most viewers of the sign would adopt the piányi ("cheap") reading, but then the biànyi ("convenient") aspect of the long distance provider would be overlooked.  Hence the need for making explicit the variant reading.

Note that two different fonts are used for the characters in the two pronunciations.  This is purely a bit of ad hoc playfulness, and has nothing intrinsic to do with indicating the two different pronunciations.

I suppose this might be construed as a sort of visual punning.  Since there are so many characters with multiple readings, it is pretty easy to do this in Chinese.  But analogous visual puns could also be devised for the alphabet.  In the present instance, a really clever ad designer could probably have come up with a flipped version of "p" to indicate "b" in the two pinyin spellings.


  1. Henning Makholm said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 8:10 am


  2. jfruh said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 8:15 am

    Just checking — you're sure the pinyin was on the original bus sign? It looks a little bit like it might have been added afterwards in photo-editing software — though I'm not an expert on this by any means — just seems to have that vibe to me.

  3. Leonardo Boiko said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 8:26 am

    Yes, it’s interesting how they used kǎi and míng styles in the same text (even more interesting if jfruh is right about the pīnyīn being photoshopped). It reminds me of the development of Japanese—where kana and mana styles were originally calligraphic styles, but with time assumed specific roles in text (phonographic and morphographic, respectively). Something similar happened even to our own Latin-based writing: uppercase, lowercase, and italic letters all were originally independent hands (Roman capitals, Carolingean minuscles, and Italian cancellaresca), but now are used together in the same text with well-defined conventions. In a parallel universe Chinese could use kái, míng, cǎo etc. for semantic nuances…

  4. Faldone said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 8:26 am

    Is it significant that the the two renderings of the pián/biàn character are in a different style?

  5. Henning Makholm said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 8:45 am

    Jfruh, it would be strange if the signmaker just happened to put the glyphs just enough out of center that that there was room for pinyin below them, without actually putting the pinyin in.

    (Faldone, the second-to-last paragraph in the article answers your question).

  6. Victor Mair said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 8:49 am


    Not photoshopped or altered in any way. Before posting, I specifically asked David Moser the circumstances under which he captured this image, and he told me that he took it from the window of the taxi he was in as the bus passed by.

  7. David Moser said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 8:49 am

    For me, the question this raises is: Is this an example of a pun? If the entire ad were rendered in pinyin, I don't know if it would be considered a pun, but rather just a common kind of alliterative ad. The fact that the written form is identical for the two different readings is what seems to make it a "pun".

    Imagine an ad for a pizza parlor saying "Ordering a pizza should be easy — and cheesy!"

    Is that a pun? I think not. Yet this is very similar to the phonetic effect of this ad. The reason it feels like a "pun" is simply that the same Chinese character can have two readings. The punning is visual, not aural. (Or at least not primarily aural).

  8. Victor Mair said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 8:52 am

    @Henning Makholm

    Very clever! I think I know how you did that, but I want to see if anyone else proposes a solution.

  9. David Moser said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 8:57 am

    I also like Henning Makholm's rather perfectly ambiguous solution!

  10. Nicholas Waller said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 9:04 am

    @jfruh – you can also just see the bracketed black pinyin words in reflection, at the top of the bonnet (hood) near the windscreen wipers, especially if you magnify the post image by clicking on it. (Of course, that could be photoshopped in too, but would require a certain cunning attention to detail.)

  11. Victor Mair said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 9:05 am

    @jfruh and Leonard Boiko

    I can see why you might have thought it was photoshopped, because the color of the arrowhead is whiter than that of the shaft. But that's just the way they made the sign — of two different sections that were pasted (or less likely painted) on. I have inspected a lot of signs on Chinese buses, stores, and so forth, and most of them are laid down in strips of adhesive-backed material. Furthermore, if you look at the very bottom of the arrowhead, a strip on the side of the bus goes over it, and I don't think that could have been photoshopped. Anyway, David told me that he shot the sign on the bus with his camera from a taxi.

    It is conceivable that they first just had the simple reading 长途要便宜, but later some bright person realized that they could enhance the ad by adding the two variants, hence the different shades of the white arrowhead and shaft.

  12. Dick Margulis said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 10:28 am

    "Very clever! I think I know how you did that, but I want to see if anyone else proposes a solution."

    Pretty obvious, I think. He just typed a Unicode 00FE (Latin Small Letter Thorn).

  13. Just convenient? said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 11:40 am

    Seems to me like whatever travel service this is is advertising their on-board bathrooms.

    * There's no such word as "biànyi." That's unlikely to be humorous alone
    * The reading of "biàn" often means excrete in public/humorous contexts
    * The more 'handwritten' or 'playful' script used for "biàn" now makes sense as a joke

  14. John said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

    "Bianyi" most certainly is a word, though not a very common one. It generally occurs in the four-character set phrase 便宜行事, which translates roughly into "act at one's discretion" and gets a fairly respectable 752k Google hits.

    It does surprise me to see it used in advertising, because to me the word has a pretty unpleasant connotation. The first thing it calls to mind is of government officials circumventing rules and regulations for their own convenience. I don't know if a Mainland reader would have the same reaction, or if this is another cross-Strait difference. (Seriously, somebody needs to start a "separated by a common language" blog for Chinese.)

  15. Adrian said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 1:05 pm

    1. Is it clever advertising if you have to explain the cleverness by means of stuff in brackets?

    2. Can all Chinese-speakers read Pinyin?

  16. Yang said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 2:07 pm

    From my own observation, biànyi is seldom used in Chinese daily conversations. When we speak 便宜, we just mean "cheap."

    biànyi can be seen only in our verbal exams.

  17. Jorge said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 2:27 pm


    1. I dont' thin kthis was meant to be clever advertising.. but if the Pinyin was not there but just the different "fonts" or witing styles were used, perhaps it would also indicate that the author intended the top and bottom to be pronounced differently. Without pinyin, they could also have used homophone characters though no common words are pronounced pian2.

    2. Those educated in the PRC after Pinyin was developed should be able to. Foreign learners of Mandarin I expect learn Pinyin as well. Not sure about Russians though.

  18. Kaiser said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 3:49 pm

    Adrian: agree with you that this "pun" is not the best example there is. The reason is that the "cheap" interpretation is the dominant meaning of those words; the "convenient" interpretation, as John pointed out, is a secondary meaning, and if a Chinese speaker were to say "long distance is convenient", it is highly unlikely that he/she would use 便宜.
    Chances are the company got feedback that no one understood the "pun" and so they had to explain the cleverness, an act that is self-defeating.

  19. Randy Alexander said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 10:22 am

    1. I'm pretty sure no one would think of bian4yi if the sign had no pinyin. They would just wonder why there were two 便s.

    2. It's amazing to me to see pinyin, with tone marks no less, in an ad! (Not counting tone-mark-less pinyin used as a transcription of a company or product name.) And double amazing to see it used in word play.

  20. bryan said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 8:55 pm

    @Henning Makholm

    The thorn, or "þorn" is not used in Chinese, only in Old English and Icelandic. þ is not included in any Chinese software, therefore it takes a little bit more time to find where it could be copied and pasted online or elsewhere via a document's fonts, etc… But then again, it could be like this topic, where the pinyin might or might not cause ambiguity: People would be confused and not know where to start, since bp or pb as a consonant never existed in Chinese. And besides, Chinese people who have never heard of or seen þ, would be staring at the wall, not knowing what to do. In the Chinese imagination, it might be a tongue sticking out.

    @ Yang
    "From my own observation, biànyi is seldom used in Chinese daily conversations. When we speak 便宜, we just mean "cheap."

    biànyi can be seen only in our verbal exams."

    Very true, but then again, since like you said, it's rarely used, it's not likely that the general populace will know what "bianyi" is. They very much would prefer to use "fangbian" for "convenient / convenience" instead.

  21. John said,

    July 8, 2011 @ 11:41 pm

    This seems to me to be a remarkably ineffective ad unfortunately, what with the pinyin (having to explain a pun is never good) and different fonts (very unattractive), however clever.

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