Writing moxibustion is a bust

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[This is a guest post by David Moser]

I took a group of my students, who are studying the Chinese medical system, to a yǎngshēngguǎn 养生馆 [VHM: "health center / club" — centered on TCM = Traditional Chinese Medicine], which are very common in Beijing.  I wanted them to see and experience firsthand the kinds of informal "well being" treatments that the lǎobǎixìng 老百姓 ("common people") indulge in every day, such as foot massage, cupping (báguàn 拔罐), medicinal foot baths, moxibustion, etc.

When the activity was over, I needed a receipt for the bill so I could reimburse the cost.  The boss instructed his clerk, a young lady who had evidently just started to work there at the establishment, to write up an itemized receipt with all the services they had provided.  Her first question was "Àijiǔ, zěnme xiě 艾灸,怎么写?” ("How do you write the characters for 'moxibustion' [aijiu]?")

I shouldn't have been, but I was stunned.  How could any Chinese person, especially a young person working in a TCM health spa, not know how to write "moxibustion" in Chinese?  She could write neither graph, so the boss had to write it for her.  She went on to write the other services down with less trouble, though had to scribble out a few characters that she at first wrote wrong and had to re-do.

The bill was 1,240 RMB.  Since the receipt was a rather formal one, the boss told her to write out the sum in the Chinese dàxiě 大写 ("capital letters"), the more complex characters for the integers that are used for banking and reimbursement purposes to avoid cheating and fraud.  (Ex. In place of the easily alterable 一,二,三,四,五,六,七, etc., the numerals are written as 、贰、叁、肆、伍、陆、柒, etc.)

The poor woman was once again unable to produce these characters on the receipt, and the boss angrily asked her, "What was the certificate you listed on your resume?" "It was for accounting," she replied sheepishly.  The boss grabbed the pen from her hand and began writing the characters himself, but hesitated at the character for "4" 肆 and had to ask one of the assistants next to him.  (It's a good thing he asked him and not me, because I wouldn't have been able to remember the character, either!)

Just a microcosm of the hundreds of thousands of instances of wasted time, lost face, embarrassment, and productivity drain that no doubt occurred that same night throughout the city, due to the writing system.

[VHM:  In Chinese TCM health clinics all over the world, one can see àijiǔ 艾灸 ("moxibustion") on signs and in their flyers and advertisements.  Moreover, these are simple characters with only a few strokes each.  The fact that people have trouble writing them tells us something important about the nature of the Chinese script.  See the beginning of "Character amnesia redux" for a few of the many Language Log posts that touch on this subject.]


  1. Alex said,

    May 2, 2017 @ 7:26 pm

    "Just a microcosm of the hundreds of thousands of instances of wasted time, lost face, embarrassment, and productivity drain that no doubt occurred that same night throughout the city, due to the writing system."

    My tirade begins now:

    To me the embarrassment is the most hurtful. My first letter here was about the GDP effect but now my mission is for the children. How many young children who have a natural curiosity for science or computers/programming or any other field never make it because they are left behind. Perhaps its a weeding out process of those who don't have the discipline to complete countless hours of mind numbing torture.

    Perhaps its a test so that only those that can follow ridiculous rules without questioning can make it to the better school here and get the better jobs.

    On my Weixin I have many primary school teachers. One sees the methodical "progression" when the teachers proudly post their students composition. First grade many instances of using pinyin for words they don't know until 6th grade there are few to none. So the movement is from what is "natural and efficient" to what is convoluted. Furthermore they increase the torture by making the small squares of the composition books smaller. 1st -2rd grade the squares are 11mm then 3rd-6th its 9mm. Now 2 mm doesn't seem like a large difference but I IMPLORE those that have forgotten "the pain/torture" to go out and buy one and see for themselves again or to take out a ruler and draw a 9mm sq box and then imagine having to write 200 character reports. SERIOUSLY, please take out a ruler and draw FOUR 9mm squares and write 翅膀 AND 葡萄. Sure its easy with this keyboard. Finally imagine when you were 8 years old did you have messy handwriting? One cant even begin to compare English messy handwriting vs Chinese, as in if you had messy handwriting in English what would it be like in Chinese?

    Now imagine being punished/lectured/yelled at for it on a semi regular basis as a child.

    Now I can better empathize with the people who struggled and suffered to fight injustices. I don't know how many times I have heard why can so many other kids be able to do it and you want your son to be different. (in laws, wife, school staff, etc. My answer of I'd rather have my son sleep, play, or learn other things doesn't seem to cut it. I guess they want to take full points away from those that write what they don't know in Pinyin as the kids advance in grades.

    By the way I hate the response we had to go through it and its tradition. Yeah I guess university fraternity and sororities have hazing traditions as well. Might as well get them used to it during the primary school years.


  2. Doctor Science said,

    May 2, 2017 @ 11:42 pm

    I hope this comment/question isn't too tangential.

    I first learned about moxibustion in the late 70s-early 80s, when I was reading the volumes of "Science & Civilization in China" as they came out. I was a grad student (& after) at Penn, and at one point I had a housemate who was an engineering grad student from the PRC, at that point a fairly rare occurrence.

    He saw that I was reading SC&CiC, and talked about how impressed "everyone" in China was with Needham for his command of highly technical Classical Chinese, which my informant felt was no easy feat even for a native speaker.

    Years later, I read Simon Winchester's biography of Needham, which makes it clear that Needham started work on SC&CiC quite shortly after he started learning Chinese: he was in China, gathering materials for SC&CiC, no more than 4 years after starting to learn the (spoken) language.

    Discussion you & others have had on LL makes me realize that this is actually an incredibly–nearly unbelievably–fast progress into the written Classical Chinese language. Do you know if Needham was indeed a prodigy, for his rate of learning written Chinese? Or did he instead learn the spoken language quickly (in a year or two, which is rapid but not prodigious) and rely on others to skim the texts he acquired? Especially the Gujin Tushu Jicheng (古今圖書集成): Needham was given a copy of this massive work, and I wonder how much of the early volumes of SC&CiC is basically extracted from it.

  3. AntC said,

    May 2, 2017 @ 11:58 pm

    @Alex Perhaps its a test so that only those that can follow ridiculous rules without questioning can make it to the better school here and get the better jobs.

    I often whether the rules for English orthography are motivated by the same perverse notion of mental torture/rote learning. [You omitted an apostrophe in "its", for which everybody should be forgiven.]

    Then those who have mastered the rules, in later life turn round, become peevers and complain about the younger generation who ignore them; and claim standards are going to the dogs. Of course it always helps the peevers if they can make some appeal to 'logic' or 'tradition' or 'precedent' — as seems to be the justification for continuing the preposterous Chinese writing system.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 3, 2017 @ 1:01 am


    If you misspell "it's" as "its" or vice versa (extremely common errors, even among individuals who are otherwise highly literate — I know plenty of them who make these mistakes regularly), the reader can still understand what the writer meant. If you miswrite a Chinese character, the writer usually aborts their effort to complete it. We have demonstrated this many times before in various LLog posts.

    The difficulties of memorizing the thousands of characters necessary for writing in Chinese are orders of magnitude greater than for mastering English orthography sufficiently well to be able to write notes, notations, messages, letters, and so forth.

  5. Alex said,

    May 3, 2017 @ 2:16 am


    I also often neglect to capitalize words when texting on my mobile device :-) I'm cognizant of the difference between its and it's. Chalk it up to laziness. On the mobile I rarely use apostrophe.

    The point though is what Professor Mair wrote.


    "I often whether the rules for English orthography are motivated by the same perverse notion of mental torture/rote learning. [You omitted an apostrophe in "its", for which everybody should be forgiven.]"

    See I was able to realize you meant "I often wonder whether " rather than "I often whether". :-)


  6. Bathrobe said,

    May 3, 2017 @ 2:19 am

    @ Doctor Science

    an incredibly–nearly unbelievably–fast progress into the written Classical Chinese language. Do you know if Needham was indeed a prodigy, for his rate of learning written Chinese?

    I will be presumptuous enough to make a preliminary guess on this.

    Spoken and written languages are very different animals. I would even go so far as to say that they run on very different tracks. Some people become masters of the spoken language without ever going into arcane apsects of the written tradition. Others follow the scholarly stereotype and become deeply involved in erudition and history without ever becoming terribly fluent in the spoken language. Some people, of course, manage to balance the two.

    As to your question, learning spoken Chinese is a lot easier than learning the written language. In a couple of years Needham quite possibly picked up a reasonable command of everyday spoken Chinese. It's the written language that would have taken years and years to master.

    Secondly, I'm not sure it's an accurate picture to see progress in Chinese as a natural progression from mastery of the spoken vernacular to mastery of Classical Chinese. Perhaps Needham was indeed such a prodigy, but my suspicion is that he was deeply attracted to the written tradition from the outset and devoted his energies to that. Unlike the spoken language, the written tradition rewards leisurely, painstaking analysis and research.

  7. J. Goard said,

    May 3, 2017 @ 10:22 am

    Thank heavens that King Sejong "invented" (happened to have scholars in his court who developed) Hangeul. Most important holiday ever.

  8. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 3, 2017 @ 3:37 pm

    I find it painful enough watching my five-year-old having to deal with English spelling. While watching her trying to label the parts of a bird and asking why the vowels in "beak" and "feather" were spelt the same way, I thought up 11 different sounds that "ea" can represent in English. I dare say there are more. The frustration and waste involved in learning Chinese writing is just unimaginable.

    That said, my daughter is also learning Mandarin and so far loves writing the characters!

  9. Alex said,

    May 3, 2017 @ 5:28 pm

    I know many expats here who think learning Chinese is fun. They don't have to do it. I should tell the soldiers of the past who had to go on forced marches that I am jealous. I love taking walks. Maybe that Long March was just a leisurely stroll. I'm jealous those guys had so much time to just walk! I have to find/make the time to do that and yet those guys got to do it many hours a day and days on end! Lucky them!

    I am assuming some people did not bother to try to hand write characters in the 9 by 9 mm square as I suggested. I am also assuming they wont actually try writing 2 pages of 255 squares a day for years.

    People should feel free to write 翅膀 /wing 喙/beak then write 橘/orange 蓝/blue. When they do 4 new words a day in those little squares for a week and then they do it for 20 days they should let us know how it goes. (please ensure to remember how to write the prior days words) At the end of the 20 days let us know how it was enjoyed. Regardless if one enjoys or not feel free to do that for 9 months then 6 years. My money is on most wont bother for even a week let alone a month.

    I'll make it easy for people. Here are some words to look up and learn how to write per day

    1 gate late date
    2 doe toe hoe
    3 cub tub rub
    4 tail nail mail
    5 leg peg beg
    6 nut cut hut
    7 gum yum hum
    8 hat cat bat
    9 hose nose close
    10 hay day play

    or use Chinese rhyming words, let us know how the rhyming helps you learn how to write those words/characters.

    or just chose 3 or 4 words a day to learn.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    May 3, 2017 @ 6:57 pm


    Please report back every year on May Day about the progress of your daughter learning Chinese characters during the previous year:

    1. how many hundred / thousand hours she spent practicing the characters

    2. how many hundred characters she has mastered

    3. whether she is gaining fluency in spoken Mandarin

    4. whether she still loves writing the characters

    5. whether she has time to play outside

    6. whether she is learning to play a musical instrument or has various hobbies

    7. whether she is able to read entertaining and edifying books in Chinese

    8. how she is doing in her other subjects

    And anything else that you think is relevant to her Chinese character and language learning experience.

    I shall be truly grateful for your yearly reports.

  11. AntC said,

    May 3, 2017 @ 7:34 pm

    Thank you @Victor. Thank you Alex. Oops ;-)

    Given that humans are amazingly capable of interpolating omitted or mis-spelled words; could/does writing Chinese informally (for notes, reminders, shopping lists, restaurant orders) survive by putting rough squiggles or homophones in place of characters that can't be recalled?

    @David Moser's anecdote is about needing a formal receipt, for which an approximation wouldn't do, I guess.

  12. Alex said,

    May 3, 2017 @ 11:35 pm

    I just want to say I am sorry if I come off too strong/passionate about this topic. If you saw the relatively frequent scolding/shaming of these wonderful primary school kids perhaps you could forgive my strong stance on the matter.

    The world is becoming more competitive not less for kids here. In the US we take notice when a child harms themselves due to bullying but many hurt themselves here because of the competitiveness or they act out and then "get" the stick. Often I see the open handed slap on the shoulders or back of the head of primary school children by their "tiger" moms. Then they shield their heads with their arms.

    "Tiger Mom" isn't a small slice of the population like in the US. Its the majority of the middleclass here. My view is anything that can help the children be happier and make learning more interesting and less of a Sisyphean task is worth while goal.

  13. Andreas Johansson said,

    May 3, 2017 @ 11:59 pm

    Regard the formal numerals, since she was apparently able to write the informal ones, isn't this really more like the the English spelling example? She was able to write something understandable, but not something fulfilling a certain standard of formality.

    (I'll grant that misspelling an English numeral is unlikely to make a difference to alterability of a number on a receipt.)

  14. Lorena Huang said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 4:05 am

    Same things happened to me too. As a Chinese student, I began to learn to write Chinese characters at a very young age, around 3 years old. There’re about 5000 characters I had to remember, and it took me 12 years to master them.

    Chinese students have to do all their homework on notebooks, and since they don't have much outdoor assignments, they have to do tons of handwritings every day. Speaking of this, lots of foreign people must think that it’s impossible for Chinese to forget characters. But unfortunately, we do.

    Three years ago, I went to university and my mom brought me a MacBook for a present. Ever since then, the way that I used to hand in assignments has been completely changed; all of the college students hand in their assignments through E-mails and all we have to do is just typing in the characters.

    And soon, I found that I couldn't recall or write many characters and I had to look up in the phone for help. It’s actually pretty common in China for the writing system is really really complicated and annoying; not like the English writing system – – so simple and practical.

  15. Eidolon said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 6:52 pm

    The key phrase is "write up." I assume the poor accountant was told to hand write the highly technical characters – an exercise she might have done a few times once upon a time, but probably not since she acquired a smart phone. The newer generation of Chinese are growing up with input aids that would have been unimaginable even just two decades ago, and the loss of the motor memory skills required to hand write the more advanced Chinese characters is just about inevitable.

  16. B.Ma said,

    May 5, 2017 @ 5:02 pm

    Hmm, I also forgot about the existence of 肆.

    I need to write Chinese numbers formally once in a while, but we tend to use only 壹、贰、叁 then just 四五六七八九 but 拾、佰、仟.

  17. Emily Wong said,

    May 5, 2017 @ 9:16 pm

    The author tells us a story that he met a clerk, a young girl, who cannot write a simple Chinese character—moxibustion and the numbers in Chinese capital letters when he did a research in a health club. And he finally believes that the writing system should be blamed for all these instances of wasted time, lost face, embarrassment, and productivity drain.
    In my opinion, actually, the writing system should not be the scapegoat for the “Character amnesia”, which especially occurs in the young Chinese people. Firstly, more and more Chinese young people are barely able to write with a pen in hand because they prefer type with computers and smart phones, which make them be out of practice at handwriting. Secondly, this era is so impetuous and utilitarian that the young Chinese people have no patient to learn and master something “unprofitable”. Taking the clerk as an example, she could not write the numbers in Chinese capital letters just because these characters are used for “accounting”, which implicates that she did not need to learn and write them with reason.
    This may be the true causes that a clerk and more and more Chinese young people cannot write some Chinese characters which they read and use in daily life, but not the writing system. However, it cannot be totally denied that, comparing to English writing system, the Chinese writing system is relatively complex. But as a treasure of Chinese ancient culture, it plays an important role in inheriting and carrying forward the Chinese culture for thousands years, which shows its powerful vitality. What’s more, many efforts are being made to overcome its complexities and backwardness, for example, the invention of Chinese phonetic alphabet, the simplification of traditional characters, etc.
    The phenomenon, “Character amnesia”, is absolutely a worrying phenomenon, which actually shows our attitude to traditional culture. I always believe that the special inspiration and enjoyment will be given by writing with a pen instead of typing with a computer or a smart phone, and will-sales and unexpected wealth will be obtained by learning some “unprofitable” knowledge instead of the “useful”.

  18. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 8, 2017 @ 3:58 pm

    Dear Dr. Mair,

    I'd be happy to, but I'm not sure the classes are intensive enough to make it of interest to you. She's just doing one hour-long class per week at the moment (that's all the school makes available to reception, that is, 4-5-year-olds. So far she's basically just learnt the numerals, some names of fruit, and a few expressions.

    But if you want me to report to you anyway, absolutely.

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