Pinyin in practice

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I just passed through security at the Xi'an airport (in northwest China) and was surprised to have my belongings searched by a young woman on whose snazzy black uniform, instead of an ID number as a regular worker would have, there was a label that said only SHIXI ("in training; practice"), with no trace of the corresponding characters 实习 anywhere about her.  When I read out the pinyin with correct pronunciation and indicated that I knew immediately and exactly what it meant, the young woman and her co-workers were obviously pleased that I could do so.

Even more thought provoking is the fact that many Chinese police cars and uniforms have written on them GONGAN ("public security") rather than "police", and sometimes not even 公安.

When I encounter such situations, I often wonder:

1. why they choose to use pinyin and NOT Chinese characters

2. why they choose to use Mandarin in pinyin instead of English

3. for whom the sign is intended

These are actually very important questions, because not using Chinese characters or English is making some kind of statement (whether consciously or subconsciously) through the choice of script and language: it is Mandarin, but it is in pinyin, not characters.  For some reason — and in a very public and vital setting — pinyin is chosen over English and often even over characters.

I think I know the answers to the above three questions, but will refrain from stating them until hearing what others have to say.

Perhaps we may take this open use of pinyin as evidence of an incipient digraphia, in which pinyin and characters coexist, but are used in different realms and for different purposes.

Will practice make perfect for pinyin?

[A tip of the hat to David Moser]


  1. scav said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 3:05 am

    Were tone markings absent in the examples given, and if so is that usual for signage in pinyin, or just for short labels where there is little or no ambiguity?

    My wild ignorant guess: the pinyin rendering makes the language of the signs explicitly Mandarin. Characters might (as far as I know, which is not much) have the same meaning in other, less "official", Chinese languages. I have no idea why that would be considered important, but maybe there is a crazy law that certain signage must not be in any language other than Mandarin? I rate this guess as 0.01% probability of being correct :-)

  2. David Coghill said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 3:37 am

    My unfortunate guess is: "It's in Western/Latin letters, therefore all Westerners will understand it!" The added bonus would be that it makes the wearers look cosmopolitan!

    The concept that there is more to understanding Chinese than reading characters is sometimes not always obvious to native speakers.

  3. Carl said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 3:44 am

    My guess is that it's because kids today learn pinyin before characters, so even someone who dropped out young should still be able to get the gist. That plus all the sociological factors, such as the dominance of Mandarin as scav mentioned above.

  4. EKSwitaj said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 4:07 am

    To what the commenters above me said, I want to add that when I was teaching composition at a Chinese university a few years ago, I saw a few essays in which students argued that ideograms should be abandoned entirely in favor of pinyin as part of the process of modernizing China.

  5. Adam said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 4:15 am

    They use pinyin instead of characters because characters are such an awful writing system that they can't safely assume that even well-educated Chinese'd be able to read what they write in characters; but the sign's for possibly monolingual Mandarin speakers, so it's not in English?

  6. Ned Danison said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 5:10 am

    I don't have chapter and verse, but there was a time in the 1950s when a plan was afoot among some official schemers to move away from characters to pinyin as the national orthography. I think the motivation then is the same motivation now for using pinyin in those official situations: Pinyin is China's face to the world; it is accessible to foreigners, on par with the other ruling alphabetic languages. Text in pinyin is "bigger" than characters in that it apparently speaks to the whole world, and not only insiders.

  7. michael farris said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 5:30 am

    While I don't see characters passing out of usage for several lifetimes, this does seem like the incipient emergence of a dual script situation.

    I pretty much agree with the other posters about two points:

    1. pinyin is unambiguously Mandarin the national language and not other Chinese languages
    2. pinyin is China's legible 'face' to the world, as a lot more non-Chinese can read and ecognize 'Beijing' than would recognize the characters.

    I'll also develop Carl's idea. If it's true that school children learn pinyin before*characters then the argument might be made that more Chinese have a fuller awareness of pinyin than they do of characters. That is anyone who's spent a year or two at school and can more or less speak Mandarin can at least decypher pinyin while only those with a lot more schooling can decypher characters.

    Those who have becomevery literate in characters might find it harder to read Mandarin in pinyin but average folks on the street probably find it easier, especially in short messages as in public signage.

  8. Gary said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 6:11 am

    I'd guess that they used pinyin to hide, from the Chinese she worked on, that the young lady was a trainee, while still being able to maintain that they correctly identified her as a trainee.

    AS everybody else has assumed, Weserners are much more fluent in pinyin than Chinese, especially when the tones are not indicated.

  9. Andy Averill said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 6:20 am

    Some technical issue having to do with the machine that makes the labels? It can be programmed for Latin letters but not Chinese characters?

  10. Jason said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 6:46 am

    I don't have chapter and verse, but there was a time in the 1950s when a plan was afoot among some official schemers to move away from characters to pinyin as the national orthography.

    In 1936, it had the imprimatur of Chairman Mao himself:

    "In order to hasten the liquidation of illiteracy here we have begun experimenting with Hsin Wen Tzu—Latinized Chinese. It is now used in our Party school, in the Red Academy, in the Red Army, and in a special section of the Red China Daily News. We believe Latinization is a good instrument with which to overcome illiteracy. Chinese characters are so difficult to learn that even the best system of rudimentary characters, or simplified teaching, does not equip the people with a really rich and efficient vocabulary. Sooner or later, we believe, we will have to abandon characters altogether if we are to create a new social culture in which the masses fully participate."

    But it stopped in the 1950s, when Mao reversed himself under the influence (or control) of the traditionalists that had become integrated in the party by this time.

  11. Rob H said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 7:21 am

    I would add to the opening questions

    4. Why is pinyin on public signage almost invariably unaccented?

    This makes it close to useless as a practical guide to pronunciation if you do not already speak Chinese fluently. This might be justifiable for road signs, where it is arguable than foreigners need only to read the signs for Shanghai, Tianjin etc but not say the names aloud, but I always found its use elsewhere quite baffling.

    I suspect that the answers lie in the desire to transmit an impression of modernity and cosmopolitanism, which is primarily aimed at other Chinese who have no need to read the signs for communicative purposes, but will understand the air of prestigious modernity being conveyed.

    Added to this is the fact that the people commissioning the signs are probably quite ignorant of the needs of foreign learners, and that such usage is now so well established that new signs just follow the de facto norm.

  12. Cameron Majidi said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 8:55 am

    I'm puzzled by the claims above that the use of pinyin makes the signage explicitly Mandarin, and not any other Chinese language. In what sense would the use of characters not also be a written form of Mandarin? I realize it is possible to use Chinese characters to render written Cantonese, Shanghainese, etc., but I had the impression this was very rarely done.

  13. Peter said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 9:08 am

    The only time I ever see pinyin without accompanying characters is on the (fluorescent yellow) vests of traffic cops (like the GONGAN example in the OP). I have absolutely no idea what the reasoning is for that decision. I sincerely doubt that the police are trying to be cosmopolitan and trendy. I also don't buy the arguments that pinyin is some kind of Mandarin chauvinism (Mandarin chauvinism gets along just fine using characters) or that pinyin is there to help more Chinese people read it (The only people I've met who can read pinyin better than characters are elementary schoolers and foreigners). Which leaves… what? I'm curious to hear Prof. Mair's opinion on the matter.

  14. blahedo said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 9:29 am

    @Cameron: In fact the primary orthography for many of the other Chinese languages uses characters (including Cantonese), and for most of them there is enough overlap with the Mandarin character set that short phrases are similar or even identical in characters even when the spoken form (and the corresponding latinised written form) would be mutually incomprehensible.

    To a large extent this has to do with when the writing systems were mapped to their respective languages; the character-based orthography has existed for Cantonese as well as Mandarin for millennia and has evolved very conservatively (and with some amount of influence from the other Chinese languages) even as the languages themselves have diverged, but the currently-used Latin orthographies all date from the 19th and early 20th centuries, and were designed without any attempt to harmonise spelling between multiple languages. (I'm not claiming they should have tried to coordinate spellings, or that that would even have been possible.) So the new writing system is much more uniquely Mandarin, while the old system is in a large extent shared.

    To draw an analogy to the European languages: there are a lot of words and short phrases, especially if they have Latin roots, that appear very similar in various European languages in their standard orthography: "Information" could be English or French and is perfectly readable to someone familiar with Spanish (información), Italian (informazione), or various other language backgrounds. But if we imagined writing it in IPA (a proxy for a recently-developed new orthography; you might imagine a conversion to Cyrillic or Arabic script), writing "ɛ̃fɔrmasjɔ̃" makes it unambiguously French and much harder to puzzle out for an English speaker, whose new orthography might have written the corresponding word as "ɪnfəmejʃn", with next to no overlap.

  15. ze said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 9:32 am

    Re: Rob H
    I suspect the lack of tone marks on signage is largely a practical matter: tone marks can be a pain to add–and certainly this was the case before computers were commonplace. Aesthetic considerations might also have played a part.
    In any case, for people who speak the language and are used to Pinyin, if Pinyin is properly segmented into words, it's generally not too troublesome to read even without tone marks. Certainly, in context (e.g. on a police car) disambiguation is automatic. (Note: I don't mean to suggest that reading Chinese in Pinyin is never problematic–if highly literary Chinese is written in toneless Pinyin, parts of it can be nearly indecipherable.)

  16. Josh said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 9:46 am

    I think the children's reading argument is the strongest. I remember reading as a child newspapers in Taiwan with each character's 注音符號 pronunciation written by the side. That, and the whole "latinization is modern" aspect seem to be the most likely explanation from my perspective.

    Changing Chinese to pinyin only would be incredibly difficult for me to stomach, at least. Too many homophones.

  17. Ellen K. said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 9:54 am

    Is homophones the right word? The issue as I understand it (from reading this blog) isn't homophones (we deal with those fine in speech) but words that sound different (different tones) but those differences aren't captured in pinyin. Is there a word for that? Semi-homophones?

  18. KeithB said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 10:23 am

    Is it because Pinyin is is readable from much further away?

  19. Cameron Majidi said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 10:42 am

    @blahedo: I really don't buy that "the primary orthography for many of the other Chinese languages uses characters (including Cantonese), and for most of them there is enough overlap with the Mandarin character set that short phrases are similar or even identical in characters" – my understanding is that the primary orthography for the non-Mandarin languages looks like Mandarin for the simple reason that the written form is always Mandarin. The situation is not what you describe with regard to the modern European languages, but more like what the situation was with the Romance languages centuries ago. Before Dante, the written forms of the languages that would develop into French, Italian, Spanish etc. were all pretty much identical, because literate people all wrote in Latin. In China, until the early 20th century the written forms of all the Chinese languages were the same because literate people always wrote in Classical Chinese. Then they switched to writing in the Mandarin, as they continue to do.

  20. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 11:12 am

    I would think the hanzi that communicate information like "this is a policeman" or "this is a police car" would be sufficiently salient to be mastered by those (foreigners or domestic) with otherwise very limited reading skillls. By way of analogy, when I was a fairly young gaijin boy living in Tokyo I didn't master all that many kanji (especially to the point of recognition being so automatic that I didn't have to stop to reflect or disambiguate), but the kanji frequently found on signs you might need to navigate around a busy train station or other public place (e.g. distinguishing the men's bathroom from the women's bathroom or an entrance from an exit or an up staircase from a down staircase) I learned very quickly for the obvious Darwinian reasons. So I would expect there's some sort of vaguely sociopolitical/cultural or "marketing" thing going on here, not actually any need for increased comprehensibility.

    Sometimes in Japanese advertising/billboards/etc. katakana is used to render words that might otherwise be rendered in kanji in ordinary running prose. Maybe using pinyin is employed in the PRC in somewhat analogous contexts for analogous reasons?

  21. TK Mair said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 11:16 am

    In re Rob H's comment that use of pinyin without diacritical markers is useless.

    Quite to the contrary, general written pinyin without diacritric markers is very understandable to fluent readers. This is because the reader who is fluent in the language uses contexual cues.

    The same is true in English, which has been shown (anecdotally) by all those little internet messages that prove you can read even grossly mispelled messages.

  22. Mr Punch said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 11:16 am

    To return to the point Ned and Jason discussed: It seems entirely plausible to me that the Chinese leadership in 2011 might return to a project abandoned in the 1950s that can be seen as modernizing Chinese writing – especially in electronic/keyboard contexts – and making it more accessible to the wider world, without subordinating the Chinese language to another.

    Such odd mixtures in public signage as a result of obscure policy initiatives are not something unique to China. On highways in Puerto Rico, distances are given in kilometers and speed limits in miles per hour.

  23. Jon Weinberg said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 3:25 pm

    @J.W.Brewer: When I was a gaijin living in Tokyo, I never did learn the kanji for "police", nor did I need to: Tokyo police cars say "POLICE" on them in romaji. That said, I agree with you that the use of pinyin isn't about comprehensibility-to-foreigners, because dual-language Chinese character/English signs would be so much better suited to that purpose, just as with the Tokyo police cars. (I know that there are foreigners in China who don't read English, but still . . . ) Pinyin seems to be about something else.

  24. mondain said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 4:41 pm

    My answer to the three questions are:

    1. why they choose to use pinyin and NOT Chinese characters

    Because it looks fancier. To be specific, using Latin alphabet seems more cosmopolitan (as David Coghill said), globalized, modern (Rob H), high-tech, even exotic.

    2. why they choose to use Mandarin in pinyin instead of English

    Because not everyone can afford an English translator. Or they didn't bother to find someone who knows English.

    3. for whom the sign is intended

    My guess is that it is intended for internal use. I don't think they feel very much urged to make everyone understand the distinction.

  25. Craig said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 5:26 pm

    I would point out the two examples of the use of pinyin to add to the general idea of pinyin being for the less educated. In both the context of a badge for a "trainee" or its use on a cop car, there could be a political dynamic that is marking these things as necessary as accessible to those less educated. On one hand, to mark a "trainee" as "SHIXI" can reinforce their lowly position within the baggage checking ladder and lack of education and experience in the field, which is extended by the pinyin to their presumed lack of education in a more broader sense. Both as sort of "hazing" without it's playful fratboy implications and perhaps as a marker of baggage handling as a blue-collar, uneducated job. On the cop car and uniform, it seems to imply an argument that uneducated people commit more crimes and therefore police procedure and business can operate more fluently if it reaches out to these uneducated criminals on their terms. That isn't to say that there isn't a bit of a cyclical nature to the marking of people as uneducated and as ones who commit crimes, but the use of pinyin on a police sign can actively enforce such a dynamic while purporting to be a reactionary measure to aid in police work against uneducated criminals.

  26. Boyang said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 5:49 pm

    Most Chinese, unless absolutely illiterate, would still recognise often occurring signs like "police" or "public order". Printing in hanzi does not incur more trouble than printing in Latin alphabet.

    The move to pinyin might have two (political) aims:

    1) Propagation of the official variant of Chinese. Pinyin is Mandarin. Using pinyin instead of hanzi makes it unambiguous what language/speech is used.

    2) Experimentation how far pinyin will be accepted as a written form of Chinese. The matter has not been settled. People are still arguing how to write hanzi (simplified/traditional form) and some are even arguing using pinyin. Since Mandarin has become a polysyllabic language and modern hanzi a set of consolidated characters (kind of a huge alphabet), pinyin is the more preferable writing system. (anyone appreciating hanzi can still learn calligraphy or classics).

    Concerning diacritics: It is very useful, maybe prescribed in pinyin by some propositions (if there is a standardised form of writing Chinese in pinyin, not just single zi or words, but whole sentences), but often it is possible to comprehend pinyin even without diacritics given the context.

  27. Ellen K. said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 8:27 pm

    @Cameron Majidi. my understanding is that the primary orthography for the non-Mandarin languages looks like Mandarin for the simple reason that the written form is always Mandarin.

    Always? My experience is that statements with "always" are usually wrong. Use of Chinese characters for other Chinese languages has been posted about right here on Language Log. I don't personally know how common that is, other than enough to get written about on Language Log.

    Chinese Characters are used in Japanese. Chinese Characters are used some in Korean (and used to be used more extensively).

    So, no, Chinese characters does not always mean Mandarin.

  28. Chris En Li said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 9:32 pm

    The car itself should be enough of an indicator as to what it is. That being said why have letters on it at all?
    The pinyin is most likely for the illiterate Chinese. While the illiteracy rate of China is around the 4% mark, 4% of 1.3 billion people is still about 53 million people.
    Also, painting characters is a bit more complicated and expensive than painting Latin letters.

  29. Yadav Gowda said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 11:31 pm

    I was in Bangalore earlier this year, and I noticed several signs which were written in a transliterated form of Hindi, which makes sense, as people may not be proficient at reading Hindi but almost everyone they are targeting can read English quickly. However, there was one instance where they wrote out Kannada, the local language, transliterated into English, which didn't really make much sense, because if a person speaks Kannada and can read English, they are generally able to also read Kannada. If they were targeting people who weren't native to Bangalore, they almost certainly should have written in Hindi or English, as those languages are far more known across India.

  30. Bathrobe said,

    October 14, 2011 @ 12:00 am

    I would phrase the question differently.

    There are countries where they don't even bother to use the local language. In Mongolia, police cars are marked 'POLICE'. No Mongolian visible at all. Why don't they do the same in China? Surely it would look more international and sophisticated.

    Well, the reason is that China could not be seen bowing to foreigners. Even if they use pinyin, which is marginally acceptable as a script (they learn it at school), there is no way the Chinese could go the whole hog and use English, unlike lesser nations.

    The result is a half-way measure that gets the worst of both worlds. Personally, I think 公安 looks much better than GONG'AN. 'POLICE' also looks much better than GONG'AN. But GONG'AN (or, if I remember rightly, GONGAN) just looks ugly.

  31. B.Ma said,

    October 14, 2011 @ 1:57 am

    @Cameron Majidi, Ellen K
    When Cantonese people (at least, those who did not grow up with the PRC's Mandarin policy) write in characters, we are not writing in Mandarin. There is a formal register used for official letters and broadsheets, but even that will be interspersed with specific terms or coinages which may make no sense if spoken in Beijing Mandarin.

    You don't need to know Mandarin to write in Cantonese. Despite linguists saying Chinese languages are mutually unintelligible, 10 years ago in Hong Kong, most people could converse in Mandarin given a little exposure and some idea of the conversion "rules". They would be understood by a Beijinger, potentially with difficulty, but ask them to read or write pinyin and you would get nowhere. And I would hardly call them illiterate; but that's exactly what you are doing. It might be a bit like asking a native English and French speaker, who only reads English, to write French. (With the influx of mainlanders, Mandarin in Hong Kong has improved.)

    China could not be seen bowing to foreigners
    Pinyin itself is bowing to foreigners. What was wrong with Zhuyin? The first thing a prospective Russian learner learns is Cyrillic. Why didn't the PRC use Cyrillic for its pinyin? After all, I think there would have been more Russians around China in the 1950s. Obviously, Pinyin was meant to be English, just like English signs can be found all over the world. Korean is also represented quite well with Latin characters, but you don't see anyone advocating abolishing Hangul do you? Or do you find GYEONGCHAL on Korean police cars?

  32. Victor Mair said,

    October 14, 2011 @ 2:08 am

    Well, we've received a lot of intelligent suggestions for why the Chinese authorities would prefer SHIXI to "trainee" or 实习, etc. To one degree or another, all of the suggestions that have been offered may be relevant (looks jazzy-modern and international, advances the cause of Mandarin, promotes script reform [as advocated by Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and many others Chinese political and intellectual leaders], easier to print / produce, more readily visible, and so forth), but probably the fundamental motivation is so that those Chinese who are illiterate in characters will have a better chance of understanding what is written on the uniforms and vehicles of public security forces. Incidentally, the figure of 4% illiteracy quoted just above is fictional, even though it may be official. The actual figure is much higher than that, especially in places like rural Gansu and Guizhou, and particularly among women and peasants. I say this with assurance because high-ranking members of the State Language Commission, whose names I cannot divulge for obvious reasons, have told me as much.

    Some additional miscellaneous notes:

    To say that GONGAN (or GONG'AN) is "ugly" amounts to sheer, subjective prejudice. Someone who is not used to Chinese characters might say the same about 公安, and someone who is unfamiliar with English might say the same about "police".

    In experiments with pinyin texts without tonal diacritics that are properly segmented according to the official orthographic rules, we have found that fluent speakers of Mandarin automatically and effortlessly read them off with the correct tones, just as speakers of English put accents in the correct places without accent marks to guide them or as speakers of Russian make the necessary vowel quality and accent shifts when reading texts in which they are not marked.

    The vast majority of written Chinese is indeed Mandarin (and, before the 20th century, was mostly Literary or Classical Chinese), but there have always been bits and pieces of the local vernaculars that intrude, and speakers of Cantonese (especially in Hong Kong) and, to a lesser extent, Taiwanese and Amoy(ese) have made serious efforts to write in their own language (their mother tongue), though the Mandarin- and Classical/Literary-oriented script makes that quite a challenge to do so in a pure (i.e., without massive adulteration by Mandarin and Classical / Literary) form and without making tour-de-force kinds of adaptations. Missionaries and others, however, have written down many different Chinese languages with the roman alphabet, and it is very simple to do so.

    Pinyin is far easier for foreigners to master than are the characters. There are now many courses being offered that teach Mandarin (or Cantonese or Taiwanese or Shanghainese, and so on) strictly through romanization and dispense with characters entirely. Thus travellers from throughout the world are far more likely to understand SHIXI or GONGAN than they are 实习 or 公安.

  33. mondain said,

    October 14, 2011 @ 2:32 am

    I don't agree that the signs written in pinyin are so designed that 'those Chinese who are illiterate in characters will have a better chance of understanding.' Firstly, I doubt the issue of accessibility for the uneducated is on the agenda of the authority. And secondly, the illiterate population is not more likely to be benefited from the signs written in pinyin, which still requires some schooling to master.

    It still seems more probable to me that the intention of the sign is mainly the visual effect, which is not meant to be understood. This picture of 'TSOP ANIHC' may illustrate this point. (see:

  34. Will said,

    October 14, 2011 @ 3:28 am

    scav said,

    Were tone markings absent in the examples given, and if so is that usual for signage in pinyin, or just for short labels where there is little or no ambiguity?

    wikipedia said,

    These tone marks normally are only used in Mandarin textbooks or in foreign learning texts.

  35. Gene Buckley said,

    October 14, 2011 @ 6:54 am

    @Ellen K., Josh

    For words or morphemes that are identical in pronunciation except for their tones, I would use the term "segmental homophone", though it's not a common phrase. (For those unfamiliar with the term: Linguists refer to individual sounds, i.e. vowels and consonants, as "segments", whereas prosodic properties like tones are "suprasegmental".)

    For the pinyin spellings that look the same even if the words they represent are not true homophones, we could use the standard term "homograph".

    Of course, spoken Mandarin has many one-syllable morphemes that are true homophones and would be homographs even if tone diacritics are included. Pinyin doesn't distinguish them, but characters do. However, in practical terms, they are usually disambiguated by the compounds in which they occur, and (failing that) by the larger context of the sentence.

    This is true even when the tone marks are omitted, as demonstrated by the experiments that Victor mentions in his comment.

  36. Chris En Li said,

    October 14, 2011 @ 8:26 am

    @ Victor Mair; You are absolutely correct in your assessment of the 'official' number. Having recently returned to the United States from 14 years in Beijing I noticed that the number of illiterate Chinese was surprisingly large among the industrial workforce which is made up primarily of migrant workers.

    As for whom the sign is intended, I restate the fact that a police cars often look like police cars regardless of the script printed on it.
    Why then do Police cars in the U.S. have 'sheriff' or 'police' printed on them.
    With the exception of being able to tell jurisdiction, this seems to be a pointless practice.

  37. Patrick C said,

    October 14, 2011 @ 9:43 am

    Goals like accessibility to the illiterate or foreigners, which seem unreasonable on the face of things (I as a foreigner never knew the word 公安 till I saw it pasted on the side of a police car; many illiterate Chinese probably learn the same word early on, by similar means) may still be the best answer. Pinyin is *understood* to be accessible to Hanzi-illiterate populations (even tantamount to "English"), even if it in fact is not. As someone said above, I doubt the police or transit authorities are concerned with maintaining a cosmopolitan face. "Modern," maybe, but that's even more vague…

  38. Jon said,

    October 14, 2011 @ 6:33 pm

    According to a book by an American who spent many years in China (it may have been Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler), Mao was persuaded by Stalin that instead of using the Latin alphabet, China should develop its own alphabet based on Chinese characters, and better adapted to the language. So the Latinisation was officially halted, and a project started to invent a new alphabet. There were disagreements about how to do it, and the project ran into the sand.

  39. Bathrobe said,

    October 14, 2011 @ 7:16 pm

    Well, well, my suggestion has drawn two sharp rejoinders.

    I do not think that some of the 'rational' reasons given here are very relevant. The writing of GONG'AN or whatever on the side of police cars doesn't necessarily make sense in terms of script legibility, intelligibility, etc. I really think these arguments are barking up the wrong tree.

    I will elaborate my point.

    The use of a certain script or language in many ways embodies certain assumptions and ideas. It is a kind of 'statement'. I would submit that there are differences in what is found 'acceptable' in different cultures, societies, and political systems (in a very broad sense).

    As an example, I would ask why Japan, as a major world manufacturer of cars, does not use any of its native scripts in badging cars. At the same time, cars in China, which until recently was no great shakes in the car industry, generally carry at least one piece of chrome in Chinese characters. I would suggest that the use of particular scripts embodies certain cultural assumptions. The Japanese seem to have felt that it was 'appropriate' for Japanese cars to be modelled on Western cars, right down to the use of foreign names in Roman letters. The Chinese, on the other hand, appear to feel that it is appropriate to use Chinese script since these are 'Chinese cars'. I would suggest that there is an underlying attitude that I am not sure how to express, but it would go something like 'we Chinese should maintain our distinctiveness and not simply ape foreign cultures'.

    However, in this case, I would suggest that 'cultural pride' merely forms a background, possibly a historical backdrop, to the real reasons for using GONGAN on the side of police cars.

    More cogent reasons that suggest themselves include:

    Custom: If you look at uniforms, emblems, etc. in China, and you will see lots of pinyin used, often in abbreviations. I would even hazard a guess and surmise that this is a custom that arose back in the 1950s. That suggests a certain historical background that others could elaborate on better than I could, but presents itself to me as an interesting mixture of 'internationalism' and the assertion of cultural and political autonomy and independence.

    Need to overawe or intimidate: The use of pinyin in Chinese emblems, uniforms, etc., as mentioned above, has become one mark of officialdom and authority. It is perfectly in keeping with this practice to use pinyin on police cars. In fact, by using pinyin on the side of their cars, the Chinese police are possibly asserting greater psychological authority over the populace than if they used Chinese characters. (On the other hand, if they used English they would risk being seen as laughable or unpatriotic.)

    As for Victor's extended discussion of the equal validity of different writing systems, I have no quibble with that. Were pinyin the official writing system of Chinese, I would not have any problem with writing GONG'AN or GŌNG'ĀN. But the current use of GONG'AN is nothing like that. I'm afraid that for me the dominant associations are with officialdom and the assertion of authority, not with using one perfectly reasonable script in place of another. That is why I find the practice ugly — not because I don't like pinyin.

  40. Bathrobe said,

    October 14, 2011 @ 7:28 pm

    Come to think of it, the GONGAN on the side of cars could just be an extension of the use of pinyin on uniforms. I'll try and confirm this by having a close look at the next policeman I see :)

  41. EndlessWaves said,

    October 14, 2011 @ 9:01 pm

    @Chris En Li: Does China not have multiple public services using cars with sirens? Certainly here in the UK a large estate car or 4×4 with a siren could be coast guard, ambulance, police, highway maintainence, large load escort etc. etc. They have different liveries of course so locals can tell them apart, but marking them as police etc. seems like the only way visitors could know what they are on sight.

  42. GummySnake said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 1:15 am

    1. Why they choose to use pinyin and NOT Chinese characters
    – If they used Chinese characters only people who understands Chinese can read it and there are more people who knows Latin alphabet in the world.

    2. Why they choose to use Mandarin in pinyin instead of English
    – This is just a theory but I think that by doing so the official language Mandarin can be promoted. When Chinese who speak different dialects read characters they usually think in their native tongue (dialect). On the other hand, if the texts are written in Pinyin then they can only think of Mandarin when they encounter public signs. This effect maybe trivial but if all public signs are in Pinyin, Mandarin will be a lot easier to "spread" among the Chinese. There are also several reasons why they chose Mandarin over English. For example, when you see some guy in uniform and a police car you immediately know it's a cop so even though it's not English. For that, there aren't any reasons to prefer English over Chinese.

    3. For whom the sign is intended
    The sign is intended for 3 groups of people:
    1) Dialect Speakers
    2) Foreigners who can't read Characters
    3) Less Educated Chinese

  43. Bathrobe said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 11:24 am

    "the fundamental motivation is so that those Chinese who are illiterate in characters will have a better chance of understanding what is written on the uniforms and vehicles of public security forces."

    Is this the final answer?

  44. Percival said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 11:46 am

    And you have wrote many times of the term "Dialect" being incorrect, and being used for political means by Chinese "chauvanists". It is indeed right that "dialect" is an incorrect term, but it is not the fault of Chinese.

    the first to use the term "Dialect" in english to described the Chinese languages were not Chinese. They were westerners, like Samuel Wells Williams, whose book dates back as far to the qing dynasty.

    Here is Williams book "The Middle kingdom: a survey of the … Chinese empire and its inhabitants …" dating back to 1848

    The term "Fangyan" means regional speech, "dialect" is also defined in english as regional speech. The difference is that Chinese use the term regardless of whether its the same language they are talking about, and English speakers only use it for varieties of the same language

    An analogy would be as if a speaker of Language A used the term "fire room" to refer to a kitchen, while a speaker of Language B used the term "Fire room", to refer to a living room, since it has a fireplace.

    When a Language B speaker (Samual Wells Williams) translates the word "Kitchen" from Language A into Language B, it would be read as "living room" by a language B speaker.

    Then the Language B speaker would start blaming Language A people- blaming them for naming the Kitchen "fire room", rather than blaming the Language B translator (williams), who was the one who decided to translate it by literal meaning.

    Before modern times, before 1911, I don't think you will find any instances in literature of ethnic chinese denying that chinese is made out of many languages, nor were they using the term dialect to push an agenda. It was westerners like Williams who described Cantonese, and Fujianese Min as dialects of Chinese, and then ethnic Chinese copied Williams to use that description.

    It was also westerners who invented the term "Chinese" as a blanket term to describe the inhabitants of China who spoke sinitic languages, not ethnic chinese themselves, and westerners first insisted that they were one people with one culture.

  45. Percival said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 10:18 pm

    Chinese has been written phonetically by manyscripts, like xiaoerjin(Arabic writing used by Chinese speaking Muslims), phags pa, and even hangul by Koreans who visited Ming dynasty china and recorded the official guan hua.

    the strange focus you pinyin pushers have on the Latin alphabet Can be seen as western chauvinism. Phags pa was created by a Tibetan monk, xiaoerjin was created by Muslims, hangul was created by Koreans, but Latin alphabet was created by westerners.

    I am sure professor Mair has studied phags pa and hangul at least if he studied the history of yuan and Ming dynasty mandarin, and heard of xiaoerjin, but there is virtually no material he has written on them

  46. Percival said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 10:36 pm

    And of the three, xiaoerjin is still known by some hui Chinese speaking muslims in northwest china in Ningxia and Gansu, but thanks to pinyin it's going extinct, and some Japanese researchers are trying to collect xiaoerjin manuscripts before this happens.

    Phags pa was used for some variant of mandarin and can be adapted to standard mandarin, hangul is known by ethnic Koreans in china.

    Latin alphabet has no connotations for any people in china today. Some Chinese thinks it resembles animal guts.

  47. David Bloom said,

    October 16, 2011 @ 3:22 pm


    "the fundamental motivation is so that those Chinese who are illiterate in characters will have a better chance of understanding what is written on the uniforms and vehicles of public security forces."

    Is this the final answer?

    I should hope not! It is ridiculous to suppose that illiterate Chinese are all literate in Pinyin. The best answer combines elements from your responses and those of rob h and mondain: the purpose is more graphical than linguistic, and has to do with projecting an image of modernity and intimidating authority–without the work that would be required to get it in English.

  48. David Bloom said,

    October 16, 2011 @ 3:34 pm

    Sorry, it's rude to say "ridiculous"–I mean I don't think it's a plausible reason.

  49. Bathrobe said,

    October 16, 2011 @ 5:46 pm

    Percival has said that Latin alphabet has no connotations for any people in China today, which suggests that the 'intimidating' theory is incorrect.

    But there has to be a rationale for doing this. Someone has made a conscious decision to use pinyin rather than 公安. I find it hard to believe that the decision was made in a spirit of helping 'poor, uneducated people' know what a police car is. Although I'm willing to accept that it might be a _reflex_ from an era when pinyin was used for that purpose — a kind of 'meme' (hate that word!) that has been unthinkingly carried into the present.

  50. Bathrobe said,

    October 16, 2011 @ 6:13 pm

    Incidentally, I think Percival's peeve is both right and wrong.

    On the one hand, the very consistent campaign to prove that Chinese can be written in pinyin and is not duty bound to use characters gives the unfortunate impression of a passionate Western reformer of Chinese ways.

    On the other hand, I think that if Percival sat down and recognised the logic of Victor Mair's arguments, he would realise that he is actually _affirming_ the value of non-character writing systems like Phags-pa or Xiao'erjing, not denying them.

    Furthermore, even if concepts like 'dialect' or 'Chinese is a single language' originated in the West, this does not detract from their unhelpfulness in describing the linguistic situation of Chinese, which Victor is quite right in criticising.

  51. Bathrobe said,

    October 16, 2011 @ 7:29 pm

    Having spouted that nonsense about memes, I've reconsidered what I said. In a rule-governed bureaucracy like China's, I suspect that the reason for the use of GONGAN may lie in official regulations, or as I suggested above, unwritten official practice. I don't believe for a moment in this era of Han ascendancy and (supposed) widespread literacy that anyone seriously considers using pinyin for the benefit of minorities or illiterates. But in an earlier era, when people were actually thinking of things like writing reform, etc., it would have been quite plausible for pinyin to be officially used for this purpose. This practice then possibly became enshrined in official practice. In that sense Victor Mair is probably right as to the original motivation. But I remain highly doubtful that that is the primary motivation today.

  52. Bruce said,

    October 17, 2011 @ 10:59 am

    A small note on the word "illiterate", as used by many above.

    One indeed has to consider whether an "illiterate" person can read pinyin. In the past, the answer was no. But in the present era, every Chinese person from the mainland from the mainland learns pinyin at an early age. They may drop out of school at an early age (say 10 or 12) and therefore be classified as "illiterate" — i.e. unable to read enough hanzi to read newspapers, but they will still know pinyin, just as any kid in western schools learns the alphabet at an early age but may still be functionally illiterate.

    This even offers some way to explain the difference between the official rate of 4% illiteracy and the real value, i.e. full literacy in hanzi.

  53. David Bloom said,

    October 17, 2011 @ 7:09 pm

    Wow, I was thinking back in the 80s, when the use of Pinyin in the curriculum was cursory and ineffective, and kids who were not academic high fliers/dictionary users really did not know it. I did not realize that this had changed. And then of course it obviously had to, didn't it, because Pinyin is the preferred method for inputting characters on PCs and cell phones.

  54. Bathrobe said,

    October 18, 2011 @ 8:31 am

    People know pinyin, but not necessarily very well. I know one person from the provinces whose Chinese characters are ok, but initially underwent a rather painful process learning how to input pinyin on a computer (when chatting, etc.). Not that she didn't know pinyin, but she didn't know the correct input due to dialect differences, etc. I still don't think that pinyin is a very meaningful system to most ordinary Chinese.

  55. Bathrobe said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 7:29 pm

    Well, there was a police car parked in our compound last night, and it had '公安' on the side and '警察', with 'POLICE', underneath on the bonnet. So I'm not sure why some police cars would have GONGAN on the side. The lack of uniformity is as puzzling as the usage. And obviously the Chinese have no allergy to using the English word 'POLICE', so I was wrong on that point.

  56. Lareina said,

    October 27, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

    I think Pinyin's status, in foreseeable future will become like hiragana in Japan. There are certain restaurants/shops that only prints hiragana outside their shop.
    From my experience in China it is the top choice for most restaurants/other institutions when they need to print something in roman script while no english translation is offered.

  57. Observation said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 6:19 am

    Wo renwei Hanyu Pinyin bing bu bi hanzi rongyi xuexi huo lijie. Qishi, ru guo bu biao diao de hua, pinyin zhi hui zhizao geng duo de mafan. Yi zhe liang ju wei li, zhen de you ren wan quan kan de dong ma? Hanyu bu shi Lading yuxi yuyan, hai shi yong hanzi bijiao hao.

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