Mixed-script letter written by an adult

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The two notes below, as described in this article (in Chinese) were written around the same time and under similar circumstances.

The two patients were being treated at a hospital in Shijiazhuang, capital and largest city of Hebei province.  After treatment, they were asked to comment on the care they had received from nurse Du Jiajia.

Li Dong's letter, on the right, is straightforward, well written, and with decent, somewhat stylish, penmanship (his favorite character is xīn 心 ("heart") — 4 times out of 39 total — and he writes it in a rather unusual way that makes it look almost like Arabic calligraphy.

Duì Dù Jiājiā hūshì de fúwù tàidù, rènzhēn, fēicháng mǎnyì, duì bìngrén nàixīn, gōngzuò xìxīn, jǐnshèn. Wǒmen bìngrén fēicháng de nuǎnxīn, fàngxīn!

Lǐ Dòng





Very satisfied with the seriousness of Nurse Du Jiajia’s service attitude.  She is patient with the patients.  She is careful and cautious in her work, which makes us patients feel warm and relieved!

Li Dong


The same can not be said of Guo Hao's letter on the left.  If we are speaking of Hanzi literacy, then we must say that he is only partially literate.  However, if we accept Pinyin as part of his arsenal of writing tools, then he is fully literate, though he makes many errors, both in his Pinyin and in his characters.  The main point is that he is able to write down everything he wants to say, and others can fully comprehend what he has written.  I consider him a resourceful writer (cf. communicative competence in speech as described in this comment).

For typographical ease and convenience of discussion, I will first provide a normalized Hanzi version of Guo Hao's letter, then I will explain many bits and pieces of it that depart from standard Hanzi literacy.

Duì Dù Jiājiā hùshì de fúwù tàidù rènzhēn fēicháng mǎnyì duì bìngrén hēhù yǒu jiā.

Shūyè zházhēn jìshù fēicháng gāochāo, wǒ dōu méi juédé téng ne, jiù yǐjīng zhā hǎole.

Zài Jiājiā hùshì de xìxīn zhàogù xià, shǐ wǒ de xīnqíng fēicháng shūxīn, dǎozhìle wǒ de bìngqíng hǎozhuǎn de fēicháng kuài.

Guō Hào




输液扎针技术非常高超,我都没觉得疼呢, 就已经扎好了。





I am very satisfied with Nurse Du Jiajia’s earnest service. She provides extra care to the patients.

She is extremely skilled at giving intravenous drips and injections. I didn't even feel any pain at all when she had already finished the injection.

Under Nurse Jiajia’s attentive care, made (sic)* my mood much relieved and also led to the quick improvement of my illness.

Guo Hao



*VHM:  It is ungrammatical to use both zài…xià 在…下 ("under") in the first clause and shǐ 使 ("caused") in the second clause.  One or the other will do.



对杜佳佳护士的服(he wrote as 月+皮)wù/务态度认真非长(should be 常)满意对bìng/病人hē/呵护有佳(should be 加)。

书叶(should be 输液)zhā真(should be 扎针)jì树(should be 技术)非长(should be 常)高cháo(should be 超),我都没决(should be 觉)的(should be 得)téng(should be 疼)呢,就以京(should be 已经)zhā(扎)好子(should be 了)。

在佳佳护士的细心找古(should be 照顾)下,shǐ (should be 使)我的心情非长(should be 常)书(should be 舒)心,dàozhì(probably should be 导致, but 导 should be third tone)了我的bìng(should be 病)情好zhuàn(should be 转)的非长(should be 常)快。


xíng相(should be形象 )☆☆☆☆☆

太(should be 态)度  ☆☆☆☆☆

fúwù(should be 服务) ☆☆☆☆☆

jì树(should be 技术)  ☆☆☆☆☆

zōng和 (should be 综合)平(should be 评)价 ☆☆☆☆☆☆☆

Pinyin of the ratings:

xíng xiāng (should be xíngxiàng)☆☆☆☆☆ — image

tài (should be tài) dù ☆☆☆☆☆ — attitude

fúwù(should be fúwù) ☆☆☆☆☆ — service

jìshù (should be jìshù) ☆☆☆☆☆ — skill

zōng hé (should be zònghé) píng (should be píng) jià ☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ — overall evaluation

I do not detect the slightest sense of inferiority (zìbēi gǎn 自卑感) in Guo Hao's remarks from not knowing so many characters, writing the wrong characters, etc.. Quite the contrary, he has a richer and more expressive vocabulary than Li Dong, who wrote only in characters.  In any event, I am heartened that Guo Hao was not in the least inhibited from expressing himself in writing.  Moreover, if Guo Hao can write a letter like this at a rectal clinic in the provincial capital of Shijiazhuang, a city of more than ten million population in North China, then there must be millions of individuals all over China who are utiliziing Pinyin in this way.

Pīnyīn wànsuì 拼音万岁! ("Long live Pinyin!")
Shuāng wén zhì wànsuì 双文制万岁! ("Long live digraphia!)

Most of the previous examples of using Pinyin to substitute for unknown characters examined on Language Log were done by children, e.g.:

But this classic example was written by an adult with a PhD:

[Thanks to Mark Swofford, Jing Wen, and Fangyi Cheng]


  1. Maude said,

    January 4, 2018 @ 4:08 am

    How interesting. Pragmatic and resourceful it is. I'm sure this could become fashionable (initially) and then grow into more standardized use.

    I recall doing this as a student of Japanese although we used kana rather than pinyin. "Partials" definitely reflect on a person's social standing, education or age.

    When I take notes in French or English, I sometimes add kanji if it's faster to write, or if I want a concept to stand out. It's very liberating. However, I've had to scale this down since sharing notes with my ELLs.

  2. Jens Ørding Hansen said,

    January 4, 2018 @ 8:55 am

    Re: "zōng hé (should be zònghé)"

    綜合 is pronounced zònghé on Taiwan, but on the mainland zōnghé is standard. So Guo Hao got the tone mark right in this case.

  3. Mark S. said,

    January 4, 2018 @ 9:01 am

    It's times like this that I really miss John DeFrancis. He would have loved this post.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    January 4, 2018 @ 9:08 am

    @Mark S.


    I'm sure that JDF is smiling up in heaven.

  5. David Marjanović said,

    January 4, 2018 @ 10:06 am

    What strikes me (though it doesn't really surprise me) is that Mr. Guō does not write like someone who is unfamiliar with hànzì. Every character fits in a square, and some are very cursive indeed: I am unfamiliar with Chinese handwriting and find the 病 and even the 的 in 我的病情 completely unrecognizable. This is not someone who only writes by hand once every 2 weeks and otherwise types pīnyīn on his phone or something.

  6. Jonathan Smith said,

    January 4, 2018 @ 11:53 am

    @David Marjanović As I can attest, it takes countless hours of character-writing practice to suck at it :P

    Weird that Guo apparently copied Li's first line… grammatically dubious without the 、before 认真 it seems.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    January 4, 2018 @ 2:55 pm

    From Bob Ramsey:

    Wow. You've come up with another great post, Victor. If Guo's letter, and what you've said about it, are indicative of current trends in China, what's happening is truly worth noting.

    In reading your post, I can't help but have the same thought as "Mark S.": John would have undoubtedly been fascinated by what's going on.

    But, of course, on reading your post, another thing that occurred to me immediately is that text messaging and other electronic media are undoubtedly what smoothed the way for what you're seeing in Guo's letter. After all, young Chinese have learned through such media that just about anything (wrong characters, puns, nonce creations, emojis–you name it–and perhaps most significantly, complete ease with mixing in pinyin or even English) goes if it helps you express yourself and your feelings better. I imagine that John would have loved all of these trends!

  8. wanda said,

    January 4, 2018 @ 3:07 pm

    Jonathan Smith: Re: copying the first line: These letters were probably in response to a prompt containing that exact language.

  9. John Swindle said,

    January 4, 2018 @ 7:04 pm

    So much for medical privacy!

    The original article mentions that the letters praising the wonderful nurse are short and handwritten and use Pinyin. So Pinyin isn't unremarkable, but it's a marker of something like writing from the heart or from the masses (not the anorectal masses discussed) or something.

    John DeFrancis would indeed have been pleased with the bits of evidence.

  10. B.Ma said,

    January 5, 2018 @ 7:00 am

    I would be interested to know the age and educational history of Guo Hao.

    I don't see handwritten Chinese very often, maybe the odd note from one of my relatives who is more comfortable in Chinese than English, but Guo's handwriting looks a bit child-like, in the same way that quite a few adult monolingual English users also have very poor handwriting. Then again it doesn't sound like he is young based on the news article.

    I would also be interested in the thought process of him choosing to write 书叶 rather than shūyè. Surely he knows that what he wrote are not the correct characters for IV fluids (I'm assuming he mixes up 叶 and 页, though he does know how to write 树, albeit in place of 术)… so why not just use the pinyin since he is not averse to doing so in the first place, or does he actually think that IV fluids = the pages of a book?

    Lastly I wonder why he bothered filling in the characters for 务 and 病 only once.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    January 5, 2018 @ 8:12 am

    I don't think we should spend much time second guessing Guo Hao's thought processes for when to write in Pinyin, when in characters, when to choose this character or that character, etc. The main thing is that — when he is unsure how to write a certain character — he chooses another for its sound, and he's not going to be spending much / any time thinking about its meaning. He just wants to get the sounds in his mind down on paper. In that respect, Pinyin is the easiest solution of all (see past LLog posts on this subject).

    I have many semi-literate adult correspondents in English (workers, prisoners, the poor, and friends of all sorts). They may write the same words differently on different occasions, and sometimes even in the same message. Whatever works.

    Even the greatest writer in English, William Shakespeare, spelled his own name differently at different times, and there were many other spellings of his surname by others.


    My Germanic surname has many variants, even — over time — in the same little Tyrolean village of Pfaffenhofen that my father came from and in the adjoining regions of Austria around Innsbruck.

    What is perhaps most surprising is that recently discovered (archeologically recovered) tomb manuscripts from Warring States and Qin-Han times (last several centuries BC) display tremendous variation in the way characters are written, often in the same document, and this seems mind-boggling, even for such a quintessential concept as Dào 道 ("Way").




    And there are manuscripts dating to that period from many other sites.

    The first twenty years of my Sinological career were devoted to study of the Dunhuang manuscripts (5th-11th centuries AD). Controlling the many different forms of the characters is one of the challenges of that field. Another is keeping track of the different characters that were used to write the same morpheme.


    The Cambridge scholar, Imre Galambos, did important work on the local and regional varieties of characters during the period leading up to the standardization of the script under the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty (259-210 BC) carried out by his Chancellor / Prime Minister, Li Si (280-208 BC).



    Guo Hao is carrying on an old tradition.

  12. Jichang Lulu said,

    January 6, 2018 @ 11:00 am

    A wonderful post that illustrates several on-going trends, all in one small sample. Guo Hao's note strikes me as very proficient. If anything, it says more than its translation into the standard script would. I'm not sure how much of it stems from a lack of competence in the script and how much is a conscious attempt at casual, emotional or cute/child-like writing.

    It reflects what the actual process of writing Chinese increasingly looks like. Most input can happen in a combination of toneless pinyin and (typically accented) voice input. This naturally results in a lot of full and partial homophones. Care will be taken to get the characters right in proper names, low-frequency classical phrases or crucial technical terms. Some of those characters can be entered with handwriting recognition if their pinyin is too high-frequency and they don't occur within common words; the 'handwriting' will also be faulty and approximate. [月+皮] would be a reasonable input to get the desired 服. Bare pinyin has increasingly varied functions (taboo avoidance, highlighting, cuteness…), and of course there can be many
    English words. It looks casual because it reminds you of how the sausage is made before edition. Some of the homophones are funny, perhaps intentionally.

    The style of the note is similar to that of online-shopping reviews, complete with star ratings. They tend to have a lot of casual pinyin, clearly unrelated to character amnesia (things like 'xihuan').

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