"Self-Help Providing Machine Of Free Contraceptives"

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The following sign appears on a vending machine that provides free condoms at a maternity hospital in Beijing:

Here's what the sign actually says:

miǎnfèi bìyùnyàojù zìzhù fāfàng[jī]
("self-service free contraceptive dispens[er]")

bìyùntào huòdé CCC rènzhèng
("condoms have received CCC certification")

Two things puzzled me about this poster.

1. I initially didn't recognize the certification mark. It looked like the CE ("Conformité Européenne") symbol that appears on European condoms, but it was different. Since the CE symbol has been misused by Chinese manufacturers, a matter that was taken up by the European Parliament in 2008, I thought that perhaps it was intentionally made to resemble the CE symbol, yet distorted enough to appear as though it were an independent symbol. Upon further investigation, I discovered that China has come up with its own condom certification, namely, CCC ("China Compulsory Certification"). That looks suspiciously close enough to CE that it must have been made to resemble it on purpose.

2. As to why a mother's hand grasping a baby's finger was chosen to illustrate the front of a free condom dispenser, I have no clue. Perhaps the designer was simply so enamored of the centerpiece of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel that he / she thought it would be clever to do something similar.

[A tip of the hat to Dan Devaney]


  1. RDB said,

    February 18, 2012 @ 12:38 pm

    I don't read Chinese, but the element you give as 自动 is pretty clearly not 自動 (automatic), but 自助 (self-help) on the sign itself. Is this a typo in the original, or perhaps a cleverly intended substitution on the part of the sign's writer?

    [VHM: Fixed now; thanks.]

  2. The Ridger said,

    February 18, 2012 @ 1:57 pm

    I think it's pretty clear. With or without a one-child policy, the message is "You've got one baby, you don't need another so soon."

  3. xyzzyva said,

    February 18, 2012 @ 2:04 pm

    Instead of self-help shouldn't one read self-service?

    Indeed, 自助 is the translation given for self-service at the Chinese Wiktionary.

  4. languageandhumor said,

    February 18, 2012 @ 5:09 pm

    RDB and xyzzyva-

    In 自动 (zìdòng, 'automatic,' literally: 'self-moving'), 动 is the simplified form of the character 動, as used in the PRC. You can see both forms here: http://www.zhongwen.com/d/176/x202.htm

  5. languageandhumor said,

    February 18, 2012 @ 5:15 pm

    Sorry, I didn't look back at the original sign closely enough. You're absolutely right; the sign says zìzhù "自助" ('self-help,' or probably here indeed 'self-service') not "自动" ('automatic').

  6. Randy Alexander said,

    February 18, 2012 @ 8:40 pm

    "Self-help" is pretty strange here. When I saw the title of the post, I thought it was going to be some Chinglish thing implying that the condom machine had self-help tips on it, kind of like a fortune cookie. I think it should be, as languageandhumor notes, "self-serve".

    I remember the first time I failed to make this character distinction. I was looking for a place to eat with a friend, and was drawn to a restaurant that had 自助 as part of its name, because I was curious to see how an "automatic" restaurant worked! You can imagine my disappointment.

  7. Randy Alexander said,

    February 18, 2012 @ 8:44 pm

    Muphry's Law strikes again. I meant to say that I thought it was going to be about a condom machine that dished out condoms that had self-help tips on them (like fortune cookies).

  8. Ray Girvan said,

    February 18, 2012 @ 10:44 pm

    That's a very large baby: the hand is almost as big as the mother's.

  9. Garrett Wollman said,

    February 19, 2012 @ 12:54 am

    CCC is required for many many devices, not just prophylactics. Many people in the U.S. are likely to be as familiar with that marking as they are with the CE mark from the various bits of electronic equipment in their lives.

  10. michael farris said,

    February 19, 2012 @ 9:33 am

    3. Why is there a "translation" at all? Does a typical Chinese maternity ward have enough English speakers to justify such a measure?

    Or is this magical incantation English*?

    *my general name for an unneeded translation whose function is mostly to make all involved feel like more modern, smarter and better people

  11. Bill Watkins said,

    February 21, 2012 @ 8:37 am

    a question for Prof. Mair:
    the bottom part of the sign, and your note, suggests that the machine dispenses just condoms, but the upper part of the sign offers "contraceptive medicine and devices." Did the machine offer anything besides condoms? Do you happen to know whether contraceptive pills are sold over the counter in China, in which case this machine's sign would make sense.

  12. Boris said,

    February 22, 2012 @ 12:59 pm

    @michael farris,
    Presumably the sign goes on all such machines in China (or in Beijing or whatever) including ones that are likely to be used by English speakers.

  13. chris said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 2:49 pm

    If the merchandise it provides is free, is it still a vending machine?

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