Passport pickup by pinyin

« previous post | next post »

Yesterday I went to the Beijing Public Security Bureau (Gōng'ān jú 公安局) to renew my visa.  While waiting in the main hall for my number to be called, I had ample time to walk around and familiarize myself with the operations there.  One thing in particular piqued my curiosity.  Namely, I saw four gray, metal cabinets full of hundreds of passports (three for Chinese, one for foreigners) waiting to be picked up.

I watched a clerk filing passports into the slots on the mechanized, revolving shelves inside the cabinets.  Wondering how the passports were arranged so that they could be readily retrieved when called for, I asked the supervisor how the passports were ordered on the shelves.  Her reply left me both startled and pleased.

"Of course," she said, "they are ordered by pinyin [VHM: romanization]."

We then had a brief discussion about how, if an attempt were made to order the passports by character shapes or strokes (radicals plus residual strokes, stroke order, etc.), it would take far longer to find them, and they might well get lost forever among the slew of passports inside the cabinets.

This is merely one example of how useful (one might well say "essential") pinyin has become for the efficient functioning of modern society in China.  Finding people and things and terms in hotels, office buildings, passenger manifests, telephone operator listings, catalogs, dictionaries, and so forth — especially when names or terms have to be spoken over a telecommunication device — is far easier and more reliable when they are classified by sounds rather than by the shapes of characters used to write them.  The obverse is also true when entering words into computers, cell phones (STMs), and so forth; pinyin is easier and faster than trying to analyze and classify them by the shapes and strokes of the characters with which they are written.

After I left the Public Security Bureau, I went over to visit my old friend, 106-year-old (107 sui by Chinese reckoning) Zhou Youguang ("Father of Pinyin") and told him what I had observed about the filing of passports.  He smiled beatifically.  Although we had much else to discuss that afternoon, there was no need for him to comment on the ordering of passports by pinyin.


  1. Victor Mair said,

    March 2, 2012 @ 9:55 pm

    There is an article on Zhou Youguang in today's NYT:

  2. C Thornett said,

    March 3, 2012 @ 2:57 am

    Early in my ESOL/EFL teaching career, I had a class with several well-educated Chinese women in it. (All wives of students visiting the local university.) As part of a lesson I asked what principle would be used to order names in a Chinese school or in a directory of some sort. Most seemed to struggle with the concept, but one (a teacher) demonstrated how the character strokes could be used to classify and order names.

    Electronic devices were much less common then and home telephones may not have been very common even in urban areas of China at the time.

    Over time, I have often taught people who struggled to grasp the concept of lists, directories, indexes and so forth being organised in alphabetic order even though their first languages had alphabetic scripts. (This is part of the UK National Curricula for Adults for literacy and ESOL.) It's clearly not just a function of individual literacy, although people who are literate in one sense of the word may not read, much less write, as a part of daily life. Alphabetised lists may not be common in some places, in reading matter or in public displays like signs. Or perhaps in more transparent spelling systems, words are generally learned as wholes with less attention to individual graphemes. And perhaps our preference for alphanumeric order has overwritten (forgive me) other sensible ways of ordering words and names.

    The growing prevalence of electronic communications and devices may change all this, of course.

  3. Outis said,

    March 3, 2012 @ 5:19 am

    Pinyin is certainly very convenient, but I doubt it would be essential. There are many ways to sort lists without the need of a ordering scheme built into the language. Chinese students, for example, are often given a number when a school class is formed. For a large bureaucracy, any kind of named-based sorting would ultimately be inefficient due to the frequency of repetition. I am surprised that the passports, at least for Chinese nationals, were not ordered by the National ID number.

    Anyway, I the usefullness of pinyin in administration is directly proportional to the proliferation of standard putonghua pronunciation. It's one thing in Beijing, but in areas where local dialects and accents dominate, the helpfulness of pinyin is questionable.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    March 3, 2012 @ 6:07 am


    Not so. Many of the founders and greatest exponents of pinyin (Zhou Youguang [Jiangsu, Changzhou], Ni Haishu [Shanghai], Yin Binyong [Sichuan], Apollo Wu [Hong Kong], et al.) had / have thick, "non-standard" accents, yet they all mastered (indeed some of them created) pinyin and utilize(d) it perfectly for a wide variety of purposes. It's the same with Americans, Australians, Britons, Irish, Indians and Pakistanis (South Asians), Africans, and so on who have all sorts of different accents, but they all can read and order standard English without any particular problem.

  5. Nick Lamb said,

    March 3, 2012 @ 6:10 am

    Outis, one of the things we learn in database design is that just because you think parameter X is a stupid way to index things doesn't mean that people using the system don't want to use parameter X to find things. I would imagine that Chinese people, just like most people, often want to find a person on a list from their name, not some arbitrary numeric identifier. You may remember your national ID, but does your friend remember it? Your cousin? Your boss?

  6. mollymooly said,

    March 3, 2012 @ 6:34 am

    The parade of nations at the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony was ordered by character stroke count of their Chinese names. Pure symbolism, no practical lookup considerations.

  7. Ken Micklas said,

    March 3, 2012 @ 12:53 pm

    "The obverse is also true when entering words into computers, cell phones (STMs), and so forth; pinyin is easier and faster than trying to analyze and classify them by the shapes and strokes of the characters with which they are written."

    The part about pinyin being faster is false. Shape-based input methods like Cangjie and Wubi are way faster than pinyin once you learn them well. However, pinyin is much easier to learn.

  8. Connor Walsh said,

    March 3, 2012 @ 2:51 pm

    I wonder, was it ordered purely by alphabetical pinyin, or by head character? Would it go, for instance: "Wang Gao, Wan Ge, Wang Gen" (forgive the madey-uppey names, just trying to illustrate)?
    With the ABC Dictionary (almost ten years ago now), I would pass it to a Chinese friend and they would rarely be able to find words in it, expecting the pinyin to be arranged after head characters. I don't know if things have changed since?
    Whatever. Certainly agree with how enormously significant pinyin has become, no doubt about it.

  9. Leonardo Boiko said,

    March 3, 2012 @ 7:04 pm

    @Ken: Got a serious comparative study to back that claim?

  10. Jim Breen said,

    March 3, 2012 @ 7:49 pm

    I remember discussing hanzi ordering and lookup techniques with two colleagues who were from the PRC. They said that while their parents liked the older systems, such as four-corner codes, the younger generation usually use pinyin.

    In Japan, kanji are often (usually?) ordered by reading.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    March 3, 2012 @ 9:33 pm

    @ Ken Micklas

    Leonard Boiko is right to be skeptical of your bald assertion. Within a month or two, I will publish a paper by Rebecca (Shuang) Fu that puts the lie to the claim that Wubi is faster than pinyin. Rebecca is a long-term user of Wubi, but she has the honesty and integrity to admit and describe in detail all the problems with Wubi that make it slower and much more frustrating than pinyin. Wubi works all right on prepared texts (i.e., texts that have been practiced many times) and when used by professional typists who are copying something already written. For all practical purposes, it cannot be used for touch-typing (in Chinese that is called mángdǎ 盲打["blind typing"]), nor can it be used with any degree of proficiency for composition at the keyboard. Furthermore, even for highly skilled professional typists whose only job is to input things with Wubi all day long, when they come across characters for which they don't know the codes, it slows them down to a crawl. And, guess what they have to resort to in order to produce the characters whose codes stubbornly refuse to come to mind? Pinyin! I have observed Wubi typists up close for many years, and the actuality of their daily work is not what you think it is (it ain't pretty). I have sat next to Wubi typists who have entered text for me. Let me tell you, it is an agonizing experience.

    For non-professional typists, for those who do not want to spend months learning the basis of a refractory, cumbersome, frustrating, plodding system, and for individuals who want to touch type and compose at the keyboard, pinyin inputting is far faster and easier and more workable than Wubi. In fact, for these purposes, Wubi is not workable at all.

    Mutatis mutandis, the same holds for other shape-based systems.

  12. Ellen K. said,

    March 3, 2012 @ 10:29 pm

    @Connor: Even in English, we often alphabetize word by word, such that, say, everyone named Smith comes before anyone named Smithers.

  13. Bruce said,

    March 4, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

    Speaking, as you did of telephone directories, when I arrived in Hong Kong back in 1992 I noted that printed telephone directories cost money, whereas live directory service was free.

    The Chinese portion of the printed directory is ordered by first two strokes of the name, and I don't know how it works after that, but it must work since the live operators have some sort of system, perhaps aided by computers.

    Anyway,my hypothesis was that live directory service was preferred because the printed phone directories were impractical [in addition to being enormous: HK has 6 million people).

  14. Lugubert said,

    March 4, 2012 @ 6:04 pm

    Does the pinyin ordering mean that there is a pinyin name line in the passport? Just a few weeks ago, I had the answer to a much less complicated transcription problem. I have several times become frustrated by ticket ordering websites that don't accept my Swedish surname. Do I just skip the dots of my ö, or do I use the common German substitute oe? Will airlines protest because the ticket has a different spelling than my passport? The answer turned out to be that there is a machine readable line in the passport, using oe!

  15. Guy said,

    March 4, 2012 @ 6:58 pm

    I wonder if the widespread use of pinyin ordering has anything to do with the move to simplified characters? (I can't see how simplified characters would make stroke ordering more difficult, but hey I'm not a linguist).

    In Taiwan and Hong Kong, pinyin ordering is rare to non-existant. Most things there are just ordered by stroke order and bu4 shou3 (sorry I don't know how to say that in English; its the part of the character which shows which family the character belongs to).

    As an anecdote, I had a Taiwanese friend who had a Chinese-English electronic dictionary which required pinyin input. She couldn't figure out how to write in pinyin, so it was pretty much useless until I printed off a chart for her with zhuyin-to-pinyin conversion. And she was a PhD student too!

  16. Peter T said,

    March 4, 2012 @ 8:37 pm

    I recall reading that it took some centuries before anyone thought of using the alphabet as an index (and many more centuries before anyone thought of punctuation) – sometime in the 5th century BC I believe. Seems to us so useful as to be obvious from day one.

  17. James C. said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 1:16 am

    Guy: I expect it's simply a matter of pinyin and not zhuyin being taught in mainland schools, and zhuyin but not pinyin in Taiwanese ones. AIUI there's no particular reason not to use one over the other with one type or another of hanzi.

    Victor Mair: I was surprised to learn that touch-typing was an advantage of pinyin over wubi, not because I thought you could do it with wubi, but because I figured stopping to select which homophonous character one wanted, or to check the computer's guess, would make trying to touch-type in pinyin prohibitively annoying as well. But then, as an anglophone I'm spoiled.

  18. Outis said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 10:21 am

    @VM, re: pinyin and accent:
    I am not surprised that proponents (and therefore experts to a degree) of pinyin manage to master it. But for the masses, it's not as evident. In southern China, you can still find mistaken pinyin on signs sometimes. I also know Cantonese speakers who frequently make pinyin mistakes.

    @Nick Lamb:
    I'm not saying that it is stupid to sort by pinyin in general, just that in this particular context–sorting passport–the national ID provides a ready, precise and efficient alternative. Sorting by pinyin seems terribly slow and error-prone in comparison, given the amount of homophones and variable/rare character pronunciations.

  19. Mary Kuhner said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

    I am not good at this, admittedly, but if I were a clerk I could probably remember "Li Xiaohong" long enough to look up a passport, but would have no hope of remembering a ten-digit ID number and would therefore have to write down every request.

    My university students in the US are known by name and unique student number, but I am unable to learn their student numbers and thus use the names, even though my last class had two people with the exact same name (the surname involved was Nguyen).

    I can't resist telling a story here. My first job involved assigning computer account names to university students and helping them manage those accounts. Several days in a row, I had a particular guy come in to complain that his password had been changed. I would check his ID and change it back for him, and scratch my head. Finally I mentioned this to my evening shift counterpart, who said, "That's funny–me too!" Our algorithm for producing account names from personal names had given two separate people the same account…. (In this one, the surname involved was Smith.) In retrospect, adding a check for student ID would have been a good idea.

  20. Outis said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 7:42 pm

    Luckily for the Gong'an clerks, they do not need to memorise the ten-digit ID no. Chinese nationals need to present their ID card to do pretty much anything administrative, and the clerks has to verify that the passport belongs to the person with that ID anyway. So presumably, everytime the clerk retrieves a passport, he can have the ID card right in his hand to read from.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 7:57 pm


    Lots of people in various parts of English-speaking countries misspell English too.

  22. Outis said,

    March 6, 2012 @ 9:17 pm

    Quite so. English orthography is its own catastrophe.

    But there's a key difference between English spelling and pinyin: while written English is equally ill-suited to all accents and varieties, pinyin specifically favours only standard Mandarin.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 1:21 am


    Are you saying that English alphabetization is unworkable?

  24. Outis said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 3:57 am

    Certainly not, just responding to your comment about English spelling mistakes.

    Regardless of how messy English spelling is, it would likely still be more effective as a sorting index in this context (passport retrieval) in an English-speaking country than pinyin in China; for the simple reason that the person's English names are present on all his IDs, whereas in China pinyin is only present on the passport, not the national ID, requiring the clerk to guess every time.

    And then there are the rare and multi-pronunciation characters, not to mention names in minority languages. (AFAIK Chinese passports can be issued with non-mandarin names, but I've never seen minority NIC written in non-mandarin.)

  25. Victor Mair said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 7:31 am


    In the given context, wouldn't you say that your response was rather extreme and unwarranted, and not really relevant to the issue at hand of sorting by alphabetical order?

    I have met Mongol and Daur citizens of the PRC in America who travelled with government issued Chinese-style names (in Hanzi and in pinyin). Ditto for Zhuang and other groups. My recollection is that Uyghur names are Hanized thus: Dolkun –> Dolukun. This one I know for sure: Idris Abdursul –> 伊弟利斯.阿不都热苏勒 YIDILISIABUDURESULE.

  26. Outis said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 9:23 am

    Eh? I don't think my response to be extreme in the least. I really don't feel so strongly about this.

    I am simply puzzled why the clerk would ignore a ready mean of sorting, and opt for one that's certainly more prone to ambiguity and confusion.

  27. Outis said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 9:25 am

    After all, the whole point of the NID no. is to provide each Chinese citizen a unique, serial identifier. Why not use it? Just sayin'

  28. michael farris said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 10:57 am

    "I am simply puzzled why the clerk would ignore a ready mean of sorting, and opt for one that's certainly more prone to ambiguity and confusion"

    I think the general human tendency is to sort by name rather than number. When I worked in a bureaucracy (which dealt with lots of people with lots of international names) we sorted everything by name rather than social security number (again everybody had a unique one).

  29. Outis said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 7:25 pm

    In America, Europe, and possibly also in Japan, that's certainly true. Many countries gives its citizens unique serial numbers. However, in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong these numbers are actually used ubuiquitously. You may need to provide your NID# for things like buying a mobile phone SIM, buying train/plane tickets, everything banking, and even registering on some websites. You will _always_ be asked the NID# for anything administrative. Most people remember their NID# better than their phone numbers, and can recite it on command.

    American SSN and European/Japanese ID# simply aren't used anywhere near this extent.

    In my experience, banking and mobile phone service clerks will always ask for your NID# first, before your name. They can search for your account data much faster with the NID#.

  30. Alan Shaw said,

    March 14, 2012 @ 12:51 am

    In Hong Kong in 1995 I got printed telephone directories for free. I just had to go to the office and pick them up.

RSS feed for comments on this post