Left to right or right to left?

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Sign in Beihai Municipality, Guangxi Province that is circulating on WeChat:

From top to bottom, right to left, it reads:

zhǐwàng chuánxiāo zhìfù
shēnghuó méiyǒu chūlù

指望传销致富
生活没有出路

"If you hope to get rich through MLM*,
your life will have no way out."

—–

*MLM

Multi-level marketing (MLM), also called pyramid sellingnetwork marketing, and referral marketing, is a marketing strategy for the sale of products or services where the revenue of the MLM company is derived from a non-salaried workforce selling the company's products/services, while the earnings of the participants are derived from a pyramid-shaped or binary compensation commission system.

(Source)

In posting these signs, the government wanted to announce their firm opposition to MLM schemes.  However, unlike in premodern times, most contemporary Chinese, who are used to reading horizontally from left to right, after a moment of adjustment for the vertical orientation, would read these lines vertically from left to right:

shēnghuó méiyǒu chūlù
zhǐwàng chuánxiāo zhìfù

生活没有出路
指望传销致富

"If your life has no way out,
you can hope to get rich through MLM."

This is exactly the opposite message that the authorities wanted to convey.

In this WeChat shot, the first comment is made by a Cameroonian, and the response is from a Chinese:

Philip Bowler, who called this sign to my attention, remarks:

I'm intrigued by the way it's being applauded as an example of the exceptional nature of Chinese. My wife (a Chinese) couldn't explain whether the reversible layout of the text was likely to have been deliberate or not. I would assume that the designers knew what they were doing and wanted to make the  message eye-catching. What do you think?

I, and most Chinese I know, think that the municipal authorities made a stupid mistake.

Two days ago, after news of this blunder went viral on social media in China, the Beihai authorities removed the offending signs and issued an apology, averring that that they were at war against MLM  and were determined to eradicate it from society.

So, is the ambiguous nature of the orientation of the Chinese script great or not?



10 Comments

  1. Steve Jones said,

    February 3, 2019 @ 12:46 pm

    Ha, this is a nice refinement of the common ambiguity of reading a single horizontal slogan left-to-right or right-to-left, as in this fine example https://stephenjones.blog/2017/02/23/reading-chinese/

  2. Carl said,

    February 3, 2019 @ 1:06 pm

    I used to see this church sign a lot in the South:

    No Christ, no peace
    Know Christ, know peace

  3. Bathrobe said,

    February 3, 2019 @ 8:50 pm

    I've noticed a number of examples (informal) where Chinese have adopted the incorrect direction when writing vertically.

    Essentially, the decision last century to convert to horizontal writing (to match 'international' practice) has caused a large number of (Mainland) Chinese to lose touch with their own roots — in Taiwan they still use the old orientation.

    (Guilty admission: I read it the wrong way because I've got used to traditional Mongolian script, which reads from left to right.)

  4. Victor Mair said,

    February 3, 2019 @ 9:18 pm

    MLM as a brainwashed cult

    From a Chinese graduate student:

    MLM is very very very brainwashing. I have a friend whose relative was lured to MLM, and his relative was literally captured into that brainwashing camp until his parents and wife came to that camp and took him home. However, he hated his parents for that, because he believed in the magical power of MLM. MLM will make you believe that you are a member of this MLM family and you need to get more people into this family. Those MLM groups don't usually have a decent product, but earn their money through involving more people who have no hope in life, no motivation for hardworking.

    The slogan is very witty to some degree. But I wonder whether that would be of any use to those who have been brainwashed.

  5. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 3, 2019 @ 11:24 pm

    And the apology/correction has the typo 为害社会 for 危害社会 :/ time for Yinhai PSB to hire a proofreader
    What's special here is unmarked/"paratactic" (?) conditionals more than writing direction…

  6. Lai Ka Yau said,

    February 4, 2019 @ 12:26 pm

    I'm not sure about the situation in Mainland China, but I suspect most people who maintain a reading habit in Hong Kong and Taiwan are no stranger to reading vertical text and would read the sign correctly. Of course, people who maintain a reading habit are a minority these days, but even people who don't read books may have ample exposure to vertical text in comics, if they read those. (Personally, though, I don't find the slogan very catchy… It rhymes, but the lack of 對偶 ruins a slogan for me.)

  7. Lai Ka Yau said,

    February 4, 2019 @ 12:34 pm

    @Jonathan Smith: I'm not sure about how the characters are pronounced in Beihai, but in Cantonese 为 and 遗 are homophonous, so it could have been 遗害 as well, assuming that the Beihai dialect has a similar homophony. (Incidentally, 为/危 are also homophonous in Cantonese but not Mandarin – again, don't know which is the case in Beihai.)

    I believe paratactic conditionals have been discussed before on LLog – I remember there was a post about a sentence along the lines of 没有共产党,没有新中国 and how it confused learners.

  8. Bathrobe said,

    February 4, 2019 @ 11:03 pm

    为/危 are also homophonous in Cantonese but not Mandarin

    I assume that Beihai is in the 白話 (Cantonese)-speaking area, but suspect that is not the cause here. 为/危 are both input as 'wei' in Roman letters in computer input systems. It is possibly just a careless conversion choice.

  9. Mary Kuhner said,

    February 6, 2019 @ 1:43 pm

    A friend posted a short poem with illustrations for each line as a series of blog comments. However, I had my blog reading software set to display newest-first, so I saw them in reverse order. Both orders turned out to make sense (the lines in the poem have a strong stand-alone quality) but not quite the same sense. I found the effect so charming that I now want to make wall plaques, one per line/illustration, and mount them in a hallway so that which poem you see depends on which direction you're going.

  10. Timothy Rowe said,

    February 12, 2019 @ 4:04 pm

    My wife (far more capable in Chinese than I am) points out that the text at the bottom reads left to right, which could incline readers to read the whole poster left to right.

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