An anecdote on the limitations of the Chinese writing system

« previous post | next post »

[This is a guest post by Ari-Joonas Pitkänen]

I’m a frequent reader of Language Log, and I’ve been particularly interested in the debate about the usefulness / limitations of the Chinese script in modern society. As the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre approaches, I remembered an anecdote about the limitations of Chinese characters presented in Louisa Lim’s book The People’s Republic of Amnesia. It describes the way jailed activists communicated in prison after the crackdown on Tiananmen in 1989:

The political prisoners developed a crude method of communicating with each other by tapping out English letters on the wall of the prison. When I asked why they had used English, Zhang Ming pointed out that Chinese characters can’t be tapped out numerically. The code (one tap for A, two for B, etc.) was time-consuming, so messages were often cryptically abbreviated. Zhang remembered that once Liu Gang tried to get the others to take part in a hunger strike. Zhang could not understand what they were supposed to be striking over, so he refused, tapping out NO. Immediately Liu began tapping out a message, which Zhang painstakingly counted out: TRAITOR.

(p. 42, bolding is mine)

It seems that prison is another environment in which Chinese characters can be cumbersome.

Selected readings

"The uses of Hanyu pinyin" (5/22/16)

"Pinyin for the Prez" (10/25/18)

"Pinyin for daily use" (4/11/18)

"Pinyin in practice" (10/13/11)

" Pinyin story" (7/16/18)

"Passport pickup by pinyin" (3/2/12)

"Pinyin without Chinese characters" (7/20/15)

"Pinyin memoirs" (8/13/16)


  1. B.Ma said,

    June 2, 2019 @ 6:05 am

    Why not use Pinyin (or Wade-Giles or GR, if pinyin is a symbol of the oppressor)?

  2. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    June 2, 2019 @ 6:20 am

    A binary pinyin system, separating initials and *finals, as in the Double pinyin (双拼) input method, would have been less time-consuming.

    *In a contemporary view, the glide belongs to the onset, and the second vowel of a dipththong to the nucleus. Yet, the traditional analysis is the one used by pinyin representation,

  3. FH said,

    June 2, 2019 @ 7:38 am

    Nice anecdote. It reminds me of a friend, long time China hand and polyglot who early in my learning Chinese days said to me that Chinese was a language designed to hide information not impart it!

  4. John Rohsenow said,

    June 2, 2019 @ 12:59 pm

    Too bad they didn't know Morse code. But at least they knew Pinyin!
    Also reminds me of the alphabet on a square system someone mentioned recently, which the prisoners in the "Hanoi Hilton" used to communicate during their incarceration.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 2, 2019 @ 2:09 pm

    Once you memorize the semi-arbitrary number or letter combinations associated with 7,000 or so different sinograms, using morse code is a cinch.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    June 2, 2019 @ 2:50 pm

    "Chinese Telegraph Code (CTC)" (5/24/15)

    My post on the system, with a sample telegram and plenty of lore on this diabolically difficult code.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 2, 2019 @ 3:04 pm

    Not too far away in Japan, folks dealt with the newfangled innovation of the telegraph more effectively by devising a system that would enable messages in kana to be sent via dots and dashes. This presupposed that transliterating kanji into kana at the sending end and reconstructing the kanji from kana at the receiving end was feasible, although it may be that those who worked in the telegraph industry ended up doing it very quickly and confidently than the median person literate in Japanese. Actually I guess I don't know if the ultimate recipient would be given a text converted back into kanji by someone in the telegraph office or just given a printout/transcription of the stream of kana and be expected to figure it out himself.

  8. Joe Fineman said,

    June 2, 2019 @ 9:25 pm

    Cf. the so-called "quadratic alphabet" used by Soviet prisoners in _Darkness at Noon_ by Arthur Koestler. In the English-language version, the English alphabet (minus one letter, I suppose) was mapped onto a 5×5 square, so that (say) I was represented by one tap followed by four taps (first row, fourth column).

  9. Philip Spaelti said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 5:31 am

    Japanese telegrams were generally composed and received in Katakana. That was historically one of Katakana's significant uses. They had to be composed in Kana since the rate would depend on the number of characters.

RSS feed for comments on this post