Pinyin vs. Sinographs

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This came across Jeff DeMarco's Facebook yesterday:

At first, I thought it was making a clever statement about Pinyin and Chinese characters, but the more I looked at it, the more the image macro seemed to be fraught with various sorts of problems.

From left to right, it says:

pīnyīn ("Romanization")

Hànzi 汉子 ("man; fellow; guy; strong and courageous man; macho man; hombre; [topolect] husband"); not Hànzì 汉字 ("Sinograph; Chinese character:")

wǒ 我 ("I; me:)

What was the creator of the image macro really trying to say?  Did they just make a sloppy mistake (Hànzi 汉子 for Hànzì 汉字)?  Or did they have something else in mind?

According to Ben Zimmer, this can be categorized as an "object labeling" meme. And it's a variation on the famous Distracted Boyfriend meme — scroll down to the Wedding Photo section on the Know Your Meme page.


  1. Circeus said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 11:47 am

    Couldn't the sloppy mistake just be a cheeky comment on the difficulty of getting hanzi right?

  2. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 1:24 pm

    "double entendre"

  3. Carl said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 1:36 pm

    Maybe because the groom is distracted by a man?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 1:54 pm

    I think potentially you're all right, and there may be other possibilities as well.

  5. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 2:31 pm

    @Victor Mair

    The groom, which represents a Chinese person ("wo"), is supposed to be heterosexual (he's married to his wife) but actually the Chinese person ("wo") does not love "Hanzi", which represents what they are supposed to love (they have even written both "wo" and miswritten "Hanzi" using Hanzi characters, so they are already "married" to Hanzi) but instead desires Pinyin, which is written with the simple Latin script, merely wearing a scant swimsuit, certainly the "opposite" of the complex Hanzi.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 3:23 pm

    @Antonio L. Banderas


    Wonderful scenario.


  7. Bathrobe said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 6:27 pm

    Who the hell made it? I could be totally wrong but doesn't strike me as something a Chinese person would make. If a non-Chinese (e.g., a Chinese learner) made it, I don't think it's even worth trying to interpret.

  8. David Morris said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 7:40 pm

    Are Hànzi 汉子 and Hànzì 汉字 complete homophones? If they are, then using the Hànzì 汉字 can disambiguate, whereas the Pinyin can't.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 7:52 pm

    Differing in tone, they are not completely homophonous.

  10. Alex said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 8:32 pm

    Its amazing how that photo can make me sit here wondering for such a long time.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 10:06 pm

    Same with me, Alex. It's extremely thought-provoking — on many levels and in many directions.

  12. Annette Pickles said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 10:14 pm

    This is more like it… Daddy got body!

  13. Rick said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 10:18 pm

    Following on some of the analysis above, "hanzi" is beautiful and delicate, but (in bridal costume) not very practical or easy "to use", while "pinyin" is rugged and strong, purposefully overcoming obstacles (walking through water).

  14. Victor Mair said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 11:18 pm

    Truly amazing indeed! More subtleties emerge.

    Moreover, the one on imgflip cited by Annette Pickles was created (as of this moment) "less than an hour ago", so it's probably in response to the photo at the top of this post which is intriguing us so much.


  15. Alex said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 12:06 am

    I can see rick's interpretation.

    The user of characters wishes they can just use pinyin.

  16. B.Ma said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 1:43 am

    I agree with Bathrobe.

    The intent of the image, even without any annotations is unclear to me. Is the groom supposed to be gay, or just wishing he was more muscular? The fact that Taiwan has introduced gay marriage just makes it even more confusing.

  17. Andreas Johansson said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 2:37 am

    My immediate assumption, without knowing what the hanzi said, was that it was meant to criticize Chinese who use or prefer pinyin. This based largely on the parallel to the "distracted boyfriend" images.

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 2:43 am

    David M ("Are Hànzi 汉子 and Hànzì 汉字 complete homophones? If they are, then using the Hànzì 汉字 can disambiguate, whereas the Pinyin can't"). But it can, and it does ! If you look carefully, the final "ì" of Hànzì (汉字, "Chinese character") has a falling tone, whilst the final "i" of Hànzi (汉子, "Man") has a neutral tone.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 6:27 am

    @Andreas Johansson

    Thanks for adding yet another layer to our understanding of this richly complex image.

  20. David Marjanović said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 6:39 am

    The complete history of the "distracted boyfriend" picture and its bisexual version is explained here; the bisexual version used here is introduced halfway down the page.

  21. David Morris said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 6:39 am

    Victor: I noticed the tone marker over the first syllable, but not the second, because there's a dot on the i by default.
    But by extension: are there other Chinese words which are completely homophonous, but can be distinguished in hanzi but not in pinyin?

  22. David Morris said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 6:40 am

    Phillip: Thanks. See my follow-up to Victor.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 7:35 am

    Can you imagine any natural language without a certain amount of homonymy?

    Here's what the master (John DeFrancis), had to say regarding homophony in Pinyin:

    "Homographobia" (9/27/10)

    And this post will guide you to one of his classic articles on the problem of Sinographs in the world today:

    "Dumpling ingredients and character amnesia" (10/18/14)

  24. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 7:50 am

    After reading the DeFrancis' "Visible Speech" , and the figures about Chinese "phoneticity" layed in its second chapter ( , I unsuccessfully searched for an academic project dealing with a synchronic, rather than etymological, description of chinese characters' "phoneticity" which would make it easier for learners to memorize them.

    I do not consider it utopian, at least for the 80% of phonosemantic compounds out of the approximately 3500 characters necessary for full literacy, to carry out an investigation about synchronic meaningful patterns and arrange useful groups of characters using "objective criteria" (not mere mnemonic stories as the ones in "Remembering the kanji/hanzi").

    Among such criteria are radicals (and therir context, such as position), but also their glyphs and strokes, as well as various linguistic information of the words that certain morphemes can create, even regarding words as a graphical unit (as the authors do in the paper "Six-Digit Stroke-based Chinese Input Method").

  25. Chris Button said,

    July 22, 2019 @ 7:26 am

    @ Antonio L. Banderas

    I think I've mentioned it before in response to one of your comments on Language Log, but the dictionary I'm currently compiling is arranged according to word-families (i.e., is etymologically grounded) yet is laid out with a focus on making it as user-friendly as possible in terms of the role of phonetic components to the learner of Chinese (and also Japanese) script. Unfortunately, it looks like you are going to have to wait many years to see it since I am not compiling it as part of my day job…

  26. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    July 22, 2019 @ 5:44 pm

    @Chris Button

    I have sent a request on so that I can read a draft of your "Phonetic Ambiguity in the Chinese Script", to which my university library doesn't have access.

  27. Chris Button said,

    July 23, 2019 @ 4:02 pm

    @ Antonio L. Banderas

    That's actually a revised version of my MA thesis that tries to refute notions of sweeping cases of "polyphony" in the Chinese script. The basic premise still stands, and I would still stand largely (but not entirely) by it on palaeographical grounds, but the Old Chinese phonology leaves something to be desired. To be honest, it's technical and unlikely to be what you're looking for. One day, the dictionary will be complete… I just wish I could afford to devote more time to it.

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