Ask Language Log: The alphabet in China

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Jeff DeMarco writes:

I have just come across some mixed language abbreviations on Chinese social media. For example, 川A市 refers to Chengdu. 皖J市 is Huangshan in Anhui, and 皖A市 is Chaohu.

I am curious as to how the letters are assigned.

The incorporation of the Roman alphabet into the Chinese writing system is a topic that we have often addressed on Language Log, for which see the "Readings" (and the bibliographies they include) below.

As for the present case, these mixed language abbreviations (i.e., using "a one-character provincial abbreviation of a province / an autonomous region, etc. + a letter" to refer to a city) derive from license plate prefixes in China.  The system is described in this Wikipedia article:

"Vehicle registration plates of China"

As everyone who has studied Chinese for more than a couple of years knows, all the provinces and autonomous regions of China have one character designations, most of which have old, deep roots.  For example, in the above cited instances, "Wǎn 皖" refers to Ānhuī 安徽" and "Chuān 川" refers to "Sìchuān 四川".

The letters are assigned for different reasons. In most cases, "A"s are assigned to the capital cities of first-level administrative divisions; and the location of the letter in the English alphabet usually indicates the status of the city, although there are many exceptions.

In that sense, 皖A市 refers to 合肥 Hefei, but here it is used with reference to Chaohu, which is a subdivision of Hefei.

Beyond the above described provincial and city designations, vehicles of the Chinese People's Armed Police Force are designated as "WJ" for "wǔjǐng 武警" ("military police").

So much for license plate designations, which are now being used more widely on social media.  In previous posts, we've mentioned how English letters are used to designate sites, tombs, etc. in archeology, types of stocks in finance, various models for military equipment, different types of police and security forces, and so on and so forth.  These usages are based on Sinitic terms or concepts.  Of course, all the more, English (or other foreign) language terms are directly (partially or completely) incorporated into Chinese writing (e.g., WTO, APEC, CEO, NASA, NAFTA, Xguāng X光 ["X ray"], and on and on).

So deeply entrenched is the Roman alphabet in contemporary Chinese writing that it's hard to imagine what sort of chaos would ensue if the government, in a fit of narcissistic nationalism, were suddenly to outlaw its use in the PRC.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Yijie Zhang]


  1. Dave Cragin said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 10:26 pm

    A fun version example from social media: c位 . "c" stands for the English word "center" and wei 位 = position, so c位 can be used to refer to someone in the center of a photo. Of course, I needed a Chinese friend to explain the meaning of "c" in the word.

    She wrote: 你总是站在c位。 Ni zongshi zhan zai c wei. (You always stand in the center position.) She says it's a very popular expression.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 10:40 pm

    C位 is discussed in detail here:

    "Creeping Romanization in Chinese, part 3" (11/25/18)

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