Hokkien in Sino-Japanese script

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The following viral Hokkien expression looks like it's written in Japanese hiragana and two Chinese characters, and so it is, but if you only know hiragana and standard Sino-Japanese characters, you won't have the ghost of an idea what it means:


This is the challenge of reading and writing Sinitic topolects in Sinographs.

Even if you read this rather exhaustive article explaining what it means, you won't grasp all of the powerful nuances of this expression that is found on t-shirts, handbags, mugs, and various accessories:

"What Does a Trending T-shirt Say About Taiwanese Identity and Politics?", by Brian Hioe, The News Lens (2/01/21)

りしれ供さ小, pronounced lí sī-leh kóng-siánn-siâu, would be a Taiwanese Hokkien phrase meaning “The heck are you saying?” In Chinese characters, this phrase could also be rendered as “你是咧講啥潲.” In Mandarin, this would be “你到底在講什麼鬼.”

Before the emergence of the りしれ供さ小 meme, there had been other uses of Chinese characters to represent the Taiwanese Hokkien phrase of siánn-siâu, meaning something like, “The heck?” The most commonly seen example would be 三小, though other similar-sounding combinations have included 蝦小, 殺小, 蝦餃, and 殺洨. Both 三小 and りしれ供さ小 were often used as a retort to nonsensical comments on the internet.

りしれ供さ小 originally appeared as a phrase on PTT in a thread riffing on the insertion of Japanese phrases into messages primarily written in Chinese. Subsequently, it became incorporated into a set of LINE stickers*, alongside other mixed Chinese and Japanese phrases.

[*VHM:  Line is a Japanese messaging app that is extremely popular in Taiwan. It's like WhatsApp but, being Japanese, with many more cartoons (I.e., Line "stickers").]

But the explosive popularity of りしれ供さ小, when it left the internet and began to adorn clothing, appears to be linked to 2020 presidential elections. In particular, a sense of “national doom” prevailed among young people in the 2020 elections, based on the fear that Kuomintang (KMT) presidential candidate and Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu would win the presidential election and push Taiwan toward unification with China. りしれ供さ小 was often used as a phrase to respond to dubious claims by Han and other KMT politicians.

As mayor, Han made outlandish promises to bring Disney World or invite Arnold Schwarznegger to Kaohsiung, or even to develop South China Seas islands. This continued during this presidential run, for example with Han claiming during presidential debates that he didn’t need to memorize policy, because he could use Google when needed.

The juxtaposition of Japanese katakana [sic] and Chinese characters is reflective of pro-Taiwan youth culture on the internet. Apart from that many young people consume a great deal of Japanese pop culture, inclusive of Japanese anime and manga, this counterposes the historical and cultural views of many Taiwanese young people versus those of the KMT.

The KMT, on the other hand, views Japan as a historical antagonist of the Republic of China, dating back to the Sino-Japanese War. By contrast, as a result of the legacy of the Japanese colonial period, many young people feel a cultural affinity for Japan that extends beyond consuming anime and manga. The Japanese historical period is seen as a time in history that distinguishes Taiwan from China. Interest in Japan — as well as the desire to communicate with grandparents that grew up during the Japanese colonial period — has inspired many young people to learn Japanese, too.

Young people also show their displeasure at the KMT not only by writing the name of the party in Japanese characters but rendering it explicitly offensive to its members. The word ゴミ丼 (go-mi-don) combines ゴミ (go-mi), which means “garbage” in Japanese, and 丼 (don), as in donburi, a traditional Japanese dish. This sounds similar to the KMT, pronounced Kuo-min-tang, in Mandarin.

In this sense, the phrase りしれ供さ小 — indecipherable without some knowledge of Chinese, Taiwanese Hokkien, and Japanese — may be properly defined as a shibboleth.

Yet this only scratches the surface of the full implications of りしれ供さ小.  So I turned to Melvin Lee, a colleague here at Penn, who added this mind-boggling information:

When I saw this phrase りしれ供さ小, I felt stunned but amused. One has to be able to read and pronounce Japanese hiragana and Chinese characters and also understand Taiwanese (Hokkien language) to understand what this phrase means. As specified in the article, りしれ供さ小, is pronounced as  lí sī-leh kóng-siánn-siâu, which is roughly equal to "What the heck are you talking about?" in English. One thing that was not mentioned in the article is that "siâu" is actually slang for "semen" in Taiwanese. Even the word "semen" does not translate the vulgarity in the word "siâu." The literal translation for りしれ供さ小 (lí sī-leh kóng-siánn-siâu) should be "What the cum are you talking about?" It is very vulgar and widely used among Taiwanese men to show some kind of masculinity.

What is interesting is that in recent years, this kind of vulgar expression in Taiwanese is popular among young, highly-educated Taiwanese professionals (mostly male) as a way to show Taiwanese identity. The Mandarin language and culture which was brought to Taiwan by the KMT has long been considered too refined and doesn't represent the crude grassroots of Taiwanese identity. As mentioned in the article, the phrase りしれ供さ小 was used to ridicule the pro-China candidate, Han Kuo-yu, and his policies during the last Taiwanese presidential election. It was even printed on T-shirts to be sold online. The most vocal critics of Han were the young Taiwanese generation who were openly against the PRC and the Chinese Community Party while enthusiastically embracing Japanese language and culture. It was thus not surprising to see them use Japanese hiragana to partially transcribe this famous (or infamous) Taiwanese expression. To a certain degree, the young generation in Taiwan is trying to form a new Taiwanese identity that willingly includes Japanese but feverishly excludes anything Chinese.

I am deeply impressed by the resourcefulness and resolve of Taiwanese in devising means to write their own language in ways they deem suitable for expressing their thoughts and aspirations.


Selected reading

[h.t. Bryan Van Norden; thanks to Mark Swofford]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    February 2, 2021 @ 6:46 am

    Searching for "wěi Zhōngwén Táiyǔ 偽中文台語" ("pseudo-Chinese [script] Taiwanese") and "wěi Rìwén Táiyǔ 偽日文台語" ("pseudo-Japanese [script] Taiwanese"), you can find lots of examples such as these:




  2. Mark S. said,

    February 2, 2021 @ 7:10 am

    I asked some of my coworkers in Taipei about the shirt. No one had seen one before. Those who don't know Japanese just stared at the photos blankly, while those who do know Japanese (and Taiwanese) laughed.

  3. Krogerfoot said,

    February 2, 2021 @ 9:06 am

    A lot of LINE users in Japan (including me) assume that it was Korean, which is true in a way. It was developed by the Japanese subsidiary of a Korean company, which focused on the Japan market rather than try to compete with the dominant messaging service in Korea.

    LINE's popularity in Thailand and Taiwan makes it really easy to stay in touch with friends in these countries and connect with new acquaintances. It's fascinating to see that it's facilitated such an utterly original cultural borrowing.

  4. david said,

    February 2, 2021 @ 11:19 am

    @Lee Re: siâu in other words, WTF.

  5. Chas Belov said,

    February 2, 2021 @ 3:59 pm

    Okay, so I was taught "What did you say?" in Cantonese would be:

    Néih góng mātyéh a?

    And to replace "a" with "laih ga" for "what in the world?" ("what the heck"), so I'd guess:

    Néih góng mātyéh laih ga?

    I'd guess for the WTF sense, we'd have to stick lán in there, but I have no idea where it would go grammatically.

    Néih góng māt lán laih ga? maybe?

  6. Michael Watts said,

    February 4, 2021 @ 7:49 am

    This sounds similar to the KMT, pronounced Kuo-min-tang, in Mandarin.

    I'm intrigued by the author's choice here to claim that 國民黨 is "pronounced kuo-min-tang in Mandarin", when of course the modern spelling is "guo-min-dang", any English speaker attempting to pronounce "kuo-min-tang" would get the onsets quite badly wrong, and the article has just noted that the Taiwanese prefer to approximate 國民黨 as the Japanese syllables "go-mi-don" than as the "ko-mi-ton" you might expect.

  7. Twill said,

    February 4, 2021 @ 8:12 pm

    @Michael Watts There's a lot of phones English speakers would "get wrong" with any transcription scheme: in Hanyu Pinyin, q-, x-, zh-, -iu, -ui, -eng, etc. /g/ and /d/ are better approximations for /k/ and /t/ but I imagine they simply didn't want to go down the tangent of why KMT is rendered guomindang today.

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