## Character confusion: three-child policy

I won't get into the political and demographic confusion over the vacillating n-child policy in China (2, 1 [80s], 2 [2015], 3 [May 31, 2021]).  My concern in this post is to get to the bottom of the confusion between two look-alike characters when they are input in computers.

So what's the confusion in the above poster?

The large characters intended to say:

Sān hái shēngyù zhèngcè láile

"The three-child rearing policy is here"

But they actually say:

Sān hái shēngmáng zhèngcè láile

"The three-child born blind policy is here"

[Update 6/1/21 10:35 AM:  See the corrections in the second, third, and fourth comments below.]

For those who are not literate in Chinese characters, can you spot the difference between what they wanted to write and what they actually wrote?  Actually, even those who are literate in characters might not notice the error if it weren't pointed out to them.  It is very subtle, so you can see how it would be easy to make this mistake if you were writing by hand.  Sort of like the confusion between tǔ 土 ("earth; soil") and shì 士 ("warrior; scholar; knight; paladin") that we recently discussed — a mistake that my highly literate wife consistently made.

yù 育 ("to give birth to; to raise; to bring up; to rear; to educate; a surname")

shēngyù 生育 ("fertility; give birth; bear")

máng 盲 ("blind")

shēng máng 生盲 normally doesn't really mean anything, though, if you force a reading out of it, can be understood as "born / become blind", but that wouldn't make sense in the context of the slogan on this poster.

Matthew Kosko, who called the above Tweet to my attention, wondered how this error (盲 for 育) happened.  As someone who only uses Pinyin for computer input of characters, he correctly states that he would not be prone to such a shape-based mistake.  Judging from the fact that the miswriting is restricted to the distortion of a single, minor, internal component, it seems to me that the most likely type of inputting that produced this particular error was with a fingertip or stylus on the glass of a cell phone / tablet or pad of a desktop computer.  I wouldn't guarantee that, however, and if anyone wants to compare the input codes of 育 and 盲, I give abundant comparative data for the two characters:

(radical 130, +3 in traditional Chinese (Taiwan), 肉+4 in Chinese (mainland China, Hong Kong), Japanese and Korean, 7 strokes in traditional Chinese (Taiwan), 8 strokes in mainland China and Japanese and Korean, cangjie input 卜戈月 (YIB) or 大戈月 (KIB), four-corner 00227, composition(GHJKV) or ⿱⿻(T) or ⿳(U+2F982))

Unihan material for numerous input systems and databases

(radical 109, +3, 8 strokes, cangjie input 卜女月山 (YVBU), four-corner 00601, composition) U+76F2

Unihan material for numerous input systems and databases

You pays your money and you takes your choice.  Like Matthew and the vast majority of those who enter Sinographs in electronic devices, I find alphabetical inputting easier (more user friendly), faster, useful even when you don't know how to write a given character but know the sound of the morpheme it represents, etc.  Nonetheless, there is a small minority of users who, perhaps — for one reason or another — are not familiar with Pinyin or are afraid they will forget how to write characters if they rely on computers to write characters for them.

1. ### Antonio L. Banderas said,

June 1, 2021 @ 8:37 am

Any possible similarities to "their, they're ?

2. ### Twill said,

June 1, 2021 @ 8:44 am

I hate to point this out, but 肓 is not 盲, even if the font on this website renders either in irregular and confusingly similar ways. Mang2 is indeed ⿱亡目, but the character in question is the rather obscure ⿱亡⺼, and as shown in the Twitter post, is pronounced huang1 and refers to some part or other of the abdomen. Almost certainly what happened was a handwritten or shape-based input rendering 肓 and, somewhere between the obscurity of the character and the difference being barely more than a dot, was not picked up on by the writer, as you surmise.

3. ### Alvin said,

June 1, 2021 @ 8:47 am

I don't see "盲" at all, it actually is "肓": https://humanum.arts.cuhk.edu.hk/Lexis/lexi-can/search.php?q=%A8w

4. ### Victor Mair said,

June 1, 2021 @ 9:32 am

@Antonio L. Banderas

No, quite the contrary. You're talking about homophones. In this post, we're talking about near-homographs.

@Twill @Alvin

Thank you for pointing out that the erroneous character is 肓, not 盲. To make things equal for the treatment I afforded to 育 and 盲 in the o.p., I here provide the corresponding material for 肓:

=====

Sān hái shēnghuāng zhèngcè láile

三孩生肓政策来了

"The three-child born with a region between heart and diaphragm policy is here"

=====

huāng 肓 ("region between heart and diaphragm")

shēng huāng 生肓 doesn't really mean anything, though, if you force a reading out of it, can be understood as "born with a region between heart and diaphragm", but that wouldn't make sense in the context of the slogan on this poster.

肓 (radical 130, 肉+3, 7 strokes, cangjie input 卜女月 (YVB), four-corner 00227, composition ⿱亡月 (GJK) or ⿱亡⺼ (T)) U+8093

Unihan material for numerous input systems and databases

5. ### Terry K. said,

June 1, 2021 @ 11:58 am

The difference between the two is quite clear in the font showing in the Twitter post. (From the perspective of someone not literate in Chinese characters, who knows the post involves two similar looking characters.) The font in the graphic makes the difference much less clear. As does the tiny size of the characters within this blog post.

6. ### Jacob said,

June 1, 2021 @ 2:28 pm

It's also not a Wubi entry error. 育 is yce and 盲 is ynh. Count me in Prof Mair's camp that it was first written on trackpad or stylus.

7. ### AntC said,

June 1, 2021 @ 5:08 pm

For those who are not literate in Chinese characters, can you spot the difference between what they wanted to write and what they actually wrote?

Sheesh no! I had to zoom to 150% before I was sure.

I wonder: since character confusion is everywhere, as Prof Mair's posts have made abundantly clear, perhaps none of the intended audience would pay close attention anyway. Everybody gets their propaganda on verbal/visual media, so the poster is more of a memory-jogger. All it needs is the three cute kids' faces peeking out, and that the slogan begins with 'three'.

You would think, though, the typesetter would run the characters through a text-to-speech tool. Perhaps nobody respects the written language enough to care, not even typesetters?

8. ### David C. said,

June 1, 2021 @ 7:30 pm

huāng 肓 is uncommon, but not exactly obscure. The screenshot of the definition is included on the right side of the Twitter post. Educated speakers would know the phrase 病入膏肓 (terminally ill; literally [though translated loosely here], illness has entered into parts of the body that medicine cannot reach).

And with this kind of error coming from the state-run Xinhua News Agency, one wonders if there is some truth to claims that instances such as this are deliberate and 高级黑 ("sophisticated black"; the writer is cleverly using language to subvert the intended message).

9. ### Victor Mair said,

June 2, 2021 @ 10:40 am

David C. is right to say that "huāng 肓 is uncommon, but not exactly obscure."

On a list of 10,000 characters,

yù 育 is #609

máng 盲 is #2079

huāng 肓 is #4838

That (huāng 肓) is reaching the upper limit of high sinographic literacy.

10,000 characters would cover 99.9999999% of all occurrences.

[VHM: The coverage figures given above are taken from "Modern Chinese Character Frequency List" by Jun Da.]

For more statistics about total number of characters, Unicode, etc., see "Sinographs by the numbers" (1/22/19).

10. ### Terry K. said,

June 2, 2021 @ 3:12 pm

Regarding size of characters and telling them apart, the phrase 病入膏肓 in David C.'s comment, seeing it reading the post with normal font size for reading in English, the last two characters at first looked alike. Which seemed unlikely. After enlarging (with the browser's zoom feature), the characters look distinctly different.

11. ### Peter Grubtal said,

June 3, 2021 @ 2:44 am

Perhaps those above (apart from Terry K) haven't reached my state of decrepitude, which combined with a stubborn refusal to admit I need stronger reading glasses, leads to such mistakes.

12. ### Neil Kubler said,

June 3, 2021 @ 4:33 am

I admit the following comment is more along the lines of "character trivia": As Victor notes, 育 is one of the very few characters that has MORE strokes in its mainland "simplified" form (8 strokes) than in its Taiwan traditional form (7 strokes). Another example would be traditional 強 (11 strokes) and simplified 强 (12 strokes). I don't know of any other examples of this phenomenon, but there might be a couple more.

13. ### ~flow said,

June 5, 2021 @ 7:26 am

@Neil Kubler there are definitely more examples but be it said that when we talk about Character Simplification (or even 'Simplified Chinese') what we're really talking about is the policy of "Standardization (of character variants), Reduction (of total characters used), and Simplification (of character shapes, often framed in terms of stroke counts)", so reduction in number of strokes is only one part of a more complex scheme where the effort to deprecate variants that were perceived as non-mainstream sometimes (albeit rarely) lead to a conflict with the Simplification part of the same policy.

FWIW the top component of 育 may also be written as 𠫓 (may not render correctly for everyone) with the dot and the hook connected and crossing the horizontal line; as far as I remember this has historically been often considered the more correct variant. The Kangxi dictionary (see https://www.zdic.net/hans/%E4%BF%91?q=%E8%82%B2) has a penchant for what has been called 宋体 (宋朝变体) which is essentially a hypercorrection that tries to re-instate subtle differences into modern character forms that are found in the small seal forms of the Shuowenjizi. Many mainland dictionaries have a short table in the front matter titled 新旧字体 (new and old character shapes); the 'old' forms there are basically all examples of 宋体 (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xin_zixing).