A little Sinograph game

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For cognoscenti.


Here's an amazing little game that was played by two of the brightest Sinology PhD candidates I've ever met.  It is a conversation between X and Y.  Y initiated the conversation by typing to X, without telling X the secret of the game.  When X received Y's first message, she immediately got what Y meant.  She understood as soon as she received his e-mail, then replied to him (by typing) in the same manner that he wrote to her.  And so off they went on their merry way in Lexiland!

Here I copy-paste this little hànzì yóuxì 汉字游戏 for Language Log readers who are well-versed in Sinographs and want to give it a try.  Even those who do not know any Chinese characters might still be able to gain a sense of how the game proceeds and what it signifies.

The "answer sheet” is at the bottom of this post. Please scroll down to the very, very end to see the answers. However, don’t look at the dá'àn 答案 ("solution") before trying really hard by yourself!


This game is devilishly difficult.

Y:  見才戈酉是巴户又子勺立付取卓,睘能干重馬?
X:  白止不大子賣……
Y:  十麻人者不行。
X:  可,古十隹者不行。
Y:  余了女禾五已月。
X:  戈夭風了
Y:  殳事元元 ;)
X:  古十一般勺人堇已臼刀。
X: 女可。
Y: 止句不元全止尼。
X: 又取。


Y was trying to test whether hànzì would still possibly be readable if all the semantic components were taken off — i.e., if only the phonetic component of each Chinese character remains.  So it was a “test" between the two players — well, from a foreigner Sinologist to a native Chinese speaker — in order to explore the Chinese writing system's potential to be written / represented only by every character's shēngfú 声符 ("phonophore; phonetic element of a Chinese pictophonetic character").  This test not only approaches the history and the failure of Èrjiǎnzì 二简字 ("Second round of simplified Chinese characters") policy carried out by Mao, but also tries to probe the limit of how “phonetic” the Chinese writing system can be without switching to an alphabetical system. As you can see, it’s not just a very simple “little play”, but has some serious scholarly aims and implications (e.g., whether the Chinese writing system had / has the potential to evolve from a morphosyllabic to a syllabic / phonetic script!).
Each sentence that X and Y wrote in their chat was a sentence in which every character only has its shēngfú 声符 ("phonophore") without an yìfú 意符 ("semantophore").
Y:  見才,戈酉止巴户又子勺立付取卓,睘能干重馬?
    the "original" sentence: “現在,我要是把所有字的意符取掉,還能看懂嗎?” 
(Y:  Now, if I take off all the semantic components of every Chinese character, is it still readable?)
X:   白止不大子賣……
(X:  I’m afraid it is not easy to read…)
Y:  十麻人者不行。
(Y: No one can do it.)
X:  可,古十隹者不行。
(X:  Ha, I guess no one can.)
Y:  余了爾禾五已月。
(Y:  Except for you and me [who] have [the skill].)
X:  戈夭風了!
(X:  I’m laughing crazily!)
Y:  殳事元元 ;)
    沒事玩玩 ;)
(Y:  Just playing while being idle…)
X:  古十一般勺人堇已臼刀。
(X:  I guess it is hard for normal people to expect [what the characters mean].)
Y:  女可。
(Y:  You can.)
X:  止句不元全止尼。
(X: This sentence, not really…. [meaning: “女可” is also a normal Classical Chinese sentence; i.e., both 女 and 可 do not have any yìfú 意符 ("semantophore"); they are normal hànzì, but they are also themselves their own shēngfú 声符 ("phonophore").])
Y:  又取。
(Y:  [This additional aspect, that some characters don’t have an yìfú 意符 ("semantophore"), but simply are shēngfú 声符 ("phonophores") by themselves, is also] interesting.)
Linguistic play can have serious intentions and implications.

Selected readings


  1. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 3, 2022 @ 9:05 am

    Fun and quite legible I think but you should have posted the solution separately later :D
    I have often thought that censorship-evading techniques should take such forms — I had thought based on sound in an ad hoc manner, but mixing in this partly visual approach would be interesting. Spelling out complex characters into constituent parts could also play a role

  2. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 3, 2022 @ 9:28 am

    It occurs to me students of "Sinology" should be assigned such exercises :D — it would stretch the mind in ways very helpful for dealing with early manuscripts, regional scripts, etc…

  3. Jeff Williams said,

    June 3, 2022 @ 9:49 am

    Totally agree with JS last point, in my own early Chinese training the phonetic elements were never properly explained

  4. Jerry Packard said,

    June 3, 2022 @ 11:03 am

    The game is difficult because you do have to figure out the character with the missing radical (semantophore) to be able to read it, since it gives you virtually no phonetic help. But I think it tells us less about the limit of how phonetic the Chinese writing system can be without switching to an alphabetical system (i.e., a 400-element syllabary), because you can write the same sentences with phonetics (phonophores) and they can be understood with little difficulty, e.g.,


    Granted, not all of the phonophores are exact, but you catch my drift.

  5. DS Zhang said,

    June 3, 2022 @ 1:52 pm

    @Jerry Packard,

    I think that the point of this sinographic game IS exactly to "write with phonophores only". Therefore I think that your comment which says "because you can write the same sentences with phonetics (phonophores) and they can be understood with little difficulty" misses the points — yes, one can of course have homophones to represent the same sentence — just like some Chinese people writes 白才 rather than 白菜 for "Napa cabbage". However, the point here, for these two students to design and play this game, seems to reflect something beyond simply using characters that have "less strokes with the same sound". Actually, such an interpretation seems to be exactly what these two game-designers criticize as the defect of 二简字. Homophones are prevalent in every language in the world and there are various scripts to stand for the same sounds. The game designers seem to be exploring whether, or to what extent, the Chinese writing system, as a self-contained historical script, can form readable sentences exclusively based on its existing phonetic elements without resorting to exteriority as an alternative. Most of the characters in your example "先再吾幺十巴肖又子土一夫区刁,亥能干东马" are NOT the REAL phonophores of the ORIGINAL characters "現在我要是把所有字的意符取掉,還能看懂嗎" — which this sentence should be written in. If Xu Shen 许慎 were to join our conversation, he probably would say: this seems to be a game of testing how far can the 只用“文” 不用“字” method go for our 说文解字! :)

    In addition, I agree with @Jonathan Smith that another intention of this game — since it is designed by two PhD students in the field, one seems to be a "foreigner" and the other a native speaker — is to test the readers' familiarity with the phonophoric elements of each character, in emic terms, to play with the concept of 声符 so that one can develop the skills of conveniently using 谐声 as evidence when needed for topolectal, paleographic, and epigraphic studies. I think that this little game, as Prof. Mair says, does hold much potential in being developed as a useful pedagogical method. Perhaps something derivative from this inspiration may change the field of teaching Chinese language! (just my own guess…)

    At last, I nevertheless do agree with Jerry Packard that when one tries to figure out the characters that these phonophores stand for, one still need to think more about the missing semantophores as auxiliary than the sounds that these phonophores represent. Yet, I don't think I quite agree that "the photophore gives you virtually no phonetic help", as phonophores are the BASE, or the departure point, of our next cognitive step of adding apt semantophores to them. Without first seeing the phonophores on which semantophores should be added, how can we commence processing our thoughts at all? Where does the most bottom Cosmic Turtle stand?

  6. Jerry Packard said,

    June 3, 2022 @ 4:34 pm

    I may have missed the point but I don't think I misunderstood it- the game is a clever and interesting exercise that requires a lot of effort and talent. My own point was simply that the game does not really illustrate that Chinese could easily use a 400-member syllabary to represent its sounds. A system that used the real phonophores of any given characters rather than a set of syllabary characters would indeed be a very difficult system to implement. If Xu Shen 许慎 were to join our conversation about the vagaries of 文 and 字 I would be thrilled beyond belief and happily give him a copy of my new book 'A Social View on the Chinese Language' (2021, Peter Lang Publishers) and wait with bated breath for his reactions. The bottommost turtle stands on the topmost.

  7. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 3, 2022 @ 6:16 pm

    Since I am serious about games :D I did not read the post below the "test" earlier; on looking now, it seems Jerry Packard is responding to the OP "solution" on which point I agree with him (i.e., this isn't a "test of how phonetic the Chinese writing system can be"), whereas DS Zhang is aptly describing the exercise as it is esp. the end of their 1st paragraph. A number of instances are identical to or strongly reminiscent of Warring States writing (才, 古…)

  8. Jerry Packard said,

    June 3, 2022 @ 7:34 pm

    I think you’re right!

  9. Viseguy said,

    June 3, 2022 @ 7:49 pm

    i ou a i ie ii Ei a eai ou e ooa.*

    *This sounds a bit like writing English and leaving out the consonants.

  10. Jerry Packard said,

    June 3, 2022 @ 11:58 pm

    Ye i ee uie iia. ey iiu!

    Yes it seems quite similar. Very difficult!

  11. Ben said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 12:50 am

    As a Chinese learner, the second half of the first sentence (取卓,睘能干重馬) was the easiest to read since the phonetic components are a dominant part of the full forms. Even knowing the rules, however, I couldn't interpret the rest of the phrase.

  12. Chris Button said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 8:48 am

    There are some interesting quirks here too like 酉 for 要. Although 酉 is not the original phonetic at the top of 要, the similarity in pronunciation of the two all the way back in Old Chinese accounts for the graphic association (the OC ʔ- onset of 要 corresponds with the ʁ- of 酉 mentioned briefly here: https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=53265#comment-1591189)

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