Sinitic semiliteracy

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From a story on CNN on "begpackers" in Asia:

The photo is captioned, "Professor Stephen Pratt posed as a begpacker to do fieldwork in Hong Kong."

The sign says:

qǐng bāngzhù wǒ zài quán shìjiè lǚxíng


"Please help me travel around the world"

Despite the fractured grammar (the zài 在* is especially egregious), all the major online translators (Google, Baidu, Bing, and DeepL) managed to make the same sense of the sentence as given above.

*some definitions:

to exist; to be alive
to be at; to be in; to be located
be …-ing; in the middle of doing something (indicating an action in progress)
(located) in; at
during; in
to lie in; to rest with
to be at the post

Jonathan Silk, who kindly called this photograph to my attention, writes:

I think this looks like Chinese written by someone who can write but wants to pretend that they cannot. What do you think?

The misproportioned, misshapen characters remind me of those written by individuals who are autodidacts or who are at about second-year level of university or college instruction.  The wording resembles that of the enthusiastic learner of Mandarin who spews out sentences and phrases as they flow through his mind and out of his mouth without the discipline of rigorous training.  But Jonathan may, after all, be right.  If this fellow is truly clever, he may be skillfully faking semiliteracy.

Selected readings


  1. Jenny Chu said,

    June 6, 2023 @ 2:13 am

    According to the article, the researcher was in grad school at the time. I suppose it's possible that he was in his second year of learning how to write in Chinese.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    June 7, 2023 @ 7:51 am

    From Don Keyser:

    This one takes me back. In the late 1980s, I served my second assignment at our embassy in Tokyo. The chief of the American Citizens Services unit in the Consular Section, a white lady in her early 50s, asked my assistance. Confirming that I was a Chinese-language officer who read Chinese, she asked if I would read something sent her by one of the Americans incarcerated at Fuchū Prison she saw monthly in fulfillment of her consular responsibilities. The prisoner was an African American male in his early 30s.

    So I agreed, and took from her the long message. It was written on notebook paper in clear but child-like Chinese characters. When I first looked at it, it made zero sense to me. Then I figured it out. The prisoner was teaching himself Chinese characters, but without any instruction by tutor or book. He wrote (or thought) out his desired message in English, and then, evidently using an English-Chinese dictionary he was permitted to have in his cell, plugged in a Chinese character (sometimes) corresponding to the meaning of the English word.

    Basically, the prisoner was telling the consular officer that her visits and manifest concern for his well-being had caused him to fall in love with her, and so he wished to make known his abiding love for her.

    Not something one was apt to encounter every day.

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