Pinyin vs. English

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I knew that in the future it would come to this.  More than forty years ago, I predicted that one day China would have to make a choice between Hanyu Pinyin and English when it comes to phonetic writing.  As we say in Mandarin, "guǒrán 果然" ("as expected / it turns out")….

It seems that there's been quite a flap over the replacement of signs for subway station stops from English to Hanyu Pinyin, as documented (verbally and visually [many photographs]) in this Chinese article.  Naturally, the Chinese characters are there in either case, but what people are complaining about is the replacement of English with Hanyu Pinyin.  For example, changing "Library" to "Tushuguan" or "Hefei Train Station" to "Hefei Huochezhan".

So, who are these new signs for?

Hanzi illiterate Chinese?


Selected readings

[h.t. Liwei Jiao]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    October 20, 2023 @ 6:56 am

    Google translation of the cited article at

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    October 20, 2023 @ 1:43 pm

    Having now read the full article (in translation), I have to say that I cannot see why Chinese citizens (of all people) should object to having hanzi + pinyin rather than hanzi + English translation. English is an important language, to be sure, but it is by no means the only language which visitors to China might speak, so giving English translations favours only those visitors who speak English. By providing Pinyin, on the other hand, all visitors can at least attempt to pronounce the name of the station in the local language, which will be of enormous benefit if they need (for example) to seek directions. As a Briton with a little familiarity with Mandarin Chinese, I am all in favour of this change.

  3. Tom said,

    October 20, 2023 @ 3:17 pm

    I'm sure tourist spots, int'l airports, and trade fairs are not going to sacrifice English signs.

    The new signs cater to Mandarin learners, native (Canton, Wenzhou etc) or foreign.

    The previous inclusion of English probably was copied from models of Hong Kong, Singapore, or century long experiences in Shanghai.

    By the way, @Victor Mair: the original GR material is on YT and the internet archive, if you want to promote that in a post, since no university is using tonal spelling anymore, except Williams College.

  4. Ccp said,

    October 20, 2023 @ 4:26 pm

    Good move. The very first thing to change is "China" or the "PRC". No more "Mandarin". And no more "CCP", "President", "Chairman", etc, etc…

  5. David Morris said,

    October 20, 2023 @ 4:52 pm

    Would characters, pinyin *and* English be too sensible a solution?

  6. Jonathan Silk said,

    October 21, 2023 @ 4:40 am

    Perhaps I am missing something, but my first thought is that this must be entirely politically motivated. Am I missing something, or is this aspect just too obvious even to mention?

  7. cliff arroyo said,

    October 21, 2023 @ 11:55 am

    "Would characters, pinyin *and* English be too sensible a solution?"

    This is the communist party of China we're talking about so probably yes. Trilingual (or more) signage is certainly not rare in Europe at all but in this case space may be an issue as well, you'd have to make everything smaller to put another line in the signs used in the article.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    October 21, 2023 @ 12:27 pm

    "this must be entirely politically motivated. Am I missing something, or is this aspect just too obvious even to mention?" — it’s not obvious to me, Jonathan, but then I don't automatically treat with suspicion everything that the Chinese authorities decide to do. Some of their actions are undoubtedly politically motivated, but I find it hard to believe that all are …

  9. cameron said,

    October 22, 2023 @ 2:13 am

    in general, anything that politicians do is politically motivated. that's the case in the US – I don't see why it'd be any different in China

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    October 22, 2023 @ 10:35 am

    Fair enough, Cameron — in our present, insane, political system, where the primary aim of 99% of all politicians is to maximise the probability of their party being re-elected (a concern which need not trouble the Chinese Communist Party, since the probability of their being voted out of office is strictly zero), I would agree with you, but I would also argue that the degree of political motivation will vary with the issue under consideration. So in the case in question (should hanzi be accompanied by pinyin, English, both, or some other option) I would suspect that the political motivation is relatively small (maybe 20%), and I am therefore inclined to give those who made the decision the benefit of the doubt — I genuinely believe that their primary motivation was to make the signage more accessible to non-native speakers, by no means all of whom can be assumed to speak English.

  11. Mark Metcalf said,

    October 22, 2023 @ 7:10 pm

    As with nearly all State Council pronouncements, it’s *definitely* politically motivated. To wit: Article 4 of their “Order of the State Council of the People's Republic of China 753 – Regulations on the Management of Place Names" – Google translated

    “Article 4: The management of geographical names shall adhere to and strengthen the leadership of the Party. The naming and renaming of administrative divisions at or above the county level, as well as the naming, renaming and use of place names involving national territorial sovereignty, security, diplomacy, national defense and other major matters, must be reported to the Party Central Committee in accordance with relevant regulations.
    The management of geographical names should be conducive to safeguarding national sovereignty and national unity, promoting core socialist values, promoting the modernization of the national governance system and governance capabilities, and inheriting and developing excellent Chinese culture.
    Place names should remain relatively stable. Without approval, no unit or individual may decide to name or change place names without authorization.”

    TL;DR – when in doubt…it’s political

  12. liuyao said,

    October 23, 2023 @ 9:58 pm

    If English translations favor English-speaking tourists, pinyin unfairly favors Standard Mandarin speakers. I'd rather that they put the local dialect/topolect's phonetic system instead of standard pinyin :)

    I just checked that the 什刹海 station is rendered Shichahai, which is not how Beijing locals call it! (cha is pronounced like sha, and very soft). Not to mention that Tiananmen is more like Tian'men, etc.)

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    October 24, 2023 @ 11:32 am

    "If English translations favor English-speaking tourists, pinyin unfairly favors Standard Mandarin speakers" — modulo the "unfairly", I would agree. But why do you say "unfairly" ? Is not Putonghua the national standard ? No-one (least of all myself) would suggest for one second that Shanghainese (for example) should be treated as a second-class system, but when there is a national standard is it not reasonable for civic signage to reflect that fact ?

  14. John Swindle said,

    October 25, 2023 @ 3:07 am

    The signs in question provide information in two scripts and in either one language or two languages. The idea that they should also provide local pronunciation is interesting. We don't seem to do that in English-speaking countries.

  15. Philip Anderson said,

    October 25, 2023 @ 3:24 pm

    @Philip Taylor
    Maybe the choice of word was “politically motivated”? :-)
    A non-English speaker might reasonably have described English translations as “unfairly favouring English-speaking tourists”.

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    October 25, 2023 @ 6:19 pm

    « A non-English speaker might reasonably have described English translations as “unfairly favouring English-speaking tourists” ». As a native English speaker, that is also the phrase that I would have used …

  17. Mark S. said,

    October 30, 2023 @ 2:58 am

    The PRC is certainly not tacitly admitting that the country's allegedly high literacy rate (in terms of reading and writing Chinese characters) is a fraud. Nor, alas, is China especially boosting Pinyin.

    This is simply part of the CCP's current campaign against the West, represented here by English.

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    October 30, 2023 @ 5:09 am

    "This is simply part of the CCP's current campaign against the West, represented here by English" — and yet I, as a Westerner, feel that the Pinyin are of more use to me than an English translation. If I am in Héféi railway station, I don't need to be told that it is a railway station, that is blindly obvious (tho' I may not know its name). But if the signs kindly gloss 合肥火车站 as "Héféi huǒchē zhàn" then (a) I know where I am, and (b) if I leave the railway station, get lost and need to ask directions to get back there, then "Héféi huǒchē zhàn zài nǎ ?" is almost certainly more intelligible and meaningful to most locals (even if pronounced badly) than "the railway station zài nǎ ?". Of course, even the latter is arguably better than "Can you tell me how to get to the railway station please ?" !

  19. Mark S. said,

    October 30, 2023 @ 8:15 am

    I, of all people, am certainly not arguing against the usefulness of Pinyin. Mainly I'm noting that we shouldn't ignore the fact that that railway stations / huochezhan, etc., were not blank slates. They used to have hybrid English and Pinyin; English is now being reduced. That's not because China has finally developed a handy-dandy romanization system and wants to try it out. It's a political decision, one that is not aimed at helping people who speak neither English nor Mandarin.

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    October 30, 2023 @ 8:44 am

    It is a sad fact of life, Mark, that many if not all decisions made by politicians, regardless of country, are politically motivated, but it does not necessarily follow that all such decisions are bad. In this case, I happen to believe (as a Westerner) that pinyin are of more use on railway station signage than English, although I would accept that for crucial signs such as "Emergency exit", or even just "Exit", English language signage would be beneficial for those using the station who speak English but not Chinese.

    That said, I asked the opinion of a friend in Shanghai this very morning regarding the point at issue, and he said that smart'phones with inbuilt voice translation applications are so ubiquitous in urban areas that any foreigner asking an urban Chinese citizen "Can you tell me how to get to the railway station please ?" or the equivalent in any (mainstream) non-Chinese language would almost certainly result in the latter producing his smart’phone, launching the voice-translation application, and then using it in reverse to inform the foreigner of his/her best route.

  21. Another Holocene Human said,

    October 31, 2023 @ 2:17 pm

    Philip Taylor,

    Your comment about pinyin presupposes that a foreigner naive to Mandarin phonetics can intuit them from reading pinyin. That is not the case. Pinyin is unidirectional. Knowledge of phonetics —> pinyin. You cannot get the phonetics from pinyin. Some vary basic problems include vowels having utterly inconsistent values, deleted letters (for efficiency/brevity), and of course various issues with tones–both tone sandhi which is not reflected in writing, and the difficulty of explaining tone to those visitors who do not use tones in the same way at home. And that's just a sample, there are many more problems with pinyin (including straight up errors it inherited from the non-latin prior iteration).

    That is why Victor Mair asks if these signs are for a Chinese audience.

    Which they most certainly are. China is closing off (and foreign nationals are leaving) and at the same time the government is still heavily pushing 普通话. Now at times they've celebrated or promoted minority languages and minority writing systems, but in the last few years the environment has gotten very unfavorable.

    I find the comments about English signs favoring English speakers (presumably L1?) odd. Presumably the majority of tourists and student visa holders and foreign nationals in China are not L1 English speakers, but English is a fairly common 2nd (or 3rd or 4th) language throughout EA and SEA especially in urban areas. It wasn't that long ago that young Chinese were eagerly snarfing up new English words; but of course, that was a more golden and optimistic time.

    Classical Chinese used to be THE literary lingua franca in East Asia so there is definitely a political line here in nationalistically recentering the national language and decentering English. All of the propaganda rhetoric in the last year has been about a new world order with brother China uplifting all the poor, abused, bruised little brothers neglected and kicked around by that big bully America and all of its allies.

  22. Philip Taylor said,

    November 1, 2023 @ 3:53 am

    AHH — I agree that one cannot intuit the correct pronunciation of Mandarin from its pinyin transcription, but one can at least try. What one cannot do, if one has never learned the written form of the language, is attempt to pronounce Mandarin from its hanzi representation. That is really the crux of my argument in favour of the bi-scriptal format on which the PRC is currently standardising.

  23. Mark S. said,

    November 2, 2023 @ 9:45 am

    The instances in the linked article of patterns such as "FuZhouHuoCheNanZhan" — as opposed to "Fuzhou Huoche Nan Zhan" or perhaps even "Fuzhou Huoche Nanzhan" — don't fill me with confidence that the authorities are going to be working to get Pinyin orthography correct on all that new signage. This is not a surprise.

    Hanyu Pinyin deserves more respect, not least of all from the Chinese authorities. It was never intended to be an IPA-like system for Mandarin or something intuitive for English speakers. Rather, it's very good at what it was designed but seldom permitted to be: a romanized script for modern standard Mandarin.

    Although some of the choices behind Hanyu Pinyin could have been made differently, I have no interest in playing the game of altering Pinyin's basics or coming up with a completely different system. Pinyin's use of the Roman alphabet is certainly many, many times a better match for Mandarin than the Roman alphabet is for English's relative plethora of sounds.

    I once asked Zhou Youguang, the "father" of Hanyu Pinyin, about the thousands of suggestions his committee had received from the public, and whether any of those were actually useful points that had not already been considered. He replied in the negative.

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