Perso-Arabic script for Mandarin, Pe̍h-ōe-jī for Taiwanese: sad cripples?

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We have been intrigued by Iskander Ding since encountering him on X/Twitter a while back, several posts from his account having made it onto Language Log (see "Selected readings").

With a handle like his, where Iskandar is the Persian form of the name of the Macedonian king Alexander the Great (256–323 BC) and Ding has an unmistakable Sinitic / Hannic ring to it, we suspected from the start that he is a Hui (Chinese Muslim).  So far, though, we have not been able to track down the sinographs for his full Hannic name, which is a bit unusual, where even Mongols, Uyghurs, Tibetans, and other non-Sinitic people are compelled to take Sinographic names.

Iskandar Ding is currently writing a Ph.D. dissertation on Yaghnobi linguistics and culture at SOAS in London (see this page for basic information about him).

Yaghnobi is an Eastern Iranian language spoken in the upper valley of the Yaghnob River in the Zarafshan area of Tajikistan by the Yaghnobi people. It is considered to be a direct descendant of Sogdian and has sometimes been called Neo-Sogdian in academic literature.


Here is a 53 second video of ID announcing a talk on Perso-Arabic-script Hannic.

Here is the 43.44 talk ("Xiao’erjing – Writing Chinese with Perso-Arabic Letters" – Iskandar Ding | PG 2022) as it actually happened.  IA comment:  "What he said throughout the talk was pleasing now and then — saying 'Eastern Turkistan' in Uighur for example…".

Here is a 1 hour 22 minute interview with ID. If you click the link it will open at the 18:11 mark, where he speaks of Perso-Arabic-script Hannic . That part ends at 22:40.

The above is based largely on information provided by IA, and the following quotes IA directly:

[VHM prefatory note:  IA prefers "Hannic" to "Sinitic", "Mandarin", etc. and "Hanograph" to "Chinese character", etc.  In general, I have endeavored to follow his preferences for terminological usage.]

As much as I try to avoid spending (wasting) time on audio(-visual) media I did listen to the entirety of this interview. The interviewer — who fortunately speaks less and less as time goes on — is a bit clueless and at one point asks ID about the relationship of Cantonese to Mandarin — something that does not have the slightest to do with the Sogdian/Yaghnobi connection, the Persianate or anything else! The affable ID (somewhat clumsily) answers him anyway, the least valuable part of a not terribly taut interview. Apart from ID introducing his background at the beginning, the better parts are in the second half, about the Yaghnobis, ID's views on the the (mis-) understandings / translation-problems of the word 'Persianate', the Turco-Persian synthesis, and some other things of that nature.

With no great relevance to the above, and with the proviso that I have given almost no attention to this script and related research for over 20 years — I must say that I am irritated at the canonisation of “xiǎo'ér jǐn / xiǎo'ér jīng 小兒錦 / 小兒經” as the 'normalised' way to hanographically refer to this script. I was first introduced to the script as “xiǎo jīng 小經”; and then learned that it was also rendered as “xiāojīng 消經", as ”xiájīng 狹經“, as ”xiǎo'ér jīng 小兒經“, as ”xiǎo'ér jǐn 小兒錦“, as ”xiǎojǐn 小錦“ (no ”ér 兒“!), and as ”báizì jīng 白字經“, pretty much in that order. My non-expert and unprofessional suspicion is that ”xiǎo'ér jǐn / xiǎo'ér jīng 小兒經/小兒錦“ has become popular (which I mean in the worst sense of the word) on account of Wikipedia, and perhaps Ying-sheng Liu 劉迎勝* as well.

[VHM:  literal meanings of cited hanographs:

xiǎo 小 ("small, little, minor")

ér 兒 ("child")

jǐn 錦 ("brocade")

jīng 經 ("scripture")

xiāo 消 ("disappear, vanish; dispel")

xiá 狹 ("narrow")

bái 白 ("plain; white")

zì 字 ("graph; glyph; character")

Of course, most of these characters could have many other meanings, but I list only the one(s) that come to mind first given the context.

It is evident that the sinographic / hanographic representations for the terms designating the Perso-Arabic script for writing Mandarin are fundamentally sound transcriptions, not translations, though the fact that the sinographs / hanographs used to write many of the syllables convey meanings that superficially seem to make some kind of sense in these expressions leads to regrettable misunderstandings.  This slippage between sound transcription and meaning translation annoys IA to no end (ditto for me).]

The question, for me [IA], is: what are (or rather, perhaps, were) the various areal realisations of the term by users who were (whether illiterate in Hanographs or not) unfamiliar with (or indifferent to) its Hanographic representations? The point is, I doubt that even in areas where the rhotic segment occurs / occurred* in this term the rhotic segment had anything more to do with 'sons' or 'children' than does the “兒” in Pekinese “xǎoguǎn'er 小館兒” ("small restaurant"). But true to the ways of folk-etmology, one sees ”xiǎo'ér jǐn / xiǎo'ér jīng 小兒經 / 小兒錦“ cutely-repugnantly 'translated' as 'children's script' and the like. This is a great blow against the dignity of the script.

I'd think that this hanographic “兒” really simply reflects what dialectologists might record in the first syllable as [ɕ] + [ iɔ , iɔo,  iao] (etc) + [ɹ] , and in which this rhotic final is non-syllabic.  [VHM:  I heartily concur with IA's analysis.]

*Some areas of the Northwest only have a vowel — [ɛ] or [ɯ] where Standard Hannic has the syllable /ər/.

1) Looking back at the Wikipedia article after all these years, I see:

According to A. Kalimov, a famous Dungan linguist, the Dungan of the former Soviet Union called this script щёҗин (şjoⱬin, 消經).

a) Well, this is good at least in so far as it attests to this lexical item in the Dungan script, but it gives no reason to believe that the morphemes in question are indeed 消 and 經 as opposed to something else. And there is no clue as to where Kalimov wrote this. At any rate, there's no rhotic in it.

b) I no longer have the one from the USSR era, but the КРАТКИЙ ДУНГАНСКОРУССКИЙ СЛОВАРЬ edition of 2009), on page 257 , has:

ЩЁҖИН (I II) книга толкования Корана.        [VHM:  book of interpretation of the Qur'an]

The same, and likewise no rhotic. And finally, a rendition with tones. If I am not mistaken this phonologically corresponds to xiao1 jin3 and xiao1 jing3 in Standard Chinese.*  (Dungan merges final -n and -ng here. And phonetically this can simply be a nasalised vowel rather than an actual [n] or [ŋ], or so it seems to me from listening to Dungan.)

*[VHM:  IA supplements this with the following:

I meant of course tone-class, not pitch-value, and more accurately should have written 'xiao (平) jin(上) and xiao (平) jing(上)'

“平” rather than “陰平”: this is because Dungan (along with some other lects in the 中原官話 group) semi-merges (as pitch values) what in Standard Hannic are 陰平 and 陽平. Whether underlying 陰平 or 陽平 'surfaces' in Dungan (and thus two different pitch-values) depends upon the tone-class of the following syllable.

In this case (平 + 上, which is what 'I II' refers to ), the first syllable does indeed surface as 陰平. (So, pitch-wise, if I am not mistaken, this 'ЩЁҖИН (I II)' would sound like Standard Hannic 3+4 i.e. low + high falling.)

(About the tones, I have just refreshed my memory by quickly consulting the superlative 'Dungan' by Ольга Завьялова, in the Encyclopedia of Chinese Language and Linguistics, 2017.)]

2) In 2014 I ordered and received the three volume work Xiǎoér jǐn yánjiū 小儿锦研究 (Research on Perso-Arabic script for Mandarin) [VHM:  machine translators give something like "Studies on Pediatric Brocade" — now you can see why IA and I detest the literalization / semanticization of that purely phonetic 儿, but you can't really blame the machines, because humans are more likely than not to read it that way too] by Liú Yíngshèng 刘迎胜 (which you'd told me about). Having lost interest in the subject, I hardly ever even opened it. Now I have opened it. (Also I find that electronic editions are available from the shadow libraries and have downloaded it.)

In the Liu Yingsheng dictionary I find a comprehensive discussion of the origin of this lexical item. The idea that the name has anything to do with teaching children (referring to the version(s) containing “兒”) is virtually ridiculed. And the ur-form of the various names may be xiájīng 狹經.   [VHM:  IA has made a screen shot of this entry in the dictionary (pp. 36-41 of vol. 1).]

VHM:  To conclude this episode of my conversation with the reclusive IA, I asked him:

<In general, how do you want me to pitch the relationship of Dungan to our main concern of Xiaojing and Iskander Ding?>

He replied:

I really have no idea. (You ought not mistake me for someone with a great degree of coherent thinking.) Best that you use your own judgment and viewpoint.

I don't know how it should be incorporated, if at all, but to repeat myself, I am very much irritated by the infantilising and denigrating indignity done to the Perso-Arabic script by the wide-spread presentation of it (which I believe is on account of hanograph-mediated folk-etymology involving “兒”) as ''children's script' and the like. A logical consequence of such a presentation can result, consciously or unconsciously, in thinking of the Perso-Arabic script as something that adults unfortunately bereft of 'a proper knowledge' of hanography unfortunately had to resort to. The underpinning premise is that any Hannic speech-variety, if written at all, must of course be written in Hanographs. Phonographic representations … Perso-Arabic script, Pe̍h-ōe-jī,  or what have you … are but a sad cripple.

(I'm sure there are many who would find this viewpoint to be trivial and or madly eccentric/wrong.)

VHM:  Not me.  I find it to be brilliantly incisive and insightful.

P.S. from IA:  Few and far between are online references to the Коран на дунганском языке. I remember a long time ago thinking that it must have been something that was planned but never actually printed. But, it does exist (see here).

Selected readings


  1. Peter B. Golden said,

    May 11, 2024 @ 12:23 pm

    Notice might be taken here of the literature of the Lipka (Belarusian) Tatars who for some centuries have spoken Belarusian (their elite is also Polish-speaking) and wrote it in Arabic script (up to the 1930s).
    The Arabic script system has been used for a wide variety of unrelated, non-Semitic languages, beginning with Persian and Turkic (as everyone in this group knows). Ditto for the Aramaic script system. Chinese written in Arabic script by the Hui (who also used Persian in their schools) is hardly surprising.

    Fun fact: The actor Charles Bronson is of Lipka Tatar descent.

  2. martin schwartz said,

    May 11, 2024 @ 5:24 pm

    Yaghnobi maintains some morphological and phonological archaisms
    against the Sogdian of all l the old texts.
    My Dept. at Berkeley was once visited by a Chinese Muslim (I believe from central China) was was a master of Arabic and Chinese calligraphy and hybrids thereof. His appearance reflected Middle Eastern ancestry.
    I just googled "Arabic-Chinese calligraphy" and was pleasantly rewarded.
    Martin Schwartz

  3. Michael Nash said,

    May 12, 2024 @ 12:14 am

    Who is IA? You don't give the origin of this acronym, as far as I i can see

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 12, 2024 @ 3:46 am

    @Michael Nash

    "IA" is the author's preferred online moniker. He has written guest posts and many comments identifying himself that way.

  5. IA said,

    May 17, 2024 @ 10:28 am

    1) The above mentioned 'Dungan' by Olga Zavyalova can be read online at (Accounts are free.)

    Apart from IPA she uses not only the current Cyrillic alphabet for Dungan but also its old Latin (or, you might say, Latinoid) alphabet, which nowadays is rarely if ever at all seen.

    2) The 3-volume 《小儿锦研究》by 小儿锦研究 is this:

  6. IA said,

    May 21, 2024 @ 9:02 pm

    What appears as a mere proposal in the screenshot above — that the name “ ‘曉’經 ” be adopted — is more than just a proposal:

    “另外,20世紀,《古蘭經》三次被翻譯成小經:[ ……] 最近一個版本是甘肅臨夏藉阿訇馬福海於2003年完成的《曉經古蘭經》。”

    That is from 〈中國“回文”——“回回字”的歷史演進〉by 丁士仁 at

  7. IA said,

    May 23, 2024 @ 8:30 pm

    I find among my materials from a decade and a half ago this article that today would not see the light of day:

    By 馬克勛 in《甘肅民族研究》1986 年第四期 .

  8. IA said,

    May 23, 2024 @ 8:37 pm

    I included the title of the article in the post above, but the punctuation I used around it seems to have caused it to not appear. Here it is again.

    談借用“消經”注音識字的行性 — 在甘肅一些少數民族中掃盲的一個措施

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