Archive for the ‘language’ Category

symmetric characters

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

This is an off-topic post continuing in an occasional series on Chinese character esoterica.

As an engineer, I am a bit obsessed with the structures and patterns of individual Chinese characters.

Recently (don’t ask how), I stumbled upon the character , and it got me thinking about symmetry within characters. Specifically, how many characters out there are symmetric across both the x and y-axes? Here are the ones I could think of:


I’m sure there’s more out there; anyone think of any?

Lastly, this exercise reminds me of a Chinese character riddle a colleague once shared with me: starting from 日, by adding one stroke, you can make 9 different characters. Can you think of them all?

australia’s prime minister speaks fluent mandarin

Friday, February 6th, 2009

Just in case you haven’t heard, Australia’s Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, speaks fluent Chinese.

This is awesome:

Approximate translation: “Greetings. On behalf of the Australian government, I extend to the Chinese people blessings for the Spring Festival. I hope that, in the Year of the Ox, the friendship between Australia and China can become one step closer. Although the world’s economy is currently experiencing difficulty, I believe that, with cooperative effort, each country can certainly be victorious over this challenge. With the New Year, I wish the Chinese people health and success. Thanks, and all the best.”

Via Evan Osnos via Shanghaiist.

how many pinyin combinations are there?

Friday, January 30th, 2009

Prelude: Yes, I’m back-to-back posting about arcane Chinese language trivia. But with the week off for Chinese New Year, I’ve been spending a lot of time studying and thinking about these issues.

Shortly after posting earlier today on unique pinyin combinations, I discovered a terrific and related post about the pinyin chart on a site called Laowai Chinese. The comments section is recommended reading in addition to the post.

Albert from Laowai Chinese reckons there are 409 possible pinyin sound combinations. However, the actual number of syllables is somewhat debatable, because different pinyin charts and dictionaries list different possible combinations. Here is a chart that I created that includes 412 combinations:

pinyin chart 412

The three extra combinations that I included that Albert didn’t are tei 忒, kei 剋, and rua 挼.

On the other hand, here’s a list that includes 416 possible sounds. Although that list omits dia, rua, and tei, it includes these that I don’t: diang, shong, yai, nia, sei, lün, and lüan. But I’m not so sure these are valid, since I can’t find any characters for these combinations.

Ok, last comment on this today. Here’s a pretty cool online pinyin chart that includes audio pronunciation. This chart includes certain obscure combinations like tei, kei, den, eng, dia, rua, and chua, but still omits others like lo, yo, and ei.

unique pinyin combinations

Friday, January 30th, 2009

Prelude: This is an off-topic post featuring arcane and obscure information about the Chinese language.

As an engineer / statistician / nerd, I am always classifying, analyzing, and quantifying the world around me. I am fascinated by the underlying structure and logic of all things, even things that are theoretically outside the realm of engineers. I also love tables and graphs.

Therefore, you can imagine my excitement when, on my first day learning Chinese, I discovered the chart of pinyin syllables:

pinyin chart 412

How incredible that all of the possible sounds in an entire language may be represented so simply and logically, and on just one page! Not counting the tones, there are just over 400 possible sounds in Chinese. I’ve forgotten now how many sounds are possible in English, but it’s on the order of tens of thousands.

Very early on in my Chinese study, I became fascinated with the frequency distribution of characters (including tones) within the pinyin chart. Occasionally, the uneven distribution would seem to make linguistic / cultural sense. For example, there is only one common character for the pinyin combination si3, 死, meaning death. Although I’m out of my league in postulating here, one could certainly imagine that as the society developed, the language would be clarified to ensure there wasn’t any confusion about death, hence leaving the word isolated phonetically.

Anyway, over the years, I’ve tracked a lot of unique / unexpected / fascinating things I have discovered about the pinyin chart. And so I thought I’d share some of them here for your curiosity, trivial entertainment, and perhaps aid in your own language pursuit.

First off, here’s a list of pinyin combinations for which there is only one commonly used character. (My unscientific definition of “commonly used” here is that the character is included in my cell phone’s Chinese input system.)

pinyin neng

I’ll start easy:

neng 能
gei 给
zhei 这
shei 谁
dei 得
sen 森
nin 您
ri 日
me 么

I really can’t say why this is so interesting to me, but it is. I mean, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of characters for the pinyin “yi.” How come “neng” only gets one?

Ok, now let’s get a little more obscure. Here are a few less common pinyin combinations for which, again, there is only one common character:

fo 佛
dia 嗲
ei 诶
zei 贼
nou 耨
seng 僧
lia 俩
zhuai 拽
lo 咯

Ok, moving on. Here’s a list of unusual pinyin combinations that, although they do have more than one character, you might have rarely encountered before:

jiong 窘,
miu 谬
pou 剖
cen 岑
beng 泵
pie 撇
weng 翁
zuan 钻
chuai 揣
chuo 戳

Ok, final list for this post. Here’s a few pinyin combinations that technically exist, but are so obscure that my cell phone and even many dictionaries include no characters. Many pinyin tables don’t even include these as possible sound combinations!

tei 忒
kei 剋

Ok, enough for today. Anyone out there know of other obscure pinyin combinations? Lastly, I’ll conclude with some links to more Chinese character esoterica:

This blog:
How many pinyin combinations are there?

Acceptance comes for obscure characters
Problems with crazy characters
Living with an obscure name

56minus1′s excellent Chinese net-speak series:
Chinese net-speak Part 1
Chinese net-speak Part 2
Chinese net-speak Part 3

Laowai Chinese’s post on the pinyin chart.

censoring obama’s inaugural address

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

Several media and blog sources are reporting the Chinese government’s censorship of Obama’s inaugural address. From the AP:

At one point, Obama said earlier generations “faced down communism and fascism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.” He later addressed “those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent — know that you are on the wrong side of history.”

Translations of the speech on China’s most popular online portals, Sina and Sohu, were missing the word “communism” in the first sentence. The paragraph with the sentence on dissent had been removed.

Although I trust the AP’s reporting, I still wanted to verify this for myself. has a special inauguration page here:

sina inauguration page

(Interesting side note: the header refers to him as “Jr.,” which I’ve never seen in the Western media, and is not used on his official White House page.)

From Sina’s inauguration page, clicking 发表演说 takes you to a page featuring both a video of the speech and the supposed complete text (全文). Let’s take a closer look at both sensitive instances.

He says “communism” at 10:14 in the video. The video is not edited (as it was during the CCTV live broadcast), but the subtitle omits the word:

obama speech censorship 1

Original English: “Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks”

Subtitle: “他们不仅仅是靠导弹和坦克击败法西斯主义” (“They didn’t merely rely on missiles and tanks to defeat fascism”)

The text on the site is slightly different from the subtitle (“回想先辈们在抵抗法西斯主义之时,他们不仅依靠手中的导弹或坦克”), but still omits “communism.”

Now let’s take a look at the second part, about dissent. This portion starts around 12:50 on the video.

Again, the video itself is not edited, although the subtitles appear to use the word “suppress” instead of “silence.”

obama speech censorship 2
obama speech censorship 3

Original English: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent”

Subtitles: “对于那些通过腐败、欺骗和镇压异见者来攫取权力的领导人” (“To those leaders who grab power by corruption, deception, and suppression of dissenters”)

In any case, although the censorship of the subtitles doesn’t appear to be too heavy, that of the text version of the speech is. As indicated in the AP article, an entire paragraph is omitted. From what I can tell, these are lines of the speech that are omitted from the Chinese text version on

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist. To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders, nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

I think the title of Austin’s post at the Time China blog captures very concisely the depressing irony here: “the silencing of ‘silencing of dissent‘”.

bu zheteng

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

There is an interesting linguistic debate happening here in China in regards to something Hu Jintao said during his recent speech commemorating the 30th anniversary of China’s reform and opening. While pushing forward with development goals, China should 不动摇,不懈怠,不折腾, which the China Daily translated as “don’t sway back and forth, relax our efforts or get sidetracked.” Everyone seems content with the translation of the first two terms, but there is a lot of debate about the third – 不折腾 (bu4 zhe1 teng) – both what Mr. Hu meant and how to translate it.

A couple of weeks ago, Danwei posted a great summary of the issue, and I recommend readers start there for background. Yesterday, Austin at the Time China blog posted his (humorous) interpretation and suggestion, and linked to the recently published state-run Xinhua’s suggestions:

- bu zheteng
- no trouble-making
- avoid self-inflicted setbacks
- don’t flip flop
- don’t get sidetracked
- don’t sway back and forth
- no dithering
- no major changes
- avoid futile actions
- stop making trouble and wasting time、no self-consuming political movements

What fascinates me is the first suggestion – “bu zheteng” – which is just the Chinese rendered in the standard romanization system, pinyin. The implication being that if it can’t be translated adequately, why try?

Last night, my colleagues, all of whom are Chinese, and I had a discussion about how to translate bu zheteng. They all seem to agree that the best solution is simply for us English-speakers to adopt bu zheteng into our language. What do you think?

Bearing in mind that I’m an engineer, not a linguist, off the top of my head I can think of two categories of Chinese words that have been adopted into the English language:

The first is Chinese words that have been fully integrated and are included in standard English language dictionaries. Examples: tofu, from the Chinese dou4 fu 豆腐, and kung fu, from the Chinese gong1 fu 功夫.

The second is Chinese words that expats living in China routinely use colloquially when speaking to each other, either because no equivalent English word exists, or because it describes perfectly a phenomenon unique to China. Examples:

- chai 拆, meaning to demolish, e.g. “I used to love that restaurant; too bad it got chai’ed last week.”
- mafan 麻烦, meaning troublesome / annoying, e.g. “Traveling during Chinese New Year’s is too much mafan, I think I’ll just stay in Beijing next week.”

My prediction is that bu zheteng will be integrated by expats into the unique brand of Chinglish that we use when speaking to other China expats, but that there is little to no chance that bu zheteng will become the next tofu.

Update 2/17/09:

Great photo today in The Beijinger: