Saturday, March 05, 2011

Why hanyu pinyin sucks and why Romanization in Taiwan is good

3/05/2011 Taiwan Explorer
In this post I will talk about why I believe that hanyu pinyin sucks and why (despite many claims of the contrary) the Romanization in Taiwan is good. Those of you who are big fans of Taiwan, and know a little something about the history and the current situation of the country may find this post interesting. I will try to explain the complexity of all these issues in simple terms, so that those who are not familiar with these linguistic matters can get a good idea of what I'm talking about. This is my reply to those Westerners, who worship hanyu pinyin, and want to see Han characters abolished. I would appreciate your additional comments at the end of the post.

1. What is Romanization and what is hanyu pinyin?

Romanization is using Roman written letters, or the Latin alphabet for languages[1] that use a different writing system, and they can look like this: 漢字, ひらがな, 한글, อักษรไทย or αλφάβητο etc. Hanyu pinyin is a Romanization system developed and officially used in People's Republic of China since 1958[2], and is used for Standard Chinese also known as Putonghua (普通话), which is based on the Beijing Mandarin dialect (北京话). An example of that would be the greeting "你好!" written as "Nǐhǎo!" (meaning "Hello"). And since most Western countries (almost all of Europe and the Americas) use Roman written letters, and most Asian countries (such as China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Thailand, India and the Middle East) use their own writing systems[3], Romanization is a good way for us in the West to understand these cultures better, even if only superficially. We use Romanized names on our maps, in our books, and in the media. In the Eastern countries Romanization is useful for international marketing, branding, and business, which is still dominated by the West and by the English language, the current international lingua franca of science, education, popular culture, cinema, art, and business.

2. What types of Romanizations are there + examples in Taiwan

There are possibly hundreds of different Romanizations in use, some simple and popular, some complicated and highly scientific usually developed by linguists. They usually depend on what method you apply, and which language you target. To highlight these complicated matters I have decided to write an overview of various types and grades of Romanization. This overview will serve as an important base for my latter arguments (and for my proposals in regards to Romanization in Taiwan). I will also show that there are many good examples of excellent Romanization throughout Taiwan that don't base on a flawed politically charged system, but rather take into account various factors, such as Taiwan's history, the variety of languages, and general usability.

I distinguish between these types and grades of Romanization:


  1. PERFECTLY ACCURATE PHONETIC TRANSCRIPTION: Here the Romanized version tries to reflect the pronunciation of the spoken source word as accurately as possible. For example the Southern Chinese city "福州" would be Romanized as "Fúzhōu" in hanyu pinyin and as "Fǔt͡ʂóʊ̯" with the International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA. This is of course very academic and scientific. It acquires advanced knowledge of all the symbols and sounds, if you want to read and pronounce these terms properly. It's not very useful in public places, or for tourist, it's intended for those who learn and research languages.
  2. -----------------------------------------------
  3. APPROXIMATION OF THE SPOKEN SOURCE WORD: Here the pronunciation is altered to fit the orthography of a certain language. It's best, if I highlight that in few examples: "福州" can be Romanized in Croatian as "Fučou", German as "Futschou", and in English as "Foochow". In the latter case, it has been Anglicized. This is useful for certain areas such as media, tourism, maps, but can be limited to only a certain language, and tends to be used locally, not internationally. Anglicized orthography was widely used in the past as the official international Romanization (it begun with the expansion of the British Empire). As the empire declined many countries started to change these names. That was usually politically or ideologically motivated. Older English literature is full of these Anglicized names, and I think many of them still hold a certain historic value, and could be used today, especially in marketing and tourism (for Taiwan this would make perfect sense). But this phenomenon is not only common for the English language. Most European countries will have their own Romanizations related to the characteristic of their own language. Below are some examples of this Romanization method.

    • Example on the Chinese script 台北:

    Taibei (Latvian Romanization)
    Tajpej (Hungarian and Polish Romanization)
    Tchaj-pej (Czech and Slovakian Romanization)
    Taipéi (Spanish Romanization)
    Taipé (Portuguese Romanization)
    Taipeh (German Romanization, also used in Austria, Switzerland)

    I have to add that the boundaries between these two grades can be fluid. A version between the 1. and 2. grade would be the simple hanyu pinyin Romanization without tone marks written as "Fuzhou".

  1. LITERAL TRANSLATION OF THE WHOLE SOURCE WORD: Sometimes it's easier, smarter, and simpler to just translate the source word. For example: The famous lake in Taiwan "日月潭" is commonly Romanized as "Sun Moon Lake" and not "Riyuetan" which would be the simple hanyu pinyin version (the version without tone marks). Same goes for the "Eternal Spring Shrine", which is written in Chinese as "長春祠", and in hanyu pinyin "Changchunci". This type of Romanization is very pragmatic, and therefore popular in Taiwan. It's a great way to promote certain tourist destinations, important buildings, and institutions. It can be a great marketing tool as well. Of course here the English language dominates when it comes to international use (which I think it makes great sense), but a lot of other languages follow suit, and also just literally translate these names into their own native languages. The Sun Moon Lake is in German "Sonne-Mond-See", and in Spanish "Lago de Sol y Luna". This way of Romanizing is also commonly applied on landmark buildings, hotels, museums, and monuments.

    • Examples in Taiwan:

    National Taiwan University 國立臺灣大學 (hanyu pinyin: Guoli Taiwan Taida)
    New Taiwan Dollar 新臺幣 (hanyu pinyin: Xintaibi)
    Lotus Lake 蓮池潭 (hanyu pinyin: Lianchi Tan)
    Dragon and Tiger Pagodas 龍虎塔 (hanyu pinyin: Longhu Ta)
    Spring and Autumn Pavilions 春秋閣 (hanyu pinyin: Chunqiu Ge)
    National Taiwan Museum 國立台灣博物館 (hanyu pinyin: Guoli Taiwan Bowugan)
    228 Peace Memorial Park 二二八和平紀念公園 (hp: Ererba Heping Jinian Gongyuan)

  • PARTIAL TRANSLITERATION, PARTIAL TRANSLATION: This is very commonly used for names of places and administrative division. For example: The famous square in Beijing "天安门广场" is Romanized as "Tiananmen Square", the first part "天安门" is transliterated as "Tiananmen", the second part "广场" is translated as "Square" (the transliteration of the latter would be "Guangchang"). This is a kind of a middle way, combining two methods. It can be a good or a bad way to Romanize, it depends from case to case. When it comes to Taiwan, this method is very common and I think also very useful.

    • Examples in Taiwan sorted by language:

    A. Standard Chinese transliteration + English translation

    Control Yuan 監察院 (hanyu pinyin: Jiancha Yuan)
    Fujian Province 福建省 (hanyu pinyin: Fujian Sheng)
    Hsinchu County 新竹縣 (hanyu pinyin: Xinzhu Xian)
    Taipei City 台北市 (hanyu pinyin: Taibei Shi)
    Danshui District 淡水區 (hanyu pinyin: Danshui Qu)
    Dalin Township 大林鎮 (hanyu pinyin: Dalin Zhen)
    Shilin Night Market 士林夜市 (hanyu pinyin: Shilin Yeshi)
    Tainan Train Station 臺南車站 (hanyu pinyin: Tainan Chezhan)
    Taiwan Confucian Temple 台灣孔廟 (hp: Taiwan Kongmiao)

    B. Cantonese language transliteration + English translation

    Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall 國立中正紀念堂 (hp: Guoli Zhongzheng Jiniantang)
    Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall 國立國父紀念館 (hp: Guoli Guofu Jinianfan)

    C. Aboriginal or Taiwanese language transcription + English translation

    Taroko National Park 太魯閣國家公園 (hp: Tailuge Guojia Gongyuan)
    Lekuleku River 樂樂溪 (hanyu pinyin: Lele Xi)
    Chikhan Tower 赤崁樓 (hanyu pinyin: Chikanlou)

    D. Japanese language + English translation

    Kagi Shrine 嘉義神社 (hanyu pinyin: Jiayi Shenshe)
    Takao Shrine 高雄神社 (hanyu pinyin: Gaoxiong Shenshe, non-existent today)


    1. ROMANIZED VERSION PRECEDES THE CHINESE VERSION: There are few instances in Taiwan where the Romanized version is older than the Chinese script. When Portuguese and Dutch came to Taiwan in the 16. and early 17. century there was no Han population on the island. Some of today's historic sites were established and named by Western settlers. For example: "Fort Santo Domingo" in Tamsui originates from Spanish "Fuerte Santo Domingo", while in Chinese the structure is called "紅毛城", which literally means "Fort of the red-haired people", and could be transliterated as "Hongmaocheng" in the hanyu pinyin version without tone marks. This is the case where both, the translation and the phonetic transliteration, don't match.

      • Examples in Taiwan:

      Formosa 福爾摩沙 (hanyu pinyin: Fuermosha)
      Cape San Diego 三貂角 (hanyu pinyin: Sandiaojiao)
      Fort Provincia 赤崁樓 (hanyu pinyin: Chikanlou)
      Fort Zeelandia 熱蘭遮城 (hanyu pinyin: Relanzhecheng)

  • ROMANIZED VERSION VAGUELY RELATED TO SOURCE WORD: Here there is very little or no correlation in meaning, or in the phonetic transliteration between the Romanized version and the source word. Some of these Romanizations are new, and are used for marketing purposes. For Example: A big skyscraper consisting of 5 towers in Banqiao is Romanized as "Taipei Sky Dome" (see it here). The official Chinese name is "巨蛋東京花園廣場", which can be transliterated as "Judan Dongjing Huayuan Guangchang" in simple hanyu pinyin, but if you translate the Chinese original it becomes "Tokyo Garden Square Dome". In this case the English version is shorter and catchier, which is very smartly done. However, some of these Romanizations can be old, too. They try to reflect the core idea of the source word, but don't try to translate the exact meaning. Sometimes they also simplify the source word by omitting a part.

    • Examples in Taiwan:

    Grass Mountain Chateau 草山行館 (hp: Caoshan xingguan; "行館" is an old graceful word for "house")
    The Grand Hotel 圓山大飯店 (hp: Yuenshan Dafandian; "Yuenshan" omitted in English)
    Far Eastern Plaza 遠企中心 (hp: Yuenqi zhongxin; lit. "Far Eastern Business Center")
    Gate of Taipei 台北雙子星大樓 (hp: Taibei Shuangzi Xingdalu; lit. "Taipei Twin Skyscrapers")
    Asian-Pacific Financial Plaza 宏總亞太財經廣場 (hp: Hongzong Ya-Tai Caijing Guangchang)
    President Intl. Tower 統一國際大樓 (hp: Tongyi Guoji Dalou; lit. "Unification Intl. Tower")
    Kaohsiung Twin Tower 夢萊茵 (hanyu pinyin: Menglaiyin: lit. "Dream Rhine", the river in Germany)

  • 3. Romanization in Taiwan, what's going on?

    Taiwan's Romanization is sometimes inconsistent, and you don't need to be a linguist to see that. There are many kinds of academic, and less academic systems used throughout the country at the same time, some are remains from decades or even centuries ago, some are implemented recently. This is unusual, but it doesn't pose any serious problems anyone, because very rarely foreigners would have difficulties finding places in Taiwan based on the diversity of Romanization, be it on- or offline. I have to say there is something else that worries me more: The people that get upset about it.

    It's something I just don't understand. In my world this kind of behavior is very odd. First of all I have nothing against us foreigners being engaged in the matters concerning Taiwan. I think that's great, because I'm interested and engaged, too. But I have some issues with obsessive people and those, who ridicule certain groups of Taiwanese who don't want hanyu pinyin implemented. These foreigners have a sense of superiority, and they believe they know better what is best for the people, and the country they migrated to. Try googling "Romanization in Taiwan", and read forums and blogs written by some Westerners, and you'll come across some uncompromising and intolerant hanyu pinyin advocates who are looking down on everybody that doesn't share their views. What bugs me the most is that they make Taiwan look bad abroad: "Oh, Taiwan is such a mess... Foreigners get lost, nobody understands anything..." and similar nonsense. If you have read all my examples from above you can see that the Romanization in Taiwan is very diverse, and for the most part makes sense. That's due to the complicated history, and influences of many cultures and languages. Isn't that the best thing about Taiwan? I mean, sure there could be improvements, but why replace everything with hanyu pinyin, a politically charged system with so many flaws (which I will highlight below) that does not care about Taiwan's diversity at all, and is very frustrating to the reader? This has become an "issue" just because a small group of people have blown it out of proportion. The majority of us is definitely not like them, and I want to make that clear by writing this article.

    Let me reaffirm: Don't be afraid to travel to Taiwan, you won't get lost, because of the diverse Romanization, but probably because Taiwan is so awesome.

    A fraction within this hanyu pinyin pseudo-intelligentsia is even proposing to abolish traditional Chinese characters and replace them with hanyu pinyin! Āré thěy oüt òf theír mǐnds? I would usually not write about fringe groups, if they wouldn't be using such offensive language in their comments about Taiwan, Taiwanese people, and on everybody who doesn't think hanyu pinyin is a good Romanization system. I generally don't like this type of Westerners, because they cast a bad light on the rest of us who are not like them. Can't there be a non-condescending way of discussing issues of the country you have moved to?

    4. Why I don't support hanyu pinyin in Taiwan

    Hanyu pinyin was developed in PR China and implemented as the official Romanization for Standard Chinese in 1958. In 1982 it became international standard and countries with Chinese population such as Malaysia and Singapore have gradually adopted it, but with many inconsistencies. Taiwan adopted hanyu pinyin in 2009 as official romanization on government level, but hasn't enforced it. Today most of it can be found in Taipei, but if you go south to smaller towns things are still like they used to be, old Romanization systems are still in use. I do agree that something could (and not must) be done to improve the situation, and I will share my own proposals at the bottom of this post. But I still think this is up to the Taiwanese people to decide, not Westerners. It should be decided on local level by each municipality or county, not imposed centrally by the government, because some extremists are lobbying for it. I've asked my girlfriend what she thought about those foreigners who are getting upset over Romanization in Taiwan, and the use of traditional Chinese characters. She felt they were condescending, and had a superiority complex. She said: "We also don't go to Europe or USA and tell people how they should write their language." I couldn't agree more. Again, it's not about if you engage, it's about how you do it. And for me the biggest joke is the idea that hanyu pinyin is superior to other Romanization systems, because it's so perfect. The truth is - it's not. It's full of flaws, more than many other systems. Fact is: There is no perfect Romanization system for Standard Chinese.

    Let me point out the issues I have with hanyu pinyin in Taiwan and in general:

    1. MAJOR ISSUE: Hanyu pinyin doesn't relate to Taiwan's unique situation. By that I mean the complex history as well as the population mix and the numerous languages, that are spoken on the various islands under governance of the Republic of China. It's one thing, if schools or students use hanyu pinyin for teaching and learning Chinese, even though I think BoPoMoFo (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ or Zhuyin) is a much better method for that. It's up to every individual teacher or student to use whatever way they want to learn Chinese. Hanyu pinyin is merely a tool, a bridge (although a very shaky one) to come to the other side and master the spoken Chinese language. However, it's a whole different dimension, if you use a certain politically charged and flawed Romanization in a country like Taiwan and don't improve the ease of reading, nor fix the flaws of the previous Romanization, but just replace it. That way you just waste money and upset people. Why not for once make it right and include other languages spoken in Taiwan? Wouldn't that be something Taiwan could pride itself on abroad?

    2. MAJOR ISSUE: Hanyu pinyin doesn't guarantee a correct pronunciation. A common myth by hanyu pinyin advocates is the notion, that if we use hanyu pinyin everywhere, people will pronounce all the words properly. For instance, China's capital "Beijing" (also written as "Běijīng"), how many times have you heard foreigners pronounce the word right, after they've read the hanyu pinyin version? Foreign, especially English speaking reporters, usually pronounce the "j" as the "s" in Asia. Others may say "Peking". Fact is: Hanyu pinyin is good for the writer and bad the reader. Those who understand all these complicated rules are the only advocates of it and they are few. The rest of us have to try to make some sense of it. Usually we fail. It's funny to see people who don't really know how to read hanyu pinyin right advocating it. It has almost become like a religious movement for some Westerners.

    3. MAJOR ISSUE: Hanyu pinyin is complicated and inconsistent. Hanyu pinyin fanatics like to point out how their cherished system is nearly flawless in comparison with others. And of course they hijacked Wikipedia, where they don't mention any "practicality issues", like they do in the article about Tongyong Pinyin (通用拼音), a Romanization system developed in Taiwan, that tried to fix some flaws of hanyu pinyin and was used between 2002 and 2009. (Compare the articles: hanyu pinyin <-> Tongyong Pinyin). I'm not saying Tongyong Pinyin doesn't have any flaws, but hanyu pinyin is in no way superior to that system. Both would need significant improvements, if they want to make sense and be useful to the reader. Hint: If you are trying to learn Chinese, don't start with hanyu pinyin! Begin with BoPoMoFo (a.k.a. Zhuyin), your pronunciation of Standard Chinese will be way better that way (Read these articles, where users share their views on Zhuyin: Pinyin or Zhuyin?, Taiwan - ㄅㄆㄇㄈ呢? Any bopomofo users out there? If you need a useful Romanization for learning, use Yale for Mandarin). Back to that funny system. Let's look at some specific problems hanyu pinyin poses to the user and reader.

    Here are some common inconsistency problems with hanyu pinyin:

    1. LANGUAGE INTERFERENCE: Many Latin letters are pronounced differently than they are in the native languages of those foreigners, who will have to read the Romanized orthography in Taiwan. The "x" is pronounced closer to a "sh" -> like [ɕ], the "q" is pronounced closer to "ch" -> like [tɕʰ], the "r" is pronounced closer to "z", -> like [ʐ]. This only misleads the reader. It requires a lot of academic knowledge of all the complicated and contradictory pronunciation rules and of course makes hanyu pinyin nearly useless in real life, on street signs and signboards. Fact is: Almost all learners of Standard Chinese struggle with the pronunciation and have a hard time understanding all the funny dìǎcrītìcāl màrks. And then you add all these letters, that mislead you and you have created a monster, that only serves the ego of those, who dedicated their career to hanyu pinyin. They are the ones, that fiercely advocate this flawed system the most. I don't blame any official in Taiwan for being pro-hanyu pinyin. My guess is they're probably misled by those loud Westerners, who cry over every small signage inconsistency and propagate hanyu pinyin as the savior of Taiwan's Romanization problem, but never mention its flaws, inconsistencies and user-unfriendliness.

    2. LETTER REDUNDANCY: The letters "j", "q", "ch" and "zh" and letters "c" and "z" all sound too similar to a Westerner. Someone, who hasn't extensively studied Standard Chinese phonetics, won't be able to pronounce these sounds properly. Why not just simplify them for the reader and make "j, q, ch, zh" -> "ch" and "c, z" -> "ts"?

    3. INCONSISTENT PRONUNCIATION RULES: Things that always intrigue me with hanyu pinyin are those totally random pronunciation rules, that make no sense at all. You want examples? No problem. I just want to know the reason for the following odd rules:

      1. THE o/uo ISSUE: Why are syllables "buo", "puo", "muo", "fuo" in hanyu pinyin written as "bo", "po", "mo", "fo"? Is it so hard to squeeze that "u" in there?

      2. THE i/ə ISSUE: Why is "i" used for two different sounds [i] and [ə] (like in 西 "xi" -> pronounced similar to "see" and 四 "si" -> pronounced similar to "sir")?

      3. THE e/o ISSUE: Why is "e" sometimes used for two different sounds [ə] and [ʊ] (like in 汾 "fen" -> pronounced like "fən" and 風 "feng" -> pronounced like "fong")?

      4. THE a/e ISSUE: Why is "a" sometimes used for two different sounds [ɛ] and [ɑ] (like in 眼 "yan" -> pronounced like "yen" and 羊 "yang" -> pronounced like "yang"?

      5. THE -iu/-iou ISSUE: Words written in hanyu pinyin as "liu", "jiu", "qiu" and "xiu" should be written as "liou", "jiou", "qiou" and "xiou" for a more accurate transliteration of Standard Chinese.

      6. THE -ui/-uei ISSUE: Words written in hanyu pinyin as "dui", "gui", "shui", "rui" (and few more) should be written as "duei", "guei", "shuei" and "ruei" for a more accurate transliteration of Standard Chinese.

      There are few more of these inconsistencies, but I don't want to waste my time only on this part here, the list would get too long. All in all we're back to the 2nd major issue: Hanyu pinyin is not reader friendly and many times makes no sense.

    4. CONFUSING RULES OF THE UMLAUT Ü: The sound [y], which is similar to the German "ü", can be written as "u", "ü", sometimes even as "v". That again is confusing to the reader. Why can't this sound be represented with only one letter? The rule about when to use trema (¨) above the "u" is so complicated, I think it's useless to share it here with you. You would probably not understand it (especially the nue/nüe blunder that has a "simple explanation" here), unless you have great advanced knowledge of hanyu pinyin and the spoken Standard Chinese language. I give you some examples: "yuan" is actually pronounced as "üen", not "yoo-ahn", the way most Westerners would probably pronounce it. Same goes for "yun". It's not "yoon", the way common sense tells you, it's "ün". The more I'm researching hanyu pinyin, the more I feel it was designed to be totally anti-common sense.

    Let's be frank: Those who speak and read Chinese, they would rely on Han characters anyway. Those Westerners, who live in Taiwan for a longer time, they should learn to read them as well, not rely on the Romanization permanently. Those Westerners, who visit Taiwan merely for few days or weeks and only for holidays, they don't need a complicated and inconsistent academic Romanization, they need one they can read and memorize quickly in order to read maps and find places easier. Why are some people so anti-pragmatism, when it comes to Romanization in Taiwan? Well, whatever happens, it's comforting to know that at least Taipei won't be changed to the bastardized version "Taibei". If pragmatism can prevail in Taipei's case, why can't it prevail nationwide?

    4. MAJOR ISSUE: Tōnè mǎrks or no1 tone2 marks3, what's the real hanyu pinyin? I'm still not sure what's the real hanyu pinyin. Is it the one with tone marks and ümlaut, that tries to be accurate in transliterating Standard Mandarin in the Roman script (and fails) or is it the one that uses numbers for tones or is it the one, that uses no diacritic signs where you basically have to assume the tone? The first doesn't make sense in public places. The second one is too confusing and was always useless to me. The third one is full of flaws as well. It's like a bad approximation and too complicated, we can do much better than that in Taiwan. This holy trinity doesn't work for me. ♪ So won't the real hanyu pinyin please2 stand3 up1, pleāsě stànd ǚp, please stand up!

    I love Taiwan and I want it to be unique, inventive, diverse, contradictory, powerful, challenging, bold. Why should we replace all that with uniformity from the past, that doesn't improve anything and only costs money? Since I have so much to criticize it's only fair, if I tell you how I would make it better. And that's exactly what I did here:

    5. About this article

    For a long time I've been meaning to write about the challenges of Romanization, the problems with hanyu pinyin and a combination of these two issues in relation to Taiwan. Finally I have written an exceptional academic piece, that completely debunks all the propaganda driven by some groups of Westerners in Taiwan (I think I know who's paying them) and I will continue to be their harshest critic. I will also continue to fight for a reader friendlier Romanization in Taiwan, but completely respect the decisions made by officials here. I have no problem, that Taipei implemented hanyu pinyin (at least they were pragmatic to keep Taipei and New Taipei reader friendly) and if the rest of Taiwan follows suit, I will respect that. After all, I do have a life (unlike some other people) and worrying about Romanization in Taiwan is not my priority (I rather promote Taiwan's beautiful spots), however I felt compelled to share my 2 cents on the issue. I reserve the right to update or modify this post in the future, if I find some new information. I apologize for possible grammatical or spelling mistakes and hope my points were understandable, because English is not my native language. If you have anything to add in regards to the issues I have touched on, feel free to submit them below. I will only reply to selected comments.

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