It’s been a while since I’ve done an “educational” blog post about Chinese language or culture — I have plenty of other stuff I plan to talk about, but this is a post about a cool feature of the Chinese language.
We’ve all been there: you have to spell out your name to the call center employee, and you launch into the weird modified military alphabet — for me, it’s “OK, it’s J as in Juliet, O as in Oscar, C as in car…”
How do Chinese people spell their names or indicate how to write them? While Chinese has a Romanization system called Pinyin (take my Chinese name, for instance: in characters, it’s 潘秀琳, and in Pinyin, it’s Pan Xiulin), when you’re in China, you want to use characters. You can’t really “spell” characters. Well, you kind of can.
Now, you may know that Chinese is a tonal language, and that one syllable can have lots of different meanings. For example, “Ma” can be horse (马), mother (妈), a particle that indicates that the sentence is a question (吗), or numb (麻). It’s all in the tones. Sometimes, words can have the same tone, but be written with different characters. So, when you want to “spell” your name in Chinese, you need to make sure that whoever’s writing your name is using the correct characters. How do you do that?
Actually, the way Chinese people “spell” their names is quite similar to the way we Westerners spell ours (J as in Joe, O as in Oscar…). Let’s make up an imaginary Chinese person. Let’s name her Li Yueming (李月明 — literally, Moon-Bright Li). Li Yueming wants to tell someone how to correctly write her name. She would probably say something like this: “我叫李月明。 月亮的月， 明天的明。” Translation: My name is Li Yueming. The yue in “moon” (yueliang) and the ming in “tomorrow” (mingtian). She’s basically doing the “X as in Y” routine, but using two-character words to indicate which character to use.
Here’s another fun thing about the Chinese language: because it’s all tonal and words can sound exactly the same except for the tones you use and the characters you write, puns are a big part of Chinese humor…and subversion on the internet. One of the most famous examples is the mythical creature known as the Caonima (草泥马, approximately pronounced Tsao-nee-mah), or the Grass-Mud-Horse. On Chinese websites, the Caonima became a popular meme and symbol of circumventing censorship, because with a tweak of the tones, Grass-Mud-Horse becomes 操你妈, or “fuck your mother”.
Another, more innocuous pun you might commonly see is upside-down characters on people’s doors, especially around Chinese New Year. You might see the characters for “good fortune” (福) or “spring” (春) displayed upside-down. This is because the words for “to arrive” (到) and “upside-down” (倒) sound exactly the same; they even have the same tone! So, if you see 春 (spring) upside-down, it means “Spring has arrived”. And of course, foreigners getting tones wrong, creating “my hovercraft is full of eels”-esque sentences, is an endless source of amusement for native speakers.