Thursday, May 6, 2010

On Chinglish

May 2, the New York Times ran an article entitled, “Shanghai Is Trying to Untangle the Mangled English of Chinglish.” The article begins:

“For English speakers with subpar Chinese skills, daily life in China offers a confounding array of choices. At banks, there are machines for “cash withdrawing” and “cash recycling.” The menus of local restaurants might present such delectables as “fried enema,” “monolithic tree mushroom stem squid” and a mysterious thirst-quencher known as “The Jew’s Ear Juice.”

This information about misspelled, misrepresented, or completely incorrect English is not news. The article is a typical China fluff piece, meant to fill space in an otherwise decent paper. But I have to say, it’s rather disappointing to see that it has managed to stay in the ‘most popular’ category for more than a day. The reason I’m so disappointed is evident in the previously quoted paragraph.

The article begins with neo-colonial beer goggles. For some reason, we’re supposed to sympathize with English speakers living in China with subpar Chinese skills. I mean, we all know that it's completely impossible to learn a language as illogical and fantastical as Chinese. We should feel terrible that our expat comrades cannot read signs. After all, with our linguistic advantages it is unjust that native English speakers should be confronted by confounding signs anywhere in the world!

That aside, what really got me wondering when we went back to the 1920’s was this:

““If you standardize all these signs, you not only take away the little giggle you get while strolling in the park but you lose a window into the Chinese mind,” said Mr. Radtke, who is the author of a pair of picture books that feature giggle-worthy Chinglish signs in their natural habitat.
Lest anyone think it is all about laughs, Mr. Radtke is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in Chinglish at the University of Heidelberg.”

There we have it, the true value of Chinglish. Both for laughs (I won’t dispute that) and as a window into the Chinese mind. In fact, I find this to be true of my Chinese. Whenever I say something in Chinese that is grammatically or lexically incorrect, I’m secretly happy. Nothing expresses what I mean better than what I don’t mean.

In this article, we have groups of white people: Germans, American reporters, expats, etc. who find their amusement at nonsensical signs more important than avoiding potential embarrassment on the part of the Chinese. This is both elitist and racist. It is elitists because it makes us feel better about our crappy Chinese when compared to Chinese public English, and it is racist because one gets the sense that this aspiring scholar believes that nonsense signs reflect something of the Chinese psyche. What they really are is simple. They are embarrassing translation errors, which have more to do with a poor language pedagogy than with some sort of reified, ignorant, Chinese psyche.

All this is not my way of discounting the validity of a degree in Chinglish. This topic is actually quite interesting. There are millions of people in China who actually speak Chinglish (this is pidgin Chinese-English) as a second language.

(Photo from:

(New York Times Article:



    It's not just non-native English speakers that have issues with semiotics. A friend of mine is releasing a book written after he went on a sojourn around the US with the purpose of finding and eradicating "typos" on public displays. We're certainly quick to judge others on their grammatical misgivings; let's just take a look at our own. That being said- there is a weekly article in the NYT about typos in the paper during that week... Though I've never seen a mention of the typos having any relevance on the psyche of the American people.

    Anyways-- I read this article when it came out and admittedly guffawed over the translations. But to say that we can peer into the psyche of the orient through these signs... wow. "They are embarrassing translation errors, which have more to do with a poor language pedagogy than with some sort of reified, ignorant, Chinese psyche." Agreed.

    Do you think chinglish will ever become a creole language?

  2. In some ways, it already has. Phrases like 'long time no see,' and 'no can do,' are the result of Chinese pidgin English from Hong Kong. Check it: