Pinyin Progress

Photos by MJ Klein

Driving around recently, we noticed that some names on highway and road signs have changed:

Pinyin Progress

Take a close look and you’ll see the entire name on the left has an overlay, and “Zhu” on the right is overlaid on the sign.

Pinyin Progress

But not just in that one spot – it seems that every sign we saw within a certain radius has been changed too.

Pinyin Progress

Pinyin Progress

“Zhudong” got a makeover too.

Pinyin Progress

Pinyin Progress

But on certain highways, the changes haven’t caught up yet.  In case you’re wondering, “Cyonglin” is the former spelling of the new “Qionglin” seen at the beginning of this article.

Pinyin Progress

Several words on these signs will eventually be changed.  The reason they are changing is because the government of Taiwan has adopted the standard Hanyu Pinyin for all place names in the country (back in 2002).  Now I’m all for standards, but personally I dislike Hanyu Pinyin because it’s hard to tell the actual pronunciation from the looks of the spelling – it’s not instinctive.  Hanyu Pinyin uses the English letter “Q” without the following (and necessary) “u” which violates the rules of English.  Another hair-brainer is the use of “X” for the “sh” sound.  So, instead of using the easy-reading “shiao” (for 小) they use “xiao” which also makes no sense in English.  One may as well learn BoPoMoFo.  I did 3 semesters of Chinese at NCTU in Hsinchu and I’m still not sure how to pronounce certain Hanyu Pinyin spellings.

Pinyin Progress

I do understand the need to adopt a standard, and I also understand the reason behind choosing Hanyu Pinyin.  I just think it gives a “PRC” feel to the island’s names.

Pinyin Progress

Now this just looks weird.  Take a look at the Chinese words in these 2 green signs.  You don’t have to read Chinese to be able to see that the second word in “Hsinchu” is the same as the first word in “Zhubei”  (竹 which means “bamboo”).  Eventually “Hsinchu” will become “Hsinzhu” if the standard is to be held.  Also, the second word “bei” in “Zhubei” (北 “north”) is the exact same word used in “Taipei” (台北) which means that someday Taipei will become “Taibei!”

Pinyin Progress

This is the worst example of Pinyin I have ever seen!  I have no idea what system this is, and it almost looks like Cantonese.

Pinyin Progress

This sign was shot across the street from the previous one and shows the correct Hanyu Pinyin rendering of 中山.

Have you noticed any signs changing recently?  What are your thoughts and reactions to them?  Please leave us your comments below.  You may use the Apture bar above or the icons below for social media sharing.  Thanks for reading!

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  1. I for one love standardizing to Hanyu Pinyin. Any Taiwanese independence mojo from wacky, disorganized pinyin is outweighed by far by the benefit to visitors and foreigners in Taiwan of consistency. After all, Mandarin is Mandarin.

    I can’t wait for the day when we can wave goodbye to silly pinyin such as “Taipei”, “Kaohsiung” and, for the love of all that is holy, “Keelung”.

    1. hi Boyd. i’m all for consistency and choosing a standard. i just wish Hanyu Pinyin was easily discernible and used standard English conventions, that’s all. the world is like that – the most popular thing isn’t necessarily the best thing.

  2. MJ, I thought I had it tough. How in the world one pronounces HS and ZH…I’ll never know. Transliteration is a necessary evil, but I wish Thailand would choose just ONE method. But, I guess, even if it did, all of us falang would put our own accent spin on it.

    It isn’t easy when K is used for G, or TH does not sound like the TH in ‘thick’, or PH does not say ‘F’….oh, poor Phuket 😉

    1. Snap, it’s so bad that you have to actually study the pinyin to get the pronunciation correct. the very first thing we learned in Chinese class was how to pronounce the pinyin components. one cannot simply read it and get it right. there are components such as “qi” “xi” and “can” which are pronounced “chi” “she” and “tan” respectively. it’s annoying! thanks Snap.

      1. Well, I still haven’t really managed to get used to that – it’s just too random and counter to any other conventions. Still, it’s clear that pinyin is here to stay – with China backing it uniformly, and most of the studying materials using it, it’s the only system which foreigners might actually know. So I think the government made the right choice there, no matter how much I dislike the system.

        The important thing is standardization – once this is complete foreigners should be able to use maps and GPS devices, be able to use street signs for navigation, and a few of them will even be able to map the writing to pronunciation (not very well though, since there are no indicators for the tones). So I guess what I’m saying is: two out of three is not too bad. 🙂

        1. right Stefan, well stated. Hanyu pinyin is here to stay only because China and a few other big countries have adopted it – not because it’s the best system. personally i find it ridiculous. but even so, Taiwan had to adopt it because it’s becoming (or already has become) a world standard. oh well…. take care.

  3. I’m so happy to see this! I have for years marveled at how we can have the same character on the very same road sign with two different Romanizations. I have taken photos (some of the same signs you have here, “Jhubei” versus “Hsinchu”) and mailed them to friends for amusement. So, I am actually really happy to see they are finally standardizing. Also, I hate to offend, but I like hanyu pinyin – “x” and “q” alike; it’s just a symbol and it represents a sound that doesn’t exist in English anyway. But I understand the grumbling about mainland influence. Anyway, nice post!

    1. Tim, thanks for joining our discussion. and don’t worry, you didn’t offend anyone! we like differing viewpoints, and it’s always a pleasuring hearing from new contributors. take care.

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  5. I love language nerding 🙂

    Agree 100% on the silliness of X being used for SH. Is the Q here pronounced with a K-sound in it, as in English words? (queue = kew)

    Mandating that U must follow Q means it’s redundant, but that’s a minor issue given how totally broken English is (no offence, anyone…)

    I find it amusing that Japanese transliteration follows Norwegian pronunciation rules much more closely than English. I can read it out almost perfectly correct, while native English speakers need an extra layer of transliteration to get it right.

    1. hey Gunnstein, nice to hear from you. in the case of Hanyu Pinyin, the Q sound is most like “ch” and it doesn’t represent a “k” sound at all. i thought what you said about using Norwegian pronunciation for Japanese transliteration to be very interesting! who knew? 🙂 take care.

  6. Guys, the “x” represents a sort of “sh + y” sound, not a normal “sh” sound which is represented by “sh”! 🙂

    So, “Shanghai” is Shanghai. But the city with all the terracotta warriors (Hsi’ An) is Xian (not, for example, Shi An). Because it is NOT a relaxed “sh” sound but a pursed lips “sh + y” sound…

    It’s all like that. And, the Mainlanders use pinyin consistently — so, it’s a great standard to use. I say that again as I had TWO episodes last week of Taiwan’s wacky, inconsistent pinyin causing me address problems.

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