The demise of Chinglish in Beijing?

I swore I wouldn’t post today, as I have to make dinner for the relatives, but this is worth a quick mention.

CHINGLISH, the often funny mistranslation of Chinese into English, may soon be harder to find as Beijing prepares to standardise translations of thousands of Chinese dishes and public signs before the 2008 Olympic Games.

The city, determined to promote itself as modern and sophisticated, is planning to get rid of translations such as the Garden of Curled Poo in the capital’s ancient Ritan Park.

It will be the more accurate “information centre”. Foreigners will no longer be able to take snaps of themselves at the city’s Racist Park – the Ethnic Minorities Theme Park – and “Slippery when wet” will replace the “slippery are very crafty” warning for wet roads.

Also at risk are the literally correct translations such as Saliva Chicken, a cold dish of poached chicken in a peanut, garlic, ginger and green onion sauce – but no saliva – and pocked-face Ladies Tofu – mapo dofu, the chilli hot beancurd dish named after an old woman called Ma. Simple typos such as Pee Soup (pea soup) and Hot Crap (Spicy crab) will soon go the way of Beijing’s old hutong neighbourhoods, which are being replaced with anonymous high-rises that the Beijing authorities consider more appropriate for the capital of a nation of 1.3 billion people.

I guess it’s a good thing, though I know some will feel nostalgia for those funny signs and menu items – if, indeed, they can really wipe them out and correct them. The article says the “Beijing Speaks Foreign Languages Program,” made up of language experts at BCLU, has a web site listing hundreds of terms being considered for “reform.” If anyone can provide a link it will be appreciated.

The Discussion: 18 Comments

Peace and joy, buddy, and happy every day. I just had a long-distance call to my 85-year-old aunt, and I think she’s got the right perspective on all this. Could you guess; she doesn’t give a crap about all our little concerns. Enjoy your holiday!

December 26, 2006 @ 1:06 am | Comment

And our concers are indeed very, very little. Happy Holidays.

December 26, 2006 @ 1:30 am | Comment

So long as there is English and Chinese there will be Chinglish. Too much merry-making going to your head?

December 26, 2006 @ 2:32 am | Comment

Of course there will always be Chinglish. This campaign is focused on signs and menus – as I meant to imply toward the end of the post, pulling this off won’t be easy, and may well be impossible. (It is not impossible, however – you don’t see a lot of Chinglish in Singapore and Taiwan menus, though some, to be sure.)

December 26, 2006 @ 3:54 am | Comment

I’m leaning toward impossible. I’ve been an English teacher for many years, many of them in Beijing. The only way to properly fix these things is to have native speakers proof-read them and such proof reading would be expensive by local standards. Even the tools they have to work with are flawed. The red Oxford dictionary and all the electronic dictionaries that everybody here uses are LOADED with mistakes.

Culture is also a problem, there is the issue of “face.” I know a guy who did a bit of script editing for CCTV 9 for a while. He pointed out a number of grammar and vocabulary errors that the station had been constatnly making and was told that they weren’t going to fix them, he was told “that’s the way we do it.” In other words, if CCTV 9 fixed the mistakes, they would have to admit they were wrong and they weren’t going to do that.

Good luck with menus and street signs.

December 26, 2006 @ 11:41 am | Comment

What they need to happen is for native speakers of english to call in and correct all of these mistakes. Trouble is, and I’m sure I speak for most of us here, I just smile and enjoy the mistakes when I see them, I would NEVER want somebody to fix them. I like shopping in the “dried goods” section of the supermarket, hehe (anybody remember that one?).

December 26, 2006 @ 12:10 pm | Comment

They should get Da Shan to lead a campaign against Chinglish. Oh wait, he markets those electronic translators that are the main cause of the problem!

December 26, 2006 @ 1:01 pm | Comment

Whenever I’m in another country and see how written English is fractured, or I have a patient in hospital who cannot communicate very well in spoken English, I’m still conscious of the fact that THEY are better at MY language than I am at THEIRS. Otherwise, we’d be communicating in the that lingo. So aside from the smirks that Chinglish or Spanglish or whatever brings, let’s not forget who has the superior bilingual skills.

December 27, 2006 @ 10:15 am | Comment

Hey Bukko, refusal to make corrections is more of a character flaw than not knowing someone’s native language.

BTW, the best chinglish I ever saw was the “Fire Cock” ie Fire Hose in the Trust Mart in downtown MingHang.

ah, miss those random piles of trash.

December 27, 2006 @ 2:10 pm | Comment

I will miss “the slippery are very crafty.” I saw that one in front of an upscale mall a few years ago – Henderson Plaza or something like that – I just about peed myself.

Another one I really liked for the philosophical aspects – it was the tail end of a sign warning you not to sit on the railing that overlooked a canyon: “It is nice to live.”

Oh, and at the old Summer Palace, in front of the ruins: “No depicting!”

December 27, 2006 @ 2:49 pm | Comment

Having spent some time in various parts of Asia… the written Chinglish usually illicits a smile as the typos are innocent and funny. But there is one thing I’ve observed…and some of my colleagues would agree…that the spoken Chinglish in Singapore is not at all funny nor innocent. But rather, quite annoying. I’m not sure whether it’s the accent or the composition and juxtaposition of spoken English words.

Whatever it is, Chinglish, or Singlish has to be among one of the most difficult variations to appreciate.

I’d be interested if others share this observation…

December 27, 2006 @ 4:59 pm | Comment

That’s because Singlish is not incorrect English, it’s a dialect in its own right. Every Singaporean I ever met would quite happily code switch between Singlish and more ‘standard’ English depending on context.

December 27, 2006 @ 6:36 pm | Comment

I say too bad. I love Chinglish. It makes you think about language and people and gives insight into other cultures for those of us not brought up properly (i.e. not taught second languages. i.e. American).

That reminds me of a joke (has it been mentioned here too often?)

Q: What do you call someone who knows three languages? A: Trilingual.

Q: What do you call someone who knows two languages?
A: Bilingual.

Q: What do you call someone who knowns one language?
A: American.

December 27, 2006 @ 8:13 pm | Comment


Your joke is stale, and unfortunately, folks of many nationalities buy into the assumption behind the joke. The only argument I’ve ever had with a close Canadian friend was about Americans learning languages. This woman, who quit Korean class because she couldn’t hack the past tense, was lecturing me, an American speaker of Spanish, Korean, and Chinese. I called her on her assumption by comparing the language proficiencies of our staff of American, Canadian, British, and Australian nationals. There was no relationship between nationality and proficiency in Korean. It varied widely according to time spent in country and motivation to learn. The same was true for the multinational staff I worked with in China.

December 28, 2006 @ 6:03 am | Comment

I am a Chinese living in America, and I must say I will miss those “Chinglish” signs. The ones mentioned in the Sydney Morning Herald article are classic….I mean “Racist Park”….LOL! The upside is that the authorities are only standardizing signs in Beijing. You’ll probably still find funny signs in other parts of China.

December 28, 2006 @ 3:08 pm | Comment

@ken – Happy Holidays. As far as the joke, it is sad and embarrassing. However, all of the American expats I know tend to speak the language of their host country.

It’s just not that many who leave America (in the past).

December 28, 2006 @ 3:30 pm | Comment


I clicked on your name to check out your blog. I am surprised that a scientist busy writing multiple blogs would wander into the TPD and tell a boring, old joke.

A few weeks ago, someone posted under a false username with a link to a blog written by an American nurse who painted as a hobby.

Internet impostering is bad netiquette, and that’s no joke.

December 28, 2006 @ 9:56 pm | Comment

Hmm funny you should mention that about CCTV 9 Iron Buddha. I worked for the China Post in Taiwan for 3 months this summer and thought their copy editor, an Australian, was crap. Then the editor started getting me to proof the pages -after they had been published. I soon realised the high number of mistakes must have been due to the face barrier preventing the copy editor saying anything to the Taiwanese journos.

Merry Xmas all

December 29, 2006 @ 12:18 am | Comment

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