The Perils of Reading Asian Characters in English

One of the most respected English professors in the world once remarked confidently to an audience, that he had become more multicultural, and had recently been reading Qing Dynasty poetry. He pronounced it, Kwing. Presumably he thought the Qing Dynasty and the Ch'ing Dynasty were two different dynasties. They are not, and they are both pronounced, simply, Ch'ing.

Why the bizarre spellings then? Spellings so unexpected they confuse even great scholars? Students will not get far if they think Qing and Ch'ing are different eras.

In this essay I address myself to the professor who will have to deal, as soon as books are assigned, with this pedagogical emergency. I will deal with Chinese, then with Japanese and Korean Romanizations -- the three most populous groups of Asian Americans with transliterated old country languages.

The colonial heritage makes it unnecessary to devote similar attention to the Filipino or Vietnamese. Colonialism led the Philippines to use a Romanization worked out by the Spanish, and led Vietnam to use a Romanization (called quoc ngu) worked out by a French missionary, Alexander de Rhodes, in 1651, and enforced by the French when they closed the China-oriented civil service schools earlier in this century. Vietnam is the only country in Asia using Romanized letters. Thai's situation will be more understandable when we know Korea's.


Not only "Ch'ing" and "Qing," but "Zhou" and "Chou" are the same dynasty as well, and the latter two are both pronounced like the English name "Joe." As American students move from book to book during an introductory course, they become confused, as Zhou in one book changes to Chou in another, and all the philosophers, titles of books and names of artists shift under their eyes. If only for that reason, when studying Chinese topics, the professor must start the class by identifying which system of Romanization he or she will use -- and insist the class follow it. He or she should also insist, when the reading is assigned, on the whole class using one translation only -- if only to avoid orthographic confusion.

The problem: there currently is (and perhaps can never be) a good "Romanization" of Chinese -- a method of spelling out Chinese sounds into our alphabet. The older, still most widely used version, the Wade-Giles Romanization, is so bad it's comic. Its defenders argue, at best, that it was conceived back when Asian studies was the province of specialists and experts, who had the time to learn Wade Giles's fine distinctions. Others, less charitable, actually have hinted that Wade and Giles were not unhappy about how convoluted their Romanization was, for it meant that only professional Chinese scholars like themselves would ever pronounce the Chinese sounds correctly.

For instance, the most important virtue for Confucius is spelled, in Wade-Giles, "jen." American readers pronounce it, naturally, like the first syllable of Jennifer. How do you think that "j" is supposed to be pronounced? Were they thinking of "j" in German, pronounced like "y"? No. As in Spanish, like "h?" No luck. Wade Giles used a "j" as their symbol for the "r" sound at the beginning of words like "rip." The Confucian term is pronounced "ren."

Watch how the damage unfolds. Wade and Giles have used up the letter "j" to mean "r." How will they spell the name of the Taoist philosophic classic, which is pronounced Dao de Jing? They have used up the "j". So for the j sound they use... "ch."

Why? I've no idea. They have to spell Dao de Jing as "Tao te Ch'ing." They also, you'll notice, chose for some reason to spell the "d" sound with a "t." Generations of Americans have called the Dao the "Tao" (and soybean cake, dofu, "tofu." )

To recap, having used up "j" on the "r" sound, they then -- for the "J" sound -- used up "ch." So be it. But they're only painting themselves further into the corner. Having used up "ch" how can they spell the dynasty whose name starts with the "ch" sound, the Ch'ing dynasty? Their amazing solution: when they print "ch" with an apostrophe in front of it, just say it the way you normally would. So the Ch'ing dynasty they write Ch'ing.

Everyone, naturally, sees that strange apostrophe, thinks the Chinese must pause for a second in the middle of the word; and everyone says "Ch... ing", two separate sounds. But all the apostrophe means is, "this 'Ch' you shouldn't say as "j" but the way you usually say ch." If you must resort to an apostrophe, wouldn't it have made more sense to add the odd apostrophe when you're not supposed to say it the way you normally would? Why should the odd spelling symbolize the normal pronunciation?

Alas, the name of the country was China, and the language, Chinese. According to their logic, Wade and Giles should now ask us to spell those two words "Ch'ina" and "Ch'inese." At this point Wade and Giles threw in the towel and said, "But go on spelling China and Chinese the way they've always been spelled, even though it violates our system." Chaos.

The proof that Wade Giles has been a catastrophe is that many authors felt they had the right, even the duty, to make up a simpler system of their own. Then, in the1950s, the Communists developed a new Romanization called Hanyu Pinyin (or "pinyin" for short ) which avoids many of the Wade-Giles problems, and is increasingly used throughout the West.

Pinyin is better, and is becoming standard in newer books. Ren is, mercifully, ren, not "jen." But, as Molly Isham explains, there are still six symbols that Americans find difficult: Q like 'ch' in 'cheese'; X like 'sh' in 'sheep'; Z like 'ds' in 'beds'; C like 'ts' in 'cats'; Zh like 'dg' in 'edge'; E like the 'e' in 'the' when it appears before a consonant.

That is how the Ch'ing Dynasty became the Qing Dynasty and befuddled the famous professor. That is why Chou in an old book is Zhou in the newer ones, and it's still pronounced Joe. (Even closer than a J, would be the harsh grinding sound made at the start of the name George.)

All these Romanizations, from Wade-Giles to Pinyin, only capture the way one of the eight main Chinese languages pronounce these words: putonghua, the language of the North, of Beijing, of the Emperor's city, and his ruling class -- the language we call "Mandarin." It is more accurate to say that "Chinese" is the name of a language family, like the "Romance" language family. Cantonese is as far from Mandarin as Spanish is from French. A 1955 PRC government conference estimated that 71.5% of Chinese spoke Mandarin, while the second most common fangyan, "regional speech", accounted for only 8.5% and behind that came Cantonese with only 5%. Pinyin does not represent the sounds of any language but Mandarin.

(Among American Chinese, however, Mandarin isn't the most common. Until recently, ninety five percent of American Chinese came from the six counties around the southern seaport of Canton, or Guangdong, and the language there was primarily Guangdonghua, which we call Cantonese. Toishanese was spoken a lot nearby, as well, and is in the United States as a consequence.)

But everyone in China has to study Mandarin in school, and all now learn pinyin as well as Chinese characters. Mao decided some central language, some lingua franca was needed, and decreed it would be Mandarin, the language of the Northern majority and of the capital.

To further complicate matters, Chinese dialects within the languages are further apart than dialects within English. It is only as far from Beijing to Shanghai as from San Francisco to Los Angeles, but the difference in their Mandarin is about as wide as the difference between the English spoken in California and in Scotland. I've watched Shanghaiese listen to a Beijingese, slowly repeat what they'd heard, mulling over the sounds, then suddenly exclaim "Ai-ya!" and understand.

Worst, all the Chinese languages (or "regionalects," to use a more precise term) are tonal languages, and the same sound, said four different ways, means four things. Two different tones, two different words: the difference between Oh? and Oh! Pinyin tries to cope with the tones by using a series of accent marks but American books often omit them as just too much to handle. That means, however, that you'll read of Confucius's love for li, courtesy/ritual, and a few pages later of his opponent's (the Law and Order Schools) belief in li, force. Confucius's li was said like a skeptical "li?" and his opponents' li was said like an emphatic "li!" The two tones make two different words -- indeed, two opposing philosophies!

To avoid conflicting Romanizations, the professor, if books are assigned, should insist the class all work from one translation. There's another reason. Chinese translations can legitimately differ from each other much more widely than two translations from, say, French into English, legitimately can.

Here are two translations from the Tao te Ch'ing, chapter 6:

The valley spirit never dies;
It is the woman, primal mother.
Her gateway is the root of heaven and earth.
(Feng and English)

The Valley Spirit never dies.
It is named the Mysterious Female.
And the Doorway of the Mysterious Female
Is the base from which Heaven and Earth sprang.
(Arthur Waley)

Is the valley spirit "primal mother" or Mysterious Female? There's a difference! In the first translation, her gateway "is", present tense, right now, the root of heaven and earth. But in the second, the Tao seems to be talking about a cosmic event long ago, the origin of "Heaven and Earth," some sort of creation myth: "the Doorway of the Mysterious Female is the base from which Heaven and Earth sprang."

Yet neither translation is wrong. The Chinese text permits both of them, and indeed, many others. It has to do with the great differences between Chinese and English. Chinese has no plurals, no "a" or "the", often avoids verbs, and has only the present tense. You put time first in a sentence to specify when something happened. We sometimes do that too: "Yesterday I'm walking along the road and I see a girl walking toward me." The Chinese say that, in effect, to create a past tense. To create a future tense, they say something like, "Tomorrow, I'm walking along a road and I see a girl walking toward me." So literary texts can justifiably be translated many different ways. The Chinese sentence to be translated literally says, "He/she/it says/said/will say to him/her/it...." and the translator has to pick the sense that makes the most sense.

Pick one translation; be aware from the start which Romanization it uses; compare it with other translations if it seems odd. Chinese affords tremendous room for interpretation and many translators take advantage of it. Be particularly wary if the translation seems surprisingly trendy. Chinese gives plenty of room for a translator who's grinding some axe to turn ancient Chinese sexists into feminists, or pacifists, or whatever the soup du jour is. (Stephen Mitchell of Berkeley comes to mind.) Watch out for "orientalism," for hippie translations full of mystic magic mumbo jumbo, and, equally obnoxious, for yuppie translation that turn old generals Sun Tzu into CEOs giving tips on how to run an office.


Fortunately, no other Asian language presents Romanization problems as great as the Chinese situation.

The story of other Asian writing systems is, by and large, the story of that language's scholars wrestling with Chinese characters. In the first stage, the Rome-like political and cultural splendor of Chinese civilization, thrills the country's intellectuals. They note that the Chinese ideograms stand for ideas, not sounds; that different Chinese speakers already make very different sounds in response to the ideograms. Why should not a Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese or Thai scholar borrow them to symbolize his ideas too? Why not, as it were, learn to use Microsoft Windows, tap into the vast library already written in that language, and simultaneously be able to communicate not only with one's countrymen, but with everyone in Asia using that vast Chinese system? That dream too often turned into a bad dream, in proportion to how poorly the Chinese characters fit the aspiring scholars' language's grammar.

Luckily, it is not our job to describe the growth of several Asian writing systems. A sketch will alert the reader to the subject's complexity. We only need to suggest why Romanization worked better or worse for these languages than it did for Chinese.

The Japanese had, as yet, no written language, when Chinese and Korean emissaries began going there in significant numbers, towards the end of the Han Dynasty (the later 3rd century AD.) The Japanese adopted, at first, Chinese characters, and in a way, that was bad luck, since Japanese is even less related to Chinese than Latin is to German. Japanese and Korean, its closest relative, both belong to the Altaic language family, whose members include Mongolian, Manchu and even Turkish. Japanese isn't even a tonal language. Chinese characters, designed for that language, fit Japanese needs poorly, as I'll describe. (Nonetheless, some 1945 Chinese characters are still in everyday use and taught in the schools. There are, in addition, a much smaller number of characters the Japanese invented themselves.)

The characters' name in Japanese, *kanji, simply means "Han Chinese characters." For instance, the symbol for sun was borrowed, but a Japanese would say a Japanese word, "nichi," seeing it, instead of the Chinese word. That method of borrowing worked well enough for many familiar nouns and verbs, but Chinese lacks as many grammatical features of Japanese as it does of English. English speakers might borrow the Chinese character for "sun," for instance, but what we would borrow if we wanted to write "ing" on the end of a word, or use a tense like "have had" which doesn't exist in Chinese? If we were to borrow the Chinese symbols whenever we could, and when we couldn't, invent an alphabet in which we could write out "ing" and "have had", then use both systems together at once, we would have a situation similar to what developed in Japanese. The Japanese developed, not one, but two alphabets of syllables ("syllabary") to flesh out the Chinese characters. In the 700s a 48 character syllabary, *katakana, was created mostly for foreign loan words and names. It was soon found necessary to help out the 48 characters of katakana with yet another 48 character syllabary,*hiragana, to deal with grammatical situations like the one described above. Collectively, the two syllabaries are referred to as *kana. Each symbol represents at least two letters, instead of one, as our alphabet does. "Sa" "Su" "Se" and "So" each get a symbol unto themselves. It is assumed that goju-on, the "fifty sounds" are the basis of the entire Japanese language. Japanese schoolchildren start by learning hiragana, and books for them are written entirely in hiragana. They add katakana and kanji as they grow older. The Japanese system is even more complicated than that, but the reader has been put on guard, which was our goal for now.

Sticking to the topic at hand, Romanization, now the reader can better understand why Japanese has not been nearly as hard to Romanize into English as Chinese has been. Since Japanese, unlike Chinese, is not tonal, and does already include alphabets of syllables, it was a closer fit. Add to that, that unlike Chinese, with its great variety of languages and dialects, Japanese, concentrated in one smallish island chain, has few regional variations to contend with. The "Hepburn" Romanization is the standard one.


The early history of the Korean written language shows the same understandable desire to tap into the Chinese cultural network by adapting Chinese characters to Korean words. Korean, like Japanese an Altaic language, was also too different from Chinese for the process to work well. Unlike Japan, however, a strong party in Korean intellectual life faced up to this, and actually succeeded in replacing the old system with analphabet. *Hangul is simpler and more rational than the Western alphabet -- so much so, that you can learn Hangul in a few days. In 1443 the Korean academy, encouraged by Korea's greatest King, King Sejong (ruled 1419-1450) created a 28 letter alphabet, Chongum, which would eventually come to be known as Hangul. Sejong himself wrote in his 1446 promulgation of Hangul that the new alphabetic writing was intended, not to replace the Chinese classical characters and their texts, but for "the convenience for daily use of the ignorant people." The popular, as well as nationalist fervor behind Sejong's revolution is unmistakable. The Korean literati immediately protested, claiming that adopting this "vulgar" writing would mean "throwing away Chinese culture and proclaiming ourselves Barbarians." Koreans to this day see their unique writing system as a national symbol. When the Japanese occupied Korea early in this century, they suppressed Hangul, and forced them to use Japanese-based writing systems. When America defeated Japan, and Korea was liberated, they made the day they readopted Hangul into a national holiday -- and a popular one.

Hangul is indeed an admirably rational and even a witty writing system. The symbol used for "n" represents a sideways view of the tongue making an "n" sound, touching the inside gum. Similarly, the sound for "t" is represented by the tongue taking that position, and sounds made in the throat include a picture of one and the "s" sound shows a tooth, to remind you of the "s' blowing over it.

Again, this brief introduction gives far from the whole story about Korean writing, even about hangul, but the reader is now in a position to understand the difficulties of transliteration. They should be less than those involving Chinese, and they are. Unhappily, the sounds of Korean have proved a great obstacle. Korean abounds in sounds, like the unaspirated "p" at the end of the English word "Lip", which English has no separate letters for. Korean "p" sounds like their "b" to us, their "l" sounds like their "n," their "g" sounds like their "k". The popular Korean name "Kim" is our attempt to represent a sound which could as justly be written "Geem." One of their "l" sounds could be one of our several sounds symbolized by "r." The popular name "Lee," therefore, could as easily be Romanized "Rhee," and indeed, often has been.

The dated official transliteration system has been as bad as Wade-Giles in Chinese, and got everyone off on the wrong foot. As one writer reports, a province name pronounced "Cholla-pukdou" appears on maps using the official system as "Chonra-bugdo."

Vietnamese and Thai

In conclusion, we can understand that the Vietnamese willingness to abandon their own ancient, complex system using Chinese characters was not inexplicable, not like giving up the flag. Vietnam cared even less for the Chinese superpower to the North than it did for France. When North Vietnamese kicked out the French -- and with them, many ethnic Chinese who had been in Vietnam for generations -- their nationalism certainly did not lead them back to the characters associated with feudalism and the oppressive past. Ho Chi Minh, their charismatic leader, had been educated in Paris, had been an early member of the French Communist Party. He saw French Romanization as a break with the mandarin past. Vietnamese, therefore, needs no transliteration, though some of the letters are pronounced in unique ways. The "Ng" on the front of the familiar name "Nguyen," for instance, is close to the English "w", or even better, the deeper sound symbolized by the archaic "Gu" on the front of "Guinevere."

Thailand, meanwhile, had done the Korean-style revolution several hundred years before the Koreans. Chinese characters had worked better in Thailand than other places, one must assume, since the languages are closely related, monosyllabic, and tonal. The cultures, however, are far apart, Thailand being also within the religious and even ethnic sphere of India. Today 95% of the country espouses one of the oldest Indian versions of Buddhism, Theravada (or Hinayana.) The great King Ram Khamheng, sentimentally regarded as the Solomon-like leader of a golden age, in 1283, codified Theravada Buddhism and also promulgated a new alphabet, a syllabary based on Sanskrit, the earliest Indian language. Ram Kamheng turned Thailand's cultural face from China toward India.

There is no standard transliteration system for Thai, which has led one writer to lament that there is "no proper way to transliterate Thai -- only wrong ways." As in the case of Korean, Thai uses sounds which the English language does not represent, like the unvoiced "P" which sounds, to us, almost identical with B. Transliterators have great latitude to improvise and they have used it.

In all these cases, forewarned is forearmed. The alert reader can proceed, albeit with caution.

Further Reading:

The best book on the all Asian writing systems, with an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of each, is DeFrancis, John, The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1984.

The standard People's Republic of China work on hanyu pinyin (by far the most comprehensive) is Binyong, Yin, Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and Orthography, trans. Felley, Mary, Beijing: Sinolingua, 1990.

Kenneth G. Henshall's A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters (Rutland, Vermont:Tuttle, 1988) is long and comprehensive.

The unusual and fascinating Mangajin Magazine's system of teaching Japanese idioms by analyzing Japanese comic book speech situations has produced Mangajin's Basic Japanese Through Comics, (Atlanta. Georgia: Mangajin, 1993).

An advanced introduction to Korean is the collection of linguistic articles compiled in the official government publication, The Korean Language, edited by the Korean National Commission for UNESCO, (Arch Cape, Oregon: Pace International Research,1983).