Chinglish, Signese, Signology?

Written by Uln on March 7th, 2009

Wow, there’s been some activity around here this week. For the first time, the old eyeballs are sore from the limelight in my screen, and I long to get back my status of internet chopped liver.

But no worries, I think I know just how to do that:


Make up your mind: N.1 or N.2?

Everybody knows that serious China bloggers don’t do Chinglish. That’s for newbies, and we are past the “mamma, look what I got” stage. But before you leave, take a look at this a pic I took yesterday on my way to Ningbo . It is now part of my new classified collection of Signology. And there’s more here than meets the eye.

It all started when this inspiring picture recently published on the the 55 blog caught my attention. Something was wrong with it, it was funny, and in the same time completely at odds with the classic definition of Chinglish: it was entirely written in characters!

Sleepless nights followed, while I reflected on this important exception to the rule, until I saw what might prove to be a breakthrough in the field of Asian Studies.  Working overtime, I have finally come up with  the first attempt ever to develop a taxonomy of Chinese signs. Provisionally, I am calling it Signology, and it is composed of the  following main branches:

  • Chinglish:  Discipline that studies faulty tanslations of Chinese signs.
  • Signese:  Discipline that studies untranslated or correctly translated signs that were already funny in the original Chinese version.

In its turn, Signese can be divided in a few subfamilies. For the moment I have found the following:

  • Toilet Signese
  • Tourist Spot Signese
  • Commercial Copy Signese
  • Communist heritage Signese.

Each of them has its own merits and deserves a special chapter, but they all have one characteristic in common. They are funny not because there is anything essentialy wrong with them, but because they originate from a Chinese mentality that is different from the commonly accepted Western standards of social behaviour. Just like grandpas walking birds or older ladies rehearsing their fan dances.

This is the reason why some sad, narrow-minded  foreigners living in China spit all their venom against the poor Signese, mumbling weird comments about “lack of religion” and “5000 years of history” and what not.

For the sake of brevity, I will stick for today to the Toilet Signese.

Toilet Signese

Look at exhibit 1 above: have you ever thougth of what would happen if our toilets in the West were divided in 2 sections with clear signs indicating “defecate” and “urinate” ?

I can picture the embarrasment of some gentelmen, the giggling of prudish girls and the general chaos when some responsible citizen of the community would eventually send the picture to a newspaper, accusing the Council of improper signaling.A promising political career would be broken and hundreds of innocent users irreparably shocked.

But  instead of  pointing a finger at the Chinese, the sensitive China expat will turn his eyes round to himself. And he might want to ask the following questions: At which point in Western culture did we decide that “shit” had to be banished? At which point did we became so clean, so perfect, so sophisticated that we decided to socially ignore our own bodily functions? Did nobody realize at the time the enormous potential in jokes and funny signs that was lost in the process?

Will the West eventually change this abnormal behaviour when China becomes the first World power?

Look at the park picture below and ponder.


Please don't shit or pee all over the place

UPDATE:  I just found out that  I was re-inventing the wheel: signese already exists, and this website does a great job of  it. So you can send your pictures there instead of here, and with their permission I will pick from their stock next time I want to continue developing my signese theories.

At least my classification system seems to be completely new. I am sending it to scientific journals to get it accepted officially.

4 Comments so far ↓

  1. Mar

    Signese is also a great blog devoted to Chinese on signage.

    [Reply to comment]

  2. Mar

    LOL! This is really embarrasing.

    I know nobody is going to believe me now, but I actually (re) invented the term by myself, I’d never seen that website before!

    Anyway, thanks for the link. It is a great site and also good for those that want to practice Chinese. I am editing the post.

    [Reply to comment]

  3. Mar

    Ah, another Signesian, very good. From your recent comment on our own small site:
    “I see it is mostly dedicated to commercial signese, and I wanted to ask you why don’t you extend your scope to the other branches of signese as well.”
    There’s no intention to cover only commercial signs. As the bulk are snapped while out and about, adverts do certainly feature heavily. But we cover all the major genres - adverts, packaging, political slogans, manhole covers, folk, utter nonsense, etc. That said, we don’t actually categorize in any way, although I’ve pondered sitting down and doing so.

    Contributions are welcome, and regular contributors can be set up for direct posting via email. We haven’t been so active the last year or so due to the camera on my current phone not being up to much, but we still have over one thousand images available. Several hundred have been transcribed, and are therefore searchable.

    [Reply to comment]

  4. Mar

    Cool. I will check if you come with some useful classification. Feel free to use mine as a basis.

    I am not very good at dealing with loads of images and I am sure I would make a mess of it, so I have asked readers to send pics to you instead and I will go and look for examples there next time I want to theorise signese.

    [Reply to comment]

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