Category Archives: Chinese


This story strikes me as an urban legend, but a Google search was fruitless. In Nicholas Poppe’s memoirs Reminiscences ed. Henry G. Schwarz (Western Washington University, 1983), the great Altaic linguist recounts his family’s evacuation from Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War and then adds:

The Russo-Japanese war was a complete disaster for Russia both on land and on the high seas. Much of it was due to almost unimaginable incompetence. As the Japanese armies advanced into Manchuria and the world press announced the names of town after town occupied by the victorious troops, Russian commanders could not even locate these towns on their own staff maps, let alone defeat the enemy. It turned out, as my mother told me later, that before the war Russian army topographers went across Manchuria and would ask the local inhabitants in Russian for the name of their villages and towns. The answer, naturally enough, was quite often ‘Putung’ (I don’t understand) which was then formally entered on the Russian staff maps. The result was ‘Putung I’, ‘Putung II’, and so on.

(This Mandarin phrase, written in Chinese characters as 不懂, is nowadays transliterated in Pinyin as bù dǒng.)

1421: The year China provided grist for crackpottery

The guesthouse I’m staying at in Bishkek has a large pile of random paperbacks left by travelers, and today I was flipping through Gavin Menzies’ 1421: The Year China Discovered the World (London: Bantam Books, 2003). It is Menzies’ thesis that the great fleet launched by the Chinese emperor Zhu Di on 8 March 1421 reached North and South America, Australia, and New Zealand. It’s initially an interesting conjecture, but as the book goes on the author seems increasingly megalomaniac. By the end, he is blasting the ‘historians and academics’ for dismissing his work, and sighting evidence of Chinese influence in everything, suggesting even that the Chinese knew of the whole world before 1421. The author makes use of some linguistic arguments, which prove risible.

Linguistics provide further evidence. The people of the Eten and Monsefu villages in the Lambayeque province of Peru can understand Chinese but not each other’s patois, despite living only three miles apart. Stephen Powers, a nineteenth-century inspector employed by the government of California to survey the native population, found linguistic evidence of a Chinese-speaking colony in the state.

The first assertion, on the Peruvian village, is not sourced at all. The second, however, carries the following bibliographic citation: Stephen Powers, ‘Aborigines of California: An Indo-Chinese Study’ in Atlantic, Vol. 33, 1874, and Stephen Powers, Contributions to North American Ethnology, Vol. 3, Department of the Interior, Washington DC, 1877.

In the Postscript of the paperback edition, where he includes all information sent in by readers after initial publication of his thesis, things just get progressively wackier.

Several years ago, long before my book was published, Jerry Warsing came to the conclusion that a huge Chinese fleet under the command of Admiral Zheng He encountered a severe storm off South Africa and was blown north-westwards to the Atlantic coast of North America. His evidence, which has taken years to assemble, is wide-ranging and fascinating. Jerry believes up to two hundred ships were wrecked on the coast between Floria and Newport, Virginia; separated by the storm, they landed in small numbers at different places. Because of the close similarity between the Ming dynasty spoken language and the language of earlier Chinese who had come across the Bering Straits, they were able to understand the local people and assimilate.

So Chinese, of whom there is little evidence in northeastern Russia let alone North America, spread across the Pacific and all the way to the shores of the Atlantic, continuing to speak a language mutually intelligible with Middle Chinese yet leaving no trace on local Native American languages? Ridiculous. And then there’s:

When the first Europeans arrived in New Zealand they came across an array of plants foreign to the island. The most common was Chenopodium album, introduced from North America, where it had been used by native peoples to make cakes since time immemorial. Captain Cook discovered it in 1769. The second is marsh cress, Rorippa palustris, identified by the French expedition of 1826–9 aboard L’Astrobole. Again, this was used by the Navajo — who have Chinese DNA, and whose elders to this day understand Chinese — as a ritual eyewash.

I’d sooner believe that Lithuanians can understand Vedic incantations than that Navajo elders could get anything of Chinese. For what it’s worth, Menzies even cites Nancy Yaw Davis’ popular book arguing that Zuni is Japanese.

One of the the last mention of linguistics in the book comes in an attempt to tie Peruvian place names to Chinese. If you have even the slightest training in Chinese (and I was unable to ascertain whether the author can, in fact, speak any of the language himself), you’ll immediately recognize how unsound these connections are:

In northern Peru, mainly in the Ancash province, there are 95 geographical names which are Chinese words and have no significance in Quechua, Aymara or any of the other dialects of northern Peru (examples follow). There are also 130 geographical names in Peru which correspond to names in China. The very name ‘Peru’ means ‘white mist’ in Chinese — the white mist which cloaks the coast many days each year. The name given to Chile (Ch-Li) was pre-Spanish (= ‘dependent territory’) in Chinese.

Peruvian name Chinese Translation
Cha-Wan (La Pampa) Land prepared for sowing
Chancan (Tarma) To harden metals
Chamtan (San Gregorio) Covered in sand
Chaolan (Margos) Ready for combustion (viz. coal-mine)
Chulin (Caras) Forest
(Har) (Bongara) Red (i.e. red earth)
Hu-Pa (Huasta) Leguminous plant
Colan Difficult passage
Chanchan (area between Moche and Viru Rivers) Canton

If the linguistic evidence used in the book is so suspect, the data from other fields is doubtlessly suspect as well. In his zeal to shoehorn everything into support for his theory, and in his reliance upon the shoddy research of yesteryear, Menzies might just be the Erich von Däniken of our time, and Chinese ethnocentric cranks are undoubtedly happy about their British useful idiot.

Some historical Chinese resources

A discussion over at sci.lang alerted me to several materials about the reconstruction of earliest stages of Chinese. Jacques Guillaume’s Introduction to Chinese Historical Phonology is, for all its lecture-note brevity, a fine presentation of the basics of the field. William Baxter’s Etymological Dictionary of Common Chinese Characters contains many Middle Chinese reconstructions. Finally, the website of Zev Handel, assistant professor of Chinese language and linguistics at the University of Washington, has several papers on the reconstruction of Chinese and of other parts of the Sino-Tibetan family.

More Chinese homophony

Like Zhao Yuanren, whose poem “The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den” I presented here several months ago, the linguist Y.R. Chao also composed several Chinese works written only with characters that are (excepting tones) homophones in Mandarin and therefore would ultimately make no sense if read aloud. Here’s an example:


Using Pinyin transliteration, one could see that this is pronounced:

Xī Xī xī, xǐ xī xì
Xī Xī xì xì xī xī xì
Xī Xī xì xì xí xǐ xī
Xī xī xī, xì xí Xī
Xī Xī xī xī xī xí xì
Xī xī xī xī xǐ xí Xī

The translation runs:

The West Creek rinoceros enjoys romping and playing.
Xi Xi every evening takes the rhinoceros to play.
Xi Xi meticulously practises washing the rhinoceros.
Rhinoceros sucks up the creek, playfully attacks Xi.
Xi Xi, laughing, hopes to stop playing.
Too bad the rhinoceros, neighing, enjoys attacking Xi.

I discovered this in John DeFrancis’ The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy (University of Hawaii Press, 1984) an imprecisely titled book that is really an argument against the further use of the character writing system. These sorts of examples, writes DeFrancis, do not necessarily mean that writing vernacular Chinese would be mired in homophonic confusion, because the vernacular language has polysyllabic redundancy. Students of Chinese have little problem understanding a pinyin transcription of a conversation. It is only the literary language’s dependence on obsolete monosyllabic terminology that provides any reason for using characters.


I’ve been doing more with Indo-European within my university studies now, enough that it is starting to seem like “work”, so in my free time I’ve been reading more about other language families. I’ve stumbled upon an fascinating connection between Athabaskan, an American Indian language family, Chinese, and Vietnamese, concerning the development of tones.

In Lyle Campbell’s American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America (Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 113, we find:

While many Athabaskan languages have tonal contrasts, Proto-Athabaskan lacked tone—a trait that can be shown to have developed from (Pre-)Proto-Athabaskan differences among *V and *Vʔ (and *V:)

In Chinese too, a word-final glottal stop is responsible for tonogenesis. In Jerry Norman’s survey Chinese (Cambridge University Press, 1988), he notes that in Vietnamese one tonal category derives from words which in the surely toneless proto-language ended in a final stop. Vietnamese words with a rising tone have cognates in Khmu and Riang which still end in glottal stops, e.g. Vietnamese “leaf” cognate with Khmu hlaʔ and Riang laʔ.

Furthermore, the shǎng (rising) tone of Middle Chinese seems to derive from Old Chinese words ending in a glottal stop. Old Chinese *pang gives the píng (high) tone and, according to the “s-hypothesis”, *pang-s ends up with the (departing) tone, while a form ending in a stop, e.g. *pak, leads to the (entering) tone. Finally, *pang-ʔ is responsible for the fourth, rising tone. As Norman writes, Glottality still survives as a feature of the rising tone in several modern dialects.

If ending glottal stop is so productive in creating tones, I would be interested in the tonal ramifications are of Proto-Indo-European reconstructions ending in -h1, widely believed to have been a glottal stop. However, while reconstructed forms with the endings -h2 and -h3 abound, I cannot think of anything ending in the first laryngeal.

Incidentally, I would like to thank the anonymous reader who recently bought Curta’s The Making of the Slavs through the referral link here. As that book is somewhat expensive, the referral fee will provide three full meals today to this impoverished student.

Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den

Some years ago, when I first began a course in Mandarin Chinese at Defense Language Institute, I was highly sceptical that a language with such a great number of homophones could possibly work effectively. In the Chinese-English dictionary I received, meant for students and with a rather meagre word stock, the Pinyin-romanized syllable ‘shì’ (IPA /ʂz̩/ with falling tone) had 42 or so meanings, ranging from the copula to ‘stone’ to ‘matter, affair’. Even worse, native speakers of Cantonese tend to pronounce standard Mandarin /sz̩/ and /ʂz̩/ identically when they speak Mandarin, further increasing homophony and making ordering in a Chinese restaurant in the West—generally staffed by Southerners—an enormous annoyance for me. It is understood that earlier forms of Chinese permitted a much greater amount of syllables than Mandarin, and this homophony is a relatively recent phenomenon, by which I mean it has come about only in the last thousand years. As I progressed in my studies, I found that the spoken language has ways of surmounting the challenges posed by homophony, and I forgot about the problem for a time.

The poet Zhao Yuanren, writing at the turn of the 20th century, created a poem with 92 Chinese characters, undoubtedly pronounced distinctly in early Chinese, but all read as /ʂz̩/ in modern Mandarin, differing only in tone. “The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den” would be read aloud as follows by a Mandarin speaker:

shi2 shi4 shi1 shi4 shi1 shi4 shi4 shi1. shi4 shi2 shi2 shi1. shi4 shi2 shi2 shi4 shi4 shi4 shi1 shi2 shi2. shi4 shi2 shi1 shi4 shi4 shi4 shi2. shi4 shi1 shi4 shi4 shi4 shi4 shi4 shi4 shi2 shi1. shi4 shi3 shi4 shi3 shi4 shi2 shi1 shi4 shi4 shi4 shi2 shi4 shi2 shi1shi1. shi4 shi2 shi4 shi2 shi4 shi1. shi4 shi3 shi4 shi4 shi2 shi4 shi2 shi4 shi4. shi4 shi3 shi4 shi2 shi4 shi2 shi1 shi1 shi2 shi2. shi3 shi4 shi3 shi2 shi1 shi1 shi2 shi2 shi2 shi1 shi1 shi4 shi4 shi4 shi4

The Wikipedia article on the subject includes a transcription of how the poem would be read by a speaker of Taiwanese, showing that not all Chinese dialects have succumbed to the same tendency to homophony as Mandarin.