The Joys of Chinglish

Great Wall Chinglish Sign

The best part of this sign, which I saw at The Great Wall of China, is in the smaller print. You can click on the picture twice to get it full sized, but allow me to save you the effort and transcribe some of it for you:


Welcome you to visit Mutianyu Great Wall. For your and others’ security, Please pay attention to the following items:

1. Please don’t carve arbitrarily on the Great Wall. Protect one brick and one stone consciously.

2. For your personal safety, Please don’t climb crenelated wall.

3. Please walk carefully on abrupt slope and dangerous way. Don’t run and pushes to pash violently and the laugh and frolic.

6. The fire is forbidden here. Please don’t take tinder.


Let’s just stipulate that giggling at signs in “Chinglish” — poor translations of Chinese into English —  springs forth from a not-very-nice place in the American soul.

That’s the place where we store our insecurity about being from a country where most people speak only one language fluently, where in fact, some states make English-only a matter of law, despite the steady drip of headlines bringing news of a global economy that would seem to favor the multilingual.

So when people from other countries are be able to hold conversations in multiple languages, which in comparison makes us English-only Americans look a little — well, lazy and stupid — it’s with some jingoistic satisfaction that we can note that they failed to get the nuances of our absurdly complicated language just right. That’s a part of the joy of Chinglish, since outside the Axis of Evil, China is the country that scares us the most.

But the other part is that these poor translations are the very definition of comedy.  A joke has a certain structure: a set-up which leads you in a certain direction, and a punchline, which changes the direction abruptly, through a twist or some sort of a surprise. It’s the startle makes you laugh. An official sign set you up for something straightforward and basic, and then the Chinglish takes you in a totally different direction.

For instance, who hasn’t seen those little yellow sandwich board floor signs, erected to cordon off an area for cleaning? You expect the sign to say something about caution, wet floor, slip hazard, do not enter.  You don’t expect to see this.

The site Engrish has a vast collection of these unexpected twists.

Another example is this delightful sign posted at People’s Park in Shanghai. I almost walked by without stopping, since it’s obviously not visually appealing in any way.  But I just had a hunch that it would reward careful study. Again, double click to read it in full size, or simply enjoy this excerpt:

Shanghai Public Parks: Rulers for Visitors

1. Parks are accessible to the public during the ‘open’ hours, admission tickets or relevant identit documents, where desired, are to be presented at entrance, children below 1.2 meters in height, mental patients are admitted only under custody.

2.Ethic and moral codes should be duly honored, visitors are expected not to urinate or shit, post ads or posters, and write or carve around the park, exposing one’s top, lying about, washing and airing clothes, scavenging or begging from others is unallowable, climbing artifical hills or playing or swimming in the pond or lake is objectionable, ball games and kite-flying are impermissable (unless in a designated area);

3. Visitors are not supposed to tease, scare, or capture bird, cricket, fish and shrimp, or cicada (except hose for commercial purposes), no animal is allowed to enter the park unless permitted, visitors should take good care of trees, flowers and plants, and should not tear at flowers and plants, dig up fruits or seeds, and collect soil or water plants;


I should mention at this point that sometimes a joke has a double-twist, a set-up, a punchline, and then another reversal, which may or may not be funny.

Item #5 on the list of Rulers for Visitors struck me as just that sort of double twist. I was well-relaxed into amusement, enjoying the blend of Chinglish and legalese, when I got to this:

5.  The visitor to the park should discipline himself instead of making himself a nuisance to others, any group activity in the park shall be subject to the administration of the relevant department of the park, public speech, public meeting or fund-raising of any nature is inexpedient, activities of a feudalistic and superstitious nature, gambling and those banned under law are prohibited, activities of a business nature including setting up a vending stand, peddling about, practicing medicine and distributing propaganda sheets are not allowed.

Yes, there are still comical language moments in this  passage (“peddling about”), but mostly this isn’t that funny. Although the words “feudalistic and superstitious” are amusing an American context, they have a different meaning in China. And prohibitions of public assembly and public speech, in the country that conducted a massacre Tianamen Square, and what amounts to ethnic cleansing in Tibet?  It’s hard to feel tickled. That’s the thing about Chinglish — it’s not just a lousy English translation,explained a Shanghai-based translator to the New York Times in 2010. It can be expressive, provide a window into Chinese thought.

And all kidding aside, sometimes what you see through that window is not funny at all.








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