Character substitution

I’m not really sure how common this otherwise is, but for a while now I’ve been noticing a number of instances of intentional character replacements.

For example, all down the southern part of Hongmei Road 虹梅南路, whose name means “rainbow plum road” but is homophonous with “red plum road”, you’ll find places using the rainbow character in their Chinese name but then translating it as “red” for the English. There’s a housing complex called Red Hill in English but 虹山 in Mandarin.

There are also a number of places in Minhang 闵行 using the character for the Min 闽 nationality/language. A couple months back I bought some fruit at 闽行水果店 on South Lianhua Road 莲花南路, also in Minhang and not too far from Red Hill.

It’s surely a case of the frequency illusion. It’s highly unlikely that this isn’t limited to Minhang, but rather that I just first started to really notice it there.

I’m curious about other examples. If you have any, leave them in comments. I’m also curious as to why this is done, aside from the Chinese love of homophony. I’m having trouble thinking of any similar example in English that wouldn’t be immediately met with an eyeroll.

13 responses to “Character substitution”

  1. Max says:

    I’m sure there are examples of this in English, where you’d do that for humorous reasons. I AM THE BED MAN . Thinks like that. I’m sure people will think of better examples.

    And then, but I’m not sure if this is really connected to your question, English had something like the 河蟹/和谐 thing in the early days of the internet, when l33t p30ple wr0t3 l1k4 th1z, for roughly the same reasons – it’s a lot harder to find and filter by software..

  2. Max says:

    Hey, your blog software ate my [husky voice] pseudo-HTML tags around my “BED MAN” example. Are you sure that you want to allow HTML in the comments?
    At any rate, please imagine the Bed Man in a Christian Bale Batman voice :)

  3. Max says:

    Okay, it just seems to be filtered out. I think escaping the HTML specific characters might be a better idea though. Some people might want to show some HTML sometimes. Or imitate Christian Bale. After you’ve seen this comment you may delete it, if you so wish, as it doesn’t have anything to do with the post itself, I just wanted to tell you the thing about the HTML chars.

  4. Julen says:

    I think you would have to differentiate first between those that are deliberate puns and those that are mistakes. In your example I would say the “red” translation may be a mistake (they asked someone how to say “hong” in English and heard it was “red”),

    The minhang thing sounds more like a word play, because nobody would possibly misspell the character of the district where they live (it is written all over the place!). Have you asked the shop keeper if they are actually from Fujian?

    I am pretty sure I have seen this kind of stuff before but can’t remember now where…

  5. Kellen says:

    I’d say it’s definitely not a mistake. It’s fairly widespread along that road. It’s also interesting that the name of the road itself uses that character since Red Plum is actually a pretty conon name throughout the parts of China Ive seen.

    Meanwhile, the fruit sellers were all locals.

    These are shop signs and housing complexes. It’s unlikely that it’s leet speek or an attemp to evade the government censors. At any rate, that kind of Christian Bale thing would be the eyeroll inducing kind of substitution. I’m wondering if there are cases where that’s not the case.

  6. Max says:

    Hm.. I guess to find examples for that in English then, you’d first have to find out to what end they do that in Chinese?!

  7. I’m not sure I follow. We don’t need to know why they do it in order to find examples in English. To qualify, as far as I see it, it would have to be an intentional substitution of a syllable, word or spelling, so long as things remained homophonous, that was done without humour in mind.

    One example that just came to mind, which I think is from that Tom Hanks movie “You’ve got Mail”. Wasn’t the bookstore called “Buy the Book”? I think that would qualify.

    The other possible reason for them doing this in Chinese is that someone rightfully told them that “Rainbow Hill” was a lame name in English and to go with “red” instead. Just today I was passing through that area again in a cab and saw a number of other 红/虹 substitutions, all on 虹梅南路, so I’m guessing it’s more linking themselves to the area than it is anything else.

  8. Max says:

    — To qualify, as far as I see it, it would have to be an intentional substitution of a syllable, word or spelling, so long as things remained homophonous, that was done without humour in mind. —

    With that definition, ‘skool’ would qualify. It’s homophonous and wasn’t done to be funny (But to be cool? Writer shorter? Stupidity? I don’t know). Actually, for that matter, “Buy the Book” doesn’t sound too ‘serious’ to me. I think it’ll be hard to find something like what you’re looking for in English which isn’t either a honest mistake or tongue-in-cheek..

  9. Max says:

    Now that I think of school/skool, a lot of other things come to mind, especially all those text message style abbreviatons. y=why, u=you, b=be, 2=to, etc.
    This might not be the same as the ones from the post, but then again, that’s why I asked for better qualification criteria 😉

  10. Daan says:

    There’s a liquor brand that advertises with the slogan 好酒不見 here in Taiwan. And I believe I’ve seen the pun 往錢看 instead of 往前看 in a Beijing book, criticizing the CCP.

  11. I’ve definitely come across 好酒不见 before but maybe that was just in my mind.

    There is the rip on the Chinese national football team, calling them the national pigs (猪 for 足). But then there’s never been a shortage of outright puns.

    Somehow that doesn’t seem to fit what I’m looking for. There’s no humour in the 虹山 or 闽行 cases, at least far as I can tell.

    I’d say ‘skool’ was intended to be funny. School teaches you things, like how to spell. Spelling school incorrectly is intended irony.

  12. Codfish says:

    There’s a group (I hesitate to call it a chain, since I doubt they’re all affiliated with each other) of Wuhan duck neck places in Beijing, most of which go by the name 久久丫. However, I have seen a few of them that instead use the spelling 九九丫. This seems to fall in the same category, though since I don’t know the origin of the name I don’t know which (if either) is “correct”.

    Heck, even the 丫 in the name looks like it’s sort of being used as a substitution for 鸭, though maybe for branding more than for anything else.

    And I see nobody’s brought up 茅盾 yet…

  13. 久久丫, assuming the 丫 is supposed to mark “duck”, is perfect. I always assumed it was meant that way. Totally forgot about it now. Actually when I first came to China and hadn’t a word of Chinese under my belt, I thought it was katakana.

    I know there is a chain, so I’d assume the 九九丫 is just a knock-off.

    I’ve always wondered why 肯德基 doesn’t call themselves 肯德鸡.

    茅盾 could work. A bit of early hiding from the censors, in a way.

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