Is Huihui literate?

Translation from this article (thanks Joel for the link)

The tone is a bit maudlin, but this article captures well the sense I often hear from adults that Pinyin is almost a secret code. They find it very hard to read (naturally, I’m not implying anything intrinsic to the script, just that if you’re not used to it, it’s rather slow going) and often seem captivated by the idea that kids in first grade can use it to write out comprehensible language, even, as in Huihui’s case, to express heartfelt thoughts.



Mother bursts into tears at daughter’s first “Pinyin Diary”

2010-10-29 10:46:37

pinyin pic卉卉的“拼音日记”。

(Picture) Huihui’s Pinyin diary


When her daughter, who just started first grade, was asleep, Ms. Wang, from Zhenjiang’s Taohuawu village, happened to see the first entry in her diary. Surprised to see that the first sentence, written in Pinyin, was, “my hope is that Mommy won’t hit and scold me,” she thought of her own hopes and dreams for her daughter (盼女成凤*) and her quickness to be severe about schoolwork; unable to endure, tears covered her face. Yesterday, Huihui’s father told this reporter the story of how the diary provoked her mother’s tears.


On the evening of the 25th, Ms. Wang took seven-year-old to the supermarket to buy rice. Her daughter asked her to buy a diary book, saying she wanted to write a diary. Ms. Wang spent 7.8 yuan to buy a diary with a password lock. That night before going to sleep, Ms. Wang saw her daughter sitting on the bed using Pinyin to write in her diary. She didn’t think any more of it, just letting the child do it for fun, perfect to supplement her schoolwork since she had just started first grade in September and happened to be in the middle of learning Pinyin.


On the evening of October 26, her daughter asleep, Ms. Wang accidentally happened to see the diary’s content and was truly shocked: the diary’s content was supposed to be “a daughter’s hopes”; the original text was completed entirely in Pinyin and had some spelling mistakes. Ms. Wang worked to sound out the Pinyin, to her surprise finding the content was: “My hope is that Mommy won’t hit and scold me, and I hope Mommy won’t be annoyed with me…” Ms. Wang was stunned: she hadn’t imagined that the first diary entry in her daughter’s life would be a request for her mother not to hit and scold her, and that the unexpectedly tender words would be filled with resentment towards her mother!


Huihui’s father told this reporter his wife immediately thought of how she educated her daughter. In order to give their daughter a head start (不让女儿输在起跑线上, literally: not let their daughter lose at the starting line), she and many of the mothers bought a lot of extra tutoring books and force their daughter to learn this and that, like chess, dance, and so on, even though the daughter is only in first grade. If the daughter refused to study, solutions ranged from verbal reproach to hitting her hand, often with the words, “This is for your good.” This Pinyin diary brought his wife much reconsideration, Hui Hui’s father said, with the silver lining in this dark cloud being that his wife has become aware of the need to review and improve teaching methods for her daughter, “She does not want to give her daughter any more of a childhood full of resentment.”


*Joel says he’s seen this phrase paired with 望子成龙

5 responses to “Is Huihui literate?”

  1. Julen says:

    An American schoolkid writes in her diary. “Ai laik mai moma, shes reeli kool” or something like that. Is she literate? She is in the sense that she can communicate feelings in writing. However she would not get very far using this kind of spelling in American society…

    Same with Hui Hui. The point being that human writing systems are more complicated and carry more information than would be strictly required. The case in Chinese or Japanese is more extreme than in English, which is itself worse than Spanish. It is mostly a difference of degree, and as far as I can see there is no clear correlation with the social/economic development of the speakers’ communities.

  2. Syz says:

    Julen, I agree with your main contention: she’s clearly not literate for coping with modern Chinese society.

    But the “bad spelling” analogy is totally wrong. There’s simply no parallel in English or Spanish to the Pinyin literacy that exists among first graders in China. It would be as if an American first-grader could write out English with some form of Hangul. It’s simply kind of bizarre for everyone involved, and that’s a big part of the reason this article even made the news in the first place. If it was just a diary in badly written hanzi it wouldn’t make the cut.

    And that said, it seems undeniable that her communication is some form of literacy: putting language to paper. It’s really only a question of how socially accepted that literacy is.

  3. Julen says:

    You are right, I was just looking at this from the perspective of the hanzi vs pinyin debate, which was probably not the intention of your post.

    In any case, I don’t see why you would find this surprising. It is quite obvious to me that children of a certain age can write better in pinyin than in characters, it is a much easier writing system! I don’t suppose even the most ardent defender of hanzi would deny this point.

  4. Is she literate in general? She coded her ideas in a written form which I then decoded. I don’t think there is any point that she was trying to make that I missed, or that was somehow blocked by any literacy problem. It’s conceivable that she could make spelling errors that could introduce ambiguity or unintelligibility, but “literate” adults do that often as well. She appears fully able to code (and therefore presumably decode) ideas which a child her age would be expected to have.

  5. Kellen Parker says:

    Is it possible that the spelling mistakes are indicative of pronunciation issues?

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