Is Mr. Ma throwing a fit?!

You might remember the discussion we had last year about the peculiar usage of the exclamation “!” and other punctuation marks in modern mandarin. I bring this up again because in yesterday’s news there was a remarkable piece of writing that illustrates the phenomenon.  Interesting too because the author is an admired member of the internet elite, speaker of English and used to working with foreigners: none other than Jack Ma, the founder of the Alibaba empire.

You can read all about it in this Forbes blog post. To make a long story short: Mr. Ma was slightly annoyed when he found that dozens of his employees were using the company to collude with outside swindlers, and he wrote a circular letter containing, in its Chinese original:

– 11 periods
– 21 exclamation marks.

In the first half of the letter it is even more pronounced, with a total of 12 exclamations for only 4 periods, and then those 4 look like they’ve been forgotten there  at the end of the paragraphs.

Gady Epstein The author has chosen not to retain these marks in the English translation, and instead he peppers a few of them here and there (8) to convey the same meaning to his readers. A judicious choice, in my opinion, as the original state of affairs would have been misunderstood in English, causing Western investors to harbour serious doubts on the mental health of Mr. Ma, and perhaps sending the company’s market valuation to the gutter…

Investors not to worry! Mr. Ma was just mildly highlighting the subject for his employees. In a world where a normal email contains 10 exclamation marks, 21 are necessary to express intensity.

I think this proves the point that this usage of exclamation marks is part of modern mandarin, and not just a juvenile fad. And since we are at it, please do have a look at the use of commas vs. periods in the text, as well as the great choice of motivational motto for the company, straight from Sima Qian’s 2,000 year old Chinese,  非我莫属.  And in good classical form, it comes free of exclamative additions!!!

11 responses to “Is Mr. Ma throwing a fit?!”

  1. Limao Luo says:

    This has always struck me as strange. So has the inconsistent usage of the two commas: “,” and “、”.

  2. Kellen Parker says:


    I can’t fully explain the two commas, but in having my own writing edited, I got the impression that lists in prose were separated by 、 while the comma usage that mirrors English used ,. But I’m not sure. It was always just edited and I never bothered to ask why that was what happened. I’d love to know what the actual reason was though, if anyone knows.

    I’m cool with the explamation points though, despite despising their use in English.

  3. Chubb says:

    I have heard a native-speaker Chinese teacher emphasise very strongly that lists must use 、and that to use ,in a list would result in marks being deducted.

    Re: the exclamation marks, without even thinking, i seem to have always found myself using a lot of them when i write in Chinese (almost always emails). Once a native-speaker friend warned me to be careful to only use them when “so happy” about something, because otherwise they risked being interpreted as expressing anger. Perhaps indication of amusement is only the exclamation mark’s third-string use in Chinese, behind both annoyance and happiness?

  4. Limao Luo says:

    That’s what I generally assumed too, but this letter seems to throw the commas around inconsistently.
    For example, in paragraph 11, it reads:
    which fits with 、 for lists and , for everything else.

    However, in par. 12,
    which doesn’t fit.

    Is there a special reason that this second list doesn’t use 、 commas? Is it because the second list (sort of) implies different aspects of the same idea? This doesn’t make sense, though, because the 1st list details different aspects of the same idea as well. It seems like the two lists should be formatted similarly.

    Also, on the subject of commas vs periods, I’ve noticed that a lot of sentences, if expressed with similar structure in English, would be considered run-ons.

    Regardless, I love! how punctuation takes on! its own meaning in Mandarin!!!
    “If not now? when?!

    If not me? who?!”

  5. Tim says:

    As dumb as it sounds, I wonder if he simply wasn’t careful due to well, being enraged, and his IME simply chose the wrong comma.. Mine does that all the time, so..

  6. Julen says:

    I often ascribe these punctuation issues to casual or sloppy writing on the internet. That is why this statement, done by a CEO and surely edited or drafted by top level PR people, is revealing. This is consistent with what I have seen in my work as well. It would seem that Chinese in general have a rather lax take on punctuation — I am guessing this is because punctuation is not so strongly emphasized in school as it is in the West, or because people just don’t consider careful punctuation to be a mark of culture… after all the core of Chinese culture doesn’t include most of these marks.

    Similarly, there seems to be a preference to end clauses (sentences?) with , rather than with with 。I get the impression that the choice of ,/。/、 is often used as an indication of timing or mood, rather than for their grammatical value, in a similar way as “rests” are used in music scores. This perception of punctuation marks as a means to convey a “tempo” or “feeling” would fit in well with the pervasive use of “!” to end clauses.

    One more interesting thing: I have been searching around and it seems that the English translation of the letter was issued by the company together with the original, it is not the work of G. Epstein. This only makes the case more interesting, because it means that the drafters of the document (and probably Ma himself participated in the process) were consciously reducing the number of “!” in the English text.

  7. Julen says:

    @ Tim – I agree with you that this might be the case, and indeed it is not very scientific to draw conclusions from one single sample.

    But this was only meant to illustrate the case, in fact the points I make in the post and in the comment above are based on many observations of Chinese writing in different contexts. See the previous discussion linked in the post and also the one in my own blog.

  8. Claw says:

    Julen wrote:

    Similarly, there seems to be a preference to end clauses (sentences?) with , rather than with with 。

    For this reason, I always felt that , in Chinese was used more like semicolons in English. They link related clauses together. It’s my impression that commas don’t usually appear in the middle of a clause even when there may be a spoken pause. For instance, speakers sometimes pause after saying 但是, but more often than not, a comma will not appear in that position. This appears to be the opposition of your conclusion though.

  9. Syz says:

    Coincidentally, a post about semi-colon usage (in English) just popped up on English, Jack. He’s looking at stats from Google’s Ngram viewer, which I’ve mentioned here before. It might be worth poking around with Ngram for 中文 and seeing if it can be made to do interesting things with punctuation.

  10. Chubb says:


    The comma ,is actually quite commonly used in declarative sentences where English writers today would leave it out, e.g. (from here) “问题是,如何通过软件实现。。。”/”The problem is how to achieve this via software…” (a comma after “is” in the latter English sentence would be very strange, and would appear to render it grammatically incorrect).

    I’ve often seen it used in a similar way after 但是 when we also wouldn’t use it in English.

    Presumably it depends on the context of the writing, with more formal writing calling for more commas.

  11. My own papers in Mandarin were always proofed to get the commas added as described by Chubb. I was often told I don’t use them enough in Mandarin, which is funny if you know how I write in English. Now I just add them, all over the place.

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