I was a little surprised to see an article this morning about Lyu Xinhua.

At 62, veteran diplomat Lyu Xinhua was given a new job: the spokesman of China’s top political advisory body.

Lyu is not a typo. The Xinhua Agency seems to use this spelling of his family name consistently. Here’s the man himself.

吕新华 in Hanyu Pinyin would be Lǚ Xīnhuá, but this obviously causes some difficulty, so Lǚ has been replaced by Lyu.

This is not just plucked from thin air; the Lyu spelling is used in both the Yale and Tongyong Pinyin systems, as can be seen from the redoubtable Pinyin Info’s handy comparison chart. And Wikipedia informs us:

[ǚ] also presents a problem in transcribing names for use on passports, affecting people with names that consist of the sound or , particularly people with the surname 吕 (), a fairly common surname, particularly compared to the surname 陆 (Lù), 鲁 (Lǔ), 卢 (Lú) and 路 (Lù). Previously, the practice varied among different passport issuing offices, with some transcribing as “LV” and “NV” while others used “LU” and “NU”. On 10 July 2012, the Ministry of Public Security standardized the practice to use “LYU” and “NYU” in passports.

So, it’s standard for the PSB, and it seems that Xinhua is adopting it for news reports. But I wonder how Pinyin purists feel about it.

I suppose it’s of some help to distinguish 吕 from 陆,鲁,卢,路, but the four LUs will remain as one where tone marks are omitted. And I don’t imagine it’s going to help much with pronunciation, for English speakers unfamiliar with the /y/ vowel at least. Might it now add confusion with 刘 (Liú)? How does it play with speakers of other languages?

And how does it compare with this?

Charles Lv
And, grrr, this?

Jane Xv

A final thought. I heard today about a distinguished Chinese professor, close to retirement, who is deeply dissatisfied with Hanyu Pinyin and would love to create a better system for the Romanization of Chinese. It seems that such dreams are no longer the preserve of aging Sinologists. Let’s all cross our fingers and hope that nature takes its course.

21 responses to “Lyu”

  1. Katie says:

    Lv pains me to no end. It’s a fingernails-on-the-chalkboard feel for me. So since it’s not Lv, I like it. And at least it’s sort of internally consistent for pinyin learners. I don’t think Lyu is going to prompt any foreigner who doesn’t know Chinese to pick the right presentation (and my first thought was that it was another way to spell Liu), but at least it will prompt foreigners to put a vowel in the word.

  2. Zrv says:

    Katie’s comment that “And at least it’s sort of internally consistent for pinyin learners” is on the money. The high front rounded vowel [y], represented in “base pinyin” as ü, can end up in three different forms based on spelling rule. It remains ü only after n- and l-, because of the need to distinguish from nu and lu. It is spelled u after all other consonants, as in ju qu xu, since there is no possible contrast with the [u] vowel after those initials. And it is spelled yu when there is no initial consonant (as part of pinyin’s general tendency to avoid starting syllables with a vowel letter).

    Since ü is typographically problematic, it makes sense to replace it with something else in lü and nü in certain situations. Why not use one of the spellings that is already part of its pinyin representation? Obviously u is not an option, so that leaves yu.

    Again, as Katie notes, the point isn’t to get a foreigner to who doesn’t know Chinese to pronounce the word correctly — pinyin in general won’t do that for anyone — it’s to have a consistent representation that is typographically simple, doesn’t look too weird, and elicits a reasonable pronunciation from foreigners.

  3. Chris Waugh says:

    I also first thought it was a misspelled Liu. For me, if you’re not doing the umlaut, then Lv and Nv are the best options – it’s simpler, and the presence of a v where there should surely be a vowel is an immediate flag to check how it should be pronounced, whereas Lyu invites people to try and sound it out, causing their tongue to meltdown in the process.

  4. Sima says:

    Randy has pointed out that ‘Lv’ is pretty widely used on road signs.

  5. flow says:

    i’ve always found that pinyin has some unfortunate shortcomings, and ‘ü’ is definitely one of them; its irregular use (in ‘lü’ but not in ‘xu’, ‘qu’, etc) burdens the learner and hides the wonderful regularity that underlies the phonotactics of chinese.

    the use of ‘yu’ is somehwat logical (and certainly better than using ‘v’, which is an orthographic abomination); after all, the pinyin rules state that “‘yu’ is ‘ü’ when used alone” (not quite correct, but you get me), so we can relax that rule and state that “‘yu’ can be used whereever standard pinyin has ‘ü'”. that ‘Lyu’ clashes with ‘Liu’ is sad, but not the only case where distinct pinyin syllables resemble each other (in fact, one can argue that ‘liu’ should really be written ‘liou’).

  6. Zrv says:

    Probably a coincidence, but interesting to note that Tongyong Pinyin (the short-lived standard romanization of Taiwan) has “yu” for [y] in all syllables. The surname 吕 is thus written “Lyu” in Tongyong Pinyin. (See .)

    On another note, as a follow-up to flow’s comment, it’s interesting to compare the Hanyu Pinyin draft proposal of 1956 with the final version of 1958. The ’56 version included a number of symbols that are not in the simple 26-letter Roman alphabet, including “ŋ” and “ㄐ” . The wise decision to eliminate these in favor of “ng”, “j”, and so on was taken before Pinyin was finalized, leaving only ü as something that could not be easily produced on an American typewriter.

    Finally, following up on Chris Waugh’s comment, I wish that “y” had ended up being the preferred substitute for “ü”. It looks less weird than “v”, and makes a lot of sense if you know IPA. If that convention had been adopted, then we would have “Ly” instead of “Lv”.

  7. Ho Sun Yan says:

    I apologize if this is a dumb question, but why not just use “ü” with the umlaut intact in passports and news reports? It’s not as if German passport-issuing authorities have any trouble getting names like “Müller” into a travel document. And surely ü can’t be harder to deal with technologically than the obscure hanzi some people use in their names.

    I wonder if the reluctance to embrace ü is somehow related to Chinese people’s obsession with English as the only foreign language that really counts. If people think of the romanized form of their name as their “English name”, it would be natural for them to avoid a diacritic that’s rarely used in English.

    • Sima says:

      Ho Sun Yan,
      I really wish I could say that was a dumb question, but the original post probably deserves an F-grade just for this line:

      …would be Lǚ Xīnhuá, but this obviously causes some difficulty…

      I suspect that a detailed answer would tell us something profound about human condition.

      One point I will note is that there seems to be something deeply offensive to Chinese sensibilities about breaking the form of a text. On a bilingual sign, with Chinese and English, I have seen a very strong preference for the English to be all capitals (despite evidence to the contrary in the two blue signs above). Perhaps this is more ‘in balance’ with Chinese characters’ each occupying the same sized square. Could it be that Ü, rising above line, offends the eye?

      On a loosely related note, I offer a post from Language Log about the name with three horses.

      (English name, Jürgen)

      • Ho Sun Yan says:

        I’m having recurring nightmares now about hordes of Chinese exchange students in Germany surnamed 吕 who, suffused with empathy for the locals, decide to spell their name Lyu because they want their English name to be easy to read.

    • Zrv says:

      This raises some really interesting questions. Is the passport-issuing office stocked with old 1940s US typewriters? Is it running 1980s software that predates Unicode? Is it the fact that names in passports are spelled in all-capital-letters that is the problem?

      Or perhaps it is because Chinese passports are issued officially in two languages: Chinese and English. (See's_Republic_of_China_passport#Languages .) Perhaps this is interpreted by the Chinese as meaning they cannot use symbols that don’t appear in ordinary English orthography.

  8. gasdasdas says:

    “Lyu” and “Nye” ONLY appears in passports and the letter “ü” remains the same otherwise.

  9. gummyworm says:

    You can download or view the exact official document under the following links:

    1. (download)
    2. (download)
    3. (download)
    4. (view only)

    *Notice the bad use of font for pinyin throughout the document.

    • Sima says:

      Thanks for the links, but I’ve not found any use of either Lyu or Nyu. Have I missed something?

      I see what you mean about the font. Any thoughts about why this one might have been used and which font would be more suitable?

      • gummyworm says:

        Sorry I forgot to give the link to another document:

        1. (view only)
        2. (view only)
        3. (download)

        • gummyworm says:

          “I see what you mean about the font. Any thoughts about why this one might have been used and which font would be more suitable?”

          In this case, “a. g” is not used because the officials believe that it would cause the children to imitate the serif typographic form (a, g) in their hand writing. Sans serifs was only used in infants but now it’s everywhere in pinyin in China. However, “the use of such letters appears to have no positive effect on children’s reading” (1). In fact, there are many oppositions regarding this on both the English’s and Chinese’s side. See for example:


          • gummyworm says:

            “…and which font would be more suitable?”

            This is a tough question because different fonts are used for different purpose. In education, pinyin fonts should just follow the typography tradition of the rest of the world. After all, typography on the alphabet have been used and developed in the west for thousands of years. However, not in the sense that they should just copy directly from the US or Germany. For example, pinyin is an aid for learning characters and, as such, it’s also used alongside with them; thus they have to take “bilingual typography” into consideration. For more on this, watch “”.

        • Sima says:

          Wow! You’re right on top of these things. This indeed provides a mention of the name 吕. National Standards for the spelling of Chinese names, 31 Oct 2011, Section 6.2, right at the end. A very rough translation, in case anyone tenacious enough to have read this far is too lazy to click one of the links above:

          6 Flexible resolution of particular problems.

          6.2 According to the particular requirements of technology, in necessary situations (e.g. passports, international documents and publications, etc), the capital letter Ü may be replaced by YU. For example:
          Lǚ Hépíng Spelled: LYU HEPING 吕和平

          So, this confirms *an* official recommendation for the use of LYU, even though it’s only for capital letters.

  10. Stewart says:

    I’m delighted that “a distinguished Chinese professor … is deeply dissatisfied with Hanyu Pinyin.” May that feeling become more widespread.

    I cannot adequately describe the depth of my resentment whenever I read an unfamiliar word in pinyin, and find myself unable to pronounce it correctly, because the tone marks are so rarely included. If I were wholly ignorant, I’d just say it in the wrong tone, or in a monotone. But being only half-ignorant, I know that I cannot say that unfamiliar word aloud, until I’ve taken the time and trouble to look it up and learn the tone.

    Accordingly, your professor could very easily “create a better system for the Romanization of Chinese,” by adopting 95% of Yuen Ren Chao’s Gwoyeu Romatzyh system, and making only the most minor of tweaks to improve upon it. Yes, the learning curve is a bit steep, but it brilliantly captures the fact that tone is an essential part of the word, not an afterthought!

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