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. Continue…


That is, I think reading English would be harder if there was no word spacing, not just because you’re not used to it but because, well, it’s one more task that your brain has to do.

Since I’ve talked about misparsing recently, and since Kellen brought up punctuation just a couple of days ago, isn’t it time to wonder if any writers of Chinese have ever experimented with adding spacing into the writer’s toolbox? I mean instead of this*:


you could have

我  写  那篇  东西  时  太  年轻, 发了  很多  过激  议论。**


Punctuation creativity

In nearly every one of my conversations about texts written in classical Chinese, the topic of punctuation comes up at least once. Mostly this is because I’m trying to figure out the grammar that lets us know what the meaning of the words should actually be, and since when these things were originally written, there was no punctuation. It’s all been added since.

What’s more, I end up thinking about punctuation a fair bit in modern texts, though in this case purely for typographic reasons. I prefer full-width commas and all my characters forming columns as neat as the rows (or rows as neat as the columns for the vertically inclined among them). So I was pleasantly surprised to find this:


I’m not! feeling! what you think I’m feeling!

Having myself been annoyed by the seemingly excessive use of exclamation marks in Chinese writing, I’m glad to see Julen Madariaga is taking up the issue from a purely descriptive standpoint at Chinayouren:

I have seen from experience that many Westerners find this habit annoying, or even consider it immature. I can see where they are coming from, but they should bear in mind that  “!” does not mean the same thing in Chinese as in English. I you don’t believe me, check a professional format letter in Chinese. Both the introductory and the final formulas are normally followed by “!”.

Great point. Just because you recognize the exclamation point from your native language, doesn’t mean you know what it means in Chinese.

This would be a great paper for some intrepid Chinese student: take a bunch of writing of some genre and categorize every last exclamation point. Compare to, say, English, and let us know what you find!