Tuesday 24 Nov 2020 | 18:26 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 Nov 2020 | 18:26 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: The Chinese 'alphabet'

1 August 2008 14:21

Guest blogger: David Howell is a Lowy Institute intern and a student in the Department of Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney.

John Hannoush writes:

On ABC TV news the other night, the presenter made a gross error, saying something to the effect that the Australian Olympic team would be coming at the end of the opening parade instead of its usual position up front, 'because of the Chinese alphabet'.  I know enough to feel pretty superior about this mistake but I realised I don't know nearly enough to say just how the listing by country name is done.  

I'm not sure whether the Australian Olympic Team is indeed leading the parade or whether it is coming at the end, but if the latter, it is definitely not because of the Chinese ‘alphabet’. There are some 70,000 symbols (or characters) in the Chinese script, with roughly 3,000 needed for competence in the language, but last time I checked, there is no alphabet.

This is, however, a common mistake. As one China specialist in the US discovered, some people naturally assume that the alphabet is the only form of written communication possible for humans. This particular gentleman ended up making a small fortune by creating a (now defunct) website that would provide, for a small fee, the Chinese equivalent of a word or phrase. Many customers asked for the Chinese version of their name or the name of a loved one so they could tattoo it to their body; some got aggravated when their simple request for the Chinese version of the letter 'a' could not be provided. They couldn't compute that a script could exist without an alphabet. After all, what do Chinese kids learn in pre-school if not the abc’s?

I imagine these folk are of the same breed as a buff beach goer I saw once in Bondi. This guy figured it would be cool to have the Chinese word for 'peace' tattooed on his bicep. I guess he didn't understand that 'peace' is translated into a single Chinese character, because he appeared to have opted for a longer version which unfortunately equated to the term 'safety belt'. Nothing to do with peace, then, unless this guy wanted peace of mind that his bicep was encouraging safe driving among Sydney's Chinese diaspora.