VILLAGE WITHOUT CHARACTER.

This AP story describes a curious problem:

Residents thought changing the name of their small village in southern China would improve their fortunes.
Instead, it left them in a legal limbo after police computers were unable to register a very rare Chinese character that is part of the new moniker, newspapers reported Tuesday.
“Many villagers have not been able to get marriage certificates and are facing difficulties while seeking jobs, traveling and dealing in property,” the China Daily said, citing an earlier report in the Nanguo Metropolitan News.
The 50 residents of the tiny hamlet in Wenchang county on the southern island province of Hainan followed a fortune teller’s advice earlier this year and changed the name “to improve the village’s prosperity,” the reports said.
The village’s name used to be Tianmeidong, but was changed to Tianwei, plus a third character that even the Nanguo newspaper was forced to describe in its article because its computer could not write it…

MMcM, who sent me the link, adds: “A little Googling turns up a Xinhua article with a picture and an explanation of how to draw the character,” but he’s not sure what the character is. Anybody know more about this?

Comments

  1. James in Beijing says:

    According to my Palm-based dictionary, the character is read “ban4″ (ban with a falling tone) and means “mud or mire”. It also specifies that the character is specifically a Cantonese character (that is, is not used in Mandarin or other dialects of Chinese).

  2. The character seems to be 湴.
    I suppose the issue stems from the almost universal use of the very limited GB2312 character set official Chinese information systems, instead of Unicode.
    My dictionary gives 汉语大辞典 and 广韵 lookups for it, so it’s not just some crazy character that got made up by the villagers.

  3. Sorry, that should be 汉语大字典, not 辞典.

  4. 湴 (U+6E74) was the closest I had come up with, too. But the China Daily article says, “the character ya.” Is that possible for a dialect they might speak there? Or maybe confusion with 亚 used in the explanation? If so, what does the name of the village, 田尾湴, mean?

  5. xiaolongnu says:

    John B is right — the real story here is not how weird the character is, but how limited the Chinese bureaucracy is.
    About the pronunciation and meaning of the name:
    It seems likely to me that the fortuneteller who suggested the name, or the village elders who went for it, didn’t know the pronunciation of the character and guessed at “ya” because that’s one of the components of the “body” of the character (as opposed to the radical, which is usually less likely to govern pronunciation). It’s not a bad guess for someone who’s probably not too familiar with classical Chinese or the world of obsolete/rare characters.
    My 汉语大辞典 says that the character is basically only used in a fortunetelling context, with citations going back to the Tang. 湴河 (“river of mud”) is used as a metaphor for imminent danger (into which one may fall).
    Given this, there are several possibilities for the meaning of the name:
    1. That the 尾 (“tail, end”) negates 湴 and thus the meaning is something like “the fields from which danger is averted”
    2. That the literal meaning is something like “muddy end of the fields” and that there’s no auspicious meaning implied
    3. That the characters, singly or in combination, have semi-mystical or numerological implications known only to the fortune-teller, and thus the name of the village isn’t meant to mean anything, linguistically.
    My take on these: 1 is possible but requires some playing fast and loose with grammar — not out of the question, as many people these days aren’t familiar with classical Chinese; 2 is unlikely since it was a fortune-teller who chose the name, and those guys are all about the auspiciousness; 3 is possible but not amenable to investigation. I like 3 because it calls to mind the Daoist written talismans that fortune-tellers have made for centuries, which are full of rare, obscure, invented or altered characters that are said to represent the language of the spirits.
    Some examples of such talismans:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:TaoistCharm.JPG
    http://www.schaeferarts.com/FengShui1.jpg

  6. James in Beijing says:

    Actually, the article says that the character is a “three-dot water” radical with a “亚” with two dots on top, MMcM is right.

  7. I found this character in the GB character set at: 9CB0.
    I know it says ‘two dots on top’, but if you look at the character on the rock, it’s pretty clearly 湴.
    What we have here is the usual kerfluffle over Chinese characters. Characters have their own mythology and origins buried in the mists of time. The modern language as well as local dialects have their own logicalities. Hainan happens to be one of those places where the fit between the Central Plains culture and the local dialect is worse than most. In some ways, Chinese characters don’t really work for Hainanese. Unfortunately, it’s a bad habit of Chinese speakers to mix the two aspects — characters and language — together in a most confusing way.
    As for the pronunciation, well, I don’t really know. The question is not only what it is read in Mandarin, but what it is read in the local dialect, and what it is supposed to mean in the local dialect.
    There are some idiosyncracies in place name readings in Hainan. 通什 would be Tongshi anywhere else. In Hainan it’s read Tongzha (that’s the Mandarin reading. I don’t know the Hainanese reading).
    Also, in Hainanese dialect, the 昌 in Wenchang (文昌) is read differently from the 昌 in Tunchang (屯昌).
    At any rate, I would also be interested in knowing — preferably from locals, not from Xinhua — why this village has chosen this character.

  8. Actually, according to the Xinhua article, in Hainanese the character is supposed to be pronounced the same as 碰 pèng.

  9. There seems to be two things going on here. One, there’s an input problem at the police. This could be because of ancient systems that don’t support the character 湴, or it might simply be because the police use a pronunciation-style input method and can’t be bothered to look up the correct pinyin.
    Then there’s the issue of bad journalism. The original article (the Xinhua website version is a republication of the original Nanguo Metropolis Daily piece) implied that the character was incredibly rare – the reporter searched through dictionaries with no results. And the newspaper itself resorted to describing the character, even though its font sets surely have a previously-composed version available.
    There’s a good critique at the Xinhua forums that includes a number of variant readings of the character as found in different dictionaries. The piece concludes by arguing that even if the police computers have technical limitations that prevent the character from being entered, they should correct that shortcoming rather than taking the easy, politically expedient way out and blaming feudal superstition.
    If I can be permitted to self link, the current head of China’s press and publications administration gave a speech last December blaming American technology for the limited font sets available to Chinese government agencies (scroll down here).

  10. michael farris says:

    “the real story here is not how weird the character is, but how limited the Chinese bureaucracy is”
    Here I am thinking that the real story is: Don’t let a fortune teller name your village.

  11. Don’t let a fortune teller name your village.
    Are you kidding? They’ve gotten worldwide publicity from this!
    Thanks for all the informed commentary, everyone; you people are amazing. Now if only the fortune teller would show up to explain…

  12. Michael Farris says:

    Or perhaps the fortune teller’s business model is:
    1. Choose difficult character that bureaucracy doesn’t recognize for village’s name.
    2. ???
    3. Prosperity!

  13. It sounds like the name-change approval process was completed via handwritten documents; otherwise, the character set issue would have arisen before the approval was complete. That’s kind of fascinating. I’m imagining that the documents went up the bureaucratic ladder, all the way (I assume) to Beijing, and that no one wanted to admit that they didn’t recognize this character. Is there another explanation?
    Also, is there any kind of effort underway to compile all characters that have ever been used (no small task) & devise the comprehensive character set that would eliminate most of these types of problems? Alternatively, I can imagine devising a ‘glue’ character for computer use that indicates that the two characters on either side are actually one (e.g. 水[X]並 = 湴) — although such a system could easily get out of hand.

  14. KangXiZiDian page.
    zdic.net transcription.

  15. going dotty in Kansas says:

    This erudite thread brings to (my non-erudite) mind the somewhat related story of Jim Thorpe, formerly Maukchaunk (sp??), PA.
    Although I think the authorities in the US were a bit less intransigent than the ones in China, at least in this instance.

  16. Mauch Chunk (‘bear mountain’).

  17. Also, is there any kind of effort underway to compile all characters that have ever been used (no small task) & devise the comprehensive character set that would eliminate most of these types of problems?

    Yes, it’s called Unicode. At present there are already over 70,000 encoded CJKV characters (CJK [20,924 characters], CJK-A [6,582 characters], CJK-B [42,711 characters]) and with another 4,000+ (CJK-C) to be added next year, and many thousands more in the pipeline. This work is being coordinated by the Ideographic Rapporteur Group which comprises representatives from the standardization bodies of China, Japan, both Koreas, Vietnam, Kong Kong, Macau, etc.
    As has been pointed out several times on the comment thread the problem is not that this and other much more obscure characters are not encoded but that many computer systems in China are still restricted to the extremely limited GB2312 character set. Blaming American technology for the limited font sets available to Chinese government agencies is also a bogus excuse as several font sets (you can’t fit all 70,000 characters on a single TTF font) have been developed in China and elsewhere that cover all 70,000 CJK characters in Unicode.

    Alternatively, I can imagine devising a ‘glue’ character for computer use that indicates that the two characters on either side are actually one (e.g. 水[X]並 = 湴) — although such a system could easily get out of hand.

    Yes, we’ve already got a set of Ideographic Description Characters that can be used to describe characters in this manner. So, U+6E74 could be described with the Ideographic Description Sequence ⿰氵並 (U+2FF0, U+6C35, U+4E26). Try experimenting at this CJK search engine which allows you to find characters that match a certain component structure as specified by Ideographic Description Sequences.

  18. Yes, The question is not only what it is read in Mandarin, but what it is read in the local dialect, and what it is supposed to mean in the local dialect.

  19. Hainanese is no one uniform dialect: it has at least three streams of sources depending where you are: Mandarin, Min and various indigenous dialects. However, in Wenchang, it’s the typical Hainanese: a kind of Minnan dialect.
    Knowing that which Hainanese it is we can think that 湴 would be pronounced as something like /paŋ/ since the alternative would be /pã/ and it shouldn’t rhyme with 碰.
    The major problem is that simplification made 並 combined with 并 and so there is no ready way to describe that particular glyph 並 and the news report resorted in saying 2 dots on top of 亚. In daily usage, the only common character that includes 並 is 碰, but 湴 doesn’t even pronounce like 碰 in Mandarin, which means that many people can’t type it out because they only know how to type in pinyin! Hence, zhwj is right when he says “there’s an input problem at the police. This could be because of ancient systems that don’t support the character 湴, or it might simply be because the police use a pronunciation-style input method and can’t be bothered to look up the correct pinyin.”
    Well, 湴 literally means deep puddle of mud. However, as xiaolongnu said, it is used here as an auspicious context: wading river confidently AND successfully across a deep marsh means something very auspicious, because otherwise you’d sink. Moreover, the original name (as reported in the news report) was 田尾洞, which doesn’t sound too good because it literally means they live in a hole at the end of fields. With 田尾湴, they can at least said it isn’t end of the world (think of calling your village Foxhole!), but rather something deeper and bolder – they can go through obstacles even though they live at the end of fields. So my take would be suggestion 3 by xiaolongnu.

  20. Slight correction on the meaning of 湴:
    Well, I was too literal when explaining 湴. But actually, from reading an electronic source on 夢溪筆談 (Dream Pool Essays), I found the following sentences:
    人多不曉湴河之義。
    (People mostly don’t know the meaning of 湴河 (muddy river).)
    then
    湴,字書亦作“埿”。蒲濫反。按古文,埿,深泥也。本書有湴河者,蓋謂陷運,如今之“空亡”也。
    (湴 ,also 埿, pronounced like [pan], meaning in deep mud. It is said that muddy river gets you into deep trouble, as now know as “kong wang”.)
    Now, 空亡(kong wang) is an interesting concept. It involves reading up Chinese astrology and Chinese mystics. Literally meant “emptying nothing” (as 亡 = 無 here appearently), it is used to draw fortunes by looking at the moves between Heaven Stems and Earth Branches (as there are only 10 stems but 12 branches).
    Of course, this is not right. So I read various sources with these two characters 空亡 by searching in Wikisource, and I found various entries…
    By reading between lines, I still not being able to deduce the true meaning other than knowing that it averts things (like losing and death). Then I went to search in Google with first 空亡 then with 空無, I finally found this gem:
    空亡: 原來的意思是指空虛、空想、架空、虛構、虛妄、失望、不實用、無效率。
    (Originally means vainity (not being vain, but empty, senselessness, cf KJV Ecclesiates), wishful thinking, hopelessness, inefficient, impratical).
    So, problem solved: It means aversion of things. You avert emptying hole (as the original name seems to tell), guess what you’d get? Fortune!

  21. Thanks very much for that cogent analysis!

  22. David Marjanović says:

    That fills in the business model then:
    1. Choose difficult character that bureaucracy doesn’t recognize for village’s name.
    2. Avert emptying hole.
    3. Prosperity!

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