Are some street signs more confusing than helpful?

Clara Marie Schultz
As a truly international metropolis, tourism magnet, and one of the most dynamic cities in China, Shanghai has a vested interest in being foreigner friendly.
Clara Marie Schultz

Shanghai's street signs are written with a combination of Chinese characters and pinyin romanization, with the Chinese characters on top and the romanized version below.

Pinyin, which literally means “spelled sounds,” is a phonetic romanization of Mandarin designed in the 1950s as a tool for representing the sounds and tones of standard Mandarin. Pinyin enables a person without knowledge of characters to read and pronounce a Chinese text correctly.

It is a crucial tool for foreigners because the slightest inaccuracy in tonal pronunciation of a single syllable can cause a native Mandarin speaker to have no idea what one is trying to say.

For example, the word commonly used to describe the base of a meal (like rice, pasta, or bread) is zhushi, but zhushi pronounced with different tones and written with a different first character means pig feed.

Many residents of Shanghai seem unconcerned with the romanization of street signs because most adults are already familiar with nearly every character that would ever appear on such a sign.

The most common response seems to be that it would be “too troublesome” to change the practice, especially since most residents are indifferent to it.

‘Useless’ sign

Xia Liping a local student commented, “I don’t really have an opinion because I think that is for foreigners. We Chinese only look at the characters.” Though all the native Mandarin speakers interviewed for this piece agree that the lack of tones could cause confusion for foreigners.

Assuming the romanization is mostly for those who are not necessarily able to recognize characters, many foreigners feel as though the incomplete romanization renders that part of the sign completely useless.

Hanneke from New Zealand feels that “it’s not particularly useful. It’s only useful if you can already read the characters anyway.”

This is a feeling shared by American international student Shawna: “I always have to look up on Pleco (a digital Mandarin/English dictionary) how to correctly pronounce Chinese characters on street signs or else my coworkers and teachers would get frustrated with me for not getting the tones right.”

For a foreigner trying their best to adapt to life in a different culture, speaking their non-native tonal language, a seemingly trivial inconvenience like an inaccurate street sign can be both perplexing and grating. Making street signs more accurate may seem like an insignificant proposal, but as China’s international standing continues to rapidly rise, more and more foreigners will be interested in coming to China and learning about Chinese culture.

As a truly international metropolis, tourism magnet, and one of the most dynamic cities in China, Shanghai has a vested interest in being foreigner friendly. In doing so, Shanghai can accurately represent an increasingly globalized China to the rest of the world.

Clara Marie Schultz is a student at Nanjing University and now interns at Shanghai Daily.

Special Reports