Several linguistics-oriented scholars, most notably Dr Mair, have recently noted the growing trend in written Chinese discourse towards "digraphia" - the dual use of Pinyin and Chinese characters as sort of a protomorphic kanji+katakana-esque ensemble.

The obvious, and de-facto standard, explanation for this growing phenomenon is the difficulty of writing/remembering characters such as 喷嚏 relative to the simplicity of writing "pen ti". However I am curious concerning phenomena such as the following (from the package of a present sent to someone around CNY):

enter image description here

slightly clearer detail on the tone marks

Where "xin1 yi4" is the pinyin for 心意 - incredibly basic characters for which the "too difficult" explanation simply doesn't apply.

So what is going on here? How is the Pinyin+Character combination perceived by native Chinese speakers? Is the inclusion of pinyin a stab at some sort of additional sophistication somehow conveyed by the inclusion of roman letters? Is it an aesthetic effect (e.g.: it makes for an "interesting mix")?

How should 老外 interpret the "effect" of such combinations of Pinyin and characters?

  • Xin yi can also be 欣怡. Mar 22, 2015 at 14:02
  • apologies for the poor shot- the tone marks in the original are first and fourth, disqualifying 怡. I asked an admittedly random native Chinese person who believes it's 心意- though the lack of clarity about what the heck the pinyin even corresponds to makes the phenomenon even more interesting- why purposely introduce language that seems unnecessarily difficult to interpret even just semantically? Mar 22, 2015 at 14:05
  • 1
    I think this example is more of an art than language. It may still tell a fact that people love alphabet.
    – PdotWang
    Mar 22, 2015 at 14:57
  • that's a start towards answering the question... when we see the pinyin we see language, not art. There's nothing particularly appealing about the pinyin- to a Western eye. Fascinating. Mar 22, 2015 at 15:51

1 Answer 1


The 训读 (this jargon comes from Japanese) phenomenon is rare in Chinese, but it does exist, e.g. 廿 may be pronounced as èr shí (二十), 圕 as tú shū guǎn (图书馆), 哩 as yīng lǐ (英里). Doesn't that happen in English? Many people pronounce "etc." as "and so on", "i.e." as "that is", "e.g." as "for example". Traditionally, the function of 训读 in Chinese is to make difficult characters easier to pronounce and understand, but pinyin is rarely used in this case.

Recently pinyin used for non-standard 训读 in Chinese becomes popular, especially on the Internet, possibly inspired by the Japanese ACG (animation, comic, game) culture. It often suggests the deep, hidden meaning behind the apparent Chinese characters. The example in your post, 回家(xīn yì), suggests "coming home is a present (心意) for your parents". You can also find some funny examples like "丧(gan)心(de)病(piao)狂(liang)" -- it ostensibly reads "frenzied, crazy" but in fact the writer shouts out "干得漂亮, good job!" in his mind -- the effect is comical.

Besides, the reason why pinyin is chosen for denoting the implication may be obvious:

  1. It can be easily distinguished from the Chinese character, so it doesn't disturb Chinese people reading the Chinese characters.
  2. To a Chinese eye, pinyin is "hidden" at the first glance, so it is suitable for expressing the "deep" meaning behind those characters.
  • ahhhhhhhh so it's almost like Pinyin is being used as a running commentary on/subtext of the 汉字... correct? I was having a lot of trouble stringing the pinyin in sequence with the characters, in either direction. It makes a lot more sense if they're supposed to run in parallel. Thank you for the explanation! Mar 22, 2015 at 20:53
  • BTW these reasons are not at all "obvious" to folks coming at this from the other side of the looking glass, so thanks for spelling them out. Mar 22, 2015 at 20:59
  • You're welcome :) And yes, this usage of pinyin can be considered as the subtext of 汉字.
    – Stan
    Mar 23, 2015 at 5:55

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