Chinese Acronyms

You might assume that as a language with no phonetic alphabet, Chinese would have no acronyms. I always did. Turns out I was wrong. While not technically acronyms, I suppose, Chinese has a similar method of creating abbreviations.

Every Chinese character is a word in its own right, but characters are also combined in 2, 3 and even 4 character phrases to cover more complex concepts. When something is named with several multi-character phrases, an abbreviation can be made by using the first character of each phrase.

I became aware of this very early in my China time, as I spent my first year studying at a Beijing university. Dozens of universities are gathered near each other in Haidian district so I quickly learned a lot of their names – and their abbreviated names.

北京大学 Běi jīng dà xué [Běi jīng = Beijing; dà xué = university] becomes 北大
农业大学 nóng yè dà xué [nóng yè = agricultural] becomes 农大
民族大学 mín zú dà xué [mín zú = ethnic minority] becomes 民大
中国人民大学 Zhōng guó rén mín dà xué  [Zhōng guó = China; rén mín = the people] becomes 人大
北京语言大学 Běi jīng yǔ yán dà xué [yǔ yán = language] becomes 北语

(That last one is where I studied, although the abbreviation isn’t always used.)

Years later, I noticed another significant use of these kinds of abbreviations. I was getting frustrated by the fact that every single highway name sounds the same, and started paying more attention to them. I realised that most, with the exception of the Airport Expressway, are named with a combination of the cities at either end. Thus, almost every highway leaving Beijing starts with “Jing”. Sigh. It actually does make a lot of sense – if you know you’re headed toward Chengde, take the expressway that say “Cheng” on it. It’s much less helpful in English/Pinyin, of course.

expresswaysign高速 goes from 北京 to
高速 goes from 北京 to
高速 goes from 北京 to 天
高速 goes from 北京 to 天 and
路 goes from 北京 to 尔滨 (or at least it was supposed to)
路 goes from 北京 to
高速 goes from 北京 to 家庄
高速 goes from 北京 to 封 (or at least it was supposed to)
快速  goes from 北京 to

I could go on and on. But I won’t. Aren’t you glad?

There are also some of these kinds of abbreviations that have come into everyday speech. The most common that I’m aware of is 科技 [kē jì], meaning “Science and Technology” (and part of the name of yet another university – 北京科技大学). It is a combination of 科学 [kē xué] meaning “science” and 技术 [jì shù] meaning “technology”. Given that this is a very common phrase, 科技 [kē jì] is certainly a lot easier to say repeatedly than 科学技术 [kē xué jì shù].

This method is also used to simplify unwieldy official names, especially government stuff. Another example is 中国中央电视台春节联欢晚会 [Zhōng guó zhōng yāng diàn shì tái chūn jié lián huān wǎn huì], the full name of the annual television program shown on Chinese new year (which I’ve mentioned before). That name is 13 characters long – try saying that three times fast! (Okay, so I actually just did that – it’s possible, but time consuming!) The first 7 characters are just the full name of CCTV (Chinese Central Television Station). That is followed by 春节 – Spring Festival (the official name for Chinese New Year) and finally 联欢晚会 – gala (literally: celebration party). First, people started dropping CCTV off the front, but now it’s shortened to 春晚 – the first characters of the phrases “Chinese new year” and “party”. All very simple and logical – once you know what’s going on!

After a while I began to intuitively understand some of these sorts of acronyms when they came up – which made me feel quite chuffed with myself! I think it’s a cleverly simple way to create standard abbreviations in a language with no alphabet.

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