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.
京承高速 goes from 北京 to 承德
京沈高速 goes from 北京 to 沈阳
京津高速 goes from 北京 to 天津
京津塘高速 goes from 北京 to 天津 and 塘沽
京哈路 goes from 北京 to 哈尔滨 (or at least it was supposed to)
京密路 goes from 北京 to 密云
京石高速 goes from 北京 to 石家庄
京开高速 goes from 北京 to 开封 (or at least it was supposed to)
京通快速 goes from 北京 to 通州
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.