By Barry M

I was just leaving a comment on the always refreshingly drinkable Beijing Boyce blog when I saw one of my biggest Chinese Pinyin pet peeves – chuanr.

串儿, for those who’ve been in China for less than an hour, generally means tasty bits on a stick. Chuàn/串 (meaning to string together) + ér/儿 (a suffix that makes some verbs into nice little nouns) technically comes out as “chuanr/chuan’er/chuan’r”… but when pronounced it is “chuar”.

Never, not ever, have I ever, never, heard anyone, ever, say Chuan-er.

And good thing, because it sounds like something you call someone you don’t like. “Yeah, he talks big, but what a feckin’ chuan’er.” “Ohmygod, did you see what she’s wearing? Total chuan’er…”

Now I understand that I can’t just go re-writing the phonetic rules of Chinese pinyin to fit my fancy – but by spelling it chuan’r we’re not exactly in keeping with them either, are we? Admittedly, my Chinese is about as suspect as many a chuar stand’s meat source, but pinyin for chuar should be “chuàn ér”, making chuàn’r just plain wrong, no?

So if it’s going to be wrong anyway, when Englishizing it, can’t we just write it chuar. No hyphens, no apostrophes, no tone marks… just chuar. Like sushi, taco, kabab or any of the millions of other foreign-language foodstuffs that find themselves spoken by our finesse-less tongues.

Next up… why the hell do we spell it Tsingtao…and what’s with Ha(e)rbin?


  1. i actually like the added r. in beijing i told the taxi i wanted to go to liu li chang. he corrected me telling me it was in fact liu li chaarrr. if i see it as char on some blog or whatever, then how am i to know what it really is supposed to be? when i first learned ‘ice cube’ i heard bing kuar but i can’t really type that into my phone so i ended up having to ask what the word really was sans 儿.

    i don’t really hear chuar or kuar coming from anyone but foreigners around here. my meatstick guy says chuan. not that we shouldn’t say chuar. i guess i’m just saying i like the n not being omitted.

    i’ve got answers for tsingtao and harbin too but i’m certain that was rhetorical so i’ll abstain. 🙂

  2. Having only every lived in Guangzhou and Suzhou, I have to say that, although I’m vaguely aware of the 儿 I don’t actually know how it’s formed, and I’ve never really used it, and stubbornly stick with the more southern “羊肉串”. I’ll go search iTunes to see if ChinesePod have covered this subject already…!

  3. You are right that, if properly written in pinyin, it should be chuaner, but for that just seems strange and for whatever reason, a lot of northerners (not just expats) use chuanr when writing it in english.

    As for Kellen’s chuan( r ) guy, many of them are from Xinjiang and speak Chinese as bad (or worse) as expats and (unlike expats) will never bother trying to pick up the Beijing ‘er.

  4. yeah that’s definitely a factor. a kid sold them in nanjing who was from xinjiang and couldn’t speak more than a few phrases in chinese. but most of the guys i’m talking about are han and either from anhui/nanjing or grew up in the wu speaking areas (shanghai, changzhou where i am now).

    it’s absent enough in my encounters that i stopped saying it so that i wouldn’t look like a foreigner throwing in the extra 儿 since every time i heard it that’s where it was coming from.

    i’ll start paying more attention to my meat-sticks and ice cubes and see if my previous observations were accurate or if i’ve just been oblivious to it coming from the locals.

  5. Good points all.

    I agree John… it’s just, well…. chuar is so much more fun to say, and in turn, to type. I think it’s due to the word’s phonetic nearness to “char”, which brings to mind BBQs, and in turn the smokey goodness of meat on a stick…

    @Kellen: Yeah, rhetorical. 😉

  6. Reading through this I can’t help but thinking most of this confusion is because you southerners don’t have the 儿化音. It’s chuan’r because the 儿 is only there to indicate that northern/northeastern curling the tongue back to keep the ergoutou down thing. It doesn’t really have a vowel of its own, it’s just a modification of the final consonant.

    And there’s no such thing as a rhetorical question. Harbin for the same reason as chuan’r- because you southerners need to be told when to wrap your tongue up tighter than sushi. Tsingtao because, like Tsinghua, that hails back to the dark days before pinyin, when various sub-standard and thoroughly evil romanisation systems were fighting for domination of the Chinese learner’s soul.

  7. see, i knew all that, but figured it went without saying.

    i still don’t buy that crap that beijing huar is ‘the real chinese’. so far i’ve only ever heard it around beijing.

  8. I’ll leave it to the experts to say for sure, but I think that there are some definitely legitimate “er”s disguised as dialect. Putonghua, semi-Beijing neutral, certainly is taught with ‘ers’ – even by my southern-born laoshi’s.

    That said, I’m pretty sure the Harbin issue is like Tsinghua and Tsingtao, just a mis-Romanization. The “er” in Hā’ěrbīn is 尔, not 儿, and is completely part of the name – 哈尔滨. That is to say, not in any case is it Hābīn.

  9. Ryan wrote:

    Can’t we just call it chuar?

    The short answer is, “no”. There are rules for pinyin, and most of them actually make sense. In fact, if “chuar” were a valid Mandarin syllable, its pronunciation would be different from “chuanr”. The difference is subtle to our western ears, but not at all subtle to native speakers. I’ll site this post on Beijing Sounds as evidence of this claim (it’s a great post, and very illuminating about the r-hua).

    So if it’s going to be wrong anyway, when Englishizing it, …

    Actually, pinyin isn’t English. As Mark over at often points out, pinyin is a phonetic way of writing Chinese that just happens to share our alphabet. English-speaking countries have subsequently adopted the convention of using native spellings when transliterating names, or presumably for loan-words.

    I don’t know about “Tsingtao”, but I suspect that’s a case similar to Tsinghua University, which is Wade-Giles spelling that’s been grandfathered for whatever reason, maybe because some person in power thought the old-fashioned spelling lent an air of sophistication.

  10. i’d think 哈尔滨 (as a word) was originally not chinese at all and then like 呼和浩特 and 敦煌 was sinofied. if so then harbin may not be a misromanisation but rather a romanisation of something other than chinese. it’s харби́н kharbin in russian. but it may be manchu or even yiddish in origin given the location.

    i’d be interested to know when the 儿 really is necessary. i know 女儿 isn’t just dialect since you can’t really get by without it. trial and error, mostly error, is how i’d probably figure it out.

  11. @Kellen: I think you’re right – I think “Haerbin” comes from the Russian (or at least historically it makes sense as such) – and perhaps “Harbin” is a more appropriate spelling, sort of like Hohhot, Kashgar or Lhasa.


    pinyin is a phonetic way of writing Chinese that just happens to share our alphabet

    Well, I don’t think it just “happened” to use the Roman alphabet. I mean, surely Sanskrit is a (geographically and culturally) closer alphabet to use – I’m sure the choice of the Roman alphabet was quite deliberate.

    But I completely see your point. And totally agree that Pinyin should not be bastardized to fit the whims of this Sino-stupid blogger.

    However, my point isn’t that we need to go changing chuàn ér, or any phonetic rules of pinyin. It is more that “chuar”, as used on expat blogs, tends to be less about proper Chinese speaking, or language lessons, and more in line with being a loan-word in the context it’s used – like sushi, kabab, souffle, bratwurst, etc.

    I never say to my friends “Da jia hao, ni men yao chi chuan er ma?” (excuse my laziness in not putting the tones in). I say, “Hey dudes, wanna go grab some chuar and beer?” (in English)

    And so, I guess the whole reason the “chuan’r” spelling bothers me is that it’s adding attempted Pinyin academics into a conversation that is casual and English.

  12. Ha, I don’t even want to attempt to speak the “er”, let alone write it. Mandarin has no “er”, and anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is either a beijinger with a deluded sense of self, or somebody else brainwashed by a beijinger. Until I hear a news reporter say “er” on CCTV (ahem, not that I watch CCTV), I’ll refuse to add to the lie.

  13. last night my chuarwalla™ said chuan. i went back to double check then asked him about it. he looked at me like i was an idiot. he said “you say chuan. not chuar. it’s one chuan. you say chuan.” i asked where he was from, and unsurprisingly he said Changzhou.

    i’m still sold on using chuar in english as a loan word. and mark this down in your OED notes as the first use of chuarwalla. it’s going to be huge, i tell you. huge.

    i’m digging beijing sounds, btw.

  14. chuarwalla. Kellen, you are a legend. Good on ya.

    @Chip: Actually, “er” does exist in most, if not all Mandarin dialects, and perhaps most Chinese languages (perhaps, because I’m not sure). How else do you pronounce 二? But that Beijing-style 儿化音, in which the tongue is curled back into a baijiubelch-suppression position at the end of apparently random syllables is also quite common across Mandarin dialects. I have personally heard it in Taiyuan in the West, Tianjin in the east and Dalian in the northeast, and have heard people from parts scattered farther afield use it, too. I’ve also been told of its appearance in Chengdu, although that is second-hand information and those who told me that did not speak very good Chinese. And I’m pretty certain that if I opened my dictionary I would find words with a very clearly marked 儿化音 without the dreaded (dial.) note, meaning they are counted as standard Putonghua, too. Sorry.

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  16. re being heard in chengdu etc, i’ve been thinking. in arabic the egyptian dialect has a marked hardening of j into g. it’s essentially just an egyptian thing, or rather had been until recently. it’s started to make its way into yemeni and other dialects. this is largely a result of nearly all popular movies in the last 50 years being from egypt.

    i wonder how much this may happen with 儿, though obviously not through cinema. i could even see it as a sign of national pride, to take on what you see as a sign of affiliation to the capital city.

  17. @Chriswaugh_bj,

    If anything, it is up to debate because of what you said. I’ve had conversations with scholars that will either say “there is an erhuayin, but not nearly to the extent that Beijingers try to tell you” or “no erhuayin at all”, with the vast majority going with the second (the others were all from Beijing). I think it comes down to mandarin being so influenced by the dialects it is closest to (Beijinghua, northeastern dialects, etc.) for so long that it is difficult to really know how much of it is truly “proper mandarin” and how much is really just dialectal influence that has been accepted by society (which politically, is greatly influenced by Beijing). Nonetheless, I still hate it.

  18. It should be written ‘chuar’ because that’s how people in Dalian speak it, and Dalian has the most standard Mandarin in all of the Liao sort-of-semi-sub dialects.

    The Liao dialect hails from Shandong province, and as everybody knows, Shandong was the birthplace of Chinese culture. Therefore Dalian has the most standard Mandarin when culturally weighted, and 5000 years of continuous culture is a large weighting. In comparison Beijing’s been the capital for just a blink of an eye and Shanghai wasn’t even around a couple of hundred years ago.

    Dalian, it’s said ‘chuar’ and that’s because it’s standard.

  19. Oh wow. I’ve never used the “儿化音”. Then again, I’m from Shanghai. I’ve been informally taught that the use of 儿 instantly marks you as a “non-local”. I’ve always just said “串” when referring to those.

  20. Pingback: 2am Eats – Chuar! « Phat in Shanghai

  21. Hilarious! I didn’t even know it was spelled chuanr in pinyin. Here I was searching for some info on the stuff, as I just got back from Beijing. Thanks!

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