I have noticed “funnyglish” across the Chinese rail network since Day 1 — a slightly wordy Caution, Risk of Pinching Hand made me look at the sticker a little funny. By 2012, I had amassed quite a collection of rail Chinglish: Artificial Ticket Office (for “ticket counters”), Caution, Scald Burns (for “Warning! Hot”), and the worst amongst the worst — Stop Mouth (for “entrance to platforms”).
I thought it was hilarious to snap away and to post them online, giving everyone quite a guffaw. However, that was where the fun stopped, since there was no way to correct them, even though I could guess what they probably meant. The signs were to be dreaded by many a lost expat, since none could really make head or tail of just exactly what they were on about, and could potentially cause travellers to miss their connections!
Hence, in early 2013, I decided to take things into my own hands and launch Everyday Rail English on Sina Weibo. (Just a few years earlier, I had started trialling translations.) The idea was to post at least one Weibo post telling people what the correct English was for most situations when dealing with passengers travelling by rail.
It begot itself a life of its own. Within two months, I had gone outside of Beijing to deliver my first lesson in proper rail English to others, and around this time, even Chinese national railways had started to take an interest. The official national railways newspaper site, peoplerail.com.cn, invited me to take up a position at their site to disseminate the good stuff even further, so I became a Rail English columnist. This was followed by appointments by stations in Xuzhou and Ji’nan in eastern China as their official Rail English consultant, which is why you should be seeing signs that don’t suck — or contain indecipherable Chinglish on them!
My Rail English lessons usually last 90-100 minutes (condensed versions are 50-60 minutes long) and is done pretty much in one go, but remains highly interactive. Rail crew are briefed on a bit about the English language and its use, how not to use English the wrong way, plus an overview of the terms station management staff have informed me they are having particular issues with. For around 40-50 minutes, crew are made clear the basic essentials about the English language, how expats think, plus the fundamentals of proper Rail English. Since late 2017, all lessons have also included an interactive element, especially when speaking to rail crew. It’s not a magic potion, but it’s hoped it can help these people — certainly until the next such lesson!
Everything I do with Everyday Rail English is based upon an entirely new bilingual database that I have built. This was after going to thousands of mass transit and national railway stations in over a dozen countries. This was basically something I started from scratch. All railway stations in China would in future be taught from this new unified database only. This also solves a key issue where the wordings used in different signs varied depending on who ran the station.
In 2018, the Everyday Rail English books I authored and published at the China Railway Publishing House in essence took things to a new level, as there was finally an officially published, tangible norm of proper English translations for the entire network. There are plans to launch a similar series of books for the city metro / light rail / tram network, as they seem to make logical, green connections.
WHERE I’VE TAUGHT…
You should be bumping into people and signs in better English across these stations and on these trains in China — because I taught them (or at least I gave the entire station a thorough language check)! The rail authorities were also provided with a detailed list of what signs were wrong where, and how they should be improved.
This list is presented in alphabetical order.
* = As part of a “multi-station lesson”. ** = Inspections only.
- Beijing Railway Station**
- Beijing North Railway Station**
- Beijing South Railway Station
- Beijing West Railway Station**
- Cangzhou West Railway Station*
- Changsha Railway Station**
- Dezhou East Railway Station*
- Gaomi Railway Station*
- Huishan Railway Station*
- Ji’nan Railway Station
- Ji’nan East Railway Station**
- Ji’nan West Railway Station*
- Kunshan South Railway Station*
- Nanjing South Railway Station
- Nanning Railway Station
- Nanning East Railway Station
- Qingdao Railway Station*
- Qingdao North Railway Station*
- Qingzhou City Railway Station*
- Qufu East Railway Station*
- Shijiazhuang Railway Station**
- Suzhou Railway Station*
- Suzhou North Railway Station*
- Suzhou Industrial Park Railway Station*
- Taian (Shandong) Railway Station*
- Taiyuan Railway Station**
- Tengzhou East Railway Station*
- Tianjin Railway Station**
- Tianjin West Railway Station*
- Weifang Railway Station
- Wuxi Railway Station*
- Wuxi East Railway Station*
- Wuxi New District Railway Station*
- Xi’an North Railway Station*
- Xuzhou Railway Station*
- Xuzhou East Railway Station*
- Zaozhuang Railway Station*
- Zhuozi East Railway Station
I am happy to report there has been a visible improvement that is gradually taking shape across the Chinese railway network as a result of these involvements. It started when Wuxi East station introduced bilingual signage that had no grammatical errors, and since then, stations across the nation have seen key improvements due to them using the new recommended standards.
Here’s what they say…
“It’s obvious that Dr Feng understands China’s railway system fully.”
Railway officials at Nanning Railway Station, as cited by Xinhua Guangxi (2014)
This morning, staff from the Beijing Speaks Foreign Languages office reported that English-language translations on public signs do not as of yet have a unified standard. […] Staff also were appreciative of Mr Feng and what he was doing. “He has contributed to society and large and has also been of service to everyone.”
Citing staff from the Beijing city government’s arm for English-language translations on public signs in a report by Legal Evening News, Beijing (2013)
[David Feng] translated recent railway policies on ticket replacement into English, to solve issues international passengers might have. […] There are people in society like David Feng who are making efforts by helping travellers from overseas. China’s official railway authorities should also consider if in more and more of China’s stations, there should be more guidance in English, so to make their journey smoother. Yesterday, Beijing South Railway Station, a major HSR hub, reposted David’s translations.
Report from the website of the influential Beijing Youth Daily (2011)