What are some Chinese words that sound similar but are very different?
This is Fúzhōu (福州).
Fúzhōu is a city in southeastern China, located in the province of Fujian. Fúzhōu is the capital of Fujian.
This is Fǔzhōu (抚州).
Fǔzhōu is another city in southeastern China, in Jiangxi Province, which is next to Fujian Province.
This is Húzhōu (湖州).
Húzhōu is another city in southeastern China, in Zhejiang Province, which also borders Fujian Province.
Without the tone marks, Fúzhōu, Fǔzhōu, and Húzhōu would sound nearly identical. There are some topolects in Chinese that don’t share the same tones as Mandarin does or don’t do a good job at distinguishing between the “f” and “h” sounds (Fuzhounese…er, Fúzhōunese being one of them), which has led to some interesting cases of confusion.
In 2015, a woman brought a train ticket to see her daughter in Húzhōu, but the ticket seller heard her as saying she wanted to go to Fúzhōu, and so gave her a ticket for a train from Nanchang, Jiangxi Province to Fúzhōu (the woman could have seen the characters 福州 on her ticket, but she was illiterate). It wasn’t until the middle of the ride that she discovered that she was headed to the wrong city when she asked an attendant how far the train was from Húzhōu.
The woman freaked out, and boarded off the train…in Fǔzhōu, several stops before Fúzhōu.
At Fǔzhōu, the woman took a train back to Nanchang, and from there was able to make her way to Húzhōu.
There was another incident reported in 2018 where another woman, identified as an ethnic minority from Xinjiang who couldn’t speak Mandarin proficiently, wanted to visit her relatives in Fǔzhōu, but didn’t notice when her train pulled up at the Fǔzhōu station and ended up in the Fúzhōu station. She, too, freaked out when she realized she had landed in the wrong city, and had to spend a night at Fúzhōu before she was taken to the next train to Fǔzhōu. 福州？抚州？分不清！女子拖家带口下错站-看点快报
The policeman who discovered the woman who went to the wrong Fuzhou: “[She couldn’t tell that] Jiangxi’s Fuzhou and Fujian’s Fuzhou have similar tones, and so she stayed in the train until it stopped at [Fujian’s] Fuzhou.”
In case it isn’t clear yet, there is a high speed rail line connecting Fǔzhōu and Fúzhōu, which is why incidents like this can happen.
On July 27, 2020, a delegation from Fǔzhōu paid a visit to Fúzhōu to encourage people from Fúzhōu to visit Fǔzhōu. Shockingly, nowhere in the official media report on the visit did it mention the similarities between Fúzhōu and Fǔzhōu, but I’ll be damned if no one from either Fúzhōu or Fǔzhōu was internally screaming about having people from Fǔzhōu talk about Fǔzhōu in Fúzhōu to get people from Fúzhōu to visit Fǔzhōu, when they could have gone to a less awkward city, like Húzhōu, to promote Fǔzhōu instead.
“The 2020 Jiangxi Fǔzhōu (Fúzhōu) Culture and Tourism Promotion Fair” invites YOU to visit…Fuzhou!
No, not YOUR Fuzhou, MY Fuzhou!!!
And that, kids, is why we have Chinese characters. 🙂