The journalist Arthur Wynne is usually credited with having invented the modern crossword puzzle. His word-cross puzzle in the New York World newspaper in December 1913 was responsible for kicking off a new craze celebrated not only in conundrum-adoring households across the USA, but also in some popular songs of the era, such as vaudeville performer Frank Crumit’s Cross-word Mamma, You Puzzle Me (But Papa’s Gonna Figure You Out) from 1925. (Coincidentally, this was also the year in which the first cryptic crossword was introduced over in perfidious Albion, compiled by a cunning trickster named Edward Powys Mathers and published in The Saturday Westminster Gazette.) A copy of Wynne’s original puzzle is widely available online. Have a go at it yourself here.
Of course, the fundamental principle of crossword puzzles is that you can lock words together into a grid using some of the words’ shared letters, and as I’m sure you’re all aware, Mandarin Chinese is written with characters representing syllables rather than letters. So it may have occurred to you to wonder whether crossword puzzles in the language exist.
Well, I won’t keep you in suspense: the answer is yes.
how does that work, then?
Most crossword puzzles in Chinese focus on testing your knowledge of famous quotes, names, lines from poems and in particular, the well-known four-character sayings called 成語 (chéngyǔ). There are hundreds if not thousands of these sayings in common use and the four-character styling makes for a nicely satisfying interlocking grid when they are used in the puzzles. So we might have, for example, the idiom 十 年 樹 木, 百 年 樹 人, which is an example of two of these being stuck together and means “it takes ten years to grow a tree but a hundred years to nurture people”. This is a well-known idiom extolling the importance and value of education. Let’s just extract the second half of this – the kicker, if you like – and see how we might make it fit if we were a Chinese crossword compiler.
Well, all we really need to do, of course, is find another saying that has one of these characters in it, and we’re up and running. Fortunately, the character 百 (băi), meaning one hundred, is a great place to start. Let’s celebrate success with the phrase 百发百中: “one hundred shots, one hundred hits”. There’s nothing poetic about this one – it does what it says on the tin and means to do something with 100% accuracy. And so we can see the basis of the familiar grid pattern taking shape already.
give me a clue
This style of puzzle may or may not have numbered clues. Often you are given some of the characters and are expected to fill in the rest, as here:
Where there are clues, sometimes they will be numbered with both Chinese and Arabic numerals, so that the clues across may be numbered 1,2,3 and so on, and the clues down 一 , 二, 三 etc., which is really rather a neat way of avoiding ambiguity. Symmetry, a basic rule of design of the English-language crossword, is not always apparent in Chinese crosswords, which care more about a pleasing overall aesthetic than about symmetry per se.
In case you’re curious, the Mandarin Chinese term for crossword puzzles is 填字游戏 (tiánzì yóuxì lit. “crossword game”).
how long have they been around?
According to gaming site 91danji.com, crossword puzzles began appearing in Chinese newspapers at least as far back as the 1960s, before enjoying a big increase in popularity from the 1980s onwards. The first online crossword-generating software for the Mandarin language was published in 2002 and since then the puzzles have proliferated. They remain very popular today.
If your Mandarin’s up to it, here’s a site for you to try.