‘Ninja’ really is invisible ninja

Posted on Wed 12 Jun 2013 @ 4.37pm UTC

Above: Jushichinin no Ninja (‘Seventeen Ninja’), 1963, directed by Yasuto Hasegawa (長谷川康人) (via Vintage Ninja)

This is probably the world’s only online explanation on the correct Chinese translation for the Japanese word ninja.

The Japanese Kanji characters 忍者 ninja literally read “endure-person” — one who endures. The idiomatic Japanese sense (since at least the 16th century) has been that of a person who has extraordinary martial skills deployable for extraordinary fighting or spying missions.

In modern military lingo, that Japanese sense would be personnel for SUDP/LI-HI/FFO recon assault missions with HEBC/LCD — small unit, deep penetration / low intensity, high impact / false-flag operation / high enemy body count / low collateral damage.

Check? “Roger that five-by-five, Lima Echo Two-Six OUT.”


The correct Chinese translation of ninja is 鈍術俠 dùn shù xiá (Mandarin).

The Cantonese transliterations are variously:—

  • IPA: dœn söt həp
  • Yale: deuhn seuht haahp / deun6 seut6 haap6
  • Sydney-Lau: dun6 sut6 haap6
  • Jyutping: deon6 seot6 haap6
  • Myer-Wempe: tun sut haap
  • Chisima: dön söt6 hāp6
  • Guangdong Pinyin: dên6 sêd6 hab6
  • LEOS freeform respelling: durn surt hup (use British non-rhotic ‘r’)

If you have to go by Cantonese, go with our freeform respelling of “durn surt hup” for the purposes of this article — it comes pretty close to the actual Cantonese pronunciation for native English speakers pronouncing according to British English letter sounds. Otherwise, stick with Mandarin.

You would know dùn shù xiá 鈍術俠 to be true IF—

  • you’ve ever watched enough black-and-white Japanese ‘period’ action movies from the late 1940s, ’50 and ’60s that were nearly all dubbed into Cantonese but with subtitles in Mandarin and Bahasa Indonesia (which make for some seriously interesting watching)
  • AND/OR had grandparents who read you prewar Japanese books that were translated into prewar-style Standard Written Chinese

In those movies and books, ninja 忍者 without exception was put into both Mandarin AND Cantonese as dùn shù xiá 鈍術俠 — never mind the fact that the Japanese and Chinese could read and understand both sets of characters.

End result? There are a lot of books, movies and websites that have clearly bungled the translation. Somebody somewhere had been too lazy or just plain too literal-minded to bother looking up the correct translation. Just because you could read the Japanese Kanji characters ninja 忍者 doesn’t make it a proper Chinese term.

(via Wikipedia)

Catafalque party members
at the state funeral of The Rt. Hon. John Curtin,
the 14th Prime Minister of Australia, on 6 July 1945

(via Wikipedia)


That’s because the CHINESE term 忍者 (rěn-zhě, Cantonese yunn tseh) means a person who is formally assigned to provide ceremonial sufferance in a formal ceremony (say, a state funeral or a remembrance).

We would readily recognise this Chinese sense in the form of those soldiers in a catafalque party, standing motionless at the four corners of the catafalque (靈柩台 / 灵柩台) in deep remembrance of fallen comrades. Those catafalque party members would be considered the rěn-zhě 忍者 (‘patients of sufferance’) in the Chinese sense but of course not in the Japanese sense. Just remember this come Remembrance Day (Veterans’ Day) on 11th November.

In other words, Japanese ninja and Chinese rěn-zhě share the same characters (忍者) but have completely different meanings.

That’s why Japanese ninja 忍者 used to be always translated into the Chinese dùn shù xiá 鈍術俠 in order to retain the original Japanese sense of someone with extraordinary martial skills. People in the olden days cared a helluva lot about their words.

Admittedly, the Chinese dùn shù xiá 鈍術俠 is old-fashion sounding. To be perfectly honest, though, notice that we’re talking about a group of people (the ninjas) from olden times recounted in olden books using a default translation given by Chinese-speaking Japanese translators for the use of Chinese readers or listeners reading or listening in Chinese.

Sitrep? “FUBAR. Request CASEVAC — stat. Out.”

ninja chick

Ninja, mofo — can you ‘endure’ this?

(via Geekologie)


This post originally formed part of our article The Economist: ‘Why so little Chinese in English?’ (Fri 06 June 2013) and now rendered into a standalone post for readers’ convenience. This version contains a few very minor amendments from the original to improve clarity.


© Learn English or Starve, 2013. (B13192)

Posted in: Colour Section