Chinese telegraph code

The Chinese Telegraph Code, Chinese Telegraphic Code, or Chinese Commercial Code (simplified Chinese: 中文电码; traditional Chinese: 中文電碼; pinyin: Zhōngwén diànmǎ or simplified Chinese: 中文电报码; traditional Chinese: 中文電報碼; pinyin: Zhōngwén diànbàomǎ)[1] is a four-digit decimal code (character encoding) for electrically telegraphing messages written with Chinese characters.

Encoding and decoding

A codebook is provided for encoding and decoding the Chinese telegraph code. It shows one-to-one correspondence between Chinese characters and four-digit numbers from 0000 to 9999. Chinese characters are arranged and numbered in dictionary order according to their radicals and strokes. Each page of the book shows 100 pairs of a Chinese character and a number in a 10×10 table. The most significant two digits of a code matches the page number, the next digit matches the row number, and the least significant digit matches the column number, with 1 being the column on the far right. For example, the code 0022 for the character (zhōng), meaning “center,” is given in page 00, row 2, column 2 of the codebook, and the code 2429 for the character (wén), meaning “script,” is given in page 24, row 2, column 9. The PRC’s Standard Telegraph Codebook (Ministry of Post and Telecommunications 2002) provides codes for approximately 7,000 Chinese characters.

Senders convert their messages written with Chinese characters to a sequence of digits according to the codebook. For instance, the phrase 中文信息 (Zhōngwén xìnxī), meaning “information in Chinese,” is rendered into the code as 0022 2429 0207 1873. It is transmitted using the Morse code. Receivers decode the Morse code to get a sequence of digits, chop it into an array of quadruplets, and then decode them one by one referring to the book.

The codebook also defines codes for Zhuyin alphabet, Latin alphabet, Cyrillic alphabet, and various symbols including special symbols for months, days in a month, and hours.

Senders may translate their messages into numbers by themselves, or pay a small charge to have them translated by a telegrapher.[2] Chinese expert telegraphers used to remember several thousands of codes of the most frequent use.

The Standard Telegraph Codebook gives alternative three-letter code (AAA, AAB, …) for Chinese characters. It compresses telegram messages and cuts international fees by 25% as compared to the four-digit code.[3]


Looking up a character given a number is straightforward: page, row, column. However, looking up a number given a character is more difficult, as it requires analyzing the character. The four corner method was developed in the 1920s to allow people to more easily look up characters by the shape, and remains in use today as a Chinese input method for computers.


Viguier’s Chinese telegraph codes from 0001 to 0200 (Viguier 1872). These codes are now obsolete.

The first telegraph code for Chinese was brought into use soon after the Great Northern Telegraph Company (大北電報公司 / 大北电报公司 Dàběi Diànbào Gōngsī) introduced telegraphy to China in 1871. Septime Auguste Viguier, a Frenchman and customs officer in Shanghai, published a codebook (Viguier 1872), succeeding Danish astronomer Hans Carl Frederik Christian Schjellerup’s earlier work.

In consideration of the former code’s insufficiency and disorder of characters, Zheng Guanying (鄭觀應 / 郑观应 Zhèng Guānyīng) compiled a new codebook in 1881. It remained in effect until the Ministry of Transportation and Communications printed a new book in 1929. In 1933, a supplement was added to the book.

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the codebook forked into two different versions, due to revisions made in the Mainland China and Taiwan independently from each other. The Mainland version, the Standard Telegraph Codebook, adopted the simplified Chinese characters in 1981.


The Chinese telegraph code can be used for a Chinese input method for computers. Ordinary computer users today hardly master it because it needs a lot of rote memorization. However, the related four corner method, which allows one to look up characters by shape, is used.

The Hong Kong residents’ identification cards have the Chinese telegraph code for the holder’s Chinese name (Immigration Department of Hong Kong 2006). Business forms provided by the government and corporations in Hong Kong often require filling out telegraph codes for Chinese names. The codes help inputting Chinese characters to a computer.

Chinese telegraph code is used extensively in law enforcement investigations worldwide that involve ethnic Chinese subjects where variant phonetic spellings of Chinese names can create confusion. Dialectical differences (Mr. Wu in Mandarin becomes Mr. Ng in Cantonese) and differing romanization systems (Mr. Xiao in the Hanyu pinyin system, and Mr. Hsiao in the Wade Giles system) can create serious problems for investigators, but can be remedied by application of Chinese telegraph code. For instance, investigators following a subject in Taiwan named Hsiao Ai-Kuo might not know this is the same person known in mainland China as Xiao Aiguo and Hong Kong as Siu Oi-Kwok until codes are checked for the actual Chinese characters to determine all match as CTC: 5618/1947/0948 for 萧爱国 (simplified) / 蕭愛國 (traditional).[4]

Chinese telegraph code is also used on occasion in U.S. and Australian Immigration documents. For example, the DS-230 form for K1/K2 visa applicants requires the telegraph code of the applicant's name (as of 8 March 2009).

See also


  1. Simply diànmǎ or diànbàomǎ may refer to the “Chinese telegraph code” whereas diànmǎ is a general term for “code,” as seen in Móěrsī diànmǎ (simplified Chinese: 摩尔斯电码; traditional Chinese: 摩爾斯電碼) for the “Morse code” and Bóduō diànmǎ (simplified Chinese: 博多电码; traditional Chinese: 博多電碼) for the “Baudot code.”
  2. The Tianjin Communications Corporation (2004) in the PRC charges RMB 0.01 per character for their encoding service, compared to their domestic telegraph rate of RMB 0.13 per character.
  3. Domestic telegrams are charged by the number of Chinese characters, not digits or Latin characters, hence this compression technique is only used for international telegrams.
  4. For more information, refer to: A Law Enforcement Sourcebook of Asian Crime and Cultures: Tactics and Mindsets, Author Douglas D. Daye, Chapter 20

References and bibliography

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