At Cambridge during the Cultural Revolution, immersed as I was in the Tang dynasty, my only clues to the funkiness of contemporary Chinese culture came from my teacher the fine linguist Paul Kratochvil (a surname that suitably means “fun”). Born in 1933, he had somehow became an expert on the phonetics of modern Chinese, fleeing Czechoslavakia in 1968 to take up a post at Cambridge with the help of the Oxford sinologist Piet van der Loon. He features in this impressive introduction to Prague sinologists (for whom, see here).
Recommending to me a book called Current Trends in Linguistics, Paul looked bemused when I asked him what I should look it up in the library under—like an editor’s name or something:
“Well, Steve, try ‘C’—if that doesn’t work, I guess you could try ‘K’…”
Over copious beer in the pub where he used to take me for what were euphemistically described as “supervisions”, Paul recalled this story:
While still in Czechoslovakia he had served as interpreter for the Czech army, and at one high-level conference in Prague receiving a Chinese military delegation, he found himself interpreting for a Czech general at one end of the table and a Chinese general at the other.
The talks had gone well, and the Czech general was winding up with the customary sonorous platitudes.
“I hope both sides will be able to exchange experiences!” he declared majestically.
My friend Paul was already a fine linguist, and he knew there were some binomes in Chinese which you could say in the order either A-B or B-A, but alas he thought jingyan, “experience”, was one of these. So he blithely translated, “Wo xiwang shuangfang nenggou jiaohuan yanjing”, which unfortunately comes out only as
“I hope both sides will be able to exchange spectacles.”
This puts the Chinese general in a spot; the TV cameras are trained on him, and he mustn’t make a faux pas. Can this be some weird Czech custom denoting fraternal solidarity? As luck would have it, both generals are wearing spectacles. The Chinese general hesitantly takes off his glasses and holds them out over the table towards his Czech counterpart.
This, of course, presents no less of a challenge for the Czech general; having said nothing about spectacles, he is mystified to see this Chinese geezer holding out his spectacles across the table, and he too has to think quickly. Can this be some ancient Confucian ritual denoting fraternal solidarity? He too hesitantly takes off his glasses and offers them across the table.
My chastened mentor later switched on the Prague TV news to see a report, the newsreader announcing solemnly, “And at the end of the conference the two sides exchanged spectacles in the ancient Chinese gesture of comradeship”—as the two generals grope their way to the door.