Three classic stories (favorite entries in our Fieldworkers’ joke book) illustrate the dangers of misconstruing the division of polysyllables—as well as the endless humour and creativity of the Labouring Masses in adversity:
- The postfix xing 性 makes the previous term adjectival (even sometimes before an adjective); but xing also means “sex”. At our thankfully rare encounters with upright apparatchiks, they may be perplexed to find us corpsing as they make some grandiose toast to “international cultural exchange” (guojixing wenhua jiaoliu 国际性文化交流). Just the slightest hesitation between guoji and xing converts the fine phrase into
guoji xingwenhua jiaoliu “international exchanges in sexual culture”.
It’s just as good without the wenhua:
“international sexual exchanges”.
- After that gentle introduction, this one works on the same principle:
Under the commune system in the 1950s, before New Year the Party Secretary makes an announcement in front of his sullen and freezing villagers. The commune, which as we all know is deeply concerned for the welfare of its poor peasants, has decided to give them all a one-off cash payment.
Not highly literate, the Secretary peers anxiously at the directive. Faltering, he announces, “In recognition of the New Year’s holiday, the Party has generously decided to give everyone…
yicixing shenghuo buzhu 一次性生活补助
of 5 kuai.”
Yici means “once”, so yicixing— all in one breath—means “one-off”: so the directive actually means
a one-off living supplement.
But the Party Secretary, struggling with the characters, hesitates fatally before “xing”, and not enough after it—so that what the villagers actually hear him saying is
yici xingshenghuo buzhu
“just the once, a supplement for sex life”.
Excited, the villagers clamour to clarify the directive. One old codger sticks his hand up and goes,
“Secretary—supposing I do ‘er twice, do I get 10 kuai?”
Another, a poor bachelor, asks,
“Wot about if I do it on me own—do I still get me 5 kuai?”
So similarly, now whenever anyone says “one-off” in Chinese, in any context at all, we all fall about laughing. I remember when disposable chopsticks first became common in Hebei in the 1990s. They’re called yicixing kuaizi, “one-off chopsticks”—or if you’re not careful, “one-off sex chopsticks”.
And here’s a fine example spotted by David Cowhig—not only Party sex 党性 and Advanced sex 先进性 (popular college modules that come with a heavy course load), but a revealing rendition of “Serve the People” as “Behave the People”:
- This story (my book, pp.118–19) isn’t about linguistics, but it’s also about the communes, so it makes a fitting interlude:
During the Great Leap Forward (or Backward) the village cadres had no choice but to go along with pressure to report ridiculously exaggerated harvest yields. Li Manshan chuckles over a bitter joke that I adapted from the Soviet Union:
A delegation comes down from the commune to inspect the harvest. The village brigade chief blurts out nervously,
“Oh yeah, we’ve had the most amazing harvest! If we piled up all our potatoes, they’d reach all the way up to the feet of Old Buddha in Heaven!”
The chief of the commune Propaganda Bureau takes him off to one side and whispers:
“Hey, don’t you realize? This is a socialist country now, we’re all atheists here—there is no Old Buddha, there is no Heaven!”
“So?” shrugs the brigade chief. “There ain’t no potatoes…”
- A somewhat more decorous set of misconstruings (in Chinese, best found here) is among several celebrated stories about Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia. I’ll need a few more large gins before I’m prepared to share one of them (not to mention the Shakespeare story…), but this one (among the very first with which my esteemed mentors at the Music Research Institute regaled me in 1986) is just about repeatable:
Late in the Cultural Revolution, one Mr Jia was head of the Forestry Commission in Linze county of Gansu. He had to assemble his employees daily at 8am for study sessions, at which he read out the latest official news to them.
The major report that morning concerned the visit to Beijing of Prince Sihanouk, known in Chinese as Xihanuke qinwang 西哈努克亲王 (for wacky transliterations, see here). Innocuously, the report read
西哈努克亲王八日到京, 外交部长姬鹏飞到机场迎接, or
King Sihanouk arrived in Beijing on the 8th. The Foreign Affairs Minister Ji Pengfei went to the airport to meet him.
But our Mr Jia, somewhat challenged in the literacy department, was confused by the strange names and the somewhat telegraphic style of the communiqué, and again he misconstrued the punctuation. Instead of “Xihanuke qinwang, bari daojing”, he read “Xihanuke qin, wangba* ridao jing”; and, unfamiliar with the illustrious name Ji Pengfei (whose last character means “to fly”), he read “Ji Peng feidao jichang”…
So alas it came out as:
西哈努克亲，王八日到京，外交部长姬鹏，飞到机场迎接, which means
Sihanouk himself—the bastard—shagged his way to Beijing.** The Foreign Affairs Minister Ji Peng flew to the airport to meet him.
This had the assembled forestry workers, and future generations, rolling in the aisles. It may further serve as a caveat for sinologists attempting to decipher unpunctuated ancient texts.**
Such are the stories that punctuate our earnest collection of data on rural ritual life… Pace Hammer and Tickle, this is but the tip of the iceberg of jokes about the Maoist era. And while it’s not the same at all as my choice phrases from Teach yourself Japanese, if you missed that post, do read it too.
For an almost related sequel on pinyin, see here.
* The traditional term wangba, of course, features in the traditional litany of social outcasts wangba, xizi, chuigushou 王八戏子吹鼓手 bastards, opera performers, and blowers-and-drummers—which appears in The dream of the red chamber, no less. So there.
** Call me innocent, but only recently has a still more filthy reading occurred to me. Some might even hear ridaojing 日到京 (“shagged his way to Beijing”) as 日到精, “shagged away till he came”. With both jing characters being pronounced in the high 1st tone, this is a common pun in several other stories. For ri as a colloquial term for “shagging”… you can do your own online research.
*** I’m sure there are plenty of similar instances of mis-punctuation in English. The only one that occurs to me right now is the repunctuated placard of the embittered diminutive job-seeker:
NO JOB. TOO SMALL.