Fake Chinese Shakespeare quote

« previous post | next post »

[This is a guest post by Silas S. Brown]

“One night, we can build a nouveau riche, three generations to cultivate an aristocrat.” – Shakesepare

Needless to say Shakespeare didn’t say such a thing – if he did, the compilers of the Oxford Dictionary of English would not have labelled the word “aristocrat” as being first used in the 18th century (which is later than Shakespeare), not to mention other anachronisms.  If the forger had instead cited a 19th-century poet, that might have made it slightly more difficult to detect at fifty paces, but it must have been hard to resist the lure of citing the one that everyone has heard of even if they’ve just started to learn English.

An Internet search will show you that quite a few learners of English in China have bandied about this fake quote.  In fact, it seems to be limited ONLY to learners of English in China.  There must be a whole raft of fake English quotes that exist only among the lore of foreign learners.

From the introduction to the ABC Dictionary of Proverbs (Hawaii, 2015) by John Rohsenow:

Anyone living and interacting within Chinese society … becomes aware of the all-pervading nature of proverbs and proverbial sayings in Chinese life, both in daily speech, as well as in Chinese writings and other media.

It therefore seems understandable that Chinese students of English might be tempted to falsely attribute their thoughts to famous foreign authors, in the same way that some Westerners have written fake Chinese proverbs.

(In this case, I think what they meant to say is “It takes one night to build a nouveau riche, but three generations to cultivate an aristocrat.”  But the students who pass it on probably don’t stop to consider if the English is grammatical – after all, if it’s Shakespeare then he should know what he’s doing!)

Unfortunately it’s not clear from a cursory search just how this quote entered urban legend; the only obvious data is it has been doing the rounds since at least 2011.  In 2014 an essay on a site called Liúxué lùnwén 留学论文 (Papers for those who are studying overseas) (evidently meant to be lifted by students studying abroad who don’t want to do their own homework) included the quote, and what excited me briefly was they had an academic reference for it, which I thought might provide some clues as to how this quote entered the lore.  But when I looked up the paper in question I found no mention of the quote at all, so that essay’s citation was either mistaken or forged.  (It’s also one sure way of getting your use of a lifted essay detected: if I as an assessor received that in an essay from a student, I might well have become all curious as to how people ended up thinking Shakespeare said this, and would have done some searches or at the very least checked that reference, which is very easy if you have an institutional login to the journal so that you can check online without even waiting till your next library visit.)

One thing we can say though is, this makes it obvious that many Chinese people like proverbs, and some learners of English are so desperate to use good English proverbs in their writing that they’ll invent a quote (clearly they had no access to an English dictionary of quotations).  I do however think it’s a pity that people who come across these fake quotes store them for later personal use without question – I would never use a quote I heard unless I’d at least tried to verify it, but perhaps I’m a dying breed.

“Evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived, for only the faithful few strain to doubt their References” – 2 Timothy 3:13



17 Comments

  1. John Shutt said,

    March 3, 2016 @ 6:53 pm

    I doubt your references for the trailing prepositional phrase of that passage attributed to 2 Timothy.

  2. Morten Jonsson said,

    March 3, 2016 @ 7:01 pm

    I don’t think the quote is invented; I think it’s a distorted version of a real English-language proverb. The word “aristocrat” is dubious and rather French; “gentleman” would be more likely. And in fact, James Fenimore Cooper, in The Pioneers (1823), wrote, “It takes three generations to make a gentleman.” Cooper refers to it as an old proverb, which quite likely it is. As the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs points out, “Although apparently not expressed in this form before quot. 1823, the three‐generation concept was current in the Renaissance period: e.g. 1598 j. kepers tr. A. Romei’s Courtier’s Academy 187 He may bee called absolutely noble, who shall have lost the memory of his ignobilitie…during the reuolution of three generations; 1625 f. markham Five Decades of Honour ii. Three perfit descents, do euer so conclude a perfit Gentleman of Blood.” So not so far from Shakespeare after all.

    Cooper’s version is tolerably close to the second half of the Chinese faux-Shakespearean proverb, and it’s been repeated since 1823 by numerous other writers. Perhaps one of them is responsible for the first half, or perhaps that part really was invented in China; it’s a fairly obvious corollary, in any case.

  3. Harry Campbell said,

    March 3, 2016 @ 7:46 pm

    I’m not sure that “It takes one night to build a nouveau riche” is exactly “grammatical” either…

  4. E said,

    March 3, 2016 @ 8:41 pm

    German has a fake Kant quote. That seems slightly weirder because Kant was German. “Ich kann, weil ich will, was ich muss.” (It’s too short to be Kant!)

  5. r said,

    March 3, 2016 @ 9:36 pm

    The fake quote definitely has a Chinese flavor to it – it’s almost trying to be a four-character expression.

  6. Joshua said,

    March 3, 2016 @ 10:29 pm

    “Many of the quotes that you find on the Internet are misattributed or just plain fake.”
    –Abraham Lincoln, 1862

  7. bfwebster said,

    March 3, 2016 @ 11:16 pm

    From time to time, I run across Sun Tzu being cited as saying “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” and “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” :-)

  8. Jason said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 1:54 am

    @Joshua

    “Shut it, Lincoln. Nobody likes you, anyway!” -Plato, 340 B.C.
    “Boys, boys, let’s not fight!” -Lao Tzu, ?

    @bfwebster

    Everyone knows that Kahless the Unforgettable said that!

    ;-)

  9. Lugubert said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 2:29 am

    Could be inspired by/revenge for all the fake Confucius quotes in the West.

  10. Phillip Minden said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 6:35 am

    Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs:

    “Although apparently not expressed in this form before quot. 1823, the three‐generation concept was current in the Renaissance period: e.g. 1598 j. kepers tr. A. Romei’s Courtier’s Academy 187 He may bee called absolutely noble, who shall have lost the memory of his ignobilitie…during the reuolution of three generations; 1625 f. markham Five Decades of Honour ii. Three perfit descents, do euer so conclude a perfit Gentleman of Blood.”

    Shakespeare’s time, at least, but that might be luck.

  11. Adam F said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 7:04 am

    “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”

  12. David Morris said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 7:38 am

    A number of languages also have a maxim to the effect that the third generation squanders the wealth gained by the first and consolidated by the second. Typical is ‘From shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations’.

  13. Morten Jonsson said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 8:31 am

    Except for being attributed to Shakespeare, this is not a fake quote. It’s a garbled version of what used to be a very common saying in English: “It takes three generations to make a gentleman.” James Fenimore Cooper, in 1823, was the first to express it in that form, at least in writing, but it goes back to Elizabethan times, as pointed out by a number of people here, including me. So it wasn’t invented in China–but that still leaves a number of interesting questions.

    One is how it came to be attributed to Shakespeare. That’s not very surprising; Shakespeare is a notorious quote magnet, like Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Kurt Vonnegut, and George Carlin. Another is how a saying that used to be ubiquitous (as a look at Google Books will show) how pretty much disappeared from our culture, to the point where the learned commentators on this site don’t recognize it. The reason, I would guess, is that concept of “gentleman” seems quaint now, and sayings about what makes a gentleman have become irrelevant. Another is how the saying survived in China after being forgotten in the English-speaking world. Professor Brown writes that the Chinese students who repeat the saying have no access to an English dictionary of quotations. I’m sure that’s true, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s such a dictionary behind this somehow. Another is how the “nouveau riche” part of the saying came to be attached to the “gentleman” part. Did that happen in China? And another is how “gentleman” became “aristocrat.” Does that reflect a popular Chinese understanding of the English class structure?

  14. zythophile said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 12:00 pm

    David Morris: “From clogs to clogs in three generations” is the version I have heard.

  15. Chris C. said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 4:46 pm

    The expression “nouveau riche” strikes me as at least as un-Shakespearean as “aristocrat”.

  16. Nathan said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 2:01 pm

    John Shutt, “for only the faithful few strain to doubt their References” is certainly not a prepositional phrase. In that part of the sentence, for is a conjunction.

  17. John Shutt said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 5:13 pm

    Nathan: Forsooth. (Obviously I feel silly to make such a glaringly obvious mistake… but then again, objectively, how obvious can it really be if it’s taken this long for anyone to notice and point it out?)

RSS feed for comments on this post