The latest issue of MaxPlanckForschung, the flagship journal of the Max Planck Institute, has China as its focus. To honor the theme of the issue, the editors asked one of the journalists who worked for the magazine to find an elegant Chinese poem to grace the cover. This was the result:
No sooner had the journal fallen into the hands of Chinese readers than it set off a frenzy of indignation, uproarious laughter, and animated discussion.
This is a rough translation of what the text says:
With high salaries, we have cordially invited for an extended series of matinées
KK and Jiamei as directors, who will personally lead jade-like girls in the spring of youth,
Beauties from the north who have a distinguished air of elegance and allure,
Young housewives having figures that will turn you on;
Their enchanting and coquettish performance will begin within the next few days.
It is not my intention to provide a complete explication de texte. In truth, such shabby doggerel is not worth the effort! It is notable, however, that at the beginning of the second line (from the right — some Chinese readers unaccustomed to the traditional right-to-left top-to-bottom orientation initially read the "poem" from left to right) the author has forced four graphs into the space that should normally be occupied only by one. We know this to be the case because all of the other lines in the text have eight characters (an unusual number for a piece of Chinese verse, if that is what this text aspires to be!). Furthermore, judging from reactions on the Chinese Internet, readers are uncertain and confused about the meaning of these four graphs and how to read them. Some of them interpret the quadripartite graph as "KK 加美," while others understand them as "加K美K," with most netizens seeming to adhere to the latter orientation. JIA1加 usually means "add" and MEI3美 usually means "beautiful," but one creative theory is that 加K stands for JIA1NA2DA4K 加拿大K ("Canadian K") and MEI3 美K stands for MEI3GUO2K 美國K ("American K").
Regardless of how we interpret the quadripartite character, we can tell from context that it indicates the two individuals who are in charge of the girls in the show. Clearly this is an advertisement for some kind of burlesque business. I did find quite a few references on the Web to a "KK Juggy" from a group called "Machine Gun Fellatio," and apparently the KK in her name stands for "Knickers" and "Knockers." Perhaps KK in the sense of "Knickers and Knockers" is an Australian expression, since KK Juggy (Christa Hughes) is from Sydney. I doubt seriously that the KK in the Chinese text on the cover of MaxPlanckForschung has anything to do with the online expression "KK" = "[O]K, kewl," for which see here.
The expression that I have rendered as "turn you on" is actually more graphic: RE3HUO3惹火 ("stir up [sexual] heat").
That's about all the time or stomach I have for commenting on this immortal Chinese text. What I still need to do, however, is point out that — when the powers that be at MPI found out what the characters on the front of their journal actually said — they immediately issued the following heartfelt apology:
The cover of the most recent German-language edition of MaxPlanckForschung (3/2008) depicts a Chinese text which had been chosen by our editorial office in order to symbolically illustrate the magazine's focus on "China". Unfortunately, it has now transpired that this text contains inappropriate content of a suggestive nature.
Prior to publication, the editorial office had consulted a German sinologist for a translation of the relevant text. The sinologist concluded that the text in question depicted classical Chinese characters in a non-controversial context. To our sincere regret, however, it has now emerged that the text contains deeper levels of meaning, which are not immediately accessible to a non-native speaker.
By publishing this text we did in no way intend to cause any offence or embarrassment to our Chinese readers. The editors of MaxPlanckResearch sincerely regret this unfortunate error and would like to offer an unreserved apology to all of their Chinese readers for any upset or distress they may have caused.
The cover title has already been substituted in the online edition, and the English version of MaxPlanckForschung (MaxPlanckResearch, 4/2008) will be published with a different title.
We would ask you to forward this information to all Chinese scientists at your Institute. Please find attached the new version of the title. Perhaps you can distribute this print-out within your institute.
Here is the replacement cover:
This is a safe and suitable design to have on the cover of MaxPlanckForschung, since it is the title of a book by the Swiss Jesuit, Johannes Schreck (Chinese name Deng Yuhan 鄧玉函, 1576–1630), Qiqi tushuo 奇器圖說 (Illustrated Explanations of Strange Devices), with information about the publication of the particular edition in question. For those who are interested, additional bibliographical information may be found here.
The moral of this story is that, if one is not deeply versed in Classical Chinese, one would be well advised to refrain from commenting on anything written in it, especially if the text in question is likely to be distributed all over the world by a renowned institute of scientific research.
With thanks to Ying Zhou, Gianni Wan, Wicky Tse, and Zhang Liqing.