Clifford Coonan's byline is on The Independent's story about the Max Planck Institute strip-club ad ("Chinese 'classical poem' was brothel ad", 12/9/2008), covered earlier by Victor Mair here at Language Log (Burlesque Matinée at the Max Planck Gesellschaft, 12/4/2008). And Coonan, who seems to be The Independent's regular China correspondent, must be quite well informed about Chinese culture, politics and language. But given his broad experience in China, and his status as an experienced writer for a major newpaper, I found some things in his article surprising.
Let's start with this one:
Chinese is a tonal language, which means words sounding the same can often have very different meanings depending on how they are spoken.
I guess this is true, if you add an appropriate qualification: "Chinese is a tonal language, which means words sounding the same (to people who don't pay attention to tone) can often have very different meanings depending on how they are spoken".
Of course, for a randomly-selected pair of languages X and Y, there's a reasonably high probability that "words (in X) sounding the same (to speakers of Y) often have very different meanings depending on how they are spoken". For example, the English vowel distinction that differentiates "bit" from "beat" is hard or impossible for native speakers of many other languages to learn to hear.
But what's really puzzling about this sentence is not its misleading way of describing lexical tone, but rather the implication that Chinese tone is somehow relevant to MPI's unfortunate choice of cover art. Remember that the editors of the Max Planck Forshung apparently couldn't read Chinese, and their expert advisor, asked to find a typical bit of Chinese text to put on the cover, apparently subverted their intent by choosing a strip club ad. However, the fact that Chinese is a tone language is completely irrelevant to all this — exactly the same thing could have happened with material in Japanese, or Korean, or Hindi, or Arabic. For that matter, it could have happened with Hungarian or Swahili or another language written with the Latin alphabet — all that's required is some written material that the editors can't read.
Right after the remark about Chinese tone, Coonan's story continues with some examples of foreigners not being able to read Chinese characters, as if this were somehow connected to the fact that Chinese is tonal:
There are tales of drunken teenagers walking out of tattoo parlours with characters reading, "This is one ugly foreigner" or "A fool and his money are easily parted".
These "tales" were apparently found on anti-cnn.com, which Coonan describes as "a foreigner-baiting website set up after a commentator on the US broadcaster made anti-Chinese comments following the crackdown in Tibet in March". However, he doesn't cite any specific examples, and I strongly suspect that the tales are jokes or urban legends. Reading Hanzi Smatter certainly convinces me that tattoo artists are very unreliable guides to Hanzi characters and Hanzi texts. But all the examples that I've seen are cases where both the tattooers and the tattooees are clueless, not cases where the tattooers actually know Chinese and use that knowledge to mock customers who lack it. (Please give us links to specific counter-examples, if I'm wrong.)
At least the relationship between these mythical drunken teenage tattoo victims and their mythical victimizers would be analogous to the relationship between MPI's editors and their expert. But given the fact that the teenagers probably don't exist, juxtaposed with the confused and confusing statement about Chinese tone, a better analogy might be the relationship between the Independent's readers and Clifford Coonan.
Coonan's other example of a bamboozled foreigner at least has the virtue of being based on a partly-true story:
Another web-user wrote: "I recently met a German girl with a Chinese tattoo on her neck which in Chinese means 'prostitute'. I laughed so loud, I could hardly breathe."
I wonder whether the "web-user" in question actually met such a girl. A "prostitute" tattoo is documented here and here, but the tattooer and tattooee in this case seem to be American, not German. Since the tattoo in question was prominently featured on the Hanzi Smatter front page for some time before the MPI story broke, I strongly suspect that Coonan's source "improved" the story, in the usual sort of way of urban legends, by turning it into a personal experience ("I recently met …") and inventing relevant circumstantial detail ("… a German girl …").
And as the commenters at Hanzi Smatter explain, this was almost surely an attempt to translate into Chinese a genre of inverted-prestige tattoo that is also common in English:
I've seen plenty of tattoos on BMEzine.com saying things like "Slut for life" in English.
In Japanese and Korean (and apparently in its original Chinese usage as well), it has a sense of a "woman of the arts" (i.e. geisha, etc.), and, according to Kojien, it's even possible to use it in kabuki, which is normally 歌舞伎, but can also be 歌舞妓.
This suggests an alternative explanation — though I think that the "Slut for life" model is more plausible, since the person posting the picture at checkoutmyink.com described it as "My girl's 'Bitch' tattoo. So fitting", with this additional picture as evidence — but in neither case is there any indication that the tattooee was culpably ignorant of the meaning of the tattoo, or was being fooled in this respect by the tattooer.
[Hat tip: Linda Seebach]