In "Burlesque Matinée at the Max Planck Gesellschaft", I detailed the unfortunate appearance of a rather unseemly Chinese text on the cover of the flagship journal (3/2008) of the Max Planck Institut. As evidenced by the enormous outpouring of comments on this subject here at Language Log and across the Internet, people were perplexed, titillated, amused, and outraged that such a strange event could have occurred. All sorts of explanations were proffered, from accusations that somebody was trying to make fun of Chinese to insinuations that nefarious persons wished to make fools of the Germans. After weeks of further investigation, I can now say with confidence that the real cause for what happened was sheer ineptitude.
George McAllister (comment number 75) was right when he said, "Given that the only evidence we have is the cover itself and a generic 'we're sorry' statement, it seems to me we should turn to statistics to solve the 'incompetence v. very clever trick' debate." There was no dirty trick to make fun of Chinese or to deride Germans / Westerners — at least not on the part of the editorial staff of MPF.
Much of what actually occurred is reported by Christopher Schrader ("Jadefrauen für Max Planck") in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (Nr. 288, Dec. 11, 2008, page 16). Christina Beck from the MPF obtained the Chinese text as a picture from the "Fotoagentur Visum," which is a well established agency located in Hamburg. The picture had been found under the search entry "chinesische Schriftzeichen," but when I checked last week, it was no longer there. According to my sources, what MPF did was apparently to choose a text simply for "aesthetical reasons," a matter of pure exoticism.
Now, here is the crucial point: MPF did show the text to a female "Sinologist," and I know the name of the person who is said to have looked at it before publication, but I will not reveal who she was because nothing would be gained by further embarrassing her. I shall mention only that the word "Sinologin" in German must not mean exactly the same thing that "Sinologist" does in English, namely, an accomplished philologist who specializes in Chinese, especially from earlier periods (at least that is how I have always understood it). Rather, a Sinologin might refer to someone who only knows a year or two of Modern Mandarin. This, in fact, is the case in the present instance, where the person in question is a scientist who happens to know some Chinese.
If a trick was intentionally played on anyone, it was by the photographer who supplied Visum with a salacious text without warning them about its contents. It is clear that Visum is not in the business of checking the content of the words in the photographs that they market to their customers, but offer such images only for visual qualities. I wrote to as many people as I could at Visum to find out who sold them the photograph with the text that ended up on the front cover of MPF. So far, they have not responded to my inquiries.
Of course, none of this would have happened if MPF had done the sensible thing and sought the advice of some of the real Sinologists who work in, for example, the History of Science Institute at MPI. I know a couple of them (Dagmar Schäfer and Martina Siebert) who are very sharp and have excellent Chinese reading skills; they would never have been hoodwinked into thinking that such a sloppy advertisement was a classical poem.
Enough for trying to track down the real culprit in the MPF cover story. Before closing this post, however, I'd merely like to address one of the most puzzling language aspects of the vexed text, namely, what the function of the two "K's" is. Since the answer to that question ties in with the identity of the establishment that posted the advertisement in the first place, it is worth spending a moment in an attempt to figure out this enigma. To be brief, in solicitations for the services of "jade-girls" that are ubiquitous in Hong Kong, such as this, "K" often occurs in combination with the character YA1 壓 ("press"). So, one of the services of these ladies is a kind of "pressure," i.e., massage. It is too complicated for this post to demonstrate how these activities parallel the DERI-HERU ("delivery health") industry in Japan. Suffice it for the moment to remark that our JIA-K and MEI-K both are found in an advertisement for a Mongkok (Kowloon, Hong Kong) "nightclub" that offers K-YA1 and related services.
Tips of the hat to Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer, Hans van Ess, Helmut Hornung, Doug Wilson, Bob Bauer, Wicky Tse, Genevieve Leung, Kenneth Yeh, Andrew Curry, Wolfgang Behr, and Rodo Pfister.