Burlesque Matinée at the Max Planck Gesellschaft

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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:

Dear Colleagues,

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.


  1. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 7:00 pm

    I'm amazed that they would pretend a sinologist looked at this and did not realize just how absurd the text was. Why didn't they ask him for a poem (after all, just about any actual one would have done the job given what they used!) to begin with anyway??

  2. Nathan Myers said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 7:07 pm

    You don't say whether there is also an apparently innocuous, classical (if perhaps poetically obscure) imputation possible for the text that the "German sinologist" that might have been misled by. The "KK" would seem to make that difficult.

  3. Rubrick said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 7:26 pm

    "Deeper levels of meaning" indeed.

  4. Karen said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 8:24 pm

    Somebody's sinologist had either a bad day or a HIGH-larious one. I wonder if he has to refund his fee.

  5. LwPhD said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 3:40 am

    I just ran this past my Taiwanese colleagues, and their brief take on it seems to indicate:

    1) it contains traditional characters;
    2) it is of mainland origin (the phrase "northern beauties" is unlikely to be used in Taiwan, but is quite common in China);
    3) it seems like it is from a poster or other such source, as there are some stereotypical indicators very common in such public announcements;
    4) the two sponsors are 加美 and KK and not any of the other permutations.

    Putting all of this together with my friends' translation, it seems that the translation provided above is more or less correct and that no alternative translation is remotely possible. If the writing isn't intentionally archaic (ie traditional characters used in modern China), it likely dates to sometime in which western characters are common enough to be used (eg KK) but in which traditional characters are still in use. So, could be modern day Hong Kong or perhaps Shanghai in the 20s and 30s (or up until the character reform was complete) for example.

    One note about the text. It is obviously not poetry, and it isn't very "high brow", but it does utilize some 成語 as I gather. So, I think doggerel really doesn't describe it very well, as it doesn't really aspire to being even low brow poetry. Though it does score a few cheap points in "sophistication" for tossing in 成語.

  6. luigi said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 9:27 am

    Surely the "German sinologist" was either fictitious or has quite a sense of hmour.

  7. language hat said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 10:18 am

    This is astonishing. The fact that the Max Planck Institute treats Chinese as decoration rather than a language speaks volumes. "Well, we had some guy take a look at it and he said it looked pretty traditional…" Give me a break. Would they have published an "English issue" with a cover reading "GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS! Hot housewives for fun and frolic!!"? Was it really impossible for them to find someone who could actually read Chinese?

  8. SagaPh.D. said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 10:26 am

    Is this a poem? Please do not insult my IQ!

    This is a poster for a strip bar or nightclub! It is insulting, disgraceful, and shameful to be on any magazine’s cover, with a lot of sex related messages.

    Let me try to translate everything word by word. I am a native speaker of Chinese and I have a Ph.D. from a U.S. university. But the task is difficult. Let me try.

    重金(high salary)礼聘(sincerely hired/employed)长驻(stay for a long time)日场(daytime show)
    With high salary, we have sincerely employed [a lots of stripers/girls] to stay in our daytime show.

    加美KK(Jiamei KK, one person or Jia K and Mei K two person)主任(director)亲率(personally lead)青春(young)玉(jade)女(girls). In my opinion, it is Jiamei KK since it sounds right.

    Jiamei as the director, she will personally lead young girls who are as pretty as jade.

    仪态(bearing; deportment)万千(tens of thousands)北方(northern)佳(beautiful)丽(girls)
    [We have] beauties from the north who appear in all their glory with thousands of deportments.

    身材(body and figure)惹火(stir up fire)住家(stay home)少妇(young housewives)
    [We have] young housewives who have hot body that will stir up your [sexual] fire.

    风骚(sexy and horny)迷人(bewilder)即日(in few days)登场(on the stage)
    They are sexy, horny and enchanting. The performance will begin in few days!

  9. SagaPh.D. said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 10:39 am

    Terrible, terrible. I feel terrible. In five seconds, I can write down the most famous poems by LI Bai (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Li_Bai), DU fu (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Du_Fu). China is called a Nation of Poetry, with a whole collection of poems just like a galaxy and millions of poets.

    With trillions of elegant poems to choose, the editor picked up a poster for a strip bar and called it CLASSIC !!!!!

  10. Arthur Waldron said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 6:12 pm

    Note that the Belgian cartoonist Herge long ago managed to get most of the Chinese right in his drawings, even though I don't think he knew the language. He knew it was not a "decoration" as so rightly put above. Of course I wonder what would happen if we Americans had, suddenly, to write menus, hotel notices, guide leaflets, etc. for Chinese tourists–lots of the same things we laugh at them for would happen. But for the Max Planck institute not to do due diligence and really figure out what they were reproducing is simply astonishing. Especially when one considers how many beautiful pieces of calligraphy are to be found in European museums and libraries.

  11. H. -C. said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 9:12 pm

    As a native Mandarin speaker (from Taiwan), I do not think that there are "deeper-levels" of meaning at all in this text. It is apparently a text on a poster or pamphlet of a strip bar. And, of course, it is a very low-class strip bar because the handwriting is very ugly.

    This article reminds me of some foreigners tattooed with some Chinese characters on their arms, but those combinations of Chinese characters often result in a hilarious effect because they are ungrammatical or have some pejorative meanings. On the other hand, ungrammatical and unorthographic English or other European languages can be often seen on the T-shirts sold by night-market peddlers.

  12. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 9:59 pm

    This article reminds me of some foreigners tattooed with some Chinese characters on their arms, but those combinations of Chinese characters often result in a hilarious effect because they are ungrammatical or have some pejorative meanings.

    There's a website devoted to such misrenderings (listed in the Language Log blogroll but not yet mentioned here): Hanzi Smatter.

  13. tian said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 11:56 pm

    Ben, thanks for the plug of Hanzismatter.com

  14. mollymooly said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 1:47 am

    My theory is that whoever cast an eye over the "poem" either had lied on his résumé about being able to read Chinese, or else is a deep-cover agent sent to stir up hatred between MPI and China.

  15. Freddy Hill said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 4:13 am

    @Arthur Waldron:

    Hergé had a true Chinese friend to guide him.

  16. Sabine said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 5:46 am

    I think it's hilarious and a great comeback for the (also hilarious) engrish.com sites that we love to laugh about. Time to learn some Chinese, I guess. I'm just wondering if it can really have been accidental or if it wasn't some elaborate prank.

  17. KYL said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 5:57 am

    Well, one theory has not been discussed so far.

    It's possible that the sinologist they consulted was likely a true sinologist who dislikes modern China for a variety of reasons. This text was chosen to embarrass the Chinese and is probably meant to evoke the various bad English signs the Chinese have posted.

    Under this theory, it's a very clever anti-Chinese gesture — with the benefit that any Chinese who got mad would be described as "not having a sense of humor."

  18. Frank said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 8:16 am

    KYL is kidding, right? Explain to me again why someone would devote his entire life to studying a language and culture that he (I assume it's a "he") despises. And the notion that printing this text is embarrassing to *Chinese* and not to the institute that published it? The reason this theory has not been discussed is simple: it is paranoid to the point of looniness.

    The problem with this alleged "Sinologist" is that he was no such thing, apparently being unable to read Chinese.

  19. Aidan Kehoe said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 10:03 am

    Frank, Chinese culture and language is a much broader subject than the culture and language of the People’s Republic, it is very possible to be fascinated by the former while despising the latter.

  20. Charlie (Colorado) said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 10:31 am

    Did anyone get the address of the club?

  21. Katie said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 6:42 pm

    Well for a strip club ad it is written rather nicely.
    I'd go to somewhere with an advirtisement like that!

  22. Nicole32123 said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 7:17 pm

    I am in Germany and am often at the local Max Planck Institute. FWIW all Chinese speaking MPI employees received a letter of apology. I spoke to a woman who received the letter and she said the administration officials were highly embarrassed and apologized profusely. She said she and most of her Chinese colleagues (that is everyone she knows except one older woman who was slightly offended) thought the situation was hilarious and they were keeping copies as souvenirs

  23. John Derbyshire said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 7:22 pm

    If you'd like to see and hear a real Chinese poem, I offer the following:


    If they'd asked me, I would have lent it to them.

  24. latinist said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 7:40 pm

    I don't know any chinese, but what I would think worst is not the original, humiliating error, but the correction. SagaPh.D. mentions all kinds of worthwhile Chinese texts that could have been used (and obviously, there must be innumerable such texts), but the correction reveals that the editors had no interest whatsoever in using writing that conveyed any actual meaning. Their only criterion was "no inappropriate content of a suggestive nature." When they failed even at that, they replaced it with the publication information of a book; a basically relevant book, sure, but still a rather boring choice.

  25. Tung said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 7:54 pm

    In case you guys want to know, this "classical poem" comes either from hong kong or macau. i am 99% sure! :D

  26. Frank said,

    December 7, 2008 @ 12:22 am

    Aidan, you're right – I overlooked the modifier "modern" in KYL's post. But I still think the theory that it was intended, or could ever operate, as an anti-Chinese gesture is loony.

  27. kevin said,

    December 7, 2008 @ 12:38 am

    I'm sure Pauli is laughing hysterically or rolling in his grave over
    the political correctness here. He was a womanizer and a drunk.
    Science needn't be so stuffy. That pranks are promulgated that
    are transparent to all but the keen observer is a mark of
    childish brilliance. How else does one keep their sanity when
    delving into such deep scientific mysterys? Once in a while you
    need to step away from the chalkboard and particle acceleraterator
    to run a pair of panties up the flagpole for a laugh. Good for them!

  28. language hat said,

    December 7, 2008 @ 10:11 am

    Frank: What Aidan said, but your general theory is wrong as well.

    Explain to me again why someone would devote his entire life to studying a language and culture that he (I assume it's a "he") despises.

    I can't explain it to you, but it is not uncommon. Cf. Richard Pipes, who as a Pole hates Russia and Russians, yet specializes in Russia and has spent his career writing hatchet jobs about Russian history. People are strange.

  29. wgj said,

    December 7, 2008 @ 6:38 pm

    FYI, since it's been talked about a few times in the comments: The "sinologist" in this case is in fact female, as is evident by the German version of the letter of apology ("Sinologin" = "female sinologist" as opposed to "Sinologe" "male sinologist").

  30. alexis said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 12:39 am

    I am from Hong KOng, and this is a VERY typical classified ad in Hong Kong Newspapers for Karaoke Nightclubs. Just pick up more "liberal" newspapers such as Oriental Daily, you will see hundreds of them.
    – We spend a lot of money to have them be in house during daytime
    – Ga Mei and KK – Mama sans present you with young and beautiful girls
    – Stylish and good mannered beauties from the North (northern china, known for beauties)
    – Sexy and hot young housewives
    – Flirty and enchanting, available today

  31. Merri said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 10:05 am

    Response to Arthur Waldron :

    Herge has most of its Chinese right because he consulted the true Chang Chong Ren (Tchang Tchong Jen), a fine arts student with whom he sympathized and whose name he gave to the poor Chinese boy in 'Le Lotus Bleu'. CR also inspired remarks about Western preconceptions.
    However, Herge fell from grace when he showed, in 'Tintin au Tibet', that he believed Chang to be the first name.

  32. Roy Koczela said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 11:36 am

    There's still something I'm not getting. OK, so they ran it by the "Sinologist" – but who submitted it for publication in the first place? What did he tell them it said? Whoever it was is clearly laughing his butt off right now.

  33. RC said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 12:13 pm

    I can't help but laughing. Unbelievable that MPI could put such thing on the cover of its journal. Judged by its contents (suitable for Girls Go Wild), the ‘poem' was modern, written by some on body after the 80's. MPI could have used the calligraphy by Huaisu (怀素) to show the Chinese characters, or poems by Li Bai (李白), Du fu (杜甫). It is a way to go if MPI wants to destroy its good reputation.

  34. mark (the ideophone) said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 3:24 pm

    Let me just make clear for the linguists in the LL audience that this is the science journal of the wider MPG (Max Planck Gesellschaft/Max Planck Society), and not of one of the many individual MPI's (Max Planck Institutes). We had a good laugh about it last week at the MPI for Psycholinguistics. The editor's reply to a concerned letter by one of my colleagues was roughly along the lines of the general message above.

    Anyway, last I checked there were still some copies lying next to our pigeonholes, so if anyone is interested in this collector's item…

  35. memomachine said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 3:57 pm


    Could be worse. They could have put the Chinese equivalent of "Insert Kung Pao Chicken here".

  36. john riemann soong said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 5:28 pm

    "KYL is kidding, right? Explain to me again why someone would devote his entire life to studying a language and culture that he (I assume it's a "he") despises."

    I, as an ethnic Chinese, detest the PRC with a passion. Culturally I identify with Singaporean Chinese culture (and your regular American culture, of course).

    Nevertheless, I find Chinese history and especially Chinese historical linguistics fascinating.

  37. Irene said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 5:39 pm

    This reminds me of an episode on the TV sitcom, Frazer. Frazer, a gentile, wanted to deliver his remarks in Hebrew at his son's Bar Mitzvah ceremony. A slighted friend translated Frazer's heartfelt remarks and taught them to Frazer who recited them beautifully in front of the crowd in Klingon!

  38. jared cantrell said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 7:43 pm

    this was intentional, a short study of humanity and history will lead us to this conclusion. in order for someone to not catch this, the sinologist must have emphatically approved to avoid another opinion. the only question that remains is why.

    as a tattooist, i would always recommend two separate clarifications from native speakers before putting a translation permanently on a body, and this, though severe, isn't near as severe as this cover.

  39. Michael Lonie said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 10:44 pm

    Richard Pipes' books are hatchet jobs on Russia? Well I guess you could say that, if you were a Russian nationalist of Putin's ilk.

  40. apc said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 7:48 am

    What did Tom Lehrer sing?

    "'In German oder English I know how to count down/Und I'm learning Chinese,' says Wernher von Braun!"

  41. KYL said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 12:19 pm

    Frank, you can call my theory "loony" all you want, but it seems plenty of commenters agree with me that it's plausible.

    It's easy to dislike the PRC — the trouble is that often a dislike for the government shades into a dislike for the culture and the people, who have little or nothing to do with the politics. Ridiculing official oppression is one thing, but ridiculing the way the young Chinese try to study English is another.

    In those instances, an anti-PRC gesture has the tendency to escalate into an anti-Chinese gesture, and the ethnic Chinese everywhere, outside and inside China, should be offended. But the beauty of this "joke" is that they can't, lest they be called either humorless or loony.

  42. ahkow said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 1:25 pm

    KYL's theory doesn't make sense to me:

    The printing of the cover is actually more embarrassing for the MPF ("what were the editors thinking?!") and the sinologist – now everyone's going to think that she goofed up. As an ethnic Chinese, I found it hilarious, and not at all embarrassing. Even if the sinologist's real intentions were to embarrass the PRC, I think people are more likely to see that as a lame excuse for ignorance/incompetence.

  43. Ken Brown said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 3:56 pm

    Maybe its because I'm English, but too me this looks (a) very funny and (b) at the expense of the MPG. It isn't some mysterious bitter and twisted "sinologist" being nasty to China. It is more like some piss-artist having a laugh at the MPG.

    It is the editors and publishers who are the losers, because it makes them look foolish and silly. What kind of a scholarly Institute doesn't care enough about the words on its own journal to know what they mean?

    The "correction" is even worse because it shows they can't laugh at themselves. Maybe that's not a virtue in Germany or the USA but over here it would be.

    But no-one is insulting China. Quite the opposite. They are insulting stupid Europeans for not knowing or caring enough about China to even read the language. This makes Chinese people look good, and Germans look stupid.

  44. chris said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 9:48 pm

    The "deliberate insult to China" theory is only plausible if you believe that the "sinologist" was in fact an expert in Chinese language and culture. Personally, I think the person was not an expert at all. Either "sinologist" is a flat-out lie, or – much more likely – it was an undergraduate student of Chinese, who simply hadn't progressed very far at all yet in their studies. In German students are frequently referred to by the same term used for respected academics in the same discipline: someone enrolled in German literature, for example, will be called a "Germanist", and everyone studying IT will be an "Informatiker". So the "sinologist" could have been a Chinese Studies freshman, without the use of the term being a lie. At least from the German perspective. Still a deliberate distortion of the truth, but technically not a lie.

  45. chris said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 9:54 pm

    Perhaps I should also point out – someone should – that the "group" Machine Gun Fellatio was a pop band, now defunct. They did use burlesque elements in their performances. "KK" meaning "knickers and knockers" is not an Australian expression. In fact, both of those words are hardly ever used in Australia and have a distinctly British ring to my ears.

  46. KYL said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 10:42 am

    Thank you, everyone, for the very informative comments. (I should note that I did not mean to say that the Chinese "should" be insulted — that was my error. The Chinese can do whatever they like, of course. What I meant was that I believe the intent of the original joke was that the Chinese who saw it would be offended — that was the point of the joke)

    Let me explain a bit about why this prank by the sinologist works well as an insult to modern China and the Chinese. It is a well-known phenomenon that the English signs put up by the Chinese in China are full of errors (and I would imagine that the German signs in China are just as bad — I have no proof, so this is just a working assumption. For the remainder of this comment, assume that Germans are as offended as the English-speakers by the bad Chinese signs).

    The posts by Victor Mair are almost entirely devoted to this topic. Westerners who have seen these signs are variously amused, offended, or contemptuous of the Chinese, but all are baffled by why the Chinese do this, and most theories I've heard attribute this to some combination of (1) Chinese arrogance; (2) Chinese stupidity; (3) Chinese laziness; (4) Issues inherent with the Chinese language (e.g., the grammar of Chinese, a "toy language," is weird or that the Chinese don't understand grammar); (5) the Chinese live in a state of perpetual semi-logic (i.e., they are not even capable of getting their own language right, much less that of others).

    Many of these theories seem to me to be simply variations of old prejudice and sinophobia dressed up in new clothes. Some of the theories do seem plausible. But we need to do more work to understand what the truth is, and unfortunately, though we have many photographs, we rarely have any accounts from the owners of these signs of just how the bad translations came to be.

    Now, not everyone agrees on what should be done about this. A certain group have advocated laughing at these signs as much as possible and to subject the Chinese to ridicule in order to get them to change. So a clever way to ridicule the Chinese would be to butcher Chinese the way English-speakers feel the Chinese have butchered English.

    Thus, the "joke" was a way to give the Chinese a taste of their own medicine. Just as the Chinese are assumed to be not embarrassed by their own bad signs, why should the MPI feel embarrassed about a Chinese error? And yes, if some English speakers are so offended by the bad English signs in China that they want to subject the Chinese to open ridicule to get them to stop, then such a person would think that at least some Chinese would be offended by the deliberate use of bad Chinese.

    The logic of the joke makes sense if you work with the assumption that the Chinese are lazy, stupid, arrogant, etc., and that this is a good way to ridicule them and insult them to get back at them for what they've done to English — and they can't do anything about it, because it's all just a joke, right? So laugh.

  47. AG said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 1:54 pm

    @KYL. Your theory is far fetched. Never assume bad intentions when you can explain something equally or better with stupidity.

  48. Ben said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 2:13 pm

    as a native Chinese, i felt more hilarious than offended. the point is not whether Chinese will be offended or not but how come mac planck made that stupid mistake.
    if this kind of "poem" appears on a pop magazine, i wouldn't even pay attention to it. but it's max planck,…oh, man, what did the consulted "sinologist" do?
    BTW: do you guys have a copy of this journal? I want to purchase it.

  49. Tom Jones said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 2:20 pm

    A bunch of scientists and they couldn't find anyone from China? Didn't they look up from their desks? pìhuà !!

  50. KYL said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 5:18 pm

    @AG: the danger of jokes like this is that they may be too subtle. If the Chinese claim not to be insulted and most Westerners are not laughing with the prankster, did the joke fail? Maybe. I think we'll have to ask the original prankster to see how she feels.

    You also seem to think that I'm implying some "bad intention" to the prankster. Why? Exposing the Chinese to public ridicule for "Chinglish" has been advocated by many people, including numerous posters here. Why is such an intent "bad"?

    I'm simply pointing out that the joke is very clever. Never attribute to incompetence what may be a very clever trick.

  51. Markus said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 11:26 pm

    But there is also an interesting psychological aspect to this: Sometimes you can't see the obvious, because you didn't expect it at all!

    The sinologist may not be very good, but I understand that if you don't expect a fake text you won't recognize it. And the picture came from such a respected source. He surely didn't even ask himself: Is this possibly a pornographic text?

    If you are an art historian, and you're given a painting and asked: "We found this painting labeled 'Baroque painting' in the Royal Archives. Do you think we can use this?" If it looks pretty much like a Baroque Painting you'd say: Sure! But you didn't see that there is a naked woman depicted in the lower right corner behind a tree because that's not what you were looking for.

    Okay, maybe not a perfect comparison, but I hope it illustrates my point a bit.

  52. Max Plonk said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 11:58 pm

    KYL says, 'Never attribute to incompetence what may be a very clever trick'. This looks like an ancient proverb. And a most admirable one, because in content it is reversible. I bow to KYL.

  53. Bob said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 3:14 am

    KYL – Wow. So when Asians misuse English in an embarassingly incorrect way, they are ignorant and lazy.

    But when Europeans misuse Chinese in an embarssingly incorrect way, it is most likely they are intentionally creating a subtle, clever, and (as Max Plonk would claim) "admirable" trick to insult China.

    Your theory shows far more about your bias than anything else.

    It was a simple mistake. If you don't believe that, then you need to start theorizing that all the bad "Chinglish" out there has been a decade long conspiracy to insult the western world all these years.

  54. Prissie said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 7:49 am

    I work at MPI, and I can assure you that it is a very ignorant mistake at MPI/MPG's part. And if you only knew how embarrassed we all are with this stupidity. And I am still speechless with the fact that MPG did not even ask their 700 Chinese scholars and researchers about the text at the first place. There is no hidden agenda, just a big humiliation for our institute thanks to the "German sinologist".

  55. KYL said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 11:23 am

    @Bob, many people have been theorizing that the bad "Chinglish" is the result of a combination of Chinese arrogance and rising nationalism, plus a good dose of laziness and ignorance. So that is pretty close to a "conspiracy" to insult the Western world, if you want to think of it that way.

  56. KYL said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 11:27 am

    @Prissie, thanks for adding to the discussion. I will take your word for it.

    @Max Plonk, we are fellow travelers, it seems.

  57. MadaboutDana said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 1:21 pm

    I think it's important to return to chris's point – that the unfortunate sinologist may have been a (junior) student, not a revered academic at all. On the other hand, I think KYL's theory is very entertaining, and could even be correct – I have Russian friends who would certainly regard something like this as a very amusing joke! But the generously frank Prissie has admitted to an error – further conjecture, while fun, seems fairly pointless to me. There's a very basic issue here: language has a profound impact on communication, and making light of it is always ill-advised. Something I wish more designers, layout artists and creative directors would bear in mind!

  58. Philip said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 6:34 pm

    Well, if you look at some modern poetry, this could definitely qualify as well. Probably not as a traditional one though!
    Maybe the sinologist just checked for things like spelling and 'general coherence' and not so much the actual 'poem'. Imagine you are responsible for layouting and someone hands in cartoons about Mohamed and asks you to check if they fit in the newspaper. Is it your job to judge the actual content?
    Anyway, much ado about nothing IMO! Better things like this than censorship!

  59. KYL said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 10:07 am

    @Philip, I take it that you view "Chinglish" also as much ado about nothing? In that case, I fully agree with you.

    @MadAboutDana, you are absolutely right. Though I'm not clear what you meant as to the Russians. Did you mean that you have Russian friends who would find a joke insulting the Russians funny? Or did you mean something else?

  60. NelC said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 10:32 am

    This raises an interesting question: if you don't speak the language yourself, and don't normally require that particular language translated, how do you judge the competency of your translator?

  61. NelC said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 10:45 am

    Working in various graphic design studios as I do, I'm leaning more towards the cock-up theory. Graphic artists tend away from being very rigorous with text, regarding words as mere decoration for the most part, even those in their own language. Left to their own devices they will even mispell the names of their clients.

    I can quite easily see the "research" for this cover being a quick visit to the library to photocopy a page out of a chinese newspaper picked at random, or purely for the balance of black print against white space. The "sinologist" might be no more than a waitress at the local chinese restaurant (or thai or vietnamese…) who didn't take the enquiry seriously.

  62. KYL said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 2:15 pm

    A follow-up:

    Evidently the cover has induced some soul-searching in China. Here's one example:


    The author laments the weakness of China and its lack of cultural influence, as evidenced by this joke from the West, and admonishes the Chinese from feeling good about themselves. "Our culture is still very weak," he says, "and our culture needs creativity, unity, and likability."

    The Chinese seem suitably humiliated. Score one for the West! Looks like the original prankster who picked the text succeeded in accomplishing his or her goal — if you believe this was a deliberate trick, that is.

  63. vanya said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 2:37 pm

    I'm a little confused by the seeming inability of native Chinese speakers to come up with a decent translation of the text. Compare Alexis translation to SagaPhDs and to Mair's. Are the girls available today (Alexis) or in a few days (Mair and Saga)? Alexis' translation is also the only one I've seen that is not stilted and that actually reads like a strip club ad. This is leading me to wonder if this text isn't actually written in Cantonese, not Mandarin.

  64. Max Plonk said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 3:30 pm

    NelC: One can judge the competence of a translator by formal qualifications – such as a degree in study of the language or a professional qualification in translation from or to that language.

  65. KYL said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 3:46 pm

    vanya, actually, "即日" can be translated as either "today" or "(starting now,) in the next few days." It literally means "this day," but idiomatically both translations offered above are correct.

    I'm not sure what your knowledge of Chinese is, but differences between Cantonese and Mandarin do not usually show up in texts like this. Some advertisements, to be sure, are written in colloquial Cantonese, and would be difficult for a Mandarin speaker to read without knowing the Cantonese-specific words. But that is not the case here.

    This particular text is written in "advertising Chinese," and can be read by both Mandarin speakers and Cantonese speakers. If you push it, I suppose we can say that it's in "written Mandarin," and that almost every educated Cantonese speaker can and do write/read it, with Cantonese readings.

  66. autonomous Chinese peasant said,

    December 13, 2008 @ 10:09 am

    I was always under the impression that 'Chinglish' signs are really a result of over-literal translations of the kind that you'd get when you have almost no working knowledge of English, but decided that a word-for-word translation of Chinese to English via the consultation of a dictionary was a good idea anyway.

    The problem is that Chinese is such an allusive language that literal translations will almost surely not translate to identically meaningful allusions in English. One problem is that words in combination have an allusive meaning that have a totally different meaning than that of the same words taken individually. Take something as simple as zui ji (liquor-soaked chicken) literally translated as drunken (zui) chicken (ji). The meaning of the original does not translate well to English if one's guiding philosophy is literalism, which is about the only type of translation one can muster if you're using a Chinese-to-English dictionary and little else. Even online translators run into the problem if its database of chen yu, allusions, or word-combinations are inadequate to the task. Pop 醉鸡 into the translator and you'll see what I mean.

    I don't know if it's the same for the Japanese, but I suspect that the odd phraseology of some Japanese to English translations ('all your base are belong to us!') have more to do with the structural quirks of the translated language than any malice on the part of the translator. Pretty much everyone good-naturedly accepts Japanglish (?) as a lost in translation type thing by now. Why not the same acceptance of Chinese mistranslations? Latent Sinophobia? Whatever the reason, mockery of the sort theorized is uncalled for.

  67. autonomous Chinese peasant said,

    December 13, 2008 @ 10:17 am

    That should read, "mockery of the sort theorized by KYL…"

    And paragraph two, sentence two should read, "words in combination have an allusive meaning different than that of the same words taken individually."

  68. Gordon said,

    December 13, 2008 @ 12:03 pm

    Seriously, this is not classical Chinese. This is just normal Chinese in traditional text. It is not a poem. It is explicit as hell, and there is no deeper meaning to it at all. This sinologist does not Chinese at all.

    Since it is in traditional Chinese, and that "northern beauties" is an expression very commonly used in Hong Kong, this strip club advretisement it is likely to be from Hong Kong.

    And the only way to interpret the two hostesses' name is "KK 加美", because all the other lines of texts run vertically. why should these be different? "KK" is a common nickname in Hong Kong anyway.

  69. Max said,

    December 14, 2008 @ 7:16 am

    err, I wasn't finished yet…

    I have no idea of Chinese, I studied Arabic. Now I am an Arabist. I speak, read and write Arabic. However, if I was asked to "certify" an Arabic text advertising certain services, how would I know? As you obviously can't openly advertise certain services in a conservative Muslim society (where such services will be illegal to boot) you need to use colorful, poetic language to make the ad look innocuous but still reach your customers.

    Unless I had been interested in the classified section of my Arabic newspaper and asked native speakers what these allusions meant I would have no chance picking up on the double entendre in the text I would have been asked to vet … especially if I had no context and no indication that there might be something fishy about it.

  70. Pippa said,

    December 14, 2008 @ 8:23 am

    I'm fascinated that an apparently prestigious institute seems to be ignorant of the cardinal rule of all translation (or, by extension, use of foreign text) – only use a native speaker. Fancy asking a 'German sinologist' to vet Chinese!! It's a condition of membership of professional translation societies the world over, that you never work into another language but your own, no matter how fluent you may judge yourself to be.

  71. Francophile said,

    December 14, 2008 @ 8:29 am

    It would be interesting to learn where the text originated. If MPI asked "can someone suggest a lovely Chinese poem for our cover?" and received this, there is an interesting HR issue. In addition, wouldn't whoever accepted the submission, just out of curiosity, "What does it mean" or at least "What's it about?" I know I would.

  72. nat said,

    December 15, 2008 @ 5:57 pm

    A Chinese spinster even post this URL as a joke (off-topic) in a public forum.

  73. Aaron Davies said,

    December 16, 2008 @ 9:02 am

    @autonomous Chinese peasant, re: "Japanglish": the word is "engrish"

  74. Bruno said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 9:40 pm

    This may land me into trouble, but I must confess I fail to be properly offended by this… after all, I work at a university in the US, a country that has a huge Spanish-speaking population. Its universities are full of highly educated Spanish speaking people… and still the English-Spanish signs are usually AWFUL, full of misspellings and in lots of cases just plain ungrammatical nonsense. So, yeah, what's the deal.

  75. George McAllister said,

    December 20, 2008 @ 10:19 pm

    I confess that I'm astonished by the furor this has created in the comments here. But that won't stop me from stirring the pot. Because the internet is serious business.

    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. Now my experience is certainly not a representative sample, but I doubt anyone will disagree with me: In my experience, among humans "incompetence" is roughly seven thousand times more common than "very clever". By simple probability, then, incompetence is the much more likely explanation. And incidentally, I think Occam's razor suggests the same conclusion.

    Oh, and the reason I laugh at Chinglish signs is the same reason I laugh at the tattoos on Hanzi Smatter and at the ever stranger mistranslations of my high school Spanish students: People butchering languages they don't understand is funny. I don't have some deep seated dislike of Chinese, Americans, or high schoolers (well, maybe high schoolers…); it's just funny. If you can't laugh at other people, who can you laugh at? Lighten up.

  76. Patrick said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 11:40 am

    I wonder where them MPI got the text in the first place. I must be easier to find a classical Chinese poem that a trashy text of a brothel.

    The bad thing about this is that people get to believe that Chinese is an extremely difficult language to learn, with a lot of double meanings and 'hidden layers', which is nonsens of course.

    On another website I saw the explanation that Chinese is a tonal language and a subtle difference in tones can change the meaning completely. Therefore MPI mentioned the 'deeper layers'. Nice try, but written Chinese doesn't show the tones.

    [(myl) The nonsense about the role of lexical tone in this matter was due to Clifford Coonan's article in the Independent, discussed here. And Victor Mair tells me that he now knows the true history of this puzzling sequence of events, and will Reveal All after the New Year. ]

  77. Joe said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

    Max Plank Institute's focus on China still has a long way to go. On their first try to find a classic chinese poem, they got a burlesque ad. On their second try, they published a poem by a Swiss Jesuit priest! Are they really so parochial that they can't find a classic chinese poem written by a famous CHINESE poet? I'm not sure which is more embarassing, their first mishap or the second one. The first one can be explained by carelessness. Once the eyes of the world were focused on them, they were doing their best to reach out to China, but they could get no further than Switzerland?

  78. Richard Stibbard said,

    November 21, 2009 @ 7:23 pm

    How hilarious! This reminds me of the Welsh road sign reported on at:


  79. Leif said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 12:22 pm

    My Chinese wife just translated it for me into plain English. It's even funnier than the strict translation given here. Definitely a burlesque show with added after-show benefits. By the way, this would not offend most Chinese. In these water's, the Chinese culture is much more… umm… deep than the shallowness found in the West. Although a lot of that cultural flexibility and variety was lost during the Cultural Revolution days. However, the shows live on, if you know where to look. Living in China a decade gives me a bit of a clue here, but such a slip up has only caused a little loosing of face for the editors of MPF based on ignorance of Classical Chinese. However, the calligraphist's style in the ad is pretty nice. So content blunder – yes. Artistic style of characters – no.

  80. Becky said,

    August 17, 2014 @ 2:30 am

    I vouch for Alexis as this is commonly found in Hong Kong: sandwich boards or billboards outside of night clubs where girls are available as drinking partners and more. These characters would be from a snapshot of the actual advertisement. Alexis' translation is pretty bang on but would like to know how Leif's wife translated it, since it sounded more colourful than hers.

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