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No, that trite folklore isn’t Chinese

Confucius says, “stop attributing your feel-good bulldust to me”

06·19·2015

Ignorance of other cultures can be a marvelous thing sometimes. It allows you to attribute whatever you want to that culture, and come off sounding wise.

Chinese wisdom is a popular target here. How many hokey bits of wisdom have been attributed to ancient Chinese philosophers? After all, sometimes it’s pretty easy to confuse them for pop culture pap.

Every day, somewhere in the world, someone imparts a piece of ancient Chinese wisdom that no Chinese philosopher would be caught dead with. (Not that they have a choice anymore—feel free to chalk up your irrational prejudice against people in cargo pants to ancient Daoist advice, I sure do).

Take wedding rings. A 2008 piece of feel-good folklore is doing the rounds once more, picked up by this Australian radio station. Apparently wedding rings are Chinese! And when you tent your fingers together (but bend the middle fingers inward for some reason) you can separate every finger except the ring finger! This symbolizes how even though you will separate from your parents someday, and your children will separate from you, you will never separate from your lover!

Whoa, back up there cowboy. Chinese wisdom is saying that the bond with lovers is closer than the bond with parents? Filial piety fail! You really ought to have attributed that hokey bulldust to some South American culture nobody knows about, at least the stereotypes say those cultures are all about the passion.

Ask most Chinese and they will tell you that wedding rings are a Western concept. Certainly, none of the ancient Chinese tales seem to feature them. But with China being a mysterious land, anything goes, right?

The lack of knowledge about Chinese culture means that a lot of dubious claims can be made, but it’s even more common for something with a basic grain of truth to be simplified and exaggerated until it’s no longer really accurate. There are multiple claims about how China invented soccer and golf. While there is no doubt some truth to those claims, invention tends to be an incremental process with input from a wide variety of sources–a truth which does not lend itself to bite-sized grandiose claims. What existed in those ancient times would not have resembled the sports of today, which evolved over time with input from many different cultures (see also, the claims that China invented pasta).

Then of course, there are the outright falsehoods, like the claim that the Great Wall is the only manmade object that can be seen from space. To break down that logic for a moment, consider the width of a stadium compared to the five to six meters of the Great Wall–which technically, is now many walls rather than one long line.

Language and context are also big sources of lost-in-translation wisdom, usually because of Western stereotypes about inscrutable, wise Asian men. Zhou Enlai provided a good example of this in the 1970s, with some comments that were destined to become cliché wisdom. In responding to questions about a revolt in France two centuries earlier, Zhou said it was “too soon to tell” the outcome.

Naturally, Westerners were overawed by the wisdom of the Asian man in their midst, who thought in such long-term fashion.

The only problem is that according to Nixon’s interpreter at the time, he was referring to the student riots in Paris of just three years earlier, so it is hardly unsurprising that the long-term political ramifications of such an event would be hard to decipher, especially given the fact that politicians everywhere are the masters of giving vague answers.

But it doesn’t take a leader to create a language misinterpretation. Remember the Simpsons episode where Homer is told that the Chinese word for crisis is the same as the word for opportunity?

urban dictionary

The Chinese term for crisis, 危机 (weiji), does include the character 机, which is indeed part of 机会 (jihui), which is opportunity. But eagle-eyed readers will note that 危机 is not 机会, any more than “idiot” is “to idea”. Well, perhaps that’s not fair. Chinese characters do hold chunks of meaning that transfer when paired with other characters to bring out the full meaning, and 机 alone holds connotations of opportunity. Although ‘危’ can mean ‘to endanger’ and ‘机’ can mean opportunity, it falls apart under the simple logic that Chinese people do not say 危机 to mean opportunity.

That hasn’t stopped this alleged dual meaning, which probably just emerged from a foreigner saying “hey, look at those characters’ individual meanings, neat, huh?” from being used as a staple of self-help advice circuits.

So next time you hear someone tell you a trite piece of ancient Chinese wisdom… you might want to check it out before forwarding it. The Chinese are just as capable of instagramming fake, warm, and fuzzy messages in crappy fonts on sunset backgrounds as the rest of us.

Silly advice 2

 Header image contains a quote often attributed to Confucius, but has never been sourced. Doesn’t sound like him at all, but it does accord nicely with middle class Western views, so feel free to pass it along to your grandma. Other images include a shot from the urban dictionary (always good for dubious terms), and a sunset from the wikimedia commons emblazoned with what is obviously legit historically accurate advice.

But was any of this surprising given the results of this survey on foreigners in China?

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