Friday, December 5, 2008

Mark & Rachel pointed me to Victor Mair's recent post about the latest cover of Max Planck Institute's flagship publication, MaxPlanckForschung.

To honor the theme of the issue [China], 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.

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:

(more at Language Log)

Update: The Independent UK - The original cover was a flyer from one of Macau's brothels.


  1. How odd that the people at the Max Planck Institute couldn't be bothered (at first) to check the meaning of what they wanted to print -- their claim of "deeper meaning" that wasn't readily apparent doesn't hold up at all. What do they think the "surface" meaning was?

    More of the "hanzi as decoration" mentality, I guess. At least their second attempt actually ties in to their subject matter...

  2. I find their apology unconvincing: I doubt any sinologist even glanced at it. The letter K (top of second column) is surely an immediate giveaway that it's not classical Chinese!

  3. This is an unforutnate turn of events, I have to say. Not to mention that it raises the question of the Scientific Method so cherished by the folks over at Max Planck.

    Scientific progress depends on careful research beforehand, a series of checks along the way, (getting the opinion of more than one "expert" in the field), and finally, own up to your own mistakes when they're pointed out to you. The explanation they give is really a rather shoddy one. If this turn of events is any indication of how the institute functions...

  4. I think the whole thing is hilarious.

    I can't help but keep thinking that this was all a big prank pulled by those wild and crazy eggheads at the Max Planck Institute.

    Their apology to the effect that the female sinologist they had initially consulted did not grasp the racy nature of the text makes no sense at all. This was either a prank or their apology was a bald-faced lie.

    The apology also does not explain how they came up with this incongruous bit of sexy strip club ad doggerel done in very nicely done calligraphy. Someone who reads Chinese and knew what they were doing must have prepared the calligraphy.

    Maybe the joke is on us...


  5. Alan,

    Actually that is very poorly done calligraphy. Any Native Chinese person or anyone with any knowledge of Chinese writing would see that...

  6. Superficially, it resembles Classic Chinese (apart from KK)...but any Sinologist would be able to grasp the meaning of something like 青春玉女. It would be really interesting to know if there is any MPI director whose name has the initials "KK" ...

  7. 柯思蕊,

    Thank you for taking the time to give your opinion on the quality of the calligraphy. May I ask you to elaborate further? What specifically about it makes you feel that it is poorly done?

    Certainly, it is a bit mundane and "by the book" and has little "flair," but all of the characters and their strokes appear to be well-formed. All of the characters appear to be written with the correct stroke order.

    This is vastly better than the typical quality of the tattoo calligraphy we often see here on Hanzi Smatter. ;-)

    There is some problem with the photo image that makes the white characters appear gray and mottled, and so this makes the calligraphy look bad in the reduced-size image, but the quality appears much better when enlarged (click on the image to enlarge it).

    I can see only three obvious problems with the calligraphy itself. The top of the character 風 at the upper left appears to be cut off, but this might have been a technical problem when the image was cropped.

    The top part of the character 麗 seems to be written in an abbreviated fashion so that its left and right parts appear joined together partly like the modern simplified form 丽. I do not know if this is an error or a style of writing or a personal quirk of the calligrapher.

    The last issue is that the traditional forms are used for most of the characters except that the simplified form 礼 is used instead of the traditional 禮. So this is inconsistent but I think not necessarily "wrong" depending on when and where the calligraphy was done.

    At any rate, I think the calligraphy is not bad at all.



  8. Hi Alan,

    I think 柯思蕊 meant poor calligraphy, rather than writing. The writing is fine, no missing or improper strokes. But in terms of how well it is written, I'd say it's very average, like a guy just learned how to write with ball pen, but never seriously practiced calligraphy with Chinese brush. I didn't work on Chinese brush much, but I think I can write better than this.

    If they wanted to have some Chinese texts to 'grace' the cover, they should've found something by a calligrapher.

  9. 柯思蕊 and Luba,

    I think I know what you mean now. If you are talking about calligraphy as art and not just writing, I completely agree with you. The artistic value of this text is zero.

    The composition is just terrible. The writer tried to squeeze 10 characters in the second line into the space for 8, so both 加美 and 玉女 are squeezed to occupy the space for only a single character.

    However, in reply to Luba, I think the writer (not calligrapher) is in fact well-versed in writing Chinese with the brush. I am assuming that this means that the writer is either a native Chinese or an accomplished student of the language. This does not mean that they had any artistic sensibility, which the writer obviously lacks.

    We do not know if the brushwork was commissioned by the owner of the strip club/brothel for use on the original flyer and then Max Planck simply copied it onto their cover as an image. The other possibility is that Max Planck had commissioned the writer to copy the text of the flyer for use on their cover. Copyright issues may have forced them to take the latter route, and if so they are completely responsibile.

    One possibility is that the writer was someone that was not a native speaker of Chinese so they did not know exactly what the passage meant. They were however still able to write Chinese characters properly with the brush, so perhaps the writer was Japanese or Korean.

    It is unfortunate that the Max Planck Institute did not take this opportunity to showcase a nice piece of Chinese poetry and brushwork, but I still suspect that they may have either perpetrated a prank or had one pulled on them.



  10. Hi All,

    Being someone steeped in traditional Chinese education for 20 some years in Taiwan, my first reaction to this cover graphic was "what horrific calligraphy!". Even I, often criticized for poor calligraphy and penmanship by my high school teachers, could immediately determine that the calligraphy, apart from the literary quality of the texts, belonged in the lowest ranks of accomplishment. Clearly the intention was to render the writing in the most common 楷書 style, whose overarching emphasis is an exacting level of alignment of the characters among themselves and with respect to the virtual upright & level axes. This, the "artist" has failed miserably.

    I also cannot believe the explicit language, with no attempt at being subtle at all, could have escaped any sinologist worthy of his salt.

  11. Someone on Language Log commented that maybe the "sinologist" hated China. However, given how embarrasing the situation is to the Max Planck Institute, I think it's far more likely that he/she hates GERMANS. XD

  12. It seems to me that the cover was intentional. As nobody has been publically repremanded. Perhaps this is what German scientists associate with Chinese science. Living in NYC, I find Europeans to be amongst the most politically correct in theory but most inconsiderate in practice.

  13. The institutional setting is formidable and the result is hilarious, but the process is familiar and is explained by this website's motto "一知半解". The "sinologist" was probably the person in the office who had been to China once and even knew some Chinese words.