Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Witty Game of Playing Chinese Characters

            Chinese characters are independent units. Each one of them has its own power to express a specific meaning. When you master the meaning and usage of each character, you have the ability to arrange them in your will to tell the story.
           Chinese language does not have tense morphology. The order of the words in the sentence plays a very big role. Today I am going to tell you a story about how a smart man, who was the secretary of 于右任 (yú yòu rèn ), played the characters in a witty way.
a picture of Mr. Yu
于右任 (yú yòu rèn  ) was a very famous calligrapher, and activist in the early 1900's. Everyone wanted his calligraphy works. Our story happened during the time when he lived in the remote country side.  At that time, even the cities were in short of public sanitation facilities. Needless to say, the situation was worse in the country side. When he found that some people urinated in the corner of the courtyard, Mr. Yu decided to write a sign to stop that inappropriate behavior. So he wrote "不可随处小便"(bù kě suǐ chù xiǎo biàn ) on a paper and asked his secretary to post it in the corner of the courtyard. "不可" means 'it's not allowed, or it's not appropriate' ; “随处” means 'wherever you want, anywhere you want'; “小便” means 'urinate'.   "不可随处小便" means 'It's not appropriate or it's not allowed to urinate wherever you want'.

        After he got Mr. Yu's writing, his secretary thought it was such a beautiful calligraphy work that he felt bad to post it in the corner of the courtyard. He wanted to find a better place for those beautiful characters. But even the calligraphy was so precious, the meaning of the writing made it difficult to find a exhibition place. At last, the secretary found an interesting solution. He separated the characters by cutting up the paper. Then he rearranged the order of the characters into a new phrase with totally different meaning. What was that?  The new phrase was: "小处不可随便"(xiǎo chù bù kě suí biàn ).  "小处" means 'trivial matters' ; '不可' means 'it's not appropriate, may not' ;'随便' means ' casual, to do things as you wish' . The secretary gave the old phrase a new meaning : "One should always behave even over trivial matters" by setting the characters in a new order.

        Mr. Yu was impressed by the secretary's flexibility and intelligence. He signed and stamped his name on the paper.