Dazed and confused? Not me. I’m just Lost in the Cheese Aisle.

Sunday, October 21, 2012


Houston Steve and his lovely missus Debby just returned from a twelve-day sojourn in China.

They had a wonderful time, as you’d expect, eating Peking duck in Beijing (or Beijing duck in Peking, I can’t recall which), seeing the terra-cotta soldiers of Xian, touring the Forbidden City, and admiring the view from atop the Great Wall.

China has changed a lot in the two decades since I last was there.  Back then, it was a slowly awakening economic giant just beginning to flex its prodigious muscles.  Now, it has a lot more of the trappings of modernity: huge new cities full of shiny buildings, maglev bullet trains, and plenty of cars on the roads.

Virtually everybody under the age of twenty-five speaks English: it’s a compulsory part of every young person’s education.  And, despite the official Communist policies of the country’s rulers, it’s pretty clear that most of the people are dyed-in-the-wool capitalists.  The Chinese have long been the business leaders of Asia, to the point where they are hated in some southeast Asian cultures: the wisest thing the government ever did was to unleash the business culture without making a big announcement about it.  The Commies got to save face, and the country had a chance to start up its mighty economic engines.

I figure that if they got rid of their dopey pictogrammatic writing and replaced it with a phonetic alphabet, and stopped eating with those stupid fucking sticks, nothing could stop them.

But despite the widespread (and growing) use of English there, occasionally, Houston Steve would run into a real head-scratcher.  F’rinstance, here’s a brass plaque with a typically inscrutable inscription:

China Placard
“Close to the distance near civilization.” Now, WTF does that mean, exactly?

“Close to the distance near civilization.”  Is this some sort of Confucian riddle?  Some wisdom from Mao’s little red book?  What could it mean?

It might be helpful to put it in context.  The plaque sits just above a urinal in a well-appointed lavatory.

Chinese Urinal
Our little brass plaque in context: It sits above a urinal.

Perhaps it is a badly translated attempt to say, “This is a nice place - stand close enough so that you don’t piss all over the floor.”  Or as our friend Gary says, “Stand closer - it ain’t as long as you think.”

Of course, if you have any other ideas, feel free to leave ’em in the Comments.


Kevin Kim said...

8 Chinese characters, of which the 2nd and 6th are the same. It's best to read them in pairs. I'll offer Korean phonetic rendering, which won't quite match the actual Chinese pronunciation:

1st pair: cheop-geun (the "eo" is somewhere between "aw" and "uh"; the "eu" is like the French "eu")

cheop-geun = close, near

2nd pair: geori (geo + ri)

geori = distance

3rd pair: go-geun

go-geun = lean close

4th pair: mun-myeong (pronounced "moon myung")

mun-myeong = civilization, culture

So a proper rendering, then, would be a declarative that implies an imperative:

"Stepping up and leaning close is the cultured thing to do."

So your guess is pretty much on the money.

Claude said...

Égoutte-toi, et tu deviens un Homme!

Claude said...

It should have been: Égoutte-toi au bon endroit. Alors, tu deviens un Homme.

Kevin Kim said...

Ou bien, afin que ça rime (presque):

Pissez de près
c'est plus civilisé!

Rahel said...

"Be civilized -- close the distance."

BobG said...

I've often wondered if the reason people got all worked up about Confucius sayings is because they were translated badly, and too many people seem to think that if something is obscure enough that it must be profound.

Bou said...

The guys at work are always telling me the horror stories of the Men's restroom. One day they were laughing that someone put a sign up that said, "Pull the boat up to the dock before you drop the anchor".

So maybe that is the equivalent?