Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Tangrams: Hanzi Smatter?

Language Log just covered a 1700s-1800s example of "Hanzi Smatter", a generic term for use of faux-Chinese script in Western culture (the term derives from the weblog of that name).

That reminded of a probable example from my copy of Henry Ernest Dudeney's 1917 Amusements in Mathematics, which happens to be online both on Project Gutenberg and Google Books.

Discussing a correspondent's copy of an old Tangram book, Dudeney writes:

I reproduce the Chinese inscription [above, figure labelled 8] for this reason. The owner of the book informs me that he has submitted it to a number of Chinamen in the United States and offered as much as a dollar for a translation. But they all steadfastly refused to read the words, offering the lame excuse that the inscription is Japanese. Natives of Japan, however, insist that it is Chinese. Is there something occult and esoteric about Tangrams, that it is so difficult to lift the veil? Perhaps this page will come under the eye of some reader acquainted with the Chinese language, who will supply the required translation, which may, or may not, throw a little light on this curious question.

Addendum: I should have Googled more assiduously; Donald C Read's 1965 Tangrams: 330 Puzzles has an explanation. Read actually had a copy of the book in question, and found that the mysterious logo isn't on the cover, but on the second-to-last page.

Apparently it's just the caption to the illustration, saying roughly "Two men facing each other drinking. This shows the versatility of the seven-piece puzzle".

The Dudeney version appears to have undergone considerable degradation in copying; perhaps this explains the failure of Dudeney's contacts to read it.

- Ray

1 comment:

  1. JSB> ...use of faux-Chinese script in
    JSB Western culture...

    A few years ago, someone gave me a "feng shui candle" with ideograms printed on it.

    Curious to know what the feng shui message was, I showed it to a Chinese student (mainland, Shanghai, on study visa in Manchester) and asked what it said. She replied "toxic waste".

    Thinking she might be pulling my leg, I took it to my favourite Chinese take away, 200 miles away, and in a quiet lull asked the proprietor (Hong Kong, first generation immigrant) the same question. His translation was pretty much the same: "poisonous rubbish".