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On the Importance of Good Handwriting


There was a county official whose handwriting was quite untidy. Planning a banquet, [he] wrote his clerk a note, asking him to buy some pig tongues. The character she [for the word “tongue”] was written in such an elongated way that the clerk mistook it for qian kou [meaning “a thousand”] and thought the request was to buy a thousand pigs. [He] scoured the country for pigs for sale and found only five hundred. [He] went back to the official and begged [him] to cut the request by half. The official laughed, saying, “I asked you to buy pig tongues. How on earth did you mistake it for a thousand pigs!” The clerk replied, “If you want some geese next time, please make sure to write the character shorter instead of writing ‘buy my cock’!”  

The character for “tongue”

As the official would have written from top to bottom, an overlong she 舌 could be mistaken for two characters reading “a thousand mouths” (“mouth” being a slightly unusual measure word for pigs)

A common written variant of e 鵝 (goose)

When the two components of e 鵞 are written wide apart, they may be perceived as two characters reading “my bird”; “bird” is common slang for penis in Chinese.

 * From Letian daxiaosheng 樂天大笑生 (fl. sometime between 15th-17th century) ed., Jieyun ji 解慍集, Xuxiu Siku quanshu 續修四庫全書 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2002), vol. 1272, 1.2a.

Album leaf by Jin Nong 金農 (1687-1763)

Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


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