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Cut loose at fifty: Chapter Eleven – Telling an English joke in Chinese

By Chris Clancy
web posted January 9, 2012

The second semester got off to smooth start – a good job as well - because the first half of it proved to be a very hectic affair.

This was all my own doing.

First degree courses in China are normally spread over four years. When students enter their third year they become "junior" students and then "seniors" in their final year.

My students that year were all juniors.

The senior year is mainly spent tying up loose ends and either applying for jobs or for postgraduate courses.

Those who apply to study abroad are expected to include a document called a Personal Statement (PS) as part of their application package. Basically, this document is an attempt to "sell" themselves – to say why they are applying, what makes them suitable, what makes them different from other students, what they can bring to the university, their educational and career aspirations and so on.

If students are competing with other students who have similar backgrounds and qualifications a well written PS will help them to get noticed and "stand out" from the rest.

In particular, if they apply to a prestigious university, the quality of the PS may well be the decididng factor – the one that determines whether or not they get a place.

A few weeks into the semester some students asked me if I would "look-over" their PSs. Like a fool I agreed, thinking I would only need to do a bit of editing here and there.

They were so bad I ended up rewriting them.

It took ages

Students normally start thinking about what they're going to do after graduation in their third year. This means they start competing with each other. If they do get some extra help, like me with the PSs, they will normally keep it to themselves.

However, no sooner had I emailed the rewritten PSs back, than the word was out.

"Free help available – come and get it!"

I suspected that some person, or persons unknown, in the English Department, had started palming them off on me. I never found out for sure, but I started to get more and more requests – not just from students I had taught, or was teaching, but from others – I didn't know which was which and, having started, wasn't really in a position to say, "No, no more!"

By the time the May holiday arrived I was so inundated I had no choice but to pull the plug.

I didn't go travelling. Instead I went to the internet and selected the best sites I could find on PSs. I spent the next three days reading, downloading, cutting, pasting, re-arranging and editing.

It was like putting together a giant jigsaw.

By the end of it I had a very long document which laid out all they needed to know about PSs, in plain English, along with a step by step guide for compiling one and examples of finished ones thereof.


From that point on I emailed the document back to anyone asking for help saying I had no time to personally attend to their request. This did not mean that I never helped anyone again. I did, but only under special circumstances and then only on the understanding that it went no further.

The document became one of a handfull I would email to all my students at the beginning of each subsequent semester.

No sooner had the PS problem been put to bed, than I was asked to give a speech at a conference on property tax - one week after the May holiday.

This request came out of the blue and at very short notice. Nothing unusual here. If you are going to live and work in China - get used to it. Someone, somewhere, with power, makes a decision, snaps his or her fingers and everyone jumps.

If you don't, it will be remembered and, one way or another, sooner or later, you'll know about it.

The conference had a very grand title: "International Symposium on the Theory and Institution of Property Taxation". It ran over a two day period and had nineteen illustrious speakers - experts on property tax – and me.

Two of the speakers were foreigners, both famous professors in their field, one from Russia and the other from Canada.

I tried to explain that taxation was not my specialism - but one of the organizers told me to just "say something" for twenty minutes – something about property tax in the UK. I would be provided with a translator, but not to worry too much about it. I was due to speak late in the afternoon on the first day. By that point very few would be listening anyway.

A light went on. The penny dropped. I got the message

Even I can take a hint when it's big enough.

I was there to make up the numbers – to boost the international flavour of the thing – that's all.

Once again I headed for the internet. I cobbled something together and then gave it a devastating title: "UK Freehold Property Tax"!

As I "researched" this masterpiece I actually came across a joke. Yes, I found something humorous, deep in the bowels of the mysterious and forbidding world of taxation. I decided that I would somehow work it into my notes. That I would try to inject something of interest into what would be a mind-numbingly boring speech.

Still, I had to take the whole thing seriously.

To those outside academia, it's hard to convey just how seriously these conferences are taken, especially by the professors. Old scores may be settled. Reputations can be established or destroyed.. Heroic intellectual battles can be set in motion and last for years - like the one between Professors Galbraith and Friedman.

Galbraith, it was, who let off the first salvo - who hurled down the gauntlet.

            He [Friedman] who lives by the sword of empiricism shall die by it!

Friedman immediately sent back a broadside:

And he [Galbraith] who places his elitist normative values above positive economics walks a treacherous road!

This is how bad things can become when professors decide to get down and dirty.

Friedman had risen to the challenge and an epic struggle ensued. In Ivory Tower terms it was long and bloody. Many years would pass before the forces of Friedman would prevail and those of Galbraith be vanquished.

The academic debate about tax reform in China was no different – it had been going on for years - at this point it was still unresolved. Many powerful minds had locked horns on the issue.

They met again at ZUEL to do battle.

They came well prepared. Heavily armed with powerful arguments

Conference papers and speeches are usually very high-brow affairs. The time which goes into preparing them is no-one's business. And there's a good reason for this - theye are usually published by the university - so care must be taken.

Unfortunately, no matter how good the material is, most of it will sink without trace.

Outside of universities, very little of it ever sees the light of day.

The same goes for the books they write – which may take years – on very difficult subjects – brilliantly researched and written - some may be breathtaking in their prescience - but few outside academia will ever know or care.

Maybe this is why so many academics lean to the Left.

How galling they must find the success of books like Harry Potter. How could something as intellectually anemic as this earn its author millions and millions?

The same could be said, on a different level, about books like The Da Vinci Code? As one critic wryly noted, the author might as well have claimed that Jesus and His disciples travelled around in a stretch limo – for all that anyone could disprove it.

Surely, these academics must reason, there has to be something seriously wrong with the system?

Yes, for most professors, life is indeed a long and lonely road with little in the way of money or recognition at the end of it.

The night before the ZUEL conference all the speakers were treated to a lavish banquet.

I was seated between the two foreigners. They were both friendly enough. The Russian laughed a lot; probably because he was drinking Chinese rice wine, known as Bai Jiu, very strong stuff. He said he was going to take a crate home. The Canadian didn't drink alcohol. He wore tweed, smoked a pipe and, as I remember, had a thing about peanut butter.

After the banquet I met my translator. Her English name was Maggie and her spoken English was excellent. She had a Chinese translation of my speech. We spent about half an hour sorting out how we'd do the thing. I told her about the joke I wanted to use and how I wanted to use it. She said she liked the method, but would have to say it slightly differently – in a way that would work much better with a Chinese audience.

That was fine by me.

The next morning the conference hall filled rapidly. The organization of the thing was extremely professional and the venue was excellent. No complaints here - it was first class.

There must have been at least five or six hundred people there. I sat through a number of boring speeches in the morning, then a boring lunch and then more boring speeches in the afternoon. When I was finally called to speak I didn't feel nervous. I was well prepared. Anyway, when numbers get to this size, or larger, the whole thing becomes kind of surreal.

Maggie stood a few feet to my right and one step back. This was so she could see my hand gently tap the lectern when it was her turn to speak. She had her own stand-alone microphone – no lectern to stand behind and hold onto – more exposed than me.

As I adjusted my microphone I heard her papers rustling. I turned and looked to signal that I was about to start. Her hands were shaking and her face was a little flushed. She was very nervous. I felt for her – but nobody was going to do it for us.

She sort of straightened herself – composed herself – and then gave me a very slight nod.

I began. She followed the signals perfectly. The introduction lasted about three minutes and ended with the first part of the joke. I hit a key on my lectern computer and a very large picture of the Eiffel Tower appeared on the PPT screen behind us.

"What is this?" I asked the conference.

Maggie translated.

No one replied.

She spoke again.

This time a few people called out the answer.

"No", I said, "this is not the Eiffel Tower."

Maggie translated. There was a bit of murmuring and head-shaking.

I killed the image and went straight on to the body of my talk. This lasted about fifteen minutes. As I spoke, I remember thinking how glad I was not to be amongst those having to endure it.

Then came my conclusion.

The speech finished something like this;

"Finally, let us return to a question I asked you at the beginning."


Once again the Eiffel Tower appeared on the PPT.

This brought them back from a collective state of open-eyed unconciousness.

"This is not the Eiffel Tower."


Murmur … murmur, murmur … murmer.

"This … is the Empire State Building … after tax!"

Maggie translated. She spoke for longer than I expected. When she delivered her punchline, I swear, the place erupted.

The laughter and clapping hit like a wave and washed over me. It really was a great feeling. I just didn't expect it – I was taken totally by surprise. I have no idea how she re-arranged things so that it would, "work much better with a Chinese audience", but she did.

She had made it the highlight of the day.

I didn't walk back to my seat – I floated – I found it difficult to come down.

God knows how entertainers cope - after a great concert or show - in front of thousands of people.

I'm not sure I could.

That evening, at dinner, a number of people told me how much they enjoyed the speech. The truth is no-one could remember a word of it – except for the finish – which is the only bit I remember as well.

I managed to bail out of the second day – I couldn't take any more speeches.

Did the conference achieve anything? I doubt it. I felt that trying to put any kind of major tax reform in place was like putting the cart before the horse. The thing to deal with first was corruption.

While this was happening, if it ever happened, impose some kind of occupational flat rate tax and have done with it!


When the second semester began I thought most of my time would be spent getting the presentations up and running.

This was not the case.

The time-consuming PS debacle and, to a lesser extent, the conference, would see to that.

Then there was something even more unexpected. Something that would involve a lot of new reading and learning. Something which would introduce me to China's twenty first century version of the Klondike.

I'm talking, "unregulated markets".

And one in particular. ESR

Chris Clancy lived in China for seven years. Most of this time was spent as associate professor of financial accounting at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Wuhan City, Hubei Province. He now lives in Thailand where he spends his time reading, writing, lecturing and, whenever he gets the chance, doing his level best to spread Austrian economics.


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