Tuesday, February 1, 2011

As the Saying Goes...

There is an old Chinese saying that goes: "He who swims in the soup ends up with noodles in his ears."

Actually, there isn't such a saying—or wasn't until now—because I just made it up. But there ought to be, don't you think?

Old Chinese proverbs are very useful because they contain lessons about life, the universe, and everything else—rather like the writings of the sagacious Douglas Adams. Douglas was not Chinese and, sadly, he did not live to be old. But had he lived longer, Chinese or not, we would all be wealthier for his wisdom and our lives would be more jolly for his humor. One might say the same of Kurt Vonnegut, but for the part about dying young (eighty-four: not too bad).

People seem to respond to old Chinese proverbs with nodding heads and knowing smiles and to remember and repeat them because they contain (or seem to contain) useful wisdom wrapped in wit and tied with concise little bows: good things in small packages that can be kept in a pocket and handed out to those who need them.

I understand that people tend to believe these old aphorisms partly because they are old and have survived the tests that time gives all ideas. They have gotten the thumbs-up of many generations, so there must be something to them and they must deserve our respect and merit our consideration.

Nevertheless, I believe we need more of them—new old Chinese sayings—because, as we all think we know, contemporary humans have small attention spans, so brevity appeals to us. Short messages, such as "Liberals are Nazi Communists," and "global warming is a fraud," are about the only kind to which we are able to give our attention these days, so some new pithy proverbs ought to be highly marketable and well received.

We also need new old Chinese sayings because the world has changed. There are probably old Chinese proverbs still on the books that are no longer meaningful or relevant to us. Take, for example: "He who plants the okra may frighten the fish." This saying perplexes contemporary Americans, as most have no idea what it means and can take no value from it.

(Full disclosure: the foregoing is not an authentic old Chinese proverb. Once again, I have just now made it up—but only because I am not sufficiently familiar with the full canon to cite a real one that is anachronistic to modern Westerners. I am sure there are plenty of them, though, and the okra and fish thing will have to do for now. I use it only to make a point, and I think it does that rather well if somewhat fraudulently.)

The point I intended to make with it is this: we could do with some new old Chinese sayings that are more relevant to our times.

For example, the ancient Chinese would never have been able to write: "When one sleeps on the Internet, a peasant in Kosovo can hear the snoring." I have not yet figured out exactly what that proverb might mean, but I know that no philosopher of old Heilongjiang province could have come up with it because Kosovo did not exist until February 17, 2008.

Now, modern American businesspeople are fond of garish and moderately witty language such as, "let's drill down on this," and "we need to facilitate cross-pollination," and "I don't have the bandwidth," and "go after the low-hanging fruit." They use this kind of metaphorical language, with no apparent embarrassment, in writing and speeches and informal chats. But these are only phrases in the off-the-shelf business-speak "toolbox" that people use to simulate sagacity and imply their membership in the International Confederation of Way Cool Business Obfuscators. No harm in that: valid motives and worthwhile pursuits, I suppose.

Imagine, though, the prestige and admiration one might enjoy by developing a habit to coin entire new platitudes: full sentences, not mere phrases; complete and tidy aphorisms, unfathomably deep and containing axiomatic meanings. To engage in such a practice might lift one, in the eyes of one's peers, from middle management functionary to philosopher king—with all the attendant rights and privileges. With time, one might gain a reputation as a maker of maxims, not a gabbering mockingbird, but a soaring inventor of the next cliché—and the one after that.

The Nation needs you, builders of platitudes, seers of sayings, oracles of adage. Go forth and speak whole truths in tiny packets. And, if you fear the prospect of embarrassment, preface your own invented wisdom with the words: "As an old Chinese proverb tells us..." No one will know.