Sunday, June 3, 2012

Bamboozle by Yu Hua

What is huyou ? Originally it meant “to sway unsteadily” – like fishing boats bobbing in the waves, for example, or leaves shaking in the wind. Later it developed a new life as an idiom particularly popular in northeast China, derived from another phrase that sounds almost the same – “to mislead.” Just as variant strains of the flu virus keep constantly appearing, huyou has in its lexical career diversified itself into a dazzling range of meanings. Hyping things up and laying it on thick – that’s huyou. Playing a con trick and ripping somebody off – that’s huyou, too. In the first sense, the word has connotations of bragging, as well as enticement and entrapment; in the second sense, it carries shades of dishonesty, misrepresentation and fraud. “Bamboozle, perhaps, id the closest English equivalent.

In China today, “bamboozle” is a new star in the lexical firmament, fully the equal of “copycat” in its charlatan status. Both count as linguistic nouveau riche, but their rises to glory took somewhat different courses. The copycat phenomena emerged in a collectivist fashion, like bamboo, like bamboo shoots springing up after a spring rain, whereas “bamboozle” had its source in an individual act of heroism – the hero in question being China’s most influential comedian, a north-easterner named Zhao Benshan. In a legendary skit performed a few years ago, Zhao Benshan gave ‘bamboozling” its grand launch, announcing to the world:

I can bamboozle the tough into acting tame,
Bamboozle the gent into dumping the dame,
Bamboozle the innocent into taking the blame
Bamboozle the winner into conceding the game.
I’m selling crutches today, so this is my aim:
I’ll bamboozle a man into thinking he’s lame.

In “Selling Crutches” he proceeds with infinite guile, trapping the fall guy into one psychological snare after another, exquisitely employing deception and hoax to lead him down the garden path until in the end a man whose legs are perfectly normal is convinced he’s a cripple and purchases – at great expense – a shoddy pair of crutches.

When this very funny routine was performed in CCTV’s Spring Festival gala – the most-watched television program in China – the word “bamboozle” immediately took the nation by storm. Like a rock stirring up a tidal wave it triggered a tsunami-style reaction as phenomena long existent in Chinese society – boasting and exaggerating, puffery and bluster, mendacity and casuistry, flippancy and mischief – acquired grater energy and rose to new heights in bamboozle’s capacious ocean. At the same time a social propensity towards chicanery, pranks, and other shenanigans drew further inspiration from it. Once these words with negative connotations took shelter under bamboozlement’s wing, they suddenly acquired a neutral status.

Zhao Benshan put “bamboozle” on the lips of people all over the country, male and female, young and old. The word slipped off their tongues as smoothly as saliva and shot from their mouths as freely as spittle. Politics, history, economics, society, culture, memory, emotion, and desire – all these and more find a spacious home in the land of bamboozlement. It has become a lexical master key: in the palace of words it opens all kinds of doors.

Bamboozlement, of course, does not always have negative connotations. When one is in a nostalgic mood, “bamboozle” can serve to purge the word “trick” of its pejorative meaning . . . Just as “copycat” gives imitation and piracy a new range of connotations, “bamboozle” throws a cloak of respectability over deception and manufactured rumor. . .

There is really no end to stories of fraud and chicanery, for “bamboozle” has already insinuated itself into every aspect of our lives. If a foreign leader visits China, people will say he’s “come to bamboozle,” and if a Chinese leader travels abroad, people will say he’s “gone to bamboozle those foreigners.” When a businessman heads out to negotiate a deal, he’ll say he’s “off to bamboozle,” and when a professor goes to deliver a lecture, he’ll say the same thing. Social interactions and romantic partnerships fall under this heading too: “I bamboozled him into being my friend,” you might hear someone say, or “I bamboozled her into falling for me.” Even Zhao Benshan, the godfather of bamboozling, has become a casualty. A couple of years ago a text message appeared on many millions of Chinese cell phones:

Got access to a television? Be sure to turn on CCTV – Zhen Benshan has been killed by a bomb, the police sealed off the Northeast, 19 people dead, 11 missing, one bamboozled!

The one bamboozled, of course, was the person reading the message.

A friend and I once traveled together to a speaking engagement. Last ting at night he asked me for a couple of sleeping pills. He wasn’t planning to take them, he said, but simply to place them next to his bed as a form of subliminal tranquilizer. “They’ll bamboozle me into falling asleep,” he said with a laugh.

Bamboozlement can also give a new gloss to literary works. There’s a famous line by the Tang poet Li Bai: “White hair falling thirty thousand feet.” It used to be seen as the quintessence of the Chinese literary imagination, but people’s commentary now takes a different form: “That Li Bai sure knew how to bamboozle,” they scoff.

Bamboozling has practically become an essential fashion accessory. In the last couple of years schoolchildren have developed a new fad: buying so- called bamboozle cards. Which are the same size as drivers’ licenses. You see vendors hawking them on city streets and pedestrian bridges” Bamboozle cards – one yuan each! With bamboozle card in hand or purse, bamboozle the world for all it’s worth!”

“Here is certified,” the card reads, “that Comrade So-and-so possesses distinctive technique and rich experience in bamboozling: few are those who can avoid being duped.” The bamboozle card is embossed with a round, official-looking stamp just like other Chinese identity cards; its issuing authority is the National Bamboozle Commission. Schoolchildren greet each other by pulling out their cards and waving them in each other’s faces, like FBI agents flashing their ID in a Hollywood movie – the ultimate in school-age cool.

The rapid rise in popularity of the word “bamboozle” like that of “copycat”, demonstrates to me a breakdown of social morality and a confusion in the value system in China today; it is an aftereffect of our uneven development these past thirty years. If anything, bamboozling is even more widespread in social terms than the copycat phenomena, and when bamboozling gains such wide acceptance, it goes to show we live in a frivolous society, one that doesn’t set much store by matters of principle.

My concern is that when bamboozling unabashedly becomes a way of life, then everyone from the individual to the population at large can become its victim. For a bamboozler is quite likely to end up bamboozling himself or – in Chinese parlance – to pick up a big stone only to drop it on his own foot. I imagine everyone has probably had this kind of experience: you try to bamboozle someone, only to end up bamboozling yourself. I am certainly no exception, for when I look back on my own career, I find many such examples.

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