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Ma Weidu Chats about Bargaining

We Chinese people are quite smart in a small way, as can be proved by the petty trick of using only five fingers on one hand to represent the numbers from 1 to 10 without confusing the audience. For us, it is a piece of cake. I remember my father taught me this when I was just a first or second grader. After I grew up, I came to realize its great convenience as it is universal in the whole country apart from some places where there’s a little difference in symbolizing “10”. In contrast, the westerners have to resort to both hands whenever “6” or above is involved. And the Japanese, our neighbors on the east, fail to pick up this one-hand trick either, though they show you first the palm and then the back of one of their hand to tell you “10” – theoretically, that is still an addition involving ten fingers.

The Chinese flexible minds also find expression in the sequence of raising the fingers. In China, you stick your forefinger and that means “1”; forefinger plus middle finger is “2”;  middle finger plus ring finger plus small finger for“3”; and to say nothing of “4”; and when it comes to “5”, finally it’s time to ask your thumb for help. The westerners, however, are not as nimble as we are. When they are caught up in the same above-mentioned situations, they instead would extend their fingers in order starting from their thumbs. Therefore, the “2” in the westerners’ eyes is “8” in the Chinese eyes.

That’s where the joke started. A friend of mine, who wandered around the world and yet couldn’t speak English at all, once happened to drive a bargain with an English people in a London flea market. The seller stretched out the thumb and forefinger of one of his hand and asked for ‘Twenty”. The buyer, being a Chinese, mistook it for “eighty” and couldn’t wait to raise his five fingers to chop the price to “” (fifty). The honest local people said: no, no, twenty. But the customer still complained: 你别那么死心眼,就给五十!(don’t be so stubborn, 50, and that’s all!) The confused English people couldn’t help wondering: I’ve heard the Chinese are getting rich, but I’ve never seen such a squanderer. All in all, cleverness in trivial matters, sometimes works, but sometimes not. As so often, you can’t get somewhere playing petty trick with a simple-minded person. That’s what the old saying is all about: remain unchanged to meet the ever-changing. You can be invincible only after your cleverness marring the truth.


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- 马未都闲言:砍价(2009.10.01—2009.11.30)
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