Mr. More-or-Less (A Short Story by Hu Shi)

ShanghaiLiving2020
4 min readMar 5, 2020

Mencius once said: Those who have never translated Mr. More-or-Less, are no true students of Chinese (未曾译差不多先生者,非中文之徒也).

Granted, that quote’s entirely made up, dumb, and my classical Chinese is embarrassingly off, but it is a text that you’ll find hard to miss as a student of either Chinese language or literature, and one that’s simple and short enough that it gets translated a lot.

I thought I’d give it a go, as it ties in nicely to May 4th thinking and literature, something I’m actively trying to learn more about, and with any luck, I’ll get round to analysing it a little bit in that context in the future.

The most contentious part of this translation is probably the title itself, which could equally be rendered Mr. Close-Enough, Mr. Not-Far-Off, Mr. Different-in-Such-an-Insignificant-Manner-as-to-be-Practically-the-Same, or any of a number of variants on that theme.

I have even seen it written as simply Mr. Chabuduo, although I think find that to be the least inspired of the available options. Personally I prefer Mr. More-or-Less. Anyway, here it is:

Do you know who the most famous person in all of China is?

This person’s name is known in all places and by all people. His name is More-or-Less, and he hails from every village in every town in every province. You’ve seen his face, you’ve heard his name, it’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue; after all, he’s the symbol of the Chinese people.

Mr. More-or-Less looks just like you and I; well, more or less. He has eyes, although they don’t see too clearly; he has ears, but they don’t hear so well; he has a mouth and a nose, yet little interest in either taste or smell. His brain isn’t small exactly, but his memory is hazy and his thoughts are imprecise.

He often says: “As long as everything is more or less, then that’s enough for me. What need is there to ask for anything more than that?”

Once, when he was young, his mother sent him out to buy brown sugar, he came back with white. When his mother began to scold him he simply shook his head: “White sugar, brown sugar, they’re more or less the same.”

During his student days, his teacher once asked: “Which province lies to the west of Zhili?”

“Shaanxi” he replied.

“Incorrect. It’s Shanxi, not Shaanxi”, said his teacher.

“Shaanxi, Shanxi, they’re more or less the same.”

Later, he found work as a clerk; he could write, he could do sums, but he was never precise. He would often write ten as thousand, and thousand as ten.

This infuriated his supervisor, who would often take him to task. Whenever this happened he would simply smile and humbly say: “Thousand is only one small stroke away from ten*, they’re more or less the same.”

One day, an urgent errand cropped up for which he had to take the train to Shanghai. He made his way to the station, in no great hurry, and arrived two minutes late. The train had already left.

As he stared blankly at the steam trailing from the distant locomotive, he shook his head: “I’ll have to wait until tomorrow now. Today, tomorrow, they’re more or less the same, but I must say, the train company are too inflexible. Why leave at 8:30 and not 8:32? They’re really more or less the same.”

He trudged off home, failing to comprehend why the train driver couldn’t have waited just two more minutes.

Then one day, he became seriously ill, and instructed a relative to fetch Dr Wang from his East Street practice. His relative ran off in a hurry but couldn’t find Dr. Wang on East Street, so instead, he enlisted the help of a different Dr. Wang, a bovine vet from West Street.

Lying on his sick bed, Mr. More-or-Less knew the wrong doctor had come, but he thought: “They’re both called Wang**, what’s the difference? It can’t hurt to let him try.”

And so this bovine vet came in and treated Mr. More-or-Less as though he were a cow. By noon Mr. More-or-Less was dead.

As Mr. More-or-Less was about to depart this earth, in halting speech he stammered out his final words: “The living and the dead are more… more… more or less the same… As long as everything is more… more or less, then that’s… that’s enough for me… What need is there to ask… for anything more than that?”

And with that, he died.

Upon his passing, his friends and associates praised his insight, admiring how he had seen through the ways of the world to the deeper meaning at its heart. They said he had refrained from becoming too serious; he was unwilling to fuss over debts or accounts; he was a true man of integrity. And so they deigned to grant him the posthumous title: Master of Flexibility.

His fame then spread to the farthest reaches of the nation, only growing stronger with time, as countless others learnt from his example. Eventually, everybody became a Mr. More or Less, and China became a nation of the idle.

* The Chinese character for thousand is 千 and that for ten is 十. While these are very similar, being only one stroke away from each other, this doesn’t really translate well into English. One possible way around this would be to change thousand to hundred to fit the concept better in the target language, but I’d personally rather keep it the same and add this explanation.

** In the original Chinese, the two doctors have a slightly difference surname, the first is 汪 and the second is 王. Both these surnames are written Wang in pinyin, albeit with different tones. While they appear identical in English, they are in fact, only more or less the same.

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ShanghaiLiving2020

A blog about life, love, language, literature and lüyou in Shanghai, China and beyond. I’m a student, a translator, a husband, a human, or at least I try to be.