Travelling in China in 1935, Edgar Snow, the American writer, met a slender young Chinese officer with an unusually heavy black beard, whose question, "Hello, are you looking for somebody?" took him aback. "He had spoken in English," Snow reflected in astonishment. The speaker was Chou En-lai.
Snow was lucky. No Chinese, save tour operators, addressed us in English when my wife and I visited Beijing, Shanghai and Xian in 2002. Touring Yunnan province 14 years later, we haven't come across many English speakers either. Instead, amidst the warmth, smiles and generous hospitality, we chance ever so often upon highly individualistic words and phrases that recall the old story of Winston Churchill's farewell lunch for the De Gaulles before they returned to France when World War II ended.
"What are you looking forward to most at home," Churchill asked Madame de Gaulle, and was startled when she replied, "A penis!" Churchill repeated his question and received the same answer. Madame was looking forward to "a penis". Her husband came to her rescue. "I think the English pronounce it 'appiness, my dear," he explained.
Yunnan hasn't regaled us with anything so risque. But the four-word notice, "Fire Exting Uisher Cupboard", was as intriguing as the piece of metal supposedly discovered in a British field with the words, "Iti Sapis Spo Tan Dati Non Eatth At". While archaeologists squabbled over what they assumed was ancient Latin, a schoolboy rearranged the letters to read, "It is a piss pot and a tin one at that". The sign on a carved table in my hotel lobby was simpler. Headed "WARM TIP", it proclaimed, "The hua timber belongs to valuables, used only for viewing". Apparently, "warm tip" is a literal translation of "warning". The table was made of rosewood, which being expensive, should not be misused. "The bottles and accessories have been tasted and are biodegradable and safe for use", announced another hotel sign, in the bathroom.
China can afford to be casual about language. Time was when the British boasted that spoken slowly enough and loudly enough, English was understood anywhere in the world. Now, the best British schools teach Mandarin, and Britain's foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, went almost cap in hand to Beijing earlier this week to initiate a "golden age" in Sino-British relations. The Macartney Mission and Opium Wars erased from memory, CCTV lingered lovingly on Xi Jinping riding down the Mall with Queen Elizabeth II in her gilt state coach surrounded by the nodding plumes and red and gold splendour of Her Majesty's cavalry.
Economists may discern a slowdown but the boom in China's outbound tourism evident last year seems set to continue in 2016. It was the lure of this traffic that took Hammond to Beijing dangling a two-year multi-entry visa for $130 (the Chinese now have only six-month visas), which will be extended to 10 years. The number of Chinese visitors to Britain has doubled to 90,000; their spending is up by 30 per cent. British Prime Minister David Cameron is convinced tourism - Britain's seventh-biggest industry - won't meet its $50-billion target without a massive influx of Chinese. They stay longer than other tourists and - even more to the point - spend more.
The Chinese don't need English to shop at Harrod's, eat at Fortnum & Mason's, buy equity in major public utility undertakings like Thames Water and invest in Britain's nuclear facilities. However, the need to communicate with outsiders isn't altogether ignored. A recent report by the National Research Centre for Foreign Language Education at Beijing's Foreign Studies University wants English to rank with Mandarin and mathematics in college entrance examinations.
Snow's surprise indicated he imagined China was still imprisoned in a Middle Kingdom complex. But the linguistically versatile Chou wasn't unique. Many readers will be familiar with the no doubt apocryphal story of a League of Nations dinner at which India's envoy was seated beside a Chinese diplomat. Anxious not to appear standoffish, the Indian leaned across to his neighbour as the first course was cleared and said, "Likee soupee?" The Chinese merely smiled. The meal over, the Indian suddenly realised the Chinese was holding forth in flawless Oxford English. Peroration over, the Chinese sat down, turned to the Indian and said smilingly, "Likee speechee?"
Of course, Mao Zedong didn't speak English. Neither does Xi. Unlike some Asian leaders, he is confident enough not to think it necessary to burst into heavily accented English on important public occasions. He knows it's in the world's interest to understand him whatever language he uses.