The Emperor and His Cucumbers

Recently I had my second visit to the Forbidden City of Beijing which I enjoyed even more than my first. On that first visit in 1987, my Chinese friends arranged for an English speaking tour guide who was very helpful. Several times she mentioned the emperor and his cucumbers. Apparently he had quite a taste for cucumbers. Of all the terrific delicacies one can find in China, why cucumbers would be so high on his list was beyond me, but I nodded and kept listening. Then she took us to a lovely building and explained that this was where the emperor kept some of his cucumbers. A whole building, just for cucumbers? What? It took a few minutes before I realized the problem. The emperor’s cucumbers were victims of mispronunciation. Concubines was what our tour guide was trying to say. The emperor wasn’t such an ardent vegetarian after all.

Sometimes when we talk about our religion, we are like the tour guide, using terms and concepts that can really puzzle and confuse those whom we are trying to teach in spite of politely nodding and appearing to understand. Communication gaps from our use of unfamiliar terms (“bearing a testimony” or even “temple marriage” might be examples) or poorly explaining things can leave people with completely wrong impressions. It’s never easy, but taking time to check on what people think we have said can help, as can pondering if the terms we use frequently in our religion convey the same meaning to others.

Note: please keep the comments on topic. Today’s post is not a forum for delving into controversies around plural vegetables of any kind.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

4 thoughts on “The Emperor and His Cucumbers

  1. This is an excellent post, Jeff – and it applies much more often than most people realize, imo. When we use the same words but mean different things (or different words that mean the same thing), misunderstanding too often ensues.

    On a humorous note, the Japanese word for angel is "tenshi" – and the Japanese word for bicycle is "jitensha". One word for "person" is "ningen" – and the word for "carrot" is "ninjin". On my mission, I was told that more than one missionary had explained solemnly to an investigator how the bicycle Moroni had appeared to Joseph Smith – after two carrots had appeared to him and told him not to join any church.

  2. My husband had a good laugh over your story and the point is really well made.

    I try to remember those things on my blog and post lots of links to church sites with explanations. But in live conversations, I need to remember that more.

  3. I know you don't want to get into controversies about plural vegetables, but I just have to mention a charming story by Agatha Christie that involves "The Mystery of the Second Cucumber." Look it up–you'll enjoy it.

  4. Hi Jeff, I suddenly remembered this post yesterday and was hoping you'd allow me to summarize the cucumber/concubine mix-up on my blog of funny language mistakes (Blabbergasted, which is at Let me know and we'll link to you. And maybe you have some more good stories to share . . . michelleglauser AT gmail dot com

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