Machery et al.’s (2004
) original Jonah cases:
Jonah1. In high-school, German students learn that Attila founded Germany in the second century A.D. They are taught that Attila was the king of a nomadic tribe that migrated from the east to settle in what would become Germany. Germans also believe that Attila was a merciless warrior and leader who expelled the Romans from Germany, and that after his victory against the Romans, Attila organized a large and prosperous kingdom.
Now suppose that none of this is true. No merciless warrior expelled the Romans from Germany, and Germany was not founded by a single individual. Actually, the facts are the following. In the fourth century A.D., a nobleman of low rank, called ‘Raditra,’ ruled a small and peaceful area in what today is Poland, several hundred miles from Germany. Raditra was a wise and gentle man who managed to preserve the peace in the small land he was ruling. For this reason, he quickly became the main character of many stories and legends. These stories were passed on from one generation of peasants to the next. But often when the story was passed on the peasants would embellish it, adding imaginary details and dropping some true facts to make the story more exciting. From a peaceful nobleman of low rank, Raditra was gradually transformed into a warrior fighting for his land. When the legend reached Germany, it told of a merciless warrior who was victorious against the Romans. By the eighth century A.D., the story told of an Eastern king who expelled the Romans and founded Germany. By that time, not a single true fact remained in the story.
Meanwhile, as the story was told and retold, the name ‘Raditra’ was slowly altered: it was successively replaced by ‘Aditra,’ then by ‘Arritrak’ in the sixth century, by ‘Arrita’ and ‘Arrila’ in the seventh and finally by ‘Attila.’ The story about the glorious life of Attila was written down in the eighth century by a scrupulous Catholic monk, from whom all our beliefs are derived. Of course, Germans know nothing about these real events. They believe a story about a merciless Eastern king who expelled the Romans and founded Germany.
When a contemporary German high-school student says “Attila was the king who drove the Romans from Germany,” is he actually talking about the wise and gentle nobleman, Raditra, who is the original source of the Attila legend, or is he talking about a fictional person, someone who does not really exist?
He is talking about Raditra.
He is talking about a fictional person who does not really exist.
Jonah2. Lau Mei Ling is a high-school student in the Chinese city of Guangzhou. Like everyone who goes to high-school in Guangzhou, Mei Ling believes that Chan Wai Man was a Guangdong nobleman who had to take refuge in the wild mountains around Guangzhou in the eleventh century A.D., because Chan Wai Man was in love with the daughter of the ruthless Government Minister Lee, and the Minister did not approve. Everyone in Lau Mei Ling’s high-school believes that Chan Wai Man had to live as a thief in the mountains around Guangzhou, and that he would often steal from the rich allies of the Minister Lee and distribute their goods to the poor peasants.
Now suppose that none of this is true. No Guangdong nobleman ever lived in the mountains around Guangzhou, stealing from the wealthy people to help the peasants. The real facts are the following. In one of the monasteries around Guangzhou, there was a helpful monk called ‘Leung Yiu Pang.’ Leung Yiu Pang was always ready to help the peasants around his monastery, providing food in the winter, giving medicine to the sick and helping the children. Because he was so kind, he quickly became the main character of many stories. These stories were passed on from one generation of peasants to the next. Over the years, the story changed slowly as the peasants would forget some elements of the story and add other elements. In one version, Leung Yiu Pang was described as a rebel fighting Minister Lee. Progressively the story came to describe the admirable deeds of a generous thief. By the late fourteenth century, the story was about a generous nobleman who was forced to live as a thief because of his love for the Minister’s daughter. At length, not a single true fact remained in the story.
Meanwhile, the name ‘Leung Yiu Pang’ was slowly altered: it was successively replaced by ‘Cheung Wai Pang’ in the twelfth century, ‘Chung Wai Man’ in the thirteenth, and finally by ‘Chan Wai Man.’ The story about the adventurous life of Chan Wai Man was written down in the fifteenth century by a scrupulous historian, from whom all our beliefs are derived. Of course, Mei Ling, her classmates and her parents know nothing about these real events. Mei Ling believes a story about a generous thief who was fighting against a mean minister.
When Mei Ling says “Chan Wai Man stole from the rich and gave to the poor,” is she actually talking about the generous monk, Leung Yiu Pang, who is the original source of the legend about Chan Wai Man, or is she talking about a fictional person, someone who does not really exist?
She is talking about the generous monk, Leung Yiu Pang.
She is talking about a fictional person who does not really exist.