China


One reason I can tell my India book is almost done is that I keep finding things that are interesting, but too detailed or particular to go in the book. But they can go in this blog!

I’m reading Colleen Taylor Sen’s Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, which is pretty good. At one point she writes

The Sanskrit names of several Indian foods contain the element china, indicating their Chinese origin, including peaches (chinani), pears (chinarajaputra), lettuce (chinasalit), and cinnamon (dalchini, or Chinese bark).

Sounds good, except when I checked a Sanskrit dictionary to get more scholarly transliterations. None of these words appears there. Other words are given for all but ‘lettuce’.

Time for some Googling.  I find Sen’s claim repeated in several places. But then I find an old book which has this to say:

The Sanskrit names here given for the peach and the pear seem to be known only from this narrative. Later authorities tell us that these fruits are indigenous in the country, and the whole story of the hostage is possibly invention.

What hostage?  Well, it’s too good a story not to repeat.

When Kanishka was reigning the fear of his name spread to many regions so far even as to the outlying vassals of China to the west of the Yellow River. One of these vassal states being in fear sent a hostage to the court of king Kanishka… The king treated the hostage with great kindness and consideration. …The pilgrim proceeds to relate how Peaches and Pears were unknown in this district and the part of India beyond until they were introduced by the “China hostage”.

The story is not impossible, but we should be extremely skeptical, not least because this is precisely the kind of story people love: tracing a cultural change not to some nameless trader, but to a colorful celebrity, here the son of a far ruler with an inexplicable fear of an Indian monarch. Plus we have the non-confirmation from the lexicons.

All this is a good reminder to approach sources with caution, and to wonder how many normal-sounding statements in history books are based on things as shaky as this. However, it doesn’t affect my book at all— it takes too much space to explain what turns out not to be a fact at all.

Still, there’s more to say! The “old book” I found is called On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India, 629-645 A.D., by Thomas Watters, 1904.  Yuan Chwang is the “pilgrim” referred to in the cite above.

But who is he?  Turns out he’s none other than 玄奘 Xuánzàng, who some readers may remember from my China Construction Kit, and whose trip to India inspired the Míng novel Journey to the West. I’m tempted to read Watters’ book, because I’m curious to know more about Xuánzàng’s actual trip, as opposed to the mythological joyride of Journey to the West. Bookmarked for later!

It’s a great thing, by the way, that scholars have finally standardized on pinyin, because Chinese names used to be murder for scholars. Not a few historians of India didn’t get the memo, as they still refer to “Hiuen Tsang”. Other variants include Hiouen Thsang, Hsüan Chwang, Hhüen Kwân, and Shuen Shang. What a mess. Contrariwise, it’s very nice that even a century-old book like Watters uses a Sanskrit transliteration almost identical to what we use today.

Oh, what’s that about Chinese mangoes?  That’s the literal translation of chinarajaputra. (Well, rajaputra literally means ‘prince’, but it’s also a word for mango, so if you did need a word for ‘pear’, ‘Chinese mango’ makes more sense than ‘Chinese prince’.) (But the real Sanskrit word for ‘pear’ seems to be amritaphala.)

 

 

 

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I saw this on Twitter, and decided that this was an important phrase to learn in Chinese:

CliN-G-UgAA8dB_

網上虛擬交心不宜

wǎng-shàng xūnǐ jiāoxīn bù yí

web-above virtual entrust not should

You should not make virtual commitments online.

 

While we’re at it, my Overwatch pals have been quoting D.Va’s comments in Korean, so let’s look at those in more detail.

안녕하세요!

a̠nɲjʌ̹ŋ ɦa̠sʰe̞jo

Annyeong haseyo!

peace you.have

Do you have peace? = How are you?

That first word is a borrowing from Chinese 安寧— Mandarin ānníng ‘peace, tranquility’. You will undoubtedly recognize the first character from 西安 Xī’ān, the ancient capital of China; also Heian, the ancient name for Kyoto.

D.va is very informal and also from the future, so she just says Annyeong!

감사합니다

ˈka̠ːmsʰa̠ɦa̠mnida̠

Kamsa hamnida!

thanks have.assertive

I am thankful! = Thank you!

Again, the first word is a borrowing: 感謝 gǎnxiè ‘gratitude’; the common way to say “Thank you” in Mandarin— which you can hear Mei say in Overwatch— is 謝謝 xièxiè.

And again, D.Va informally says just Kamsa!

Mei’s “Hello” is 你好 Nǐhǎo, literally “you good?”

 

In 1944— a time when the war lowered a lot of barriers— Chu Hing became one of the first Asian-Americans to work in comics. He created a superhero named the Green Turtle, who fought the Japanese who were attempting to conquer China. Rather strangely, the comic never shows Green Turtle’s face; the supposition is that the publisher refused to allow an Asian face, and in return Hing refused to draw a white one.  Another oddity is that the Turtle’s shadow is drawn (without explanation) as a big black turtle, with yellow eyes and a red mouth.

Now Gene Luen Yang (Asian-American) and Sonny Liew (Malaysian-Singaporean) have teamed up to revive and explain the character.

Liew

His origin story: he’s Hank, a Chinese-American boy whose only goal is to help his father run a grocery store, and run it himself after him.  But after his mother meets a superhero, she gets it into her head that Hank should be one too. She takes him for martial arts training, arranges accidents with industrial waste, and even knits him a costume… with a big 金 and the helpful legend GOLDEN MAN OF BRAVERY.

This part of the book is a lot of fun— Hank’s mom is both adorable and annoying, and Yang recognizes that the whole superhero thing is a little ridiculous.

It gets more serious later on, as Hank confronts the tongs that control Chinatown. As part of this, he meets the tortoise spirit, one of four ancient spirits that safeguard the Chinese Empire, and are a little lost when the Empire disappears.  So now he has real superpowers— though he has to learn how to use them to do some good. Also he can finally choose a better superhero name, the Green Turtle. (Which happens to be close to the name of his father’s shop, 玉龜 ‘jade tortoise’.)

(Pedantic note: the book gives this as Yu Quai, but the family is Cantonese so the first character should really be Yuk. Possibly a little interference from Mandarin ?)

The story is set in the 1940s, and deals realistically with the casual anti-Chinese racism of the time. The viewpoint however is always with Hank and his family, who have little interaction with whites; even the villains are other Asian-Americans.

I have to say that Sonny Liew’s art takes some getting used to. He’s great with cityscapes and shadow creatures and Hank and his father.  Everyone else is caricatured in a weird ugly way… if a white guy drew Chinese people like that it would come off as racist. Still, I’d love to see a Volume 2.

As a bonus, the book provides one of the original Chu Hing Green Turtle comics from 1944. Even at the time, it was surely a bit odd that you never saw Green Turtle’s face. For a modern reader, there’s another peculiarity: the Chinese in the story are drawn nicely, but the Japanese are monstrous.

I also recently read a graphic novel of Liew’s: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.  It’s an odd meta thing: a mock retrospective of a not-very-successful imaginary cartoonist. This gives Liew the opportunity to parody all sorts of historical styles (e.g. there’s a nice tribute to Pogo), and also to recount the dramatic history of Singapore: British rule, the Japanese invasion, independence, Lee Kuan Yew’s authoritarian rule. The mockumentary format is well suited for wandering through history, and for pastiching cartoonists he admires; perhaps less so for maintaining narrative momentum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In my China book I included a poem by the Táng poet 王维 Wáng Wéi, 鹿柴 Lù Chái (Deer Park), one of the most-translated poems from Chinese.

Prompted by my friend Adrian’s thoughts on the poem (with his own translation), I thought I’d provide the glosses and grammatical notes so you can create your own version.

(The poem may actually be Lù Zhài. 柴 is sometimes read zhài, but my dictionaries don’t have this reading, apparently rare.)

空山不见人

Kòng shān bú jiàn rén

empty mountain not see person

An empty mountain. No one is seen

“Kòng shān” is a topic here, giving the setting. The subject is omitted— this lack of overt viewpoint is one of the features of Chinese poetry.  Rén can of course be either “person” or “people”. Chinese verbs have no tense, which helps create a timeless mood in poetry. (They have aspect, but with the limited characters per line available, I believe it’s rarely used in poems.)

但闻人语响

Dàn wén rén yǔ xiǎng

however hear person words/speak sound

Yet we hear the sound of voices.

OC is comfortable with N +  N, or as here, N + N + N phrases— “person speech sounds”. Again, no explicit subject— my “we” is an interpolation, to avoid an awkward passive. 

返景入深林

Fǎn jǐng rù shēn lín

return brightness/view/situation enter deep/thick forest

Evening light penetrates the deep forest

The first word is difficult. It just means ‘return’, but what is returning light? My friend Ran suggested “the setting sun is described as returning its light because as it moves forward toward the horizon, any sort of light it casts is perceived as being opposite to its direction of motion.”  To me the sentence suggests the edge of the forest, where low evening light temporarily lights up the forest floor. In any case translators all seem to agree, for whatever reason, that we’re talking about dusk!

复照青苔上

Fù zhào qīng tái shàng

repeat/again shine dark.green moss above/on

It shines again on the green moss.

Easy part first: “X shàng” is the OC way of saying “on X”; versions that use the meaning “rise” are a real stretch.  I’m not sure why “again” is specified, unless it’s what I mentioned above— a daily cycle of low light illuminating the forest floor. (Or moss in the trees— see the picture in Adrian’s posting.)

If you missed it: lines 2 and 4 in the original rhyme.  Lines 1/3 do not, either in Mandarin or in Táng Chinese.

I’v e been proofing China Construction Kit, plus incorporating reviewers’ suggestions.  It’s about time to print another proof; I think I’m still on target for a release at the end of the month.

cixi

Dowager Empress Cíxǐ, the de facto and disappointing late-19C ruler

But I find myself with a few opinions that didn’t get into the book. A few opinions made it in, but opinions take up a lot of room, you know, so I’ll put them here instead.

The biggest point is in reaction to William Rowe’s China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing.  He notes that scholarly tradition, in East and West, has been to divide the Qīng (Manchu) dynasty in 1842, with the first Opium War.  The preceding period goes with the rest of imperial China; the later period is part of modern history.  He describes his book as “revisionist”, incorporating a new overall picture of the Qīng, in which the Opium War is only one incident, and the Qīng were stronger and better than they looked.

He then spends the rest of the book basically showing, despite himself, that the traditional view is more or less correct.

Now, it’s not that he’s wrong, exactly. Early European visitors tended to be impressed with China, until the 19C when they suddenly saw it as backwards yet arrogant (and, more to the point, ready for plucking).  It’s hard sometimes not to just exclaim that 19C Westerners just sucked.  At the same time they were roughing up China, they treated Chinese immigrants, well, about like the West is dealing with Syrian refugees today– that is, with a maximum of ignorant fear and horror.  And when the West got around to the scholarly study of modern China, they were way too interested in the history of Westerners in China.

From a Chinese point of view, an answer to the burning question of why China was slow to modernize was: it came down to really bad luck.  A pattern going back two thousand years is that Chinese dynasties move from active and prosperous, to divided and chaotic. When a dynasty is started, a lot can get done: distribute land, expand the borders, establish internal peace, promote scholarship.  The dynamic period rarely lasts more than 150 years.  Large landowners start to take most of the land, which reduces the tax rolls, which leads to tax increases on the poor, which eventually leads to starvation and revolts.  Often later monarchs are dominated by the eunuchs (or in the Manchu era, their families).  The scholar-officials get bogged down in acrimonious debates, which bring down any serious reform movements. Finally everything falls apart.

The Manchus produced some especially fine early rulers, who lasted till about 1800… which means, the Westerners became powerful just at the worst possible time, after the 150-year mark when the dynasty started to decline fast.  From a purely internal point of view, there was more destruction caused by the White Lotus Rebellion and the Taiping Rebellion than by the wars with the West.

At the same time… well, the Manchu response to the West was pitifully inadequate.  But then, the same can be said of almost every other non-Western nation– it’s not a particular shame for the Chinese.  The Japanese ability to adapt Western ways with great speed is the real outlier.

Development is a tricky problem, and I’d venture to say that almost all the Western advice that China received, for a century, was useless. Not only did 19C Westerners not know how to develop a country, they didn’t even want to.  They wanted to trade, do missionary work, and if possible take over. If they couldn’t take over, they wanted local leaders who would guarantee stability and safeguard Western interests.  To the extent that the West had some good ideas about democracy, free speech, science, civil law, and free enterprise, they did their best to keep it to themselves.

Anyway, see the book for the actual course of events. I do try not to over-emphasize the West, though of course it has to be discussed in the modern period. So I’ve left out (say) what the British ambassador thought of China in 1793, something that tends to fascinate British authors.

And while I’m offering opinions, here’s another one: the Empire was better governed than perhaps any Western monarchy; but monarchy still sucks. This was realized, of course, in both East and West. The Western path was to limit the absolute power of the monarch– basically, in favor of the other power bases of Western society: the nobility, the church, and the towns. The Chinese way was to inculcate in both monarchs and officials an ideology of public-spirited rule.  Mark Elvin quotes some remarkable letters from Manchu monarchs expressing personal shame over reports of droughts and other poor weather. The teaching was that Heaven might show its displeasure with a ruler by bringing such catastrophes; one may wonder if the emperor 100% believed in what he was saying, but he obviously thought it worth saying, and it’s hard to imagine George III or Napoleon or Frederick the Great ever saying it. When the emperor was scrupulous, hardworking, and respectful of his officials, government was more effective than Westerners managed until very late in history.

But of course emperors could also be lazy or incompetent, or paranoid and vicious, or dominated by the court. And in between dynasties, you generally had warlords of varying ferocity. And worldwide, no one ever really achieved a better record with monarchy; see here for more.

(I know, we look at Donald Trump and things don’t seem much better.  But Trump is– thankfully, so far– an opposition candidate, and nothing about democracy guarantees that the opposition is any good.  When you really have a stinker of a president, you can get rid of him in 4 years; a bad monarch can afflict you for decades, and act much more opposite the interest of the masses.)

 

 

 

 

The original story of 木兰 Mùlán (‘Magnolia’) comes from an 11C anthology— The Ballad of Mùlán (Mùlán cí)— though the actual source is probably centuries earlier.  I had the whole thing in my book but decided that the full Chinese translation was overkill there, so it’s going here instead.

mulan

The illustration is of 侯梦瑶 Hóu Mèngyáo in a Chinese production, The Legend of Huā Mùlán— she acquired a surname in a Míng play. Mùlán doesn’t belong to Disney!

唧唧复唧唧,木兰当户织。

Jījī fù jījī, Mùlán dāng hù zhī.

(onomatopoeia) again (onomatopoeia) / Mùlán at door weave

Spin spin, again spin spin, Mùlán, facing the door, weaves.

不闻机杼声,唯闻女叹息。

Bù wén jīzhù shēng, wéi wén nǚ tànxī.

not hear machine-shuttle noise/ only hear girl sigh

The loom’s sound is not heard, only the girl’s sighs.

问女何所思?问女何所忆?

Wèn nǚ hé suǒ sī? Wèn nǚ hé suǒ yì?

ask girl what SUB think / ask girl what SUB remember

Ask her, what are you thinking, what do you recall?

女亦无所思,女亦无所忆。

Nǚ yì wú suǒ sī, nǚ yì wú suǒ yì.

girl also not.have SUB think / girl also not.have SUB remember

She does not think, does not recall anything.

昨夜见军帖,可汗大点兵,

Zuóyè jiàn jūn tiě, Kèhán dà diǎn bīng,

yesterday-night see army notice / Khan big point troops

Last night she saw the army notices:

the Khan is mustering a great army—

军书十二卷,卷卷有爷名。

Jūn shū shí’èr juàn, juànjuàn yǒu yé míng.

army book 10 2 scroll / scroll scroll exist father name

The muster fills twelve scrolls, Father’s name is in each one.

阿爷无大儿,木兰无长兄,

Āyé wú dà ér, Mùlán wú zhǎng xiōng,

honorific-father not.have big son / Mùlán not.have extended older.brother

Father has no grown son, Mùlán has no elder brother.

愿为市鞍马,从此替爷征。

Yuàn wéi shì ān mǎ, cóngcǐ tì yé zhēng.

will serve city saddle horse / from this replace father levy

I will buy saddle and horse in the market, and take his place.

东市买骏马,西市买鞍鞯,

Dōng shì mǎi jùn mǎ, xī shì mǎi ānjiān,

east market buy spirited horse / west market buy saddle

In the east market she buys a fine horse, in the west a saddle;

南市买辔头,北市买长鞭。

Nán shì mǎi pèitóu, běi shì mǎi chángbiān.

south market buy bridle / north market buy whip

In the south market a bridle, in the north a whip.

旦辞爷娘去,暮宿黄河边。

Dàn cí yéniáng qù, mù sù Huánghé-biān.

dawn from father-mother go / dusk lodge Yellow-River-side

At dawn she leaves her parents,

at dusk she camps at the side of the Yellow River.

不闻爷娘唤女声,但闻黄河流水鸣溅溅。

Bù wén yéniáng huàn nǚ shēng, dàn wén Huánghé liúshuǐ míng jiānjiān.

not hear father-mother call girl sound / but hear Yellow-River flowing-water sound (onomatopoeia)

She doesn’t hear her parents calling to her,

only the splashing of the Yellow River’s water.

旦辞黄河去,暮至黑山头。

Dàn cí Huánghé qù, mù zhì Hēishān-tóu.

dawn from Yellow-River go / dusk arrive Black-mountain-head

At dawn she leaves the river, reaches the Black Hills at dusk.

不闻爷娘唤女声,但闻燕山胡骑声啾啾。

Bù wén yéniáng huàn nǚ shēng, dàn wén Yān-shān hú qí shēng jiūjiū.

not hear father-mother call girl sound / but hear Swallow-mountain barbarian-rider sound (onomatopoeia)

She doesn’t hear her parents calling to her,

only the sound of the nomads riding on Mt. Yān.

万里赴戎机,关山度若飞。

Wànlǐ fù róng jī, guān shāndù ruò fēi.

10,000-mile go military moment / cut mountain-pass like flying

10,000 miles of riding to battle,

dashing across mountains and passes as if in flight.

朔气传金柝,寒光照铁衣。

Shuò qì chuán jīn tuò, hán guāng zhào tiě yī.

new.moon energy transmit metal watchman.rattle / cold light shine iron armor

The watchman’s clapper rings in the icy wind,

a cold light shines on iron armor.

将军百战死,壮士十年归。

Jiāngjūn bǎi zhàn sǐ, zhuàngshì shí nián guī.

general hundred battle die / warrior ten year return

Generals fight to the death in a hundred battles;

warriors return after ten years.

归来见天子,天子坐明堂。

Guīlái jiàn tiānzǐ, tiānzǐ zuò míngtáng.

return-come see heaven-son / heaven-son sit bright-hall

She returns to see the Emperor, seated in his bright hall.

策勋十二转,赏赐百千强。

Cè xūn shí’èr zhuǎn, shǎngcì bǎi qiān qiáng.

plant merit twelve turn / reward hundred thousand power

He bestows the highest honors on her, and countless sums.

可汗问所欲,“木兰不用尚书郎,

Kèhán wèn suǒ yù.“Mùlán bù yòng shàngshū-láng,

khan ask SUB desire / Mùlán not need honor-book-scholar

The khan asked what she wanted. “Mùlán does not need an appointment to office.

愿借明驼千里足,送儿还故乡。”

Yuàn jiè míng tuó qiānlǐ zú, sòng ér huán gùxiāng.”

will borrow bright camel thousand-mile sufficient / send child return home

I want only a camel capable of a long journey,

to carry me back to my home town.”

爷娘闻女来,出郭相扶将。

Yéniáng wén nǚ lái, chū guō xiāng fújiāng.

father-mother hear girl come / go.out city.wall mutual support

The parents hear that their daughter is coming;

they wait at the city wall, holding each other up.

阿姊闻妹来,当户理红妆。

Āzǐ wén mèi lái, dāng hù lǐ hóngzhuāng.

honorific-older.sister hear younger.sister come / at door arrange red-adornment

The older sister hears that her younger sister is coming,

she waits at the door, applying red makeup.

小弟闻姊来,磨刀霍霍向猪羊。

Xiǎodì wén zǐ lái, mó dāo huòhuò xiàng zhū yáng.

little-younger.brother hear older.sister come / grind knife (onomatopoeia) to pig sheep

The younger brother hears that his older sister is coming,

he quickly sharpens the knife for the pig and sheep.

“开我东阁门,坐我西阁床。

Kāi wǒ dōng gé mén, zuò wǒ xī gé chuáng.

open I east chamber gate / sit I west chamber bed

“I open the door on the east side of the room,

sit on the bed on the west side.

脱我战时袍,着我旧时裳。”

Tuō wǒ zhànshí páo, zhuó wǒ jiùshí cháng.

remove I battle-time robe / dress I former-time skirt

I take off my wartime gear, put on my old clothes.”

当窗理云鬓,对镜贴花黄。

Dāng chuāng lǐ yúnbìn, duì jìng tiē huā huáng.

at window arrange cloud-hair / facing mirror stick flower-yellow

At the window she arranges her flowing hair;

before a mirror she applies a flower decoration.

出门看火伴,火伴皆惊惶。

Chū mén kàn huǒbàn, huǒbàn jiē jīnghuáng.

go.out gate see fire-mate / fire-mate all shock-fear

She comes to the gate to meet her fellow soldiers,

who are all utterly shocked:

同行十二年,不知木兰是女郎。

Tóng xíng shí’èr nián, bù zhī Mùlán shì nǚláng.

with go twelve year / not know Mùlán be girl-youth

Her companions for twelve years didn’t know she was a woman.

“雄兔脚扑朔,雌兔眼迷离;

“Xióng tù jiǎo pū shuò, cí tù yǎn mílí;

male hare foot push north / female hare eye blurred

“[Held up,] the male rabbit’s foot kicks quickly;

the female rabbit’s eye is nearly closed.

两兔傍地走,安能辨我是雄雌!”

liǎng tù bàng dì zǒu, ān néng biàn wǒ shì xióng cí!”

both rabbit close earth go.along / how can distinguish I be male female

But if both are running on the ground,

how can I tell which is which?”

I’m almost done with the second draft, so it’s time for a page all about my China book. Ordering information will be there when the book is out.  I’m trying to get the book out before Christmas.  (I’m not certain about the cover yet; I have to see what it looks like as a physical object.)

A little pénjǐng

A little pénjǐng

Based on a suggestion from alert reader John Cowan, the title is now China Construction Kit, which fits neatly into my œuvre, and also avoids limiting the book to conlangers.

If you volunteered to read the second draft, I’ll be in touch shortly. I would still like to get readers who know Mandarin or Old Chinese well, so if that’s you, contact me.

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