China


I just read this, by 刘慈欣 Liú Cíxīn, a name almost designed to confuse people who don’t know Chinese. You can get close to it with lyoh tse-sheen. His given name means ‘kind (and) glad’; the surname Liu has no current meaning, but happens to be that of the rulers of the Han dynasty.

I liked the book a lot, though I’m going to have trouble describing it, because it’s written in the form a mystery. So even saying what it’s about is a spoiler. This mystery is initially faced by a nanotech physicist, Wang Miao, and a cop, Shi Qiang. In the near future, they’re called to a strange meeting where they hear about a wave of suicides among top physics researchers. One of the physicists they meet is playing a virtual reality game called Three Body, and that gets Wang playing the game as well. Oh, and the book starts with a sequence set in the Cultural Revolution, focused on a very unlucky physics student, Ye Wenjie.

This sounds rather random and slow, but it’s a whole Chekhov’s armory. Everything ends up being connected and important.

I always skip the testimonials and other stuff that comes before the title page, and now I see that the very first page gives the plot away. But, well, I still won’t. I’ll say, though, that the trilogy of which this is the first book can be described as space opera.

So the first thing I’d say about the book is that it’s very tightly plotted, though it doesn’t seem so at first. And the second thing is that it’s pretty compelling– once I got going, I kept reading till the end.

It’s pretty interesting to see sf from a non-American perspective. Liu has said that he doesn’t write sf to comment on contemporary society; but he does of course write within it. American sf has tracked the corruption of our own society: classic sf came from a confident, ever-more-prosperous society, and largely projected that into the future; as plutocracy took over, sf plunged into endless dystopias. China has almost the opposite trajectory: two centuries of frustrating oppression, of which the Cultural Revolution was only a  part, and then a burst of dizzying progress. But while the Cultural Revolution lives in current memory, there’s not the same triumphalism of 1950s American sf. (In an interview, Liu mentions that Chinese sf is usually dystopian, and he’s considered an optimist.)

If you’ve read my China Construction Kit, that would be excellent preparation for this book, as you’ll already know some historical figures that show up here. (They’re explained in footnotes, but it’s more fun to recognize them rather than be told.)

I would say, on the whole, that Liu is like classic sf in that he’s more interested in ideas than in people. It’s not that he’s bad with people, or that they seem artificial; but it’s definitely not a character study, and for the most part they are fulfilling roles demanded by the plot. So, Wang is just curious enough to go talk to people and play the Three Body game, and react with the appropriate puzzlement or despair; Shi is the cop who doesn’t play by the rules but gets things done, on loan from every cop movie. It works fine, but Liu obviously has more fun when he gets to talk about string theory or the titular problem in celestial mechanics.

(One bit did seem unconvincing: a description of future technology involving a couple of protons. They seemed a bit overpowered. But it is future tech, which is after all pretty hard to talk about.)

One more thought, which I’ll leave in white to avoid spoilers. Liu makes a case that the existence of aliens would be terrifying news. The book has been compared to War of the Worlds, and it’s notable that both Wells and Liu are well aware of the problem of colonialism. China was a great victim of it; Wells had a guilty conscience about it. Americans, by contrast, barely got into the business of direct colonialism; they’re neither conquerors or conquered, so they’re far more likely to think about aliens as exciting and interesting. 

I never got into watching sports much.  And I still don’t! But it turns out I like watching esports, namely, Overwatch League and other high level play.  It’s back for 2019, and in just the second week we got the upset we’ve been waiting for since forever: the Shanghai Dragons won.

dragons-win

If you’re not quite sure what that’s about: Shanghai had the worst record in the first season, 0-40. And despite a near total change in team roster, they seemed to continue it last week with two more losses. Yet they’ve been a fan favorite, largely because they have the only female player in Overwatch, Geguri.

(Not the longest drought for a team I’ve supported though.  That would be my alma mater, Northwestern U., whose football team lost every game during the four years I attended. Well, as we always said, our SATs were higher.)

If you know nothing about Overwatch, the rest of the post may well be undecipherable. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Tonight’s match was pretty decisive, though: 3-1 on maps.  The first two maps were close to blowouts; the third was a nailbiter. It was a capture map, Horizon Lunar Colony.  Shanghai and Boston each capped both points, for a score of 2-2. But Shanghai had nearly 5 minutes more time going into the next round… still, they lost a lot of that time advantage, and both teams capped again.  Now it was 4-4.  Third round: Boston didn’t have much time, but they got 2 of 3 ticks on the first point. Shanghai had to beat the capture percentage of 79.5%… and they did, in a chaotic fight that lasted all of one minute.  (They had 1:17 left on the clock.)

The crowd went wild; whereas there are few things sadder than the panning shot over the Boston team just after their loss.  (“Someone had the break the streak… but why us?”)

The outstanding player of the match was new: Dding, on Sombra.  He was constantly behind the enemy scouting and hacking, and his timing on her EMP was spot on. This was particularly fun to watch since I sometimes play Sombra.  I’m trying to learn the playstyle: hack and shoot till you start to lose health, then teleport back to where you left your translocator.  Unless I forget to set it up, which I do at least once per game.  Needless to say, Dding does not have this problem.

Matches so far this season have been full of surprises. Last year’s top three teams were New York, Los Angeles Valiant, and Boston. As of tonight, New York is still on top, but the other two are in the bottom six; indeed, Boston is the team that Shanghai just beat. London, which won the championship last year, is also in the bottom six.

The eight expansion teams have done surprisingly well: right now five of them are in the top eight in the standings.  Matchups have also been startlingly non-transitive.  Dallas, which I also support because of streamer/coach Jayne, is 1-2, but one of those wins was against third-place Seoul. Hangzhou slaughtered two teams last week, but lost tonight to #14 Houston. Seoul has beaten Chengdu, which beat Guangzhou, which beat Dallas, which beat Seoul.

Probably things will sort out soon enough. But I’d say that at this level of play, Overwatch is not quite predictable: the game rules provide a final ranking that does not necessarily correspond to team skill.  These are all really good players who fight as a unit, and most team fights begin with a single kill.  Somebody’s gotta go, and it may be semi-random. At my level, a 5×6 fight is far from definitive, but at the pro level, it generally means a lost fight. And ults are a huge wild card whose success depends on split-second timing, and very careful tracking of enemy ults. I’ve watched a lot of team fights where you’d really have to watch several times at slow speed to figure out why it went the way it did.

Lots of people have been complaining about Goats, or 3-3 as the casters call it: the three-tank three-support meta that’s been dominant since last summer. I think most people don’t like it because you have to be pretty high level to play it, much less appreciate it. Most people want to play DPS, and as Jayne says, all but high-level games are usually played as DPS deathmatch. At my level, it’s hard to even get two tanks per game. If you play DPS, you watch pro play and don’t see anyone playing your hero. (I don’t mind so much, because my main characters are tanks, D.Va and Orisa.)

Thanks to some recent game changes, Goats is slightly less dominant; some teams have ran a Symmetra, and some games tonight featured Reaper and Soldier. A few teams have tried a one-tank strategy, that tank being Hammond, which seems really weird.

It’s been kind of cringey listening to the casters trying to pronounce Chinese names. You’d think they would have someone they could ask, like the players. If you want to do better than most of the casters do:

  • Guangzhou = gwahng joe
  • Hangzhou  = hahng joe
  • Chengdu = chung do
  • Shanghai = shahng high

The -ang has the same /a/ vowel as in hot, father, taco; it doesn’t rhyme with hang or hung. For an even closer pronunciation, see my book.

Anyway, hoping Dallas can pull it together tomorrow afternoon…

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.)

 

 

 

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.)

 

 

 

 

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