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Mongolian museum mystery

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Kunlun: Roman letter phonophores for Chinese characters

Lucas Klein writes from Hong Kong:

I just read Don Wyatt’s Blacks of Premodern China (which I believe you published?), and I found that someone who had previously borrowed the book from the library had left a sticky note in it… and evidently whoever it was forgot how to write 崑崙, so wrote it out in pinyin with the mountain radical!

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The (alleged) untranslatability of Chinese poetry, part 2

[This is a guest post by Leanne Ogasawara]

After reviewing David Hinton’s latest book, China Root, for the Asian Review of Books, a friend pointed me to this discussion at LL. I was so happy to see old friends (Hi Bathrobe!) and wanted to leave a comment. Sadly, because I was so late in the game, I was unable to do so. But then, our wonderful host invited me to leave my comment as a guest post—thank you VM!!

I am a Japanese translator and an old friend of LL. For twenty years now I have been working on one particular modern Japanese poet, Takamura Kotaro. I started my translations of his Chieko Poems in Grad school and have been steadily working on them ever since, publishing a few here and there over the years. I would never have continued this if I thought Japanese poetry is untranslatable. And indeed like so like many people here, the article on the NYRBs drove me up the wall. Part of the problem is that it leads to discussions like we saw on the blog on September 26—discussions which inevitably started revolving around a bit of a straw man, since no one reasonable has ever said that Chinese poetry is “untranslatable." What people say is that something will be lost. And how much? This is the “traitor” in translation. And it is a valid thing to ask in English translations in a language like Japanese or Chinese. In this case, the writers mentioned in the article— Eliot Weinberger, Lucas Klein, Burton Watson, Stephen Owen, and David Hinton, among others— are concerned with the Chinese characters. And in Japanese this is further complicated by the choices authors make in using kanji as opposed to hiragana and katakana—how to ever convey that in English?

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Involution, part 2

[This is a guest post by Diana Shuheng Zhang.  It was prompted by "'Involution', 'working man', and 'Versailles literature': memes of embitterment" (12/23/20), where we discovered that the word "involution", which is little known in English-speaking countries, except in highly specialized contexts, has gone viral in China in a sense that is barely known in the West.]

The resource curse of Chinese textualism and Sinology's paradox of involuted plenty

I. Hyperabundance of texts

To me, the predicament of Sinology seems like a resource curse. The "paradox of plenty”. “Paradox of plenty” is an economic term, referring to the paradox that countries with an abundance of natural resources tend to have worse development outcomes than those with fewer natural resources. I have been thinking about this in my head for a few days. The “resource curse” for China studies is that Chinese culture, especially Classical Chinese-based culture of writings, has too many raw texts. The discovery of the Dunhuang manuscripts has added even more to the already abundant, if not excessive, textual residue that scholars devote their lives to, accumulating and laying out textual evidence before they can reach the point — maybe they never can if they do not intend to — of analyzing, integrating, utilizing, and theorizing them.

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Meryl Streep reciting a "Mandarin poem"

On The Late Show (12/8/20), Stephen Colbert coaxes Meryl Streep to recite a very famous Tang poem (her English rendition begins at 4:28 and her Mandarin recitation starts at 4:45 — total 6:02):

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Autumn sorrow

Barbara Phillips Long sent in these remarks from the comments section in a post at Lawyers, Guns, and Money about the feminist revolutionary Qiū Jǐn 秋瑾, executed by the Qing dynasty imperial authorities in 1907 (the post is headed by a striking statue of Qiu Jin):

I like the statue a lot too, so I did a deeper dive into Qiu Jin's Wikipedia page. This is her death poem, using her name (Qiu = autumn), before being publicly beheaded in her village: "秋風秋雨愁煞人" ("Autumn wind, autumn rain — they make one die of sorrow") brb off to make this my email signature.

Edit: I looked up 愁煞 chou2sha1 because the syntax in Chinese is very different from the English translation. I'm definitely not fluent, let alone understand classical Chinese poetry, so would be happy to hear from anyone who actually knows something about this stuff. 愁 by itself is "to worry" (but a more intense version of worry, I assume, since 擔心 dan1xin1 is the usual term people use). 煞 is a variation of 殺 (to kill, terminate, cut short, put a stop to, etc.)

So actually, I'd say it's much more violent in the original. Hard to translate without ambiguity in English ("Autumn wind and autumn rain kill us with sorrow"???), so I can see why the translation ended up the way it did.

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Eat vinegar, Jesus Christ, and Middle Persian

I've always been intrigued by the Chinese expression "eat vinegar" (chīcù 吃醋) meaning "be jealous".  To convey the idea of "jealous", one can also say dùjì 妒忌 or just dù 妒 (note the female semantophore).  I learned the disyllabic form with the syllables reversed, hence jìdù 忌妒.  The monosyllabic form (dù 妒) is ancient, going back to classical times.

I said jìdù 忌妒 instead of dùjì 妒忌 because the former is what all my Chinese friends and relatives said, though my impression is that the latter is more common across the Mandarin-speaking population.  Nonetheless, I felt that saying jìdù 忌妒 was awkward because, except for the tones, it is homophonous with Jīdū 基督, which I always understood as some form of "Jesus".  In fact, Jīdū 基督 is a short form of Jīlìsīdū 基利斯督, which is a transcription of "Christ", from Ancient Greek Χριστός (Khristós).  The Sinitic transcription of "Jesus" is Yēsū 耶稣, which ultimately also comes from Ancient Greek:  Ἰησοῦς (Iēsoûs), possibly via Latin Iesus and other European languages. Doublet of Yīyīsūsī 伊伊穌斯/伊伊稣斯.  (source)

Incidentally, jì 忌 is a simplified form of  嫉 ("to envy, be jealous; to hate, resent").  Note that this traditional form of the character, like dù 妒, its synonymous morpheme partner in the disyllabic word jídù 嫉妒 ("jealous"), also has a female semantophore.  Thus we get a double whammy of misogyny in jídù 嫉妒 ("jealous").  

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Wattle gate

Stefan Krasowski, who graduated from the Wharton School of Penn in 2002, and has visited every country in the world, just wrote this note to the e-Mair list:

Wattleseed milkshake

This Australian milkshake brought to mind a VHM Classical Sinitic class where I first encountered the word "wattle" in translating a Du Fu (712-770) poem.

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Learning Tamil

Recently we have had a string of posts on South Asian linguistic phenomena.  Most of the languages involved have been Indic, and will probably continue to be predominantly so during the coming months and years.  Consequently, I'm delighted today to make a post about Tamil, a Dravidian language with a glorious heritage.

Except where otherwise noted, the indented paragraphs below are by Carrie Wiebe (professor of Chinese language and literature at Middlebury).  They are integral and self-explanatory, so I will make few interpolations.

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This bore is not a bore

I was thrilled when I came upon this 3:04 YouTube video by chance on the morning of the mid-Autumn festival (October 1):

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The (alleged) untranslatability of Chinese poetry

Review:

"Poems Without an ‘I’", by Madeleine Thien
NYRB October 8, 2020 Issue

The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai (Li Po)
by Ha Jin
Pantheon, 301 pp.

The Selected Poems of Tu Fu: Expanded and Newly Translated
by David Hinton
New Directions, 267 pp.

Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry
by David Hinton
Shambhala, 138 pp.

I have never been a fan of the view that Chinese poetry is untranslatable, or that  any other genres of Chinese literature, for that matter, are untranslatable.  Since I have done a huge amount of translation in my lifetime, if I accepted the notion that Chinese literature is untranslatable, I would long ago have made a gigantic fool of myself.  Quite the contrary, I am content with my accomplishments in translating all sorts of Chinese literature into English, and I believe that what I have done enriches the intellectual life of Americans and other speakers of English by making available to them an equivalent emotional and esthetic experience as that afforded to Chinese readers of the works in their original language.

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Historical dialectology and the Poetry Classic

[This is a guest post by John Carlyle written in response to the following comment by E. Bruce Brooks to "Similes for female pulchritude in an ancient Chinese poem" (7/1/20):

The formation of the Shr* corpus is currently under serious study, and it can be said with some certainty at this preliminary stage that this particular poem was added to the growing Shr collection at the end of the 05c. How much older it may be, in its own country (Wei) will depend on scrutiny of its dialect position: some of the poems from that area show traces of (original) local pronunciation; others do not. Stay tuned.

*Shījīng 詩經, aka Poetry Classic, Classic of Poetry, Shijing, Shih-ching, Book of Songs, Book of Odes, Odes, or Poetry.]

   There is justification that Wey's 衛 dialect position might suggest something about the age of some of the poems in the Wey airs. The dialect position of Wey is better understood for the later period. What that might suggest about earlier poetry is still not clear. I'll try to give a quick summary of what we know so far.

   At least by the time of Fangyan 《方言》, Wey belonged to an eastern group of Chinese dialects. The exact limits of this eastern group are not entirely settled nor are the phonological features shared by the group since studies of Fangyan are primarily lexical. Since the time of Lin Yutang's (1927) first approximation of Fangyan dialect boundaries, the dialects of Wey and Song have been grouped together. Later scholars also included neighboring states like Qi (but not "Eastern Qi") and Lu. More recently, Matsue Takashi (1999, 2006, 2013) argues that the eastern group's boundaries extent as far as Chen and that the dialect of Chen was a transitional dialect between the eastern and southern groups due to Chu incursion (2006, 2013).

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Similes for female pulchritude in an ancient Chinese poem

From Shī jīng 詩經 (Poetry Classic), circa 6th c. BC:

(Her) hands are like catkins;
skin is like congealed lard;
neck is like larva of longicorn;
teeth are like calabash seeds;
forehead (like that of) cicada,
eyebrows (like antennae of) moth,
(her) enchanting smile is winsome;
(her) beautiful eyes are clear-set.
         — Ode 57, tr. Diana Shuheng Zhang

Shǒu rú róu tí
fū rú níng zhī
lǐng rú qiú qí
chǐ rú hù xī
qín shǒu é méi
qiǎo xiào qiàn xī
měi mù pàn xī.
      —— Wèi fēng·shuòrén

手如柔荑
膚如凝脂
領如蝤蠐
齒如瓠犀
螓首蛾眉
巧笑倩兮
美目盼兮。
 —— 衛風·碩人

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