Archive for Language and literature

All-purpose word for "glamorous woman"

The PRC authorities have always policed human behavior and thought, but especially during the last half year or so and particularly toward young people, for whatever reason, they have been coming on more gangbusters than usual.

First they went after the phenomenon of tǎngpíng 躺平 ("lying flat"), i.e., those who chose to opt out of the cutthroat rat race.  Then they chastised niángpào 娘炮 ("effeminate men"), i.e., girlie boys and men.  The social minders even drew a bead on jīngfēn 精芬  for socially averse millennials who identified themselves as spiritually Finnish.  These were serious efforts to squelch such unwanted tendencies in the population.  Now they have taken quite a different turn and are aiming at an altogether different target:  beautiful women.  Strange to say, they are coupling this campaign against female pulchritude with a crusade against Buddhism.

Well, it's not that strange after all, since communism has never been fond of religion, and Buddhism has often been persecuted by Chinese regimes, almost from the time of its arrival in the Middle Kingdom nearly two millennia ago.  Even the combination of feminine beauty and Buddhism reveals a certain psychological fixation on the baldness and celibacy of nuns in traditional Chinese society.

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Tang (618-907) poetry in Min pronunciation

Usually, though not always, when I Romanize Sinographs on Language Log, I do so using Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), but that is misleading, because MSM is only one of countless different topolectal pronunciations that could be used (Cantonese, Shanghainese, Sichuanese, and so on and so forth).  MSM is particularly ill-suited for the Romanization of pre-modern literature, since — of all topolects — it is the most highly evolved (ergo youngest) and least like earlier stages of Sinitic.  In this post, I will use Southern Min pronunciation to give a sense of how different it is from MSM.

The Min Romanizations have been prepared by Conal Boyce using a Yale-like system he developed in 1975 in preference to Douglas-Campbell.

Douglas, Carstairs (1899) [1873]. Chinese-English Dictionary of the Vernacular or Spoken Language of Amoy (2nd ed.). London: Presbyterian Church of England.

 Campbell, W. (1913). A Dictionary of the Amoy Vernacular. Tainan: Ho Tai Tong.

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Meng Wanzhou's "model essay", "parallel prose", and Pinyin for the masses

Meng Wanzhou 孟晚舟 is the Chief Financial Officer of Huawei (the PRC communications technology giant), who was arrested on financial fraud charges at Vancouver International Airport on December 1, 2018.  Nearly three years later, in exchange for two Canadian citizens (the "two Michaels", Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who had been summarily taken prisoner and held in Chinese jails for 1,020 days), she was released from detention and flew back to China on September 24, 2021.  The text quoted below was supposedly written by her on the flight from Canada to China.

Also provided is a photograph of people gathered in the Shenzhen airport to welcome her with red banners, two of which have Hanyu Pinyin phonetic annotations on them.

Questions have been raised about the nature and quality of the essay attributed to Meng.

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The Ossetes

Here at Language Log we know our Ossetes and have been learning much about Scythians (see "Selected readings"), so it is good to have this new (forthcoming) book by Richard Foltz: 

The Ossetes: Modern-Day Scythians of the Caucasus
New York / London: I. B. Tauris / Bloomsbury, 24 February 2022

Publisher's description:

The Ossetes, a small nation inhabiting two adjacent states in the central Caucasus, are the last remaining linguistic and cultural descendants of the ancient nomadic Scythians who dominated the Eurasian steppe from the Balkans to Mongolia for well over one thousand years. A nominally Christian nation speaking a language distantly related to Persian, the Ossetes have inherited much of the culture of the medieval Alans who brought equestrian culture to Europe. They have preserved a rich oral literature through the epic of the Narts, a body of heroic legends that shares much in common with the Persian Book of Kings and other works of Indo-European mythology. This is the first book devoted to the little-known history and culture of the Ossetes to appear in any Western language. Charting Ossetian history from Antiquity to today, it will be a vital contribution to the fields of Iranian, Caucasian, Post-Soviet and Indo-European Studies.

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Ambling, shambling, rambling, wandering, wondering: the spirit of Master Zhuang / Chuang

All the talk of moseying and ambling propelled me into a customary mode of mind.  Those who have taken classes with me know that, though I may start at a certain point in my lectures, it is difficult to predict how we will get to our intended destination, though we are certain to pass through many interesting and edifying scenes and scenarios along the way.

As I have stated on numerous occasions, my favorite Chinese work of all time is the Zhuang Zi / Chuang Tzu 莊子 (ca. 3rd c. BC).  The English title of my translation is Wandering on the Way.  The publisher wanted something more evocative than "Master Zhuang / Chuang" or "Zhuang Zi / Chuang Tzu", so I spent a couple of days coming up with about sixty possible titles, and they picked the one that I myself preferred, "Wandering on the Way", which is based on the first chapter of the book:  "Xiāoyáo yóu 逍遙遊" ("Carefree wandering").

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Hatred in model operas

From blood and gore to hatred.

In China, revolutionary operas or model operas (Chinese: yangban xi, 样板戏) were a series of shows planned and engineered during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) by Jiang Qing, the wife of Chairman Mao Zedong. They were considered revolutionary and modern in terms of thematic and musical features when compared with traditional Chinese operas. Many of them were adapted to film.

Originally, eight revolutionary operas (Chinese: Ba Ge Yangban Xi, 八个样板戏) were produced, eighteen by the end of the period. Instead of the "emperors, kings, generals, chancellors, maidens, and beauties" of the traditional Peking opera, which was banned as "feudalistic and bourgeois," they told stories from China's recent revolutionary struggles against foreign and class enemies. They glorified the People's Liberation Army and the bravery of the common people, and showed Mao Zedong and his thought as playing the central role in the victory of socialism in China. Although they originated as operas, they soon appeared on LPs, in comic books (lianhuanhua), on posters, postcards, and stamps; on plates, teapots, wash basins, cigarette packages, vases, and calendars. They were performed or played from loudspeakers in schools, factories, and fields by special performing troupes. The Eight Model Operas dominated the stage in all parts of the country during these years, leading to the joke "Eight hundred million people watched eight shows."

(source)

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The importance of translation for learning Literary Sinitic

After reading "Bad poetry, bad translation" (6/18/21), Zihan Guo wrote:

Thank you for sharing this post.

While reading it, its comments, and all the selected readings related to it, I could not help but feel that translating classical Chinese poetry is the way to make sure one really understands it. Back in middle school and high school in China, my teachers would teach poetry and prose through paraphrasing, making them coherent narratives. However, adding things is as detrimental as its opposite. It was not until college that I started to truly appreciate classical Chinese poetry, through producing English translations myself, struggling with its syntactic concision and lack of precision, squeezing meanings from diction and speculating moods from imagery.

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Good poetry, good translation

[This is a guest post by Denis Mair]

River Snow
Liu Zongyuan (773-819)

Over ranged mountains, no birds are seen in flight
On every pathway, human traces are being erased
In a solitary boat, an old man in rough-weather gear
Is out on the cold river, fishing in the snow

{Here the mountains are just a backdrop in a scene where falling snow makes things indistinct. Although precipitous mountains can "cut off" the flight of birds, I don't think this line is emphasizing the impassibility of mountains to birds. That would be a tangent. And to say that the birds are "receding in flight" would be over-particularizing the image, choosing only the birds that are flying away from the viewer. Surely, there could also be birds flying towards or lateral to the viewer. The important thing is that the snow is making it hard to see any birds flying, or they don't want to be out flying in the snow.}

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Bad poetry, bad translation

UC Santa Barbara’s Department of East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies just held “The Worst Chinese Poetry: A Virtual Roundtable" on June 1 and 2. It followed on “The Worst Chinese Poetry: A Virtual Workshop,” held in April.  Both events were organized by Thomas Mazanec, Xiaorong Li, and Hangping Xu.

Mazanec expects the roundtable to produce an anthology, “The Worst Chinese Poetry: A Critical Anthology,” which will feature selected bad poems and commentary that explains the issues that the poems raise about literary, social and political history, he said.

Source:  "Lyrical Losers,'The Worst Chinese Poetry: A Virtual Roundtable' will take a critical look at failures of the genre", By Jim Logan, The Current (UCSB) (Friday, May 28, 2021)

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"I am Chairman Mao's Bitch"

Jeff DeMarco saw this sign in the window of a building in Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan district in 2009:


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Orthographic variation in a pair of poems by a Japanese Zen monk and his mistress

From Bryan Van Norden:

I found interesting these paired poems by the 15th-century Japanese Zen monk Ikkyū (1394-1481) and by his mistress, the blind singer Mori. He writes his poem in Classical Chinese, because he is a man, but her poem is in hiragana, because she is a woman.   Below are photos of the original scroll, showing paintings of Ikkyū and Mori, from Arntzen's translation, and a more recent translation by Messer and Smith.   I am researching Ikkyū for what will ultimately be a five-minute segment in my class lecture on Zen this week.  I find that students have trouble appreciating what is at stake in the debate over metaphysical monism vs dualism. Ikkyū, a monk who frequented bars and brothels, shows one way of rejecting dualisms (like sacred vs profane, mind vs. body, monk vs. layperson).

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Glossing English with Sinograms

For more than five decades, Orville Schell has been one of our leading China expositors.  Having authored or co-authored a dozen books on Chinese affairs, he now turns his hand to a fictional biography with My Old Home:  A Novel of Exile (Penguin Random House, 2021).  Blurb from the publisher:

A uniquely experienced observer of China gives us a sweeping historical novel that takes us on a journey from the rise of Mao Zedong in 1949 to the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, as a father and his son are swept away by a relentless series of devastating events.
 
It’s 1950, and pianist Li Tongshu is one of the few Chinese to have graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Engaged to a Chinese-American violinist who is the daughter of a missionary father and a Shanghai-born mother, Li Tongshu is drawn not just by Mao’s grand promise to “build a new China” but also by the enthusiasm of many other Chinese artists and scientists living abroad, who take hope in Mao’s promise of a rejuvenated China. And so when the recently established Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing offers Li Tongshu a teaching position, he leaves San Francisco and returns home with his new wife.
 
But instead of being allowed to teach, Li Tongshu is plunged into Mao’s manic revolution, which becomes deeply distrustful of his Western education and his American wife. It’s not long before his son, Little Li, also gets caught up in the maelstrom of political and ideological upheaval that ends up not only savaging the Li family but, ultimately, destroying the essential fabric of Chinese society.

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Clumsy classicism

In his addresses to the Liǎnghuì 兩會 (Two Sessions), annual plenary meetings of the national People's Congress and the national committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference that have just concluded in Beijing (March 4-11), Xi Jinping repeatedly stressed “guó zhī dà zhě 国之大者”.  The grammar is clearly literary, with the first character a monosyllabic version of vernacular "guójiā 国家" ("country"), the second character a classical attributive particle, and the fourth character a classical nominalizing particle. Thus the phrase stands out like a sore thumb midst the matrix of vernacular in which it is mixed.  What's worse, even fluent readers of Mandarin generally misinterpret what it means.  Most educated persons to whom I've shown the phrase think that it means "big / large / powerful / great country", "that which (can be called) a big / large / powerful / great country"), etc., when in fact Xi intends for it to mean "something that is important for the country", "that which is important for the country" "things that are important for the country", etc.

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