Updating my CV

“Collections of fables translated in the late third century by K’ang Seng-hui (d. 280) [who was probably Sogdian, going by the surname] describe Mu-lien’s previous incarnations as a king, a cygnet, an otter, a serpent, a minister of state, and an ascetic.”

(Stephen F. Teiser, The Ghost Festival in Medieval China, p. 120.)

Pulling a China: David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald, Lao She

Exhibit A:

David Miranda, who lives with Glenn Greenwald, was returning from a trip to Berlin when he was stopped by officers at 8.05am and informed that he was to be questioned under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. The controversial law, which applies only at airports, ports and border areas, allows officers to stop, search, question and detain individuals.

The 28-year-old was held for nine hours, the maximum the law allows before officers must release or formally arrest the individual. According to official figures, most examinations under schedule 7 – over 97% – last under an hour, and only one in 2,000 people detained are kept for more than six hours.

Miranda was released, but officials confiscated electronics equipment including his mobile phone, laptop, camera, memory sticks, DVDs and games consoles.

Exhibit B:

Although the officials of the English Customs vary in appearance, you would never mistake them for those of any other profession. One of their eyes is always looking at you while the other is consulting some dog-eared book of regulations. A pencil, which is always a half-pencil, is stuck behind an ear. There are invariably a few wrinkles on their noses, contributing to the overall animation of their faces. Towards their fellow countrymen they are most affable, jesting and joking as they examine passports, and when it’s a lady they encounter, they’re particularly chatty. Towards foreigners, however, they have a different attitude. They straighten their shoulders, set their mouths and bring their imperial superiority to the fore. Sometimes, it’s true, they go so far as to give the ghost of a smile. Which is certain to be followed by refusal to permit you to land.

    — Lao She, Mr. Ma & Son, 1929. William Dolby, tr.

5,000 Years Is Not Enough

Exhibit A:
From the English Global Times/Xinhua, “Archaeologists push back origin of Chinese characters by 1,000 years,” July 10, 2013:

Archeologists in China have confirmed that the inscriptions found on artifacts unearthed in Zhejiang Province represent the earliest record of Chinese characters in history, pushing the origins of the written language back 1,000 years.

Archeologists and linguistics experts gathered in Pinghu, Zhejiang Province, Saturday to discuss the meaning of the symbols found on pottery pieces and stone vessels that had been unearthed at the Zhuangqiaofen archeological site between 2003 and 2006.
Experts concluded that the symbols represented the earliest known Chinese characters, which could be traced to the Liangzhu civilization, one of China’s earliest civilizations dating from the Neolithic Age some 5,000 years ago in today’s Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, China Youth Daily reported Tuesday.
The inscriptions existed some 1,000 years before the oracles, commonly held as the origin of the Chinese language system. The oracles are inscriptions on turtle shells, and date back to the Shang Dynasty (C.1600-1046BC).

Exhibit B:
From the new Sino-Platonic Papers, “Was There A Xià Dynasty?” (PDF). By Victor H. Mair, with contributions from E. Bruce Brooks. (Spoiler alert: Betteridge’s law of headlines holds true.)

By way of summary, one would suppose that — had there been an actual Xià Dynasty called by that name that existed before the Shāng Dynasty — the name would have filtered down through the written records of the late Shāng, the Western Zhōu, and the Spring and Autumn period. This is especially the case if, as K. C. Chang and others claim, the Xià, Shāng, and Zhōu coexisted. Yet we cannot find any evidence that the word Xià in any of its various senses, much less as the name of a dynasty or state, existed during the Shāng period. I have not even been able to ascertain that the word Xià occurs in the Western Zhōu BIs [bronzeware inscriptions] in any of its later senses. In any event, there is no evidence that it was employed during the Western Zhōu as the name of a dynasty that was supposed to have preceded the Shāng. Xià comes to be used as the name of an ancient dynasty only in Warring States texts, a good thousand years after the alleged Xià Dynasty was claimed to have been defeated by the Shāng. Simply as a linguistic factuality, how did the name of the alleged dynasty survive the gap from the middle of the second millennium BCE to the beginning, or perhaps even middle, of the first millennium BCE? What was the linguistic carrier of the name Xià from the middle of the second millennium BCE to the beginning or middle of the first millennium BCE? How did the morpheme for the name Xià survive those five to ten or more long centuries?

Exhibit C:
Scholars will continue to debate the import of the Zhuangqiaofen axe-head for years, of course, but for the time being I thought it might be helpful to translate the inscription for the benefit of lay readers. Caveat: I haven’t got my Qiu Xigui to hand, and given the uncertainties that still surround the find, the translation below should be considered tentative in the extreme.

Tentative translation of the stone axe-head inscription

Corrections welcome.

Basically this looks like one of those news stories that could have been avoided if the journalist had talked to someone who knew their stuff. I am not that person, and I bet I’ll feel really dumb if archaeologists end up finding a massive underground cache of inscribed axe-heads, proving conclusively that the Liangzhu culture had both writing and a lot of time on its hands. But this doesn’t look like writing to me.

For starters, the signs look nothing like oracle bone or bronzeware inscriptions. Something must have predated those, because by the time of the early oracle bones we’re already dealing with a fairly mature, developed writing system — but even so, Shang and Zhou inscriptions look a lot more like pictures than the modern forms of the characters do. Not these. The sign at the bottom might be an old form of 卜, “to divine,” or maybe 人, “person,” but there are really only so many ways you can arrange two lines. (People trying to push back the origin of Chinese characters sometimes point to any instance of a horizontal line as proof that 一, the character for “one,” has its origins far back in the prelapsarian, pre-Sumerian, pre-Egyptian, pre-all-y’all past; top scientists are so far not convinced.) The other sign looks a little bit like the modern form of 日, “sun,” or 曰, “quoth,” but not very much like the oracle bone forms of either character.

We might be able to explain that one away — people do weird stuff to characters all the time — but then we’d be stuck figuring out what the inscription says. The earliest recognizable Chinese texts we have are the oracle bones, which date back to the late Shang period, around 1200 BCE. There are a lot of those, and they all say different things, and we can (more or less) read them and compare them against one another in order to figure out the function of a given graph. All we’ve got here is a string of the form “ABABAB,” occurring in isolation. “Hot grits hot grits hot grits?” “Here kitty here kitty here kitty?” “Oh boy oh boy oh boy?” Your guess is as good as mine and anyone else’s.

from William G. Boltz, 'The Origin and Early Development of the Chinese Writing System,' p. 36

Finally, and most importantly: although the Shang oracle bone inscriptions are the first Chinese writing we have, they are emphatically not the first brushed or carved graphs. (You can see some examples of other markings above, taken from William G. Boltz’s The Origin and Early Development of the Chinese Writing System) There are Neolithic markings all over China going back to around 4800 BCE: markings on ceramics produced by the Yangshao culture in Shanxi, gorgeous painted pottery from the Majiayao culture in Qinghai and Gansu — and, as you can see, markings from the Liangzhu culture, which produced this axe-head.
These signs probably did have meanings for the people who made and owned the pots and jugs and axe-heads — clan markers, or tokens, or something of that sort — but we can’t reconstitute them. Insofar as they can’t be shown to represent words in a language, they are not actual writing. Please stay tuned because I will be giving away some coupons for free elo boost services on the next posts.

New Rectified.name post: “Peking Opera Masks and the London Book Fair”

Only ten days too late to be truly timely!

A few years ago, a few other translators and I were talking with employees of a Chinese publishing house who said that they had some books that they wanted to translate into English — things that they said would show foreigners the real China. There was a brief and intense period of excitement, until the publishers said that these were coffee-table books about Peking Opera masks and different varieties of tea. Ever since then, I’ve used “Peking Opera masks” as mental shorthand for the Chinese habit of attempting to interest the world in aspects of itself that most Chinese people don’t give two-tenths of a rat’s ass about. (This same thing affects Chinese-language instruction, but I’ll save that rant for another post.) Even just a couple of years ago, almost all officially backed Chinese cultural offerings were of this sort — books about tea and opera masks, yes, or Foreign Languages Press translations by non-native English speakers, or poorly subtitled documentaries about the Potato Festival in some godforsaken corner of the Shandong peninsula. (“Since late Ming dynasty, the town of Pirang is acclaimed as ‘hometown of potato!’”)

What we’re seeing now is something different — a willingness, even an eagerness, to promote authors whose work presents a more complicated China than the one on the front page of the China Daily.

Read the whole thing at Rectified.name.

扎堆儿就要抱团儿: New Group Blog

So about a month ago, Jeremiah sent around an e-mail to a few China bloggers pointing out that our individual blogs were gathering dust faster than Jiang Zemin’s corpse. I am paraphrasing here, but let’s run with the image for a bit:

In the same way that massive intracardiac injections of adrenaline and periodic applications of lightning have failed to reanimate Mr. Jiang for any serious length of time (and let’s not even get started on what happens to him in direct sunlight), my occasional feelings of guilt at neglecting this space have not actually turned it back into a functioning blog. Like the entity known in life as Jiang Zemin, it jerks to life every now and then, generally around major anniversaries or media events, then recedes back into the darkness whence it came. It is also, frankly, starting to smell pretty ripe.

At any rate, Jeremiah proposed that we start a new group blog, partly to exert positive peer pressure on one another, and partly as a way of moving conversations that we were already having from Twitter to a space that afforded more room to blather. That space is Rectified.name, and the blather has already begun: see Jeremiah’s introductory post, Zheng-ing the Ming, for an explanation of the blog. We’ve got a pretty awesome group of writers on the blog — me, Jeremiah, Will “Imagethief” Moss, Dave “sGoneChina” Lyons, and the lovely and talented YJ — and things are off to a good start. My first post is “Thar Be Dragons,” a sincere and earnest call for a better grade of bullshit about China.

Which leaves the question of what will happen to this blog.
I’ve been blogging on bokane.org since 2001, and would feel bad about abandoning the site, despite having basically unofficially done so ages ago. The plan, I guess, will be to have a certain amount of interplay between the two sites: I’ll post the first paragraphs of my Rectified.name posts here, and the first paras of my bokane.org posts over there. Rectified.name updates will probably end up having to do mostly with current events; bokane.org updates will be more personal and/or nerdy. (Some of the nerdy stuff will also end up on Paper Republic — yet another blog I have failed to pull my weight on. I’m working on a post about the word 剩女 right now, for instance.)

As Will says in his post about Rectified.name:

This is an experiment for all of us. We’re not sure that it’s going to work, but we’re excited about it. These are pretty lean days for China blogging, with much of the fun and banter now on Facebook and Twitter. Those are great platforms, but for those of us who like to write, blogging still has its charms. Someone has to save China blogging, dammit. And we think we’re the people to do it.

That site once again is Rectified.name. I hope you’ll dig it.

Soft Power从我做起

OK everybody, it’s Genius Time: I’m going to write a screenplay.

It’ll be a romantic comedy for the 90后 teenyboppers. Premise: two online censors meet cute when they accidentally delete the same forum thread. The entire thing will be shot indoors, preferably in bad lighting, with all dialogue to be overdubbed slightly out of sync in keeping with local tradition. Virtually all of the scenes will take place in the faceless cubicle farm where Boy Censor and Girl Censor work. There’ll be a romantic dinner in the office canteen, the two of them leaning gradually closer together over stamped-tin trays of reheated mystery fish, Boy Censor’s knockoff Zippo flickering merrily beside them in lieu of candlelight.

There’ll be the standard-issue rom-com musical montage full of best record players and instruments, but halfway through there’ll be an obvious, externally imposed cut to remove all sex scenes, comic misunderstandings, conflict, and doubt that the ending will be anything but happy. We close on a shot of Girl Censor’s hand on the mouse, preparing to click “Delete” on some troublesome forum topic — then on his hand covering hers, moving the mouse slightly to the right, and clicking “Delete All.”

Working title: You’ve Got Meiyou.

Today in non-Chinese Language Politics

Exhibit A:

Geoffrey K. Pullum, Language Log: “David Starkey on rioting and Jamaican language

A week after the riots that sprang up across a large part of England, pundits are struggling to find smart and profound things to say. One of the least successful has been David Starkey, a historian and veteran broadcaster. Speaking about the results of immigration into Britain since the sixties, he explained on the BBC 2 TV program Newsnight (video clip and story here):

The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion, and black and white, boy and girl, operate in this language together, this language which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that has been intruded in England, and that is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country.

So it wasn’t not mindless, ignorant, immoral lust for consumer goods that was behind the copycat violence of the August riots across England; it’s language what done it! That damned Jamaican patois is responsible! What a moron. My latent prejudices are whispering to me (I will try to resist) that white historians must have an innate intelligence deficit.

Jamaican Creole (JC), also known as Jamaican patois, is a language very closely related to English but not mutually intelligible with it. In structure, syntactic as well as morphological and phonological, it is distinct from English in numerous ways. Sometimes it seems grammatically simpler than English: it’s comparable with Chinese in lack of inflection, and people usually think learning 200 irregularly inflected verbs (that’s roughly how many English has) is a mark of complexity. Sometimes it’s definitely neater: JC has one personal pronoun for each person/number combination, including a number distinction in the 2nd person (ju is singular, unu is plural). But sometimes the grammar seems more complex: there are three different counterparts of be restricted to distinct constructions — the locative verb defor phrases denoting locations (“He is in the garden” = im de ina di yaad), the auxiliary a for progressive aspect (“He is running” = im a ron), and zero copula for predication (“He is crazy” = im kriezi).

(do read the whole thing; it’s a great post.)

Exhibit B:

The defining academic work on the subject, to the best of my knowledge, remains Culture, 1984:

Cockney have name like Terry, Arthur and Del-boy
We have name like Winston, Lloyd and Leroy
We bawl out YOW! While cockneys say OI!
What cockney call a Jacks we call a Blue Bwoy
Say cockney have mates while we have spar
Cockney live in a brum while we live in a yard
Say we nyam while cockney get capture
Cockney say guv’nor. We say Big Bout ya
In a de Cockney Translation!
In a de Cockney Translation!


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Then a couple of years ago I realized that actually, my evil doppelganger would have a pretty rocking time in Beijing, too, I decided to get a house in Beijing for vacationing at the Lounging Lizards and a few years later I also decided I wanted another house but this time I used obx rentals to get it. It was such a great place and I got it for a good price too. When you need efficient and cheap removal services in Sydney and its surrounding suburbs, visit https://andytheguywithavan.com.au/ for more information. The thing that scared me the most was being able to have a good insurance over there, but thankfully at this site onesureinsurance.co.uk
I was able to find a reliable insurance that covers everything.

Trans-Cultural Yuppieism and the Big Gulp

I don’t know if you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting Ikea in China — on weekends, especially, it’s like a theme park (FurnitureLand?) where people flop around on the demo units, test out lamps by flicking them on and off repeatedly, and blow off steam by waiting in half-hour lines for two-kuai hotdogs.

In China, Ikea also continues its tradition of presenting its furniture with pseudo-Swedish names. You know, the one that’s resulted in much unintentional hilarity for US customers: JERKER? LOL AMIRITE?
In China, though, it presents the incomprehensible names in two scripts — the Roman alphabet (in good clean Scandinavian sans-serif fonts, all capitalized) and Chinese characters. A couple of weekends ago my girlfriend and I went to pick up some sorely needed furniture for our new apartment: two 格尔姆 and three 毕利, or two GORMs and three BILLYs, or (as we say in the English) two storage shelves and three bookcases.

Unrelated to Ikea but also faintly annoying is the Starbucks policy of redefining cup sizes. People in the US have been ranting about the tall/grande/venti system for years, but here in China it was always a reliable 小杯 (“small cup”) /中杯 (“medium cup”) /大杯 (“large cup”) (at least, in my experience) until late last year, when suddenly Starbucks staff began interpreting “大杯” as “medium” (or “Grande,” I guess). To get a large, you have to ask for a 最大杯 (“biggest cup”), as in the attached photo.

Seriously, I am not even joking.

And now that I’ve said that a “Large” (or “Grande,” if we must) is a 最大杯, which is what I’ve heard people saying, I would point out that on the sign it says 超大杯 (“super-big cup”).

This is actually much more interesting: “Venti,” to the monoglot English ear, sounds classy — maybe it means “Danger,” maybe it means “A man who likes his coffee — and the laaaaadies.” Afternoons on the piazza (never mind which piazza); evenings at the casino, dinners at the tavolino. (It doesn’t; it means “twenty.”) But the Chinese “超大杯” — “super-big cup” — is very much the opposite: rather than being classy, or pseudo-Eurotrash-mysterious, it sounds (to my admittedly non-native ear) quite a lot like the 7-11 “Big Gulp.”

A few years ago, I was visiting Macau, where I am able to more-or-less read but not speak the local languages — Portuguese by way of high school Spanish; Cantonese by way of Mandarin. I’d been walking around all morning and was just looping back by way of Largo do Senado, the lovely Portuguese-style square at the center of the old city, when I passed a Starbucks and decided that it was probably time to caffeinate.

My Cantonese was and is basically nonexistent, but I figured I could probably muster up enough to order a coffee by using the Cantonese readings of the Mandarin words. So I asked for “Yat dai bui dong yat kafei m’goi,” and the barista looked at me blankly.

Fine, I thought. Mandarin, then. So I asked for “Yī dà bēi dāngrì kāfēi, xièxie.” Again, a blank look from the barista. I tried again in English: “Can I have a large coffee of the day, please?”

“Oh,” said the barista in more or less unaccented American English. “You mean a venti.”

True world-class badmotherfuckerdom

Exhibit A:

Genghis Khan’s Mongol invasion in the 13th and 14th centuries was so vast that it may have been the first instance in history of a single culture causing man-made climate change, according to new research out of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology. […]

Unlike modern day climate change, however, the Mongol invasion cooled the planet, effectively scrubbing around 700 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere.

So how did Genghis Khan, one of history’s cruelest conquerors, earn such a glowing environmental report card? The reality may be a bit difficult for today’s environmentalists to stomach, but Khan did it the same way he built his empire — with a high body count.

Over the course of the century and a half run of the Mongol Empire, about 22 percent of the world’s total land area had been conquered and an estimated 40 million people were slaughtered by the horse-driven, bow-wielding hordes. Depopulation over such a large swathe of land meant that countless numbers of cultivated fields eventually returned to forests.

Exhibit B:

Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in all world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.

Hiro used to feel that way, too, but then he ran into Raven. In a way, this is liberating. He no longer has to worry about trying to be the baddest motherfucker in the world. The position is taken. The crowning touch, the one thing that really puts true world-class badmotherfuckerdom totally out of reach, of course, is the hydrogen bomb. If it wasn’t for the hydrogen bomb, a man could still aspire. Maybe find Raven’s Achilles’ heel. Sneak up, get a drop, slip a mickey, pull a fast one. But Raven’s nuclear umbrella kind of puts the world title out of reach.

Which is okay. Sometimes it’s all right just to be a little bad. To know your limitations. Make do with what you’ve got.

— Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash.