All posts by Brendan O'Kane

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.

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, 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!

Morning, October 1

Last night’s dismal attempt at rain — whether artificial or manmade — doesn’t seem to have done much: the sky is distinctly overcast, though the air at least doesn’t seem to have the velvety quality it did yesterday.
I’m guessing that right now there are a lot of people a couple of blocks south of me on Chang’an Jie who are burning incense, rubbing rabbits’ feet, sighing heavily and looking up towards the sky every thirty seconds or so, and really, really hoping this clears up within the next three hours. The 60th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s speech from the rostrum at Tian’anmen announcing the new People’s Republic of China really ought to be a blue-sky day, after all.

It brings to mind a passage from the start of 王小波 Wang Xiaobo’s novella 2010:

2010年我住在北戴河,住在一片柴油燃烧的烟云之下。冬天的太阳出来以后,我看到的是一片棕色的风景。这种风景你在照片和电视上都看不到,因为现在每一个镜头的前面都加了蓝色的滤光片。这是上级规定的。这种风景只能用肉眼看见。假如将来有一天,上级规定每个人都必须戴蓝色眼镜的话,就再没有人能看到这样的风景。天会像上个世纪一样的蓝。领导上很可能会做这样的规定,因为这样一来,困扰我们的污染问题就不存在了。

In 2010 I lived in the seaside town of Beidaihe under a blanket of diesel smoke. In winter when the sun came out it revealed a sweeping vista of beige. You wouldn’t see this in pictures or on TV, of course, because every lens had a blue filter in front of it. Orders from the top. This scene you could only see with the naked eye. If one day the order came down for everybody to wear blue-tinted glasses, then there’d be nobody at all to see it. The sky would look just as blue as it had during the last century. It seemed likely that they would come out with a rule like that any day now, so that all the air pollution we’d been complaining about would simply cease to exist.

Update 7:10 am: It may not rain on their party, but it looks like it’s about to rain on ours: All foreign acts booked for this week’s Modern Sky festival have been yanked. Oh well; I guess listening to Song Zuying belting out patriotic moldy oldies in her simpering grackle squawk is almost as good as getting to see The Buzzcocks.

Update 8:37 am: The skies are clear! Truly, what wise and powerful leaders we have!

Update 8:44 am: @davesgonechina: CCTV-9 unintentional humor: “Many people gather at Mao’s tomb to reflect on the great leader’s legacy. We’re not going to talk a lot about that.”

Update 10:18 am: Hu Jintao’s custom Red Flag sedan is totally cash. He’s SO getting laid with a car like that.

Update 10:20 am: Looks like there’s a fourth Red Flag in the motorcade as a backup: it’s empty, open-top, and also outfitted with microphones.

Update 10:28 am: What changes thirty years of Reform and Opening-Up have wrought: look at all of the salutes to gay pride. And Comrade Hu even came out as a 同志! Go, New China! Keep reaching for that rainbow!

Update 10:30 am: Clumsy, inappropriate cut to audience applause footage.

Update 10:33 am: Joel notes that we were wise to abandon our National Day drinking game plans. Alcohol poisoning likely fatal within minutes.

Update 10:36 am: “为了国家、和平、民族、和谐…” That’s four shots we just dodged.

Update 10:41 am: Aaaaand time for the goose-stepping. (It’s OK to call it that if Xinhua does.) Don’t care what CCTV says, those hands are NOT perfectly level. Shape up, chumps!

Update 10:41 am: Human pixels on Tian’anmen Square now holding up cards that read 听党指挥 — “Listen to the Party’s Commands.” Wonder if that’s supposed to be addressed to the helicopter cameramen.

Update 10:43 am: @gadyepstein wonders what Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin are saying to each other up on the rostrum. My best guess:
H: “Did this go on this long when YOU were in charge?”
J: “Fuck you for arresting all of my guys.”

Update 10:46 am: Air stewardesses (?) carrying sidearms. Mm-mm-MM.

Update 10:54 am: Tanks rolling down Chang’an Jie while human pixels on Tian’anmen spell out 忠诚于党 “Remain Loyal to the Party.” No snark necessary.

Update 11:14 am: Rainbow planes streaming over the city now. Can hear them, and just saw them out my window, so not CGI. Rainbow!
I think @davesgonechina may have it: “You’ve got to wonder if they just googled for ‘international symbols of pride’ and got these.”

Update 11:43 am: Friend (via SMS): “Purple and orange beach balls represent Mao Zedong Thought HOW?”
Me: “The beach balls are 70% purple and 30% orange.”

Update 11:54 am: I like that the “rule of law” float is the one they clearly gave the least thought to. It’s a featureless block on wheels with a posterboard Constitution.

Update 11:56 am: CCTV-9 gives the weird English title “Asperas” for the space program float. Thought it might be typo for ‘Apsaras’ before realizing it’s probably from “ad astra per aspera.” (Note: upon later viewing of the Chinese broadcast it became clear that it was just a typo for  飞天 ‘Apsaras.’)

Update 12:04 pm: Hey, it’s the foreigner float! Dance, monkeys, dance!

We also discovered during the rebroadcast of the parade that the marching and camera cuts synced up almost perfectly with Rage Against the Machine, “Doomsday Clock” by Smashing Pumpkins, and “Chinese Democracy” by Guns ‘N’ Roses. All hail 4/4 time!

[Help], [Help], [Help] the Police!

In response to the recent New York Times article about Hip-hop in China (and partly inspired by the execrable Jay Chou/Song Zuying performance on last night’s CCTV gala), I present to you a video that perfectly sums up, for me, everything that’s wrong with foreign attitudes to allegedly underground Chinese music.

A minor digression first: that NYT article is written to give the impression that “many students and working-class Chinese” are rhyming about the “bitterness that comes with realizing …[they are] left out of China’s economic boom.”

This is horseshit. The angry Chinese rap I’ve heard is generalized teenage angst with no attempt at social commentary. The most “daring” rap I’ve heard is predicated on schoolboy puns about smoking pot. And while I no longer make much of an attempt to follow the music scene here, I am familiar with the bands discussed in the NYT piece.

Let’s start with 隐藏 Yin Ts’ang, the originators of “在北京 In Beijing” — the song that, according to the article, “took the underground music scene by storm.” Sample lyrics:

出租车有一块二一块六两个价格
交通一般还成但会有点堵车
真不用提饭馆 烤鸭和炸酱面
鬼街吃火锅 太多选择我的天

Cabs come in 1.2 kuai and 1.6 kuai prices.
The traffic’s usually not bad, but sometimes there are traffic jams.
You don’t have to worry about restaurants — roast duck and zhajiang noodles
Or Gui Jie to eat hotpot. There are too many choices, oh my god!

Wow, guys, tell it like it is.

阴三儿 Yin Sanr, the band whose name the article incorrectly and sloppily romanizes as “Yin Tsar,” and completely mistranslates as “The Three Shadows,”  has got more going for it in the anger department. The article mentions the band’s song 老师你好 “Hello Teacher” (skip ahead about a minute and a half to get to the actual rapping) which most certainly is an angry song:

你说你为人师表出门就随地吐痰
就会舔着个屄脸给我爸打电话
你不要脸 无能的表现
你要什么都行你别碰我CD机
你妈了个屄
我就上课听歌我乐意
我就上语文课写数学作业
作业本上画个大鸡吧纯为了发泄

You say you’re a role model but you spit on the ground outside
The only cunting thing you know how to do is phone my father
You’re shameless and useless
Do whatever you want but don’t touch my CD player
You fucking cunt
I’ll listen to music in class if I want to.
I’ll do my math homework in writing class.
I drew a big cock in my copy book, that’s what I think of you.

The NYT article translates the first line of this excerpt and then waggles its eyebrows, encouraging the reader to mentally connect “railing against the authority of unfair teachers” to seething antiauthoritarian rage. It doesn’t translate the rest of the song, which has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the paragraph that precedes it, in which a young man complains about the wealth gap. Unless you equate hating high school with the potential for violent social upheaval, in which case I would have been the Che Guevara of my generation.

The author of the piece would have been much better off going with Yin Sanr’s song 北京晚报 “Beijing Evening News,” which does have political content and is a much, much better song. Sample lyrics (in Danwei’s translation): 

酒吧夜总会的门前领导的车辆成群结队 
厕所里躲着戏果儿 
洋酒就着鸭脖儿 
小明星大模特儿 
陪着老逼坐在雅座儿 
巡逻的警车东北的皮条客 
女大学生很多学生证儿不能打折 
北京还在建设但是人已经变了 
这所有的一切究竟谁应该来负责 

Big officials and leaders park outside night clubs
Girls hiding in the toilet
Whiskey and duck neck
Models and starlets
Sitting in a private room with stupid dicks
Cops patrolling, Dongbei pimps 
Lots of college girls
But student IDs get no discount
Beijing is building
But the people are changing
Who is responsible for all of this?

While I’m ranting, another problem with the NYT article: 说唱 shuochang, the word the piece gives for “hip-hop,” is “rap,” not hip-hop. The word for “hip-hop” is 嘻哈 xiha, a phonetic loan, and my impression (possibly wrong) is that people here who are into hip-hop would look upon the use of shuochang as a sign that someone was not part of the scene. Which the writer of that article clearly is not.

(Another small digression: I was planning to write something about the ultimate feasibility of rap in Mandarin as opposed to languages more phonologically suited for it, but this post has gone on long enough already. However, those of you who are interested in seeing rap perpetrated in languages not really built for it may enjoy Leimigi Thart, which answers the age-old question of how to say “I’ll serve your ass like John McEnroe / If your girl steps up, I’m smackin’ the ho!” in Irish.)
(“Freastloidh me thu ar nos John McEnroe / Ma shiulann do bheal suas, buailfidh me an ho!”)

Anyway, getting back to the start of this post: The effects of censorship on artistic creativity have been discussed before — David Moser had a wonderful piece on Danwei about the effect that the dictum that humor must 歌颂 rather than 讽刺 has had on the comic form of 相声 — but I think the video below really hammers the point home.

Happy New Year, everybody.

John DeFrancis, 1911-2009: You Can't Do That Anymore

The Sinologist John DeFrancis died recently at the age of 97. You can read more about him elsewhere – in the NYTimes obituary or on the memorial site set up for him – but I thought I’d write something, as a student of Chinese, about what he meant to me.

I first heard of John DeFrancis almost ten years ago, through his book Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems, which was one of the required texts for a Linguistics course I was taking. This was during my first year studying Chinese, and what Visible Speech had to say about Chinese characters – and other writing systems – was formative in my approach to learning written Chinese.

Later that year, I wrote a paper on script reform efforts in China, and Visible Speech, Nationalism and Language Reform in China, and The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, all by DeFrancis, were invaluable sources of information. The latter book, again, played a major role in shaping my understanding of the Chinese language at a point in my studies where Chinese might otherwise have seemed impossibly daunting. It was also a cracking good read, exactly the sort of thing you might recommend to someone who had no background in Chinese but was interested in learning more about the language.

None of my Chinese classes ever used the Beginning Chinese textbook series that DeFrancis compiled, but his name was to come up again and again throughout my studies — while I was browsing, mostly uncomprehendingly, through the Sino-Platonic Papers, or while I was trying to read up on the subject of whether or not spoken Chinese really could be written without Chinese characters, or, most of all, when I got the invaluable Wenlin dictionary and found that it was based on the ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary project spearheaded by John DeFrancis and Victor Mair.

Perhaps the best indicator of the position John DeFrancis held in his field is the August 1991 Schriftfestschrift: Essays in Honor of John DeFrancis on His Eightieth Birthday issue of the Sino-Platonic Papers, in which DeFrancis’ friends and colleagues – the Tabula Gratulatoria is a veritable Who’s Who of the sinological field – write, with admiration and genuine affection, a collection of essays that anyone would be proud to have dedicated to them.

In his introduction to that collection, Victor Mair writes:

John is a superb scholar with many excellent works to his credit. Yet there is another ingredient, or pair of ingredients, that sets John DeFrancis apart from all the other fine scholars whom I have encountered — that is his passion and his compassion. John cares. Whatever John does is because he wants to help improve things. His classic Nationalism and Language Reform in China was dedicated to ‘Old Wang.’ If we turn to p. 143 of the same book, we can find out who Old Wang was:

Known as Old Wang. Age thirty-five. Totally illiterate. Occupation: peasant. Lives in a tiny village four and a half miles northeast of Peking. Married to the daughter of a peasant from a near-by village. Has three children ranging in age from four to nine. Wife and children likewise illiterate.

People like Old Wang really matter to John. It is to all the Old Wangs of the world that John devoted his whole life, and that is why his achievements have such profound meaning.

It would be easy to think of DeFrancis’ continued focus on script reform efforts in China and Vietnam as nothing more than well-intentioned abstract concern, or an academic hobbyhorse – or, as is sometimes alleged of non-Chinese who advocate script reform, the whinings of a gringo who couldn’t handle the characters – if it weren’t for his memoirs. In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan describes some of DeFrancis’ early experiences of China and the Chinese language, his journey on foot and camel across northern and northwestern China, and his interactions with the desperately poor people he met along the way, whom he believed to be kept poor by the impossibility of their ever learning to read and write. It also provides a yardstick against which no language student or backpacker, no matter how dedicated or extreme, is likely to measure up:

We dodged warring armies by stealing twelve hundred miles down the bandit-infested Yellow River on an inflated sheepskin raft. You can’t do that anymore. You can’t repeat our thousand-mile camel trek across the Gobi Desert in the footsteps of Genghis Khan. You can’t sit at a camel-dung campfire in the very heart of that huge desert and listen to a Mongol narrate how the Great Khan was castrated by a captured Tangut beauty he tried to take to bed. Neither can you visit the oasis, then one of the most remote places in the world, where we met a Mongol princess descended from survivors of the most horrendous mass migration in human history. Nor can you barge into the preserve of a churlish Muslim warlord and become a prisoner in his fortress town.

That’s the beginning, and what follows more than lives up to its promise. I ordered a copy a few years back and read the whole thing in one or two sittings, and felt a little sick with admiration afterwards.

A co-worker of my father’s met DeFrancis years ago in Paris – he has a great story about a dinner there where DeFrancis, speaking neither French nor (at the time) Vietnamese, ordered food via the Chinese characters on the menu at an Indochinese restaurant and blew the waiter’s mind – and had kept in touch with him, on and off, ever since. I gave him my copy of In the Footsteps a while ago in the hopes that he might be able to get Professor DeFrancis to sign it for me the next time they met.

I guess it’ll never happen now. You can’t do that anymore, either.

After the Olympics: What's Next?

Now that the Olympics are over (and how about those closing ceremonies? Those of you who found my comments on the Opening Ceremonies distasteful should count yourselves lucky I didn’t blog the closing ceremonies) everyone is asking what will be next. It’s a good question: I first came here about a week and a half or so after the IOC selected Beijing to host the 2008 games, so I have never actually known the city without the Olympics looming in front of it.

What’s next? Dinner for now. Then calligraphy practice — I’m trying to learn to write 篆书 seal script with a brush. Calligraphy is a bad sign among foreign students of Chinese: it starts out innocently enough, but before you know it you’re all hopped-up on the 古琴 guqin zither and studying 相声 xiangsheng and god-all knows what else, until you wake up six months later to find yourself in a dumpster missing a kidney, wearing a Mao suit and singing 对面的女孩看过来 “Hey Girls Over There – Look Over Here!” on a foreigner talent show.