Category Archives: Interesting Times

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.

New 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

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!


When I was explaining the difference between Beijing and Hong Kong, I used to say to friends back home that Hong Kong was the kind of place where my Evil Expat Twin would have a great time.

Then a couple of years ago I realized that actually, my evil doppelganger would have a pretty rocking time in Beijing, too.

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 the 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.

Notes from Hard-Seat

Last Wednesday, I made a visa run down to Hong Kong – one of way too many over the past six months. This time, I got to the train station too late to go through the exit procedures necessary to ride the sealed, soft-sleeper, Hong Kong-bound half of the Beijing-Hong Kong train, and ended up riding hard-seat on the Guangzhou-bound half. These are the notes I took on my phone and e-mailed to my parents while on the train; any typos are to be blamed on the iPhone keyboard and/or on the fact that I was slowly developing gangrene of the arse as the hard seat cut off circulation to my toches and all points south. It may be worth noting that all of this was basically the high point of the trip for me.

I was going to try to edit this together with notes from some of my other train trips down to HK for a more polished blog post, but this is not likely ever to actually happen. 人貴有自知之明 and all that; I’m opting to just post what I’ve got instead.

We’re sitting at the northmost end of the hard-seat car. Guys from behind us, unable to wait, light up before they pass us on their way to the smoking area between cars. It’s not bad — some kind of air vent above the sinks, which is where most of them congregate to smoke, seems to separate the air in the car from the air where they stand, but there’s still a tang of flue-cured tobacco smoke in the air, sharp enough to cut through the MSG and reconstituted space-beef smell of cheap ramen. Am lucky to have gotten the seat; if I hadn’t, I’d be standing in between the cars right now, next to the inadequate and frequently disregarded ashtray.

4:30 - boxed meals look even more dire than usual. Debating whether to try my luck with the dining car later or just go without until Guangzhou.

5:05 - the guy sitting next to me, who has been sleeping quietly with his head down on the table since the start of the ride, gets up and says “excuse me, may I pass” in shy but pretty decent English.

5:15 - somewhere between Linzhou and Xunxian, according to Google Maps. On the bench behind and across from me there’s a young (?) monk with a Jiangnan accent talking about the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara and dogs’ Buddha-nature or lack thereof.

5:37 - this is the talkingest fucking monk I ever did see. His seatmates – well, at least the young man (Henan accent?) across from him – seem to be getting into it. He has now progressed to talking about meritorious deeds.

6:12 – we pass through Xinxiang station. The engineer seems as eager to get through the place as – well, as one would imagine. Am reminded of the game I played with Michelle on the way back from Qingdao to Beijing last April, based on the realization that there exist people for whom Xinxiang is the Big City.

6:15 - they switched off the air. It immediately — seriously, within ten seconds — becomes uncomfortably warm and close. The monk is still talking behind me.

6:48 - Zhengzhou. I’m now charging my iPhone back up off laptop battery, and have loaded a few Cantonese lessons on it for good measure, on the offchance that I decide to improve myself.

6:53 – guy sitting next to me gets off. Now have the bench to myself.

About 8:40 - the monk sits down with us and begins talking to the Beijingnese guy across from me and the Zhengzhounese guy next to me. My headphones are in and I am missing out on the Good News about Sakyamuni.

Around 9:30 - the Beijingnese guy strikes up a conversation with me — I suspect in order to keep from being the chatty monk’s sole audience. (The Zhengzhounese guy isn’t holding up his end.) This guy is Beijingnese, and he has met his conversational match — pretty impressive! The conversation is actually pretty nice — the Beijingnese guy is a pleasant conversational partner, and the monk (from Shanghai) talks a bit about having studied Sanskrit and Pali in Sri Lanka, and how he worries his English won’t be good enough for him to move to Canada.

About 10 - The sight of a Chinese-speaking gringo has drawn a crowd – many of them smokers who linger on in the sink/bathroom area after they finish their cigarettes. This is fine, except that one of the guys who sticks around is a practitioner of Falun Gong, and he wants to debate the monk (“I know about Sakyamuni. Li Hongzhi extended his teachings!”) and get support from me (“but you can establish a new political party any time you want in America and Taiwan!”) in his arguments. He claims to have been at the demonstration outside Zhongnanhai that got the Jiang Zemin regime freaked out about FLG in the first place. (“When my friends and I left, we took every piece of garbage with us! That part of Chang’an Jie was the cleanest part of Beijing! Think about it – when the PLA soldiers do anything they scatter their shit all over!”) This is really interesting and special, but the crowd is only growing and I deeply do not want to be near, or perceived as involved in, this conversation.

Neither does anyone else: the Zhengzhounese guy has gone completely silent; the monk is looking very uncomfortable and making the point, several times, that no matter what one believes, one has the responsibility to work within and not against the system of whatever country we live in. (I agree, probably too vigorously.) The Beijingnese guy does a neat trick of comparing people’s different faiths to different types of tea, and while we’re all agreeing he gets up and heads to the other end of the carriage to fill his tea jar.

The FLG guy is now sitting across from me, where he is boxing in the monk and talking about doctrinal issues. (“The Eight Trigrams are Buddhist, right? What about the, you know, the tadpole? The Yin-Yang tadpole sign?”) The Beijingnese guy is playing cards across the aisle (“Looks like you guys could talk for days!” he called over a moment ago.) I have absented myself from this conversation by typing on my phone, very rudely, this past record. Now I am done and will put in my headphones and attempt sleep.

11:26 - The FLG guy gets up and leaves. I resist the urge to press my palms together and say “Amitabha deliver us.”

BREAKING NEWS: Explosions Rock Chinese Capital

(This was originally written as a guest column for The Beijinger, but the censors apparently didn’t find it as funny as I did, and it didn’t make it into print.)

Brendan O’Kane, The Beijinger‘s new war correspondent, contributed this piece while in Beijing on vacation from his regular posting in Baghdad.


Beijing is under attack.

Low-grade munitions detonate all around the city every few seconds, the noise coming first from a few meters overhead and then from all around you as the sound slaps back and forth off of concrete, walls, overpasses, the inside of your ears.

It is everywhere, and I phone my local source to say I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it out of the bunker-like apartment block where I am staying. My calls drop as China Mobile’s circuits fill with people frantically calling loved ones, and when at last we are connected we have to shout over the explosions. All evening I have been receiving text messages in Chinese. I cannot read them, but the exclamation marks suggest that they are warnings – or threats.

Strewn across my bed are the things that will keep me alive on my way to dinner: a bulletproof vest; American dollars for bribing my way past checkpoints; a hijab. My source encouraged me to wear red underpants — “so that bad things will not happen,” she added ominously — and so I lay out a pair of these as well. I came to Beijing expecting a restful, relaxing stay that would wash away the horrors of Basra; Qala-i-Jangi; Newark – and indeed, all seemed calm when I landed here last night.

I awoke this morning to pandemonium as inscrutable to me as the ideographs scrolling across the television screen. Amazingly, state media provides no coverage of the blasts that must surely be audible within broadcast headquarters, opting instead to air slick televised galas showcasing perfectly coiffed, unnaturally grinning celebrities who have presumably refused to take sides in the conflict that threatens now to level China’s capital.

I risk a peek out the window. Outside, the air fills with chemicals loosed from the primitive cardboard tubes of gunpowder, strontium nitrate, barium chloride, and cryolite that young children run around with in their clenched fists as their parents look on approvingly.

It is difficult at first to make out what is happening, but as I speak to locals – none of whom will give me more than their surnames – a picture begins to emerge: the firefights are seasonal, having occurred at roughly the same time each year for as long as anybody can remember. Beijing had avoided the heavy shelling typical in other regions until February 2006, when civilians all across the capital first took up arms; every winter since then has seen the violence return as predictably as the spring that follows it. Last year, insurgents succeeded in burning down one of the newly built China Central Television buildings, scoring a propaganda coup for their cause. What cause that may be, however, is far from clear: when I ask locals what the fighting is all about, they only look back at me blankly.

My source has invited me to dinner in the very heart of Beijing, and I have accepted, reasoning that the hutong alleys that wind like snarls of yarn through the old parts of the city must surely be safe. It is also a late dinner, 11 PM, and with any luck the streets should have cleared – or been cleared – by then. I have been told that young people will be out on the streets, possibly for some kind of peace rally.

Outside I notice an acrid, quite literally mephitic odor, and gunpowder smoke stings my eyes. I hunch over, careful to make myself inconspicuous, but almost instantly a string of explosions goes off next to me. “Marg bar Amrika,” I shout reflexively. A burly, crew-cut man nearby shoves a tube of gunpowder at me, along with a cigarette to light it. I break into a run, not daring to look behind me, and manage to flag down a cab. “Drive!” I shout. “Drive!” The driver looks at me strangely, and I wonder what side he’s on. He doesn’t move until I thrust the map in front of him, my destination circled: the square between the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower, where surely even the most depraved terrorist would not dream of setting off explosives. He floors it, and as we tear through the burning streets of Beijing, I realize with a sinking feeling that I am wearing completely normal underwear.

War is hell.

Interesting Times (I): Confucius on SARFT

Yesterday afternoon, word got out that the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT) — the wild and crazy guys responsible for approving foreign films for screening in China, issuing shooting permits and then distribution permits for Chinese movies, and spoiling everyone’s fun once things get too popular — was dropping the axe on Avatar, which has broken box office records in China. All 2D screenings of Avatar will be pulled from theaters starting Saturday, though 3D and IMAX screenings will be unaffected.

A number of Western media outlets — including many that should really know better – have speculated that the decision was motivated by “fears of unrest,” pointing to a few people online who have compared the plight of the furries in Avatar to that of Chinese being forcibly evicted from their homes. This is unlikely, if only because SARFT is just not all that clued-in: they approved District 9 last year even though it was obviously all about Kashgar, and it looks like the remaining installments of the Harry Potter series will continue to be screened in China, despite their scathing critique of the national gaokao college entrance examinations.
The real reason for the move is plain old petty protectionism, pure and simple:  Confucius, which stars Chow Yun-fat as the eponymous sage, opens on Friday, and the China Film Group wants to make sure that it does at least respectable business over the Chinese New Year holiday, despite the lackluster reviews it got at advance screenings.

This is kind of a dick move, but it’s not really a new one — SARFT has been doing this for at least 5,000 years. It is, in fact, such an ancient tradition that Confucius himself offered some commentary on similar occurrences:

(This could be the first in an ongoing series, HWCM — How Would Confucius be Misquoted/Mistranslated? Most quotations are from Chapter IV of the Analects, 里仁 – “Dwelling in Ren” - which E. Bruce Brooks and A. Taeko Brooks deem in The Original Analects — recommended reading, by the way — to be most likely the original sayings of Confucius. Translations and mistranslations, deliberate and accidental, are all my own.)

Regarding fears that Avatar could overshadow Confucius:
“…I do not worry that I will be unappreciated; rather I seek to be worthy of appreciation.”

Regarding the China Film Group and SARFT’s motives in yanking Avatar:
The Master said: “The superior man focuses on what is right; the petty man focuses on small gains.”

Regarding the ideal state of SARFT and the China Film Group’s consciences:
The Master said: “Wealth and status are what all men desire, but if a man cannot attain them by acting in accordance with his principles, he should not hold them.”

Regarding this kind of robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul:
子曰:孰謂微生高直?或乞醃焉,乞諸鄰而與之。 (V.24)
The Master said: “Who would call Weisheng Gao upright? Someone once begged some vinegar of him, and he went and begged it of his neighbor to give it to him.”

Regarding the possible source of this poor judgement:
子曰:人之過也,各於其黨. (IV.7)

Of course, there are later passages in the Analects that might cast things in a different light. In Chapter IX, which the Brookses note “…documents contemporary economic and material progress, and the parallel growth of the government bureaucracy,” we find Confucius displaying a slightly more market-oriented approach.

Zigong said: I have a beautiful jade. Should I wrap it up and store it away, or should I seek a good price and sell it?”
The Master said: “Sell it! Sell it! I am just waiting for a buyer.”

Zigong, of course, is comparing his unemployed teacher’s virtue to the jade. His question — and Confucius’ response, which might as well be translated “Sell me! Sell me!” — is shocking in the context of Confucius’ earlier sayings, suggesting as it does that virtue is simply another commodity that can be bought or sold. I’ve got no particular interest in Avatar — or in Confucius, for that matter — but it looks here like SARFT and the China Film Group could be accused of doing the same.  Not very Confucian of them.

…Especially since the director cut out the scenes where Confucius fights off dudes with his walking stick! Confucius was always fighting off dudes with his walking stick. Believe.