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.”

archy and mehitabel and du fu

六月廿六日於費城市立圖書館讀《唐詩300首》英譯版

Written After Seeing an English Translation of 300 Tang Poems in the Philadelphia Public Library on June 26

古語韻難尋
夷言更添哀
囮者詠嘆寄
巢空鳥驚飛

what is with all these
translators who make
tang poetry read like e.e. cummings

don’t they know
classical forms never used
enjambment

More Great Firewall weirdness

Caution: geekiness.

So I have found recently that there are certain places where certain blocked sites — Facebook and Twitter yes; Blogspot no — are still inaccessible even when I’m logged in through my VPN. This seems to happen most consistently when I’m connecting from cafes in the Jiaodaokou and Jinbao Jie neighborhoods of Beijing, over what I believe is Netcom ADSL, and it happens regardless of which Witopia gateway I’m connected through.

I’m not the techiest person, but from my understanding of the way VPNs work, this should not be happening. What’s extra-special weird about it is that when I run traceroute to find out where the connections are failing, it seems that the Great Firewall may not even be involved: I’m seeing connection requests time out at IP addresses that are not within China. (One time it was a FastWeb server in Italy; another time it was Korea Telecom; another time it was a UK service provider.)
This is not a problem with my VPN or my setup, as far as I can tell: these sites work just fine through a VPN on my home connection. It seems to be a problem with one specific Netcom office (I could be wrong, but I think it’s the same office serving both Jiaodaokou and Jinbao Jie; then again, I believe my home connection runs through the same office.)

To be honest, the real effect of this is probably a net gain in productivity, but I would still like to know what’s going on, since I can’t figure out how the GFW — if it is that — is messing with me. Does anyone have any theories?

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.

[DATELINE: FEBRUARY 13, 2010]

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:
…不患莫己知,求為可知也。(IV.14)
“…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:
子曰:君子喻於義,小人喻於利。(IV.16)
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:
子曰:富與貴,是人之所欲也,不以其道得之,不處也。(IV.5)
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)
Har!

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.

子貢曰:有美玉於斯,韞併而藏諸,求善買而沽諸?子曰:沽之哉,沽之哉!我待買者也。(IX.12)
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.

Winter is Icumen In

Cabbages stacked up for selling outside the McDonald's on Gongti Bei Lu. November 7, 2009
Cabbages stacked up for selling outside the McDonald's on Gongti Bei Lu. November 7, 2009


Winter is Icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm.
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damm you; Sing: Goddamm.

Ezra Pound, noted Sinologist

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.