Monday, October 31, 2005

Reading Between the Lines

These days when I am not trying to get my taris straight from my naris and keris, I am usually reading commentaries to Chinese texts. There has always been a lot of writing about writing, and even writing about writing about writing, in China. Even today, when you buy a copy of a Chinese classic--say, the Analects of Confucius--it is typically accompanied by some notes either in the margins or actually written in the body of the text in a smaller font or something. Some of these commentaries have become canonized right along with the texts they accompany. The thing that makes them interesting, though, is not the light they shed on the original text, but the way they capture an understanding of that text at a point in time. You can go through layers of commentaries and see how the understanding of a text has shifted through time.

Some texts, and some certain passages of texts, seem to attract more commentaries than others. Perhaps we can say those texts are more "open": with archaic language or obtuse subject matter, they lend themselves to interpretation.

What do the comments say? I have been trying to think of rough categories for them. Individual comments seem to have one or more of the following functions:
1. Textual/editorial: Stuff like "Character X should really be character Y."
2. Phonetic glosses: Notes on how to pronounce a character, usually via the fanqie 反切 ("reverse cut") system in which two characters are supplied, one with the same initial as the character in question and one with the same final. (ping+fang=pang, etc.)
3. Backgrounding: Notes providing historical or other allegedly factual information to flesh out the text.
4. Rephrasings: Using clearer wording for difficult passages.
5. Intertextual references: Using another text to explicate the one at hand.
6. Systematizing and generalizing: Drawing general moral or philosophical principles from the text.

As the written language was largely unstandardized for most of its history, #1 shouldn't surprise us much. I was a bit surprised by the frequency of #2, though. Perhaps they are similar to #1, in that once you could pronounce it you'd have a better guess at what the character was supposed to mean. But for that to work, you'd have to be using the same dialect as the commentator. Maybe there was some ancient form of what in China they now call putonghua 普通話, "common speech." (Confucius is said to speak his own dialect as well as yayan 雅言 "elegant speech" for more formal occasions, such as reciting the Odes.) Maybe these commentaries served as some kind of crib sheet for people who had to recite these texts in the common speech rather than their dialect. Numbers 3 and 4 are fairly obvious. Number 5 is interesting, though, because it assumes the texts are consistent with one another due to their canonical status--they're usually explaining, say, the Odes in terms of the Analects or something like that. Sometimes they explain parts of a text with other parts from the same one. Zhu Xi explained Confucian analects with other ones, assuming a consistent message and use of terminology. That brings us to #6. People like Zhu Xi extrapolated from the various canonical works things like, say, the meaning of humaneness 仁, whether that was an internal or external quality, and how to go about cultivating it.

I am betting that the later the commentary, the higher the number of fives and sixes in there. The texts had found more or less stable forms and needed less "editing," and standard commentaries made the meanings more or less understood even if the backgrounds could be argued over (people might disagree over references, etc.--one says the "prince" of a poem refers to King Wen and another says no, it's [somebody else]). Later, by the Song Dynasty, people like Zhu Xi were taking these texts and remixing and sampling them into their own works.

What did they get from doing that? Why slice'n'dice the canon to prove your point? Perhaps the use of canonical texts lent authority to their own ideas. Perhaps, and to me more likely, classical education provided a set of semantic building blocks any literate person would be familiar with, making its use natural. Whatever the reason, it is remarkable how the Confucian canon retained such a prominent place in the Chinese intellectual realm for so long.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Red Dust

Last week I attended a talk given by the Chinese "writer in exile" Ma Jian 馬建. His most famous book is his record of his travels around China during the mid-1980s, Red Dust. I haven't read the whole thing, but I got through about half of it before the talk. I read a review of it when it first came out and always meant to pick it up but never got around to it until I heard he was coming. The novel (autobiography?) is perverse, funny, and compassionate--a nice break from the typical "scar literature" 傷痕文學 that often finds popularity outside of China.

In it, he is living in Beijing, living what I found to be a surprisingly bohemian lifestyle--hanging out with artist and writer friends drinking late into the night, talking about esoteric literature, hiring a nude model to paint, listening to banned Teresa Teng tapes. (Hey, she may have been the Chinese version of the Carpenters but at that time getting caught with her music would get you five years in jail. Not to mention, when you juxtapose her slow, sappy love ballads against the state-mandated "glory to the working man" stuff, you can almost see what the CCP was afraid of.) He does decent work at his job as a photographer for a propaganda publisher, and the bosses try to cut him some slack for his scruffy appearance and loose hygene routines, he's an artist after all, but he's messed up a few times. His photo of workers on a bridge construction project showed the bridge's chipped paint. He used yellow for the title of a publication--"yellow book" means "pornography" in Chinese.

Deputy Chen slaps his hands on the table. "Such a large patch of yellow! You are trying to suggest that we are a federation of pornographic trade unions!"
The conference room falls quiet. The Table in front of me looks very heavy. "What is a pornographic trade union?" I ask quietly.
"It's bourgeois, young Comrade Ma. You have committed a fundamental error, fundamental!"

He is asked to give a self-criticism, but instead prepares a statement about how he does the work of four or five people and puts himself at the top of the list for "Beijing's Number-One Model Worker." His bosses are furious, his love life is already in a mess, so he goes wandering toward the West. He has taken lay Buddhist vows, so he heads toward Tibet. The book is about his adventures "On the Road."

Ma's talk was entitled "Literature and Politics in Contemporary China." He talked about writers of sensationalistic, apolitical literature like Mian Mian and Wei Hui (Shanghai Baby) who have been causing a storm in China. (Last time I was in China, a couple years ago, it seemed like there was a copycat "____ Baby" book for every major city.) A genre of novels about fighting corruption has also become very popular recently, he said. (I think the term he used was 反腐小說.)

But in his view, Chinese writers like himself who live outside of China have an obligation to rebel against the restrictions of Chinese society. He said something similar in an article in the Guardian: "China is completely lacking in self-awareness and as someone who has stepped outside that society, I have a responsibility to write about it as I see it." That's why he called his last novel The Noodle Maker: Chinese people, he said, are like the dough being stretched and pulled into noodles by the hands of the noodle maker.

I admire him for his writing and his stance, but at the same time, I thought there was something a little sad about this. If a Chinese artist only gains awareness after leaving China, but is then obligated to write about that society, then that artist will never be truly free to word as he or she wishes. Would China ever be able to produce a writer with the wild imagination of a Murakami Haruki? For that matter, is Japanese society any more aware than Chinese society? If rebellion against the communist state mandated social realism, that would be a bit ironic.

I know very little about modern Chinese lit-- eighteenth century is the new stuff as far as I am concerned. But someone in the talk said all the best writers and poets in China since ancient times were dissidents of some sort who ended up exiled or executed. Did the oppressive society spawn their genius or crush it?

Kerr in Japan Times

Speaking of Alex Kerr, interview here.
(And why does my browser always think that the Japan Times is in Big5 Chinese encoding?)

Omit Needless Words

You've used the reference book, now see the opera: MSNBC reports that a musical work based on Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" has premiered at the New York Public Library. See the article here.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Ru, Raru, Su, Sasu, Shimu, Zu....

For the last couple weeks, I have been trying to get a handle on around thirty archaic Japanese adverbs. Many of them have several meanings, and some of them even have two diametrically opposed meanings. "Tari," for example, can denote a completed action or a continuing action. Of course, that "tari" is not to be confused with the assertive "tari." How do you tell them apart? Simple--look at the word it is connected to. If it's a verb in the renyoukei form, it's the former (in one sense or another). If it's a noun or the rentaikei form of a verb, it's the latter. Just check the chart of thirty adverbs (each itself available in six or so conjugations, which are needed depending on how the adverb itself functions in the sentence). But how do I figure out what sort of verb form it is? Well, depending on which one of the six verb types it is, it will be conjugated differently. (I love that "keru," "to kick," gets a class of its own even though it is indistinguishable to me from kamiichidan verbs.) Don't worry, you get a chart for those too. Oh, and a chart for adjectives. Yes, of course you have to conjugate adjectives, too! What if I can't even figure out if it's a verb or a noun because it's such archaic language? Break out the kogo dictionary, my friend.
How did I get myself into this? Aren't I a sinologist?
Something about it all is perversely appealing to me, I suppose. Like the language, like the country, Japan always seems to make too much sense to my sinified mind. "If you just master this chart and that set of things and memorize this list, it'll all fall into place," it seems to taunt. The Japanese aesthetic may get stereotyped as minimalistic, but this grammar is positively baroque. The amazing thing is, though, it's all there for you. Grammar imparts meaning. I can imagine looking at a classical Japanese text and saying "No, of course the one doing the action is Genji because the verb is in the rentaikei!"
Contrast that with an (admittedly, rather extreme) example from Classical Chinese. In the Lao Tzu text, there's a line that reads:
無名天地之始 (nothing name heaven earth possessive-particle beginning)
We could take the "name" as a verb and read that as "'Nothing' names the beginning of the world." We could also read "nothing" and "name" as being a noun phrase, giving us "Nameless is the beginning of the world." There's no way to tell, and commentators argued about stuff like this in the margins of texts for centuries. For that matter, they still are.
That's why I am (masochistically) enjoyng Classical Japanese so much, why it seems so novel to me. There's clarity, but you're going to need some maps and charts to get to it.

UPDATE: Matt over at No-Sword has answered the riddle of the single shimoichidan verb "keru-- to kick" in an enlightening post here.

Students of Chinese, Students of Japanese

In his wistful book on his adopted home country (or perhaps I should say "first adopted home country," as I believe he spends most of his time in Thailand now), Lost Japan, Alex Kerr talks about his days doing Asian Studies at Yale. A professor of Chinese would give a grandiose lecture on the first day, saying, "Should I start with the efflourescence of the High Tang? Or one millenium earlier with the unification of China under Qin Shihuang and the construction of the Great Wall? No-- [pregnant pause]-- I will begin with the rise of the Himalayas!" A professor of Japanese would invite the students over to his house for a night of sushi and Japanese dancing. Kerr says he asked people who'd spent time in Japan the best moment of their lives, and they'd say "I was meditating in a monastery, and when the abbot walked by I heard his robes swishing in the breeze." While the people attracted to Chinese studies were restless and analytical, those attracted to Japanese were subdued and sensual.
When I read that, I knew I had made the right choice. Chinese all the way.
Chinese always came easy to me. Sure, it is tonal, but once you get past that, the pronunciation is quite simple and the Pinyin system is very straightforward. And the characters-- sure, you need to know thousands to "read a newspaper" as they say (of all the things you could read in Chinese, why would you want to read the newspaper? Why is that the benchmark?), the characters break down into a fairly manageable system of bits and pieces which combine in sensible ways. And the grammar-- no tenses, no articles, no conjugation-- just stick the words in the right order and you're just about there. After studying for a couple years, I headed off to Taiwan. Then after a couple years there, I considered myself fairly fluent.
Later, I had the opportunity to move to Japan, so I took it up, thinking I could absorb Japanese like I did Chinese.
I was in Japan for a couple years, but never got to the point with Japanese that I did with Chinese. Maybe it was because I was older, maybe I was just less motivated, I don't know, but Japanese just didn't click for me. Kaku changes to kaita-- where'd the second "k" go? How can I recognize these words when they keep changing? How can I remember them when they are so long? It took me a couple weeks to remember the thing I sat in in my house was a "hori-kotatsu." People at 7-11 seemed to be still rattling off their thank-you-come-agains even as I was out the door. And reading that one little character for "east" as "higashi"? Three syllables-- you must be joking!
Well, it started to click a little bit, though for months I had to hum "u tsu ru tta nu mu bu nda..." to the tune of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" every time I had to conjugate a verb. Maybe it started to click because I began to appreciate Japan more. I think I resented Japan a bit at first. So many of these people fawning over Japan as they meditate in the temples and hear the abbot walk by, I thought, look down their noses at China even though so much of what they love about Japan originated in China. Japan was just too perfect, and everything made too much sense. Then I started learning that Japan wasn't so perfect, and under the surface all sorts of contradictions and tensions raged. In my eyes, Japan became a frustrating, maddening place.
That is, I came to like it. It may have been in the way of a student of Chinese, but I came to like it very much.