Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Another Confucian Headscratcher: Which Comes First?

First, Waley's translation of Analect 3:8:

Tzu-hsia asked, saying, What is the meaning of
Oh the sweet smile dimpling,
The lovely eyes so black and white!
Plain silk that you would take for coloured stuff.

The Master said, The painting comes after the plain groundwork. Tzu-hsia said, Then ritual comes afterwards? The Master said, Shang [Tzu-hsia's familiar name] it is who bears me up. At last I have someone with whom I can discuss the Songs!
The tricky line here is Confucius' comment "The painting comes after the plain groundwork." In Chinese that's 子曰繪事後素. Waley reads 後 as a verb, "to come after" but this could be (and has been) read as a preposition, giving us "After painting, the plain groundwork [white]." That would leave Tzu-hsia's last question as being something like "And after ritual?"

The question of whether ritual is part of the natural order of things or part of culture is again played out here in grammatical interpretation. Too bad the Chinese didn't develop a grammar for their own language--the commentaries rather re-phrase the sentences so it is clear which interpretation they use. (They never say explicitly "That's a verb here, not an preposition" or anything like that.)

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Lost in Translation in Translation

The Analects of Confucius Book 3 number 5:

D.C. Lau's translation:
"The Master said, 'Barbarian tribes with their rulers are inferior to Chinese states without them.'"

Arthur Waley's translation of the same passage:
"The Master said, 'The barbarians of the East and North have retained their princes. They are not in such a state of decay as we in China.'"

So which is it--is China better or are the barbarians? We don't need to feel bad. Looking at commentaries from the Han Dynasty onward, we can see Chinese people of different eras were just as lost as we are, and also needed a "translation." They had to explain the text in more understandable language.

Many commentators read 亡 (Waley's "decay") as being 無 (Lau's "without"), and then there's the matter of what you want to do with the 不如, "not like." Both Lau- and Waley-style interpretations can be found.

Many commentators also read the Analects not as isolated fragments of conversations, but almost as if there were a narrative running through each book. Book 3 is about sumptuary laws and conducting appropriate rituals (Confucius keeps harping about upper-class people putting on airs and doing stuff only the Emperor should be allowed to do), so people have raised the question why there'd be an empty potshot at the barbarians in the middle of all that. The context, they say, points to China's decline after all. Others say it means even if ritual was being misused, China was still the land of ritual and therefore still superior despite its lack of rulers.

I never realized the ways the Analects could be read (or, indeed, was read over history), and as a consequence I thought it was a pretty dull text. It's not--it's fascinating. It is too bad that the English translations leave out the good stuff that has arisen around the text over the years. It's clear the translators used it. What does the "original" text mean? Nobody's known that since Confucius' time, and it's a good thing, too. The openness of the text has created space for all sorts of readings.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Ian Buruma on Japanese Nationalism

I attended a lecture by writer/journalist Ian Buruma last week but haven't had time to write about it until now. His talk was ostensibly on nationalism in Asia, but the focus was really on Japan. There was a little bit about China, and a brief mention or two of Korea.

Buruma reiterated what is pretty much the standard story about Japan--Japanese identity was lost after World War II and during the American occupation. The Japanese left supported the pacifist constitution, he said, because they believed Japan was like an alcoholic who had to swear off drinking forever. The right, on the other hand, argued that Japan had done nothing to be ashamed of, and those who said otherwise were victims of occupation propaganda. History, the right said, was being (re-)written by the victors.

Buruma says that there's been a recent upswing of nationalism in Japan, which he evidences by Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Jinja, textbook reforms, and that other usual suspect, right-wing manga artist Kobayashi Yoshinori.

Like I said, pretty standard stuff so far, but what I thought was interesting was that he claimed nationalism has become mainstream due to a collapse of the left, which up until the 1980s kept the far right in check.

The part of the talk concerning China was mainly about the recent anti-Japan demonstrations there. While he admitted that the Chinese do have a legitimate grievance and the Japanese have not fully faced up to their actions during the war, neither is in the extreme the other makes it out to be. The Chinese know little about the various Japanese apologies for wartime conduct, and that the textbooks and the shrine visits are separate issues not worth the protests. The protests, he said, were "instrumentalized" by the government to deflect attention from homegrown problems.

I didn't have time to stick around and ask questions (hinshi bunkai awaited), but what I wanted to ask was, Why is it that both the Japanese left and the Japanese right agree that the soul of Japan is defined by its behavior during WWII? Important? Yes. 100%? No. Even if we take the war as the end of a process which began with the Meiji Restoration, isn't that still but a drop in the historical bucket? I know Japanese nationalists have created some kind of revisionist "Yamato spirit" and bushi propaganda during the war--hasn't anyone on the left or otherwise tried to rehabilitate those cultural images?

The other problem I had (have) is this view of China. It may be accurate to some extent, but I think it is perfectly plausible that a great number of Chinese like their system the way it is and like to see "troublemakers" (dissidents) get into trouble, etc. I mean, look at neocons in the States who would tell you anyone who criticizes the war or the president is unpatriotic. People like that would also certainly have strong anti-Japanese feelings but I wouldn't say they are only due to the fact that they've been manipulated. We can't assume that deep inside all Chinese wish they lived in the USA or the UK and would cherish "freedom" and "democracy." I don't think it's ncessarily the case that they were all stirred up to begin with and were "venting" by demonstrating against Japan.

As I have said, I am more of a Sinologist than Japanophile. I would like to hear opinions about the limited scope of Japanese debate on its own identity from people more informed than myself.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Japanese Listening Comprehension Practice

I just found out recently that Yomiuri Shimbun has a podcast. I have been listening to it to work on my listening comprehension for Japanese.

You can find the podcast on iTunes--just search for Yomiuri.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Shi shi shi shi-- Chinese Characters and Tones

This Thanksgiving, be thankful for tones and Chinese characters, because they make stuff like this cool poem possible:
石室詩士施氏, 嗜獅, 誓食十獅。
十時, 適十獅適市。
是時, 適施氏適市。
氏視是十獅, 恃矢勢, 使是十獅逝世。
氏拾是十獅屍, 適石室。
石室濕, 氏使侍拭石室。
石室拭, 氏始試食是十獅。
食時, 始識是十獅, 實十石獅屍。

Meaning in English:

In a stone den was a poet Shi Shi, who loved to eat lions, and decided to eat ten.
He often went to the market to look for lions.
One day at ten o'clock, ten lions just arrived at the market.
At that time, Shi Shi just arrived at the market too.
Seeing those ten lions, he killed them with arrows.
He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.
The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.
After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.
When he ate, he realized that those ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.
Try to explain this.
What's so cool about that? Check out the Pinyin for the pronunciation:
« Shī Shì shí shī shǐ »
Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.
Of course I had heard the famous "44 Stone Lions" (or "dead lions" or whatever) tongue twister, but never this clever little poem until I chanced across it in Wikipedia here.

Another fun sentence you may know is this Chinese palindrome:
"The tap water in Shanghai comes from the ocean."

I guess this Japanese one is very famous, but it's new to me:

It looks like fudging the tenten is allowed, or at least in classical Japanese (where they wouldn't have been written anyway, I believe).

I also like this one:
なつまでまつな "Don't wait until summer."

Friday, November 18, 2005


According to online gossip rag Popbitch, a new version of Journey to the West (Saiyuuki, or Xiyou Ji) is being filmed in Australia starring SMAP member Katori Shingo as the Monkey King. It will supposedly air on Fuji TV in Japan starting in February.

I've never actually seen the version that's best known (to gaijin, at least)--Monkey Magic, though I have seen the low-rent Chinese version that is apparently played a lot in China during holidays, as well as a few cartoon versions. There's also a Hong Kong film starring Stephen Chow of Kung Fu Hustle fame, in which Monkey falls in love.

The latest cinematic version of the story to come out of the Chinese-speaking world is the Taiwanese animated film Fire Ball. It's the story of Monkey fighting Red Boy (translated as "Fire Ball" in promo materials for the film). Sinorama, the Taiwanese magazine I do some work for, has a story on the film here.

As a music fan I can hardly stomach SMAP, but I am looking forward to seeing the new Japanese version.

Thursday, November 17, 2005


While I'm complaining about the typical wire-story reporting on China and Taiwan, let me mention one more thing. There's often a tag line that says something like "Taiwan separated from the mainland amidst civil war in 1949." First, Taiwan is an island, and civil war doesn't affect tectonics! They mean, of course, that the governments separated--but that leaves out the fact that Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945. So it was a separation after domestic bliss of... four years?

When they say "mainland," they mean the People's Republic of China, which was founded in 1949. Taiwan's government is the Republic of China, which was founded in 1912. Now tell me again, who broke away from whom?

(By the way, another reason I love Taiwan is it's the only place I know that celebrates a National Day commemorating a revolution that happened in another country. In 1912, Taiwan was part of Japan.)

"Renegade Province?"

The media have been reporting that Bush mentioned Taiwan as a model of democracy for China to follow, and in just about every story there is something like "China considers Taiwan to be a renegade province."

Doesn't it beg the question, what does Taiwan consider itself to be? It is home to 28 milion people or so--how about some balanced reporting? Lazy journalism.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Arachnoid Revelers

A while back I mentioned Scooter Libby's novel. Libby is one of a number of political figures harboring literary pretentions--Newt Gingrich wrote a novel, as did G. Gordon Liddy, Barbara Boxer, Bill O'Reilly, and even Saddam Hussein. Libby actually got some good reviews, but the typical politician/pundit novel just ends up as something for people of the opposite political persuasion to chuckle over. I heard counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke on NPR the other day saying at least he got some good advice--don't include a sex scene.

Not to be outdone, Stephen Colbert has written Alpha Squad Seven: Lady Nocturne: A Tek Jansen Adventure! A sneak peek is here.

People like Colbert make me wish I had a TV.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Semi-tactful Google

I noticed that Google is getting pretty good at zeroing in on me with its targeted Gmail ads. As someone who always got a cheap laugh from creating Yahoo news alerts for "hell freezes over" and stuff like that (I loved when eBay had one of their "Low-priced ___, great selection!" ads on a page about... igloos), I started to wonder if any message at all would get an ad. I wrote myself an email with the subject "condolences" and a body "I am sorry to hear that your beloved cat miffy died." No ad--good job, Google! But then I thought maybe it was just too short for Google to get any analysis in, so I went back and forth with replies about losing a loved one, etc.--still no ads at all. Then I pasted in some text about Sony's audio CD malware, and poof! ads for blank CD-ROMs! Then I switched back to some "sympathy" type language, and then ads were for... blank CD-ROMs and websites with collections of sympathy poems.

It's good to know the bots have a little tact!

Sunday, November 13, 2005

New Japanese Word

On the HONYAKU mailing list for J-E translators, someone recently asked why the Japanese island 硫黄島 is written "Iwojima" in English. I bet some of you can guess the reason why (I am looking at you, Matt and Azuma), and that wasn't what caught my interest. The conversation went on to if Japanese ever called Mount Fuji "Fujiyama," as misguided gaijin sometimes do. That in turn led to the Wikipedia page for Mt. Fuji, and that's where I learned a great new Japanese phrase: "Fujiyama geisha," the Japan that is misunderstood by the West. I never heard it used in Japan, though there were many instances where it could have been:

"Kill Bill? That movie was so full of Fujiyama geisha nonsense!"

And whaddayaknow, there are restaurants called "Fujiyama" and "Geisha" in New York City. There is even one called "Geisha House" in LA--Ashton Kutcher is an investor.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

A Story from 宇治拾遺物語 (Part 2)

此児、「定めて驚かさんずらん」と待ちゐたるに、僧の、「物申しさぶらはむ。驚かせ給へ」といふを、うれしとは思へ ども、「ただ一度にいらへんも、待ちけるかともぞ思ふ」とて、「今一声呼ばれていらん」と念じて寝たるたり程に、「や、な起し奉りそ。幼き人は寝入り給ひ にけり」といふ声のしければ、あなわびしと思ひて、「今一度起せかし」と思ひ寝に聞けば、ひしひしとただ食ひに食ふ音のしければ、ずちなくて、無期の後 に、「えい」といらへたりければ、僧たち笑ふ事限りなし。

This acolyte waited, thinking that certainly they'd rouse him, when he heard a monk say "Let's call 'hello' to him to wake him up." He was happy, but, thinking to himself "If I answer after just one call, they'll think I was waiting. I'll answer after they call again," he just stuck it out and continued to pretend to sleep. Then, when he heard a voice say, "Don't wake him up. The kid fell asleep on us," he thought he was in a bad spot. "Wake me up again," he was thinking as he continued to sleep and listen hopefully. Then there was a "chomp chomp" sound. With no choice left and having waited so long, he answered, "Yes?" The monks all laughed without stopping.
I broke down and found a modern Japanese translation of this to sankou suru. This part has some real marathon sentences as well which I just had to chop up to get semi-readable English. Can anyone tell me how this しければ works?

Friday, November 11, 2005

A Story from 宇治拾遺物語 (Part 1)

是も今は昔、比叡の山に児ありけり。僧たち、宵のつれづれに、 「いざ、かいもちひせん。」と言ひけるを、この児、心寄せに聞き けり。さりとて、しいださんを待ちて寝ざらんも、わろかりなんと思ひて、片方に寄りて、寝たるよしにて、いで来るを待ちけるに、すでにしいだしたるさまに て、ひしめき合ひたり。

This one happened long ago too. There was a boy acolyte on Mount Hiei. In the dullness of the evening, this acolyte would hear with pleasure the monks' saying "Hey, let's make some red-bean rice cakes!" So, thinking it would be bad to wait for them to be ready without going to sleep, he went off to a corner to pretend like he was asleep as he waited. Soon it seemed that the cakes were done, and there was a ruckus.
I know there are some problems in this translation. I am not sure what なん is doing in わろかりなんと思ひて, for example--is it a rentaikei of ぬ followed by an abbreviated む? And what should I do with 心寄せに? And the last sentence is so long I think it has to be broken up in the English, especially since it has しいださん, いで来る, and しいだしたる. That gets really monotonous in English. You can either write "finished" three times or indulge in some egegious use of elegant variation.

I will put the rest of this up when I, um, figure it out. (That's the passage that inspired my dream.) In the meantime, feedback would be appreciated.

Jewel in the Lotus janakute Buddha's Head

Wired reports on CAT scans of some Korean Buddhist statues that show they contain jewels and other hidden stuff.

Thursday, November 10, 2005


Last night, after doing about 4 hours of hinshi bunkai, I fell asleep and dreamed that I was in an amusement park themed on classical Japanese language. To get around the park, you had to travel on subway trains through sentences. You started at the end of the sentence, and to navigate through you had to know, say, whether the adverb you were currently in should be preceded by a mizenkei or a renyoukei, and if you were right the train would move accordingly.

I never made it up off the trains to check out the park.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Lazy Man's Guide to Classic Asian Literature

A rural inn somewhere in Japan, in the dead of winter, long ago--it's the setting for a novel that recently flew up the charts at Amazon. Kawabata Yasunari's Snow Country, you're thinking? No, no, no--it's The Apprentice by indicted White House official Lewis "Scooter" Libby. After reading about it on No-sword, I just had to check it out for myself on Amazon. It was ranked in the 300s at the time, though it is back at 11,106 as I write. I was surprised to see it apparently got good reviews, too.

Anyway, even better than the ranking and the reviews is Amazon's Statistically Improbable Phrases (SIPs). I don't know how those are determined, but I am going to go out on a limb and venture that a book's individual text is measured against a massive corpus using some sort of Markov chain. (If you know what I am talking about, please clue me in because I don't.) Libby's novel's SIPs are:

assistant headman, tiny dancer, man with the pole, mountain trousers, old samurai, lacquer workers, liquid woman, dead hunter, youth hesitated, charcoal maker, youth glanced, yellow fur, man with the club, youth nodded, youth stared, moment the youth, snow wall, young samurai

I think I pretty much get the picture from that.

Then I got to thinking, if I can get a taste of that novel from the SIPs, maybe I should compare it to Kawabata's. Unfortunately, SIPs weren't available for Snow Country as that novel does not have Amazon's Search Inside feature. They were available for Kawabata's Thousand Cranes, however:

tea cottage, tea utensils, tea bowl

Wow, minimalist, traditionalist, Japanese. I think this method is on to something. Let's check them against some Murakami Haruki just to test it out. Wind-Up Bird Chronicle's SIPs:

man with the guitar case, vinyl hat, rice pudding mix, macaroni gratin, ward pool, wig company, duck people, shoe cabinet, wig factory, hanging house, bird sculpture, telephone woman, cooking spaghetti, vacant house

Mundane food items? Check. Surrealism? Check. ("Duck people"?) Perfect. I don't remember if there really were duck people in the novel, but this list smells like Murakami to me.

But let's use this to save some time and read some massive works in, say, 10 seconds or so. I love this one: The Tale of Genji's SIPs: saffron flower. Yep, that's it. "Evocative," no?

How about those massive Chinese novels? Journey to the West (vol. 2-- 1 was unavailable): hooped rod, two little fiends, auspicious luminosity, poled the luggage, travel rescript certified, vast magic powers, his muckrake, brazen ape, white jade steps, cloudy luminosity, subdue the fiend, his iron rod, great snow fall, ginseng fruits, bronze mallet, various fiends, iguana dragon, preparatory mass, steel crop, immaculate vase, our rescript, treasure staff, gloomy complexion, testimonial poem, reverted cinnabar. Could you give a better summary in 4 lines or so?

Romance of the Three Kingdoms: bade the lictors, whirling his sword, bade the executioners, score bouts, assembled his officers, van leader, wooden oxen, own ravine, hundred bouts, forty legions, twenty legions, ten legions, five legions, thirty legions, small chariot, half legion, great shouting, golden axes, double marches, his steed, few bouts, silken bag, third bout, few horsemen, late ruler "Bade the lictors?" I think this one is telling us more about the translator than the work itself, but all those legions and chariots give us an idea.

The last volume of Dream of the Red Mansions: junior maids, outer study, provincial posting, thousand taels, hundred taels, other maids, inner apartments. Lots of people, lots of money, big place. But here, we get a better picture from CAPs, Capitalized Phrases: Lady Xing, Old Ladyship, Rong-guo House, Cousin Zhen, Sir Zheng, Bao Yong, Jia Rong, Their Ladyships, Grannie Liu, Jia Yu-cun, Zhen Bao-yu, Steward Lin, Aunt Zhao, Miss Lin, Sister Adamantina, Prospect Garden, Green Bower Hermitage, Board of Punishments, Grain Intendant, Miss Xi-chun, Prince of Bei-jing, Master Bao, Jia Bao-yu, Board of Works, Commissioner Zhao. A bunch of names, family members, a touch of religion, and punishment. That's the Dream of Red Mansions for you.

Sum up Confucian thought as portrayed in the Analects in 10 words: accordance with the rites, ceremonial cap, benevolent man, loving learning. Thanks, Amazon!

There's an old Woody Allen joke... "I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in an hour. It was about some Russians."

Friday, November 04, 2005

The (Very) Long Tail

It's a milestone: I am listed seventh on Google searching for "classical Japanese raru." I guess I am officially part of the very, very long tail. Well, even A-list blogger Joi Ito is slipping. Momus, who isn't a bad writer when he's not writing about Japan on other people's blogs, said "In the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people." Maybe there are 15 people who are interested in raru, etc.?