Thursday, December 29, 2005

Rough Guide to the Music of China

I checked out some CDs from the local library by travel-guide publisher Rough Guide, and the one of Chinese music is a lot of fun. I don't know how representative it is, or if it is even a "guide," but there are plenty of interesting things on it.

It starts off with a classic of Chinese rock, Cui Jian's "Nothing to my Name." As is mentioned in just about every news article on Chinese pop culture, this song was somewhat of a student anthem during the Tiananmen Square incident. It's not one of Cui Jian's more musically challenging pieces (later he did more sonic experimentation, with Sonic Youth-esque guitars, traditional instruments, and drum machines), but the lyrics are interesting given the context. It's a love song. Cui sings he's asked his lover to go off and be with him many times, but she just laughs at him because he has nothing. She comes around, the song speeds up, and he starts to song "You'll come with me right now." Apparently students back in 1989 thought of it not as "nothing to my name" but "nothing to our names," and interpreted it as an expression of idealism.

The disc moves on to some Mongolian folk and a nice qin piece. Then there's some old 1930s pop, which I am a big fan of. It's not my favorite, Ge Lan, but rather Bai Hong. I discovered these old singers while in Taiwan--the CDs are so cheap I picked up a bunch. My Taiwanese friends always think I am nuts for having those, but then they listen to them and end up buying some themselves.

The disc has some other varieties of traditional music, the folk-pop song "My 1997" by Ai Jing, and a Cantonese Opera piece that is also on the In the Mood for Love soundtrack. Another standout for me is "Yellow Banana" by Hang on the Box, a female punk band from Beijing. It's a bouncy, catchy pop-punk tune with nonsense English lyrics that gets extra points from me for the line "Hey, you, cooking breakfrrrrrrrrrrrrrrst!" Like Cui Jian, the Beijing punk thing got overexposed (stories in magazines like Time saying "Hey, China's got rock&roll--they're breaking through the repression!"), but I like this tune.

There's also a minimalist electronic thing by a Japanese-Chinese guy named Kin Taii, which features an erhu and a Speak&Spell voice reading some classical-sounding phrases (from the Liezi?). It comes just a little too close to New Age for my taste, but it's an interesting idea. I wonder if it's not just dated--I'd be curious to hear newer stuff by him. According to the liner notes, he was influenced by YMO, whose songs like "Sleepwalking" and "1000 Knives" more successfully blended Kraftwerk-y technopop and Asian sensibilities.

It's not an easy task, boiling down a nation's sonic heritage to one CD's worth of music. I am not even sure that's what the goal was here, but the compilers have succeeded in putting together a highly listenable hodgepodge worth checking out.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Expat Media Sources

Unfortunately, Taipei's only free alternative weekly, POTS, has dropped its English section. If you are limited to the English media, it's really tough to figure out what's going on in Taiwan. The three English papers are extremely biased and/or incompetent, and there's a lot of pressure for English TV and radio to cater to the local English-learner rather than the expat who wants to know what's going on.

Funny how that contrasts with all the stuff in Japan--Metropolis magazine up in Tokyo, Kansai Time Out and Kansai Scene down where I was, a selection of newspapers that were at least error-free.... None of those seems to feel the need to cater to the ESL crowd, either.

I guess that's attributable to the size of the expat population in Japan, obviously, but I think there's an "English fever" in Taiwan that just doesn't exist in Japan.

Never Trust the Internet (or Manga)

I just read a profile of Roland Soong, the man behind EastSouthWestNorth, and came across a nice illustration why I think it's wise to be cautious in drawing conclusions (especially about China) from things on the net:

17. Zhao Ziyang recently died. Non-Chinese seemed to have much greater interest in this story than Chinese. Is this observation correct? Whether true or false, why?

How many Americans or Europeans know who Zhao Ziyang is? You must be joking!!! Like 0.00001%! This question must refer not to general populations, but only to those who actually speak up. I once published an academic paper on the theory of the "Spiral of Silence" of Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann about the common fallacy to take the distribution of opinions of those who speak out as the same for the general population. This is a dangerous, because it was exactly how the Nazis created the impression that they represented the majority in Germany. On the matter of Zhao Ziyang, the distribution of opinions should not be based upon only those who are willing to speak out at this time.

Inside China, I would have liked to run an anonymous public opinion survey to ascertain how people feel, but that won't happen, of course. So all is left to speculation.
According to Wikipedia, the Spiral of Silence actually "asserts that a person is less likely to voice an opinion on a topic if one feels that one is in the minority for fear of reprisal or isolation from the majority." I find Soong's take more useful--maybe I can call it "Soong's Spiral of Silence (SSS)." It's the perfect way to reassure yourself when you read newspaper accounts of some fanatical Chinese nationalist's BBS postings. "That's horrible! Oh, SSS... it's OK!" Or when you hear about some crazy Japanese manga like "Hating the Korean Wave." Never mind... SSS!

Monday, December 26, 2005

NYC Otaku

There was an interesting article in the New York Times Magazine the other day about a Japanese kid named Yuki living in New York. The kid is obsessive about some things like public transportation and museum displays--according to the article he's got a genetic disorder, but for the most part it sounded like garden-variety otakudom to me.

He writes poetry about the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and memorizes train conductors' announcements. He entertains firefighters by singing to them in their firehouses, unaccompanied by music, because he likes to. His first home is an Upper East Side apartment; his second is the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has spent so many afternoons inside the Met that the security guards call out his name when they see him. He tells them what subway lines to avoid because of weekend service changes, which he monitors religiously.

The article gives me the impression that Yuki and his mother are struggling. They live together with others in a 2-bedroom place. His mom does freelance web design and is writing a book. My suggestion--get this kid a blog! I am sure it would be interesting, and it could run ads. His mom could even design it!

Yuki--I'd definitely link to it!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Mattel's Maiko

When I say "maiko," you think... Barbie, right? No? Well, you should. "Maiko" is apparently a trademark of the Mattel corporation--take a look at the page for their Maiko Barbie!
(Via Japundit)

And in other geisha news, Roger Ebert calls them prostitutes in a review of, oh, some movie I am trying not to talk about:

I know, a geisha is not technically a prostitute. Here is a useful rule: Anyone who is "not technically a prostitute" is a prostitute... Is the transaction elevated if there is very little sex, a lot of cash, and the prostitute gets hardly any of either? Hard to say.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Japanese 101 Wishlist

Now that I have a little bit of knowledge of Classical Japanese and some practical experience with modern Japanese, my understanding of the language has changed quite a bit. It must be a tough job to teach Japanese to native speakers of English, and I appreciate my old Japanese 101 teacher quite a bit, but still there are some things I wish they'd have done differently. Here's my wishlist for a new Japanese 101 textbook:

1. Teach plain form first.
In Japanese 101, we were taught that, say, "to drink" was "nomimasu." It wasn't until later that we learned the so-called "dictionary forms" like "nomu." Then it got more complicated when we learned "-te" and "-ta" forms--we had to go "nomimasu"->"nomu"->"nonde." It would have been simpler to start with the plain-form verbs. I know they don't want us to be impolite, but I think it's more logical to start this way. Besides, I found that when I got to Japan I needed to understand plain form more often, and I was accustomed to stilted "-masu" stuff. I had to jump through all the hoops to conjugate verbs.

2. Mention onbin.
I know that any in-depth discussion of that would send casual learner anime-fan undergrads running for the door, but the reasoning behind the seemingly-odd conjugation should get a mention, at least to leave students knowing that there is some method to the madness (see above--where did the "mu" go in "nonde"?). We did, however, learn a convenient mnemonic for conjugation to the tune of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town"--"u tsu ru-- tta, nu mu bu-- nda...."

3. Throw "anata" and "watashi" out the window.
I think many Japanese think of it as awkward "gaijin-ese" when a foreigner overuses these pronouns. Getting rid of them right at the beginning would help students to get accustomed to subjectless ("zero-pronoun") sentences and also the use of "ageru," "kureru," etc. which make the subjects and objects clear.

4. Explain auxiliary verbs.
This might send people running, too, if it's overdone, but stuff like "potential" and "causative forms" or jidoushi/tadoushi could be taught as auxiliary verbs. We were required to memorize long lists of jidoushi and their tadoushi equivalents (like "nobiru/nobasu"), and I remember thinking some seemed to fall into some sort of pattern ("-iru/-asu"). Now I know why. It would have been nice to have that long list of verbs broken down into types like that, if for nothing more than mnemonic purposes. When it becomes time for polite forms, "-masu" could be introduced in this way, too.

5. Teach radical and phonetic elements of Kanji.
I had Chinese under my belt before I started Japanese so I didn't have this problem, but I bet many people do. Japanese teachers told some pretty weird stories about how certain kanji mean what they mean (emphasizing the "pictograph" notion)--I don't know if they really believed that stuff or if they were just presenting these stories as mnemonic devices for students. But I think those mnemonics will present problems down the line as you can only memorize so much. When learning characters in the Chinese context, the radicals and phonetics are mentioned (and fairly obvious). Maybe teaching onyomi and kunyomi for characters right off the bat would help? Knowing the onyomi, the phonetics are easier to see, and therefore easier to memorize as they'd fall into place in a system.

I know it's a lot and it's complicated, but to me that's better than just having Japanese presented as a big mess to memorize. I think it would be very difficult in the beginning, but students would have a really strong foundation for further study.

What do you wish you knew then that you know now about Japanese?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Dwarf Pirates

I was pretty stunned by this photo (from EastSouthWestNorth):

This giant poster is in--you guessed it--China, and if you know characters through Japanese you might not recognize the first two in this slogan ("倭寇入常,天理不容"). They are "wo1kou4," a derogatory term for Japanese. EastSouthWestNorth translates the entire thing as "To let the Japanese bandits enter the UN Security Council is not permitted by natural (heavenly) principles," but most Chinese speakers understand "wokou" to mean something more like "dwarf pirates" since the first character is the "person" radical and the character for "short."The term originally referred to pirate bands that conducted raids on the Chinese and Korean coasts beginning in the 16th century (which, by the way, consisted of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean sailors).

Call me naive, but it's pretty stunning to see something like this displayed in this fashion. Azuma was right in his comment on my post about Japanese "nationalism": In Japan, you might see such an inflammatory message on the side of a nutcase's sound truck, but never hanging from the side of a building like this. I am being persuaded--Japanese nationalism doesn't even come close to the "instrumentalized" Chinese version.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Gaijin Griping

I know sometimes living abroad can be stressful, and even the biggest culture-vulture expats indulge in the occasional gripe-session, but there's no reason to write stuff like that up and print it in Newsweek! Breaking news: Expat wife gets cranky in Tokyo!

I am quite a bit taller than the woman who wrote the article, and I lived in an old-fashioned house that was built during the Meiji era. Translation: I hit my head a lot. But that's the price you pay. And maybe it was a Kyoto thing, but nobody stared at me. Even if they did, wouldn't it be natural to do a double-take when you see something you don't see every day?

This is what gets me, though--she claims she "mastered 'survival Japanese'," but:
[...] many times I spoke in what I knew to be passable Japanese to a clerk or conductor, only to be rewarded with a vacant stare and a long, drawn-out "Huhhhh?" The person to whom I was speaking couldn't believe that Japanese words were coming from a foreign face.
Uh, lady... maybe your Japanese wasn't quite as good as you thought it was? That's usually the case when people drag out that favorite gaijin gripe--"I know they actually understand me!" No, they don't. This is one thing I will say for the Taiwanese and Japanese students I have taught English to--they never displayed such an attitude. If they say "Huhhh?," don't blame them, hit the books.

Her complaint about being stared at in the "ofuro (communal bath)" (sic) reminded me of a story about a red-headed expat girl I heard in Kyoto. People were staring at her in the sento, and fed up, she wanted to tell them she was human, just like them, but she got one word just a little wrong. She shouted, "何を見てるの?私はニンジンです!!"

(Via Japundit and Mutant Frog.)

Monday, December 12, 2005

Smackdown Commentary (and its Consequences)

In reading these traditional commentaries, I keep looking for real contentiousness or partisanship bickering. I wondered if there were any Han-dynasty flame wars going on over interpreting the classics.

I found some in a book about Wang Bi's commentary on the Laozi, The Craft of a Chinese Commentator: Wang Bi on the Laozi by Rudolf Wagner. Wang Bi was a young hotshot who wrote some brilliant commentaries before dying in his early 20s. According to Wagner, Wang criticized big-name commentator Zheng Xuan in a "thinly veiled" passage of his I Ching commentary. Wagner relates a story from the Shishuo Xinyu:

When Wang Bi wrote his Commentary on the Zhouyi he made fun without qualms of [a scholar as important as] Zheng Xuan because of his Ru-theories, saying, "This old fuddyduddy is completely without brains." Thereupon he heard, in the middle of the night, suddenly steps outside the door, and a moment later something stepped forth and introduced itself: Zheng Xuan. [The ghost of Zheng] accused him: "You are so young how dare you poke holes into my writings and pick at my phrases, going so far as make fun of this old man [me, ironically Zheng Xuan calls himself laozi 老子]?" He looked very angry and left straight away. Fear and worry rose in Wang Bi's heart. After a short while he fell sick and died.

Friday, December 09, 2005

The Pizza Effect

An old professor of mine used to talk about "the Pizza Effect"--Italian immigrants bring Italian cooking to the States, then pizza is invented under that influence, and the Italians in Italy accept it as their own.

I have been working on translating an article about the popularity of The Book of Changes outside of Asia. The author seems surprised that foreigners could understand something that "even Chinese don't," but then goes on to talk about all the Chinese things that she's found to have been adopted abroad--feng shui, the Chinese horoscope, Lao Tzu.... She tosses around words like "mysticism," too (which these things wouldn't be in their original context). It struck me how even the Chinese author has dropped these things into this "Western" framework. Is this the Pizza Effect?

Marxy over at Neomarxisme mentions the "self-Orientalization" that goes on when Japanese perpetuate "Fujiyama Geisha" type images themselves. That doesn't stop the Japanese from getting upset over, say Memoirs of a Geisha--Marxy concludes that "the big difference [is] that the modern Japanese users of these symbols get them 'right' while Americans are often sloppy, uninformed, and implicitly racist."

Perhaps something like The Book of Changes (or Italian cooking) belongs to world culture, but the Chinese (and Italians) may reserve the right to be the curators.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Hyakunin Isshu

There are some nice pages of translations ofthe Hyakunin Isshu with grammar notes here. It was apparently made by Waseda University students and their teacher.

Monday, December 05, 2005


By the way, speaking of Murakami Haruki and films...

Anyone who is a fan of Murakami, Wong Kar-wai, and/or David Lynch should check out the Korean film Oldboy. The story reminded me a bit of Kafka by the Shore and Wind-up Bird Chronicle, while the visual style was very Wong Kar-wai style. I am a huge fan of WKW, but I have to say this one beats 2046 hands down.

But... consider yourself warned. It's pretty twisted, even more so than Kafka, and quite violent as well.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Mechakucha Geisha

I have been trying to put my finger on what exactly it is that turns me off about this Memoirs of a Geisha film that is coming out soon. Is it the fact that it was partly filmed in my hometown in southern California? No. (Interestingly enough, the film version of The Good Earth was filmed there too way back when. It does look similar to northern China if you ignore the cactus plants.)

Some people have been talking about the fact that the Chinese actresses will have Chinese-accented rather than Japanese-accented English. That doesn't bother me either, as the fact they're speaking English at all calls for our willing suspension of belief, and I am willing to extend it that much more.

The big bone of contention for many, though, is race. Japundit got all sorts of reaction to an entry on this topic. I don't think it's exactly the equivalent of having a non-Scottish person playing Macbeth as some have said--if it's really all about acting skills then let's have Samuel L. Jackson and Robert DeNiro play the geisha! (People forget there is such a thing as culture, and though it often overlaps with race, it's not identical to it.)

It doesn't bother me that much. I think I could accept Chinese actresses as geisha but... not these ones! Maybe, maybe Gong Li as Hatsumomo, but Michelle Yeoh and especially Zhang Ziyi (excuse me, it's Ziyi Zhang now that she's gone Hollywood). Where have you seen these two before? Right, mostly action flicks where they displayed pretty one-dimensional acting skills. Zhang especially seems to specialize in tough, no-nonsense characters--not what I'd be looking for in an actress playing a geisha, revenge-seeking or not.

The motivating factor seems to be their international star power. But imagine if, in an alternate universe, China was the #1 world film-industry powerhouse and they want to make a film about the poets Verlaine and Rimbaud. "We need foreigners.... Who can we get who's got star power?" "I know, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal!"

It's funny how Hollywood forgets its own lessons. Crouching Tiger was a breakout hit despite the fact that it was in Mandarin and its stars were largely unknown outside of Asia. The Passion of the Christ was huge, and that was in Aramaic! People will accept subtitles and unknowns if the film's quality is there--no need to dumb it down.

I've read the book, and the story made me think it would have made a nice Disney animated film. (Well, except for the stuff about auctioning off a character's virginity....) I have seen the trailer, and at least the cinematography looks good.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Found in Translation

I have been thinking about translations a lot recently--in part because of the Analects, and in part because of the VCDs from Taiwan of questionable legality I have been watching.

The interesting thing about translation is, the translator must make choices about which possible meaning he or she is going to go with. The translations of the Analects by Slingerland, Waley, Lau, etc., are instructive even to competent readers of Chinese because you can see the interpretation built in to the English.

In the VCDs, it is obvious that the translation process was careless. Much of the translation is based on mishearings of the English ("shark" for "shock," "make a bet" for "vampyre bat," etc.), and that obviously renders a good portion of the dialogue nearly nonsensical.

In the comments to Language Hat's very kind post about my blog, someone mentioned that making a translation true to the original is often a thankless task. Indeed, the best a translator can do is stay invisible and let his choices become a seemless part of the work. The translator of the VCD slipped up and showed himself.

It seems that translators get more grief than they do kudos. Some reviews of Philip Gabriel's translation Murakami Haruki's Kafka on the Shore complained of "jive" like "Jeez Louise" being used. I thought it was great--don't you think there's such a thing as Japanese jive, Janet Maslin of the NY Times?!

In an email exchange with fellow translator Jay Rubin, Gabriel also talks about Murakami's own decision for the Japanese chain restaurant Royal Host to be changed to Denny's in the English translation. This, on the other hand, I think is unfortunate. When I read something, especially in translation, I like to know that somewhere, on another continent, people are eating in a restaurant called "Royal Host." Readers should be allowed to find these things.

It's a fine line, and perhaps it is a thankless task to find it.