Monday, January 23, 2012


I am sharing this beautiful picture of a dragon underneath the Chinese graph for dragon partly because it was cross-stitched by hand for a friend by his wife and partly because it is Chinese New Year. The biggest celebration for a Chinese family is the dinner on the eve of the New Year. Visits to each other's homes are usually done on the second day. The celebrations climax on the fifteenth day when young girls were allowed out (with chaperons) to cast their eyes on young men. In many cultures that share this lunar New Year, the young maidens were also allowed to cast oranges or orange peel or tennis balls at the object of their sighs.

Together with the twelve animals that make up the cycle of years, there are also the Five Elements--Earth, Water, Wood, Fire and Metal/Gold. This year is the Year of the Water Dragon. The Five Elements are a BIG DEAL in classical Chinese thought but the best analysis I know of this subject, B. Schwartz, The World of Thought in Ancient China, is a very difficult book. I confess I do not understand the many passages that deal with the Five Elements. Combined, the 12 animals and the 5 elements constitute the 60 year cycle, also a BIG DEAL in classical Chinese thinking but often used more popularly. Populist rebellions often talk of a New Cycle beginning, justifying the overthrow of the current kingdom or existing empire. In these cases, the 60 years are not to be taken literally; a long reign of incompetence, oppression, or bad harvests is about to be replace by something better, so the theory goes.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Beginning Life's Third Act

Blogging and writing are my preferred activities in Life's Third Act, as Jane Fonda so eloquently described it. For me it began when I retired; I needed something to keep myself from insanity or senility. I actually tried calculus first. That was a truly insane idea. Then I thought: I am Chinese but know next to nothing about China, its language, history or literature. Truth be told, I knew more about The Gilgamish Epic and the "Second Ecumenical Council at Nicea" than about Confucius' Analects or The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. I resolved to correct this and to succeed in the third attempt in my life to learn Mandarin--after all, new technologies had developed since my last failed attempt in 1985.

But "learn Mandarin" books like all learn this or that books are inherently boring, especially the exercises. So I tried to translate real books, starting with Lao She's "Tea House," which I eventually adapted into Heaven is High and the Emperor Far Away, a Play. There is more about this on another page of this blog. My next translation project was The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and selections from it, retold, formed the Battle of Chibi and there's more about that on another page of this blog as well.

My attempt to "study up" on Chinese history and literature was not "scientific." I had always wanted to read Marco Polo but had never gotten around to doing so, hence I started out with that. But I was curious about what modern historians thought about his Travels, so I read up on those too, SOME of them anyway as these studies constitute almost an academic specialty. One observation struck me--Polo did not mention tea. Rereading the Travels confirmed this. My findings I have recorded in "Is it tea or chai?" as well as "Did Marco Polo go to China?"

There were other excursions, usually taken when something piqued my curiosity or disbelief. A historian claimed that a particular Chinese deity was a complete invention and that piqued my interest because I remembered my grandparents speaking about the deity in worshipful tones; hence "Toa Peh Kong." Another historian referred to Gibbon as 'the greatest historian," so I resolved to finish The Decline and Fall (started two or three times over the last thirty years) and determine for myself in "Reading Gibbon in the twenty-first century."

This memoir of my Third Act is not complete nor is the act itself over. It's just that I prefer these things to golf or fishing.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Holiday reading

Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud, by Sun Shuyun, 2003.

Without drama, Sun Shuyun tells of her journeys to the many places that Xuan Zang, the 7th century Chinese monk made to the "West"--Central Asia (the Silk Road) and India. His story was retold with much fantasy and "paranormal" incidents in the 15th century and is regarded as one of the Four great classic novels. It could rightly be called The Monkey King, after one of the superheroes who was chosen to protect the monk on his journey. (See post on “Journey to the West below.)

"Ten thousand miles" is the sober and sensible but fascinating story of a Chinese woman who grew up with Red Guards for parents and a grandmother was a devout Buddhist (who had bound feet). Much of her travels take her to parts of the Silk Road which conjures up images of the Orient Express; it is far from being such a luxurious ride. She makes a side trip as did Xuan Zang to Peshawar. This is today said to be the epicenter of "Islamofascists": well, it is the second most important site for Buddhists.

Buddhism was born in India around 600 B.C. but was much forgotten there by the 19th century until an English translation of Xuan Zang's “Great Tang Records on the Western Regions” (referred to by Sun as the "Buddhist Records of the Western World") helped British and Indian archaeologists uncover the sacred sites to which Burmese, Thai and Ceylonese Buddhists had come but failed to find. You will learn much from this book, not least about your own preconceptions about the meaning of life.

Five stars out of five.

The Uninvited, by Geling Yan, 2006.

Written by a Chinese journalist who left after the Tiananmen protest and crackdown, this is a fantastical novel, magical realism without the magic, highly imaginative. To say that it describes corruption and exploitation is like saying Moby Dick is about whaling. A good looking temporary (reserve) laborer finds a boondoggle attending banquets pretending to be a journalist. (This book is also published with the title The Banquet Bug.) He is married to the most worthy of women but finds sex and sex trade among his escapades, along with art and luxury with a neurotic artist and a corrupt developer, etc., etc. This is a fast-paced, well-written read into which one may impute lessons as one wishes.

Four stars out of five.

The Lords of the Bow, by Conn Iggulden, 2011.

This is the second book in a series. I found the first volume, Genghis, very absorbing with the descriptions of the young Temujin's struggles to survive and regain his birth-right--the "cold face," the will to power, the harrowing escapes. The Lords of the Bow, I think, over-reaches. It is a good story and well told. But it is thin: the characters of Temuge and his brothers, of Kokchu the new shaman and the non Mongols who chose to help Genghis, the reasons for Genghis' inability to love his oldest son, the descriptions of the layers of Chin society from the tong chief and slaves to the generals and imperial court. The scope demands Wagnerian treatment (while Genghis demanded and received something more like the Carmina Burana) and it does not get it.

Three stars out of five (volume one was Five stars out of five).

Simplicity and children's books

This book is addressed to children aged five to ten. It is beautifully produced with illustrations by the author herself. The story is u...