So, Mr Fry, you like gadgets

Celebrity bloggers on the Internet.

I don’t know how Chris found it, but Stephen Fry has a blog in which he discusses fame at length. I must quote the following paragraph which reveals that Fry is one of very few of us who recognises The Da Vinci Code for the towering pile of overrated crap that it is and Dan Brown as someone who is an argument against literacy.

Dan Whatsit and his preposterously awful Leonardo book are actually relevant to our theme. I usually last longer with any best-selling novel, however pathetic, than I did with his. But in his case I knew from the very first word that this was a writer of absolutely zero interest, insight, wit, understanding or ability. A blunderer of monumental incompetence. The first word, can you credit it, is ‘renowned’. ‘Renowned symbologist Henry Titfeather ….’ or something equally drivelling, that’s how this dreadful book opens. How do you begin to explain to someone that you just don’t start a fictional story by telling your readers that your character is ‘renowned’? You show it, you don’t tell it.

You may also recall the recent discussion on Language Log about the use of “civilian” to mean “someone who is not one of us”. There, Fry lists “civilian” as a term used of non-celebs (or non-slebs as he puts it) by slebs [sic].

Fry is, like my Dad, Mr Gadget. If a light bulb came fitted with a Blu-Ray DVD player, there’s a good chance my Dad would buy it, although he might stop short of the frying pan camera with 64x zoom. On the other hand… But Fry seems to be setting himself up as the marketing manager for all things Apple and, indeed, any other electronic gadgets which have caught his eye. Dad buys the gadgets; Fry buys them and then blogs about them – nerdily.


Chinese folk tales

Gather round.

The Legend of White Snake (白蛇传) is a tale about a snake fairy who marries the descendant of her benefactor only to find he’s a bit of a plonker. Meanwhile, there’s her old enemy, Fa Hai (法海), to worry about. But with the help of the faithful Xiao Qing (小青; Robin to Madam White’s Batman) and some intervention from Buddha, Madam White defeats Fa Hai who hides inside a crab shell to escape her. 

The Oxherd and the Weaving Maiden (牛郎织女) is the story of Niulang (牛郎) and his wife Zhinu (织女), who is the granddaughter of the Jade Emperor. Big surprise, grandma and granddad don’t approve of the match, but with Zhinu’s help, Niulang manages to complete the tasks the Jade Emperor sets him. However, because of a cock-up on the information front, they are limited to meeting each other once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month.

The Butterfly Lovers (梁山伯与祝英台 “Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai”) is China’s Romeo and Juliet. Actually, Shakespeare probably would’ve liked it since it starts with the heroine, Zhu Yingtai, dressing up as a boy so that she can go to school. She meets Liang Shanbo and they become sworn brothers. Before they’re separated three years later, she drops several Titanic-sized hints that she’s a girl, although Shanbo is oblivious until Auntie Zhou tells him the truth. (I suspect if she’d flashed him, he would’ve said, “Bloody hell! Those are big mosquito bites!”) Unfortunately, the Zhu family have arranged for Yingtai to marry Ma Wencai (马文才) from the rich and powerful Ma family. When Shanbo hears that he can never marry her, he dies of consumption. When she visits his grave, the earth swallows her, and they’re reincarnated as butterflies.

The translations needed to have been proofread by a native speaker to weed out various errors, but they’re not so many or so great that the English is painful to read.

…he had to believe that such a thing did have happened.
…he knew that… blaming was useless.
The whole house collapsed, and the python was pressed into a pile of flesh.
…the pearl had helped it contract five hundred years of cultivation…
He felt greatly pitiful for him…

The problem in many instances is a matter of tone where the translation is a little too colloquial. 

Liao Zhai Z(h)i Yi (聊斋志异 Liáozhāi Zhìyì; Strange Tales from a Lonely Studio) is a collection of over 400 supernatural stories by Pu Songling (蒲松龄 1640-1715). Ma Dewu (马德五) has translated a selection of tales and rewritten them in part. Probably not a bad thing. I can imagine that like Journey to the West, the stories might be a little repetitive in nature. I can’t help recall a brief quote from the first chapter of A Dream of Red Mansions:

As for books of the beauty-and-talented-scholar type, a thousand are written to a single pattern and none escapes bordering on indecency. They are filled with allusions to handsome, talented young men and beautiful, refined girls in history.

That sounds like Liaozhai Zhiyi, which are all boy-meets-hot ghost girl/fox spirit stories, which are generally accompanied by a lot of shagging and a certain amount of reincarnation when ghosts reanimate the bodies of dead wives or other hot babes. 

The last collection of stories is Selected Tang Dynasty Stories (唐代传奇选) translated by Yong Xianyi and Gladys Yang, who also translated A Dream of Red Mansions. In The White Monkey (补江总白猿传), a monkey demon seizes the wife of a soldier called Ouyang He who manages to rescue her and kill the demon. In Ren the Fox Fairy (任氏传), a man gets involved with a fox fairy until he forces her on an ill-fated journey and she is chased and killed by dogs. The Dragon King’s Daughter (柳毅传) is a story about a man of integrity who saves a princess from a bad marriage. In Prince Huo’s Daughter (霍小玉传), Li Yi starts a relationship with a daughter born to Prince Huo by his favourite slave, but he proves to be unfaithful and she dies. After her death, Li Yi is perpetually suspicious of any woman he is involved with. Governor of the Southern Tributary State (南柯太守传) is a story about a man who thinks that he’s been given high honours, but finds that it’s all a dream about ant hills. A young man spends a fortune on a pretty enticement who then helps him after his luck runs out in The Story of a Singsong Girl (李娃传). Wang Xianke is betrothed to Wu-shuang in Wu-shuang the Peerless (无双传), but they are separated for a time until they can be reunited by subterfuge and are married for fifty years. The Spendthrift and the Alchemist (杜字春传) is another tale of a dissolute young man, Du Zichun, who keeps being offered increasingly large sums of money by a mysterious man. He turns out to be a priest who tries to perform a rite to make Du Zichun immortal so long as he doesn’t utter a word. As it turns out, the only emotion the young man can’t conquer is love. In The Kun Lun Slave (昆仑奴), a man called Cui calls on a minister and falls for one of his daughters. It’s with the help of a slave called Melek that he wins her. The last story in the collection, The Man with the Curly Beard (虬髯客传)[1], is about Li Shimin and the prediction that he will become a great emperor. (Li Shimin was the Tang Dynasty emperor Taizong, and responsible for sending the monk Sanzang to get the Buddhist scriptures from India, a tale told in Journey to the West.)

1. It took me ages to find the second character (髯 rán “whiskers, beard”) because I didn’t know that the top half is the hair-radical. I only found that by complete chance using charmap. Well, it’s one of those obscure multi-stroke radicals that I’ve never encountered before.

Oh f…

When u goes missing.

I ran across these two images on a Chinese portal site (抓虾 from where I’ve had a couple of hits recently. I’m not sure whether this is some sort of advertising or not. It looks like someone doing some clever messing around.

cover01 cover02

The Romance of the Mid Autumn Festival

A truly contrived story.

Everyone in China knows the story of the Moon Maiden and how Chang E (嫦娥) ended up living on the Moon, but not many people know what happened afterwards.

Throughout China, people went to the temples to pray. All the prayers were recorded by the Office for Prayers which Guan Liao (官僚), the Record-keeping General, would collect and assess before submitting them to the Jade Emperor for his approval or rejection.
One day, Guan Liao began to notice that the number of women complaining about their husbands or boyfriends had increased dramatically. At first he thought it was a seasonal thing, but the number, far from declining, increased even more. When the huge pile of prayers from women thudded onto the Jade Emperor’s desk, he looked curiously at Guan Liao, thinking that he had kept prayers back or had found some down the back of the filing cabinets in the Office for Prayers. He was displeased to have such a large pile appear on his desk because he had seen some pretty fox fairies (狐狸精) the evening before and thought to sneak out and cavort with them while his wife was distracted.
“What’s this, Guan Liao?”
“If it please your Majesty, these are petitions from women complaining about their husbands and boyfriends, and hoping they’ll be loving, faithful and dutiful.”
“What? All those alone?”
“All those alone,” said Guan Liao.
“Why so many? I know there are usually quite a stack of them, but this is a library. Have some minion go down to Earth and see whether this is all true.”
Guan Liao bowed and returned to the Office for Prayers. He had an assistant called Cai Hong (彩虹) whom he sent to Earth to find out what was happening that should elicit so many complaints. Cai Hong flew down to Earth where he became a cat and slinked along the tops of walls, along the tops of the roofs, and along the branches of trees as he listened to as many conversations as he could. This woman was complaining how her husband had some mistress and that woman complained that her boyfriend wouldn’t leave his wife for her. And everywhere Cai Hong went, he heard many more complaints that women had about their husbands and boyfriends until he wondered whether there were any other topics of conversation.
He flew back up to the Office for Prayers where he faithfully reported everything he had heard to Guan Liao. “… and they talked about nothing else,” Cai Hong concluded.
Guan Liao immediately sought an audience with the Jade Emperor who was about to go looking for some other fox fairies. He told the emperor all that Cai Hong had learnt on Earth. The emperor stroked his beard thoughtfully.
“Go and tell my wife,” he said. “She’ll know what to do.”
Guan Liao bowed and went to find the imperial consort who was hungrily eyeing a rather hot boy ghost about whom she had had a serious thing for quite some time. In fact, she had sent the fox fairies deliberately to distract her husband so that she could roger this hunk of diaphanous man meat without being interrupted. She was not, however, expecting Guan Liao to enter, though he did so with due and proper ceremony. The empress listened to him slightly impatiently and then with more interest once he had explained the situation.
“I can’t allow such ignoble treatment of women to go unpunished. Without any chastisement, men will continue to behave badly and women will continue to suffer. Let me think about it, Master Guan.”
Guan Liao bowed and withdrew. The ghost, who had been thinking that sex with the Jade Empress should be a pleasure beyond anything he had known as a mortal, soon found that it was punishment beyond anything his misdeeds – by and large, rather minor – might have warranted as she pounded him mercilessly.
While the Jade Empress enjoyed the pleasure of the afternoon, she thought about her various servants, but could think of none who might be fit for the task which she intended to entrust to some suitably qualified minion. She thought about asking a female demon to undertake the job, but she disliked demons and their habits. With no one in the Heavenly Palace and no one outside it, the Jade Empress tried to think of other places beyond the mortal realm. She felt that she was overlooking someone obvious.
“The moon!” she cried.
The ghost was startled and wondered whether this was some divine expression of sexual pleasure; and so, because he could not restrain himself any longer, he started repeating the Empress’s words. Thinking that this was a sign, she leapt up, straightened her clothes, and flew to the moon in the form of a phoenix, which was fortunate because she had not put her knickers on.
Chang E had thought that life as an immortal would be an endless round of socialising with other immortals. She would go to their palaces; they would come to hers. But there were very few invitations addressed to her and even fewer responses to the ones she sent out. Those replies which she did get revealed that immortals had an endless supply of dead relatives whose funeral obsequies demanded, with regret, their utmost attention.
Thus Chang E only had her maids, strange, grey-coloured creatures, to keep her company, and her rabbit, Tu Niang (兔娘), whom she affectionately called Bunny-chan. The rabbit had always been a playful creature on Earth with malevolent, deep red eyes and a penchant for mysterious nocturnal adventures. But since they had come to the moon, Bunny-chan’s eyes had dulled and she had become sleepy and lethargic. None of Chang E’s maids much liked the rabbit and it, in turn, showed no fondness for such dusty, grey creatures.
When the Jade Empress suddenly appeared at the gate, there was great excitement in the Moon Palace. The maids scurried hither and thither making sure that the place was presentable, while Chang E hurried to greet her august guest. Bunny-chan stared dully and looked limp, much like the Empress’s recent ghostly lover. Chang E bowed as the Jade Empress swept in, but the latter asked her hostess not to stand on ceremony since she had little time and a signal honour to bestow. Chang E felt her heart race and she wondered what it could be.
“I should visit you more often,” the Jade Empress said as they sat drinking tea in the dull, grey palace garden, “and you don’t come and visit me as often as I should like.”
In truth, this was a bigger lie than the first one. Since Chang E had scoffed the pills of immortality, it was felt that she was a little too nouvelle immortelle to be included in the social engagements of the other immortals. But the Jade Empress persisted with the conceit.
“I’ve mentioned to my husband several times that he should honour you in some way, but since he’s too busy chasing fox fairies, he’s failed to do something about this unforgivable lapse; and that’s why I’m here. It seems that more and more women on Earth are being mistreated by their husbands and boyfriends. It’s reached such a number that something needs to be done about it. We need someone has an unquestionable sense of ethics; who is righteous; and who will mercilessly chastise men for their misdeeds. I immediately thought of you. It will, of course, mean going to Earth…” The Jade Empress hesitated as if this was a terrible imposition which she was reluctant to inflict on a fellow immortal. She was anything but reluctant to inflict it, and Chang E was anything but reluctant to accept it.
“That is a small price to pay for the honour which your Majesty is conferring on me,” said Chang E trying not to sound excited. Even Bunny-chan pricked up her ears. “But exactly what is it that you’d have me do?”
“Punish men who have behaved unrighteously towards their wives and girlfriends by banging their brains out. Since they’re so stupid as to behave so improperly, they shan’t, I aver, miss their brains in the slightest.”
It was unfortunate that the Jade Empress meant for Chang E to beat the heads of unfaithful men against walls and other solid surfaces, but Chang E, being more familiar with the modern idiom, took it the other way. She was a little surprised to be asked to use this as a means of punishment, but she remained silent because she did not want to jeopardise her chances of becoming part of the immortal social calendar. Also, she knew that it was probably unwise to question the Jade Empress’s decision. Thus it was, thanks to Chang E’s efforts, that the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day came into being and has been celebrated ever since. How mooncakes came into it… Well, that’s another story.

Old traditions die hard

The character of the Silk Market.
There’s a guest post by Victor Mair (Forbidden Language and "Virtuous" (i.e., Disgusting) Conduct) over on Language Log about a sign up at the Silk Market in Beijing listing appropriate and inappropriate phrases for the market traders to use. You can read about what Mair has to say on tht subject in the Langauge Log post, but I note that the characters on the sign are traditional, not simplified as you might expect. As you might expect, I’m wondering why this is. The only thing I can think of is that there’s a Hong Kong connection because I thought the new building in which the Silk Market was eventually housed was, at least in part, built by a Hong Kong company so that the Chinese and the translation come from there rather than the Mainland, hence the use of traditional characters.
In the days when the Silk Market was that chaotic lane outside Yong’anli Metro Station running towards the embassies, the one thing the traders needed to be told was not to grab at the foreigners. I think I went there about once a year on average when I was living in that part of China and that was enough.
I also note that some of the business cards I’ve acquired for various restaurants and shops here in Chengdu use traditional rather than simplified characters, although there’s not necessarily a connection with those parts of the Chinese-speaking world where traditional characters are still in common use. Perhaps traditional characters are regarded as international Chinese while simplified characters are for the home market.


Convenient cousins.

I went down to Linda’s office after class to give her a book we need copied for the Senior 2s.

“I went to Wuhou Temple today,” said Linda who has been showing our visiting Americans around.
I’ve been there, I replied.
“Did you pay to get in?”
Well, yes.
“I didn’t pay anything.”
What? Nothing?
“No, I have a cousin who works there.”
Some of us have to pay ¥60 to get into Wuhou Temple.

We talked a little further about how Liu Bei, whose tomb is in the Wuhou Temple grounds, is also a famous literary figure. I mentioned that one of the mouse mats I bought from RT Mart in Changzhou has a picture from Du Fu’s Cottage on it, although the centrepiece of that picture is Prince Guo’s stele. At the time I bought the mouse mat, I had no idea who Du Fu was nor where his cottage was to be found. That led to Xue Tao (薛涛) and a little confusion over her name. Hoping to make sure that we were talking about the same person, I explained that her aka was Hong Du (洪度), which Linda had either forgotten or didn’t know.

I have to admit that I’d forgotten which “hong” she was, and thought she was the other one (红).

How much?!

I knew it was expensive, but this is ridiculous.
I booked a flight to Hong Kong this morning. Couldn’t get anything on the 1st and wasn’t really expecting to. Well, actually, if I wanted to get up at 4am, I could’ve been on the 7.50am flight, but instead I’m off on Tuesday at 4pm. Bit later in the day than I would’ve liked, but at least there’s no rush.
But when they told me the price of the flight, I nearly pulled the plug on the whole thing – ¥3988, which even by the standards of the outrageously inflated cost of flights during national holidays seems to be daylight robbery. The flight to Zhuhai (one way) was only ¥1230, which was, admittedly, out of season, but I suspect the cost of travel to HK from here is still going to be ridiculously expensive in spite of the proximity of the former to the latter. Anyway, I won’t be doing this more than a couple of times a year (even if that many) while I’m in Chengdu. In fact, I think no more trips to HK till next summer.
Later. I checked the price that’s quoted in the LP China guide. That says ¥2900 to HK, which should be the off season price. I expect that prices go up when we have holidays, but nearly ¥1100 seems ridiculous. I note that the class of seat for the flight out is Q, but that for the one back is Y. As far as I can tell, this doesn’t mean anything special, although for nearly ¥4000, I’d be expecting something better than economy.
That was one of the few good things about Fuzhou. Hong Kong wasn’t far away and it didn’t cost so much to get there.

The Mid Autumn Festival

Eat your mooncakes!

Chang E It’s the Mid Autumn Festival (中秋节) today, when Chang E (嫦娥) comes down from the moon with her vampire rabbit, which feasts on the blood of the living, while she sucks (I think that’s what it said) the brains out of all the men who have treated their wives and girlfriends badly over the past year. (She’s quite busy in other words.) She can only be be fought off by Robin Hood (aka Hou Yi; actually, he throws mooncakes at her). [Do you even have the faintest idea what the Mid Autumn Festival is about? –ed.]

Left-headed or right-headed?

And under what circumstances?

I went through the list of words in my grammar of Chinese which marks word stress to see whether it might be possible to identify some sort of pattern. Unfortunately, without being a native speaker of Chinese, there’s almost nothing I can say about this particular set. There are some obvious things such as the unstressability of toneless syllables and the fact that they’re always word-final. I note certain instances of agent noun derivation, although I also note that beside 女人 (‘nǚrén) “woman” and similar, the book has 熟人 (shú’rén) “friend” with final stress. (The apostrophe marks the stressed syllable.) 

I should also note that there are quite a few words which the book doesn’t mark for stress at all, but I’ve never noticed any explanation for this. I should similarly note that certain syllables, which are toneless in the book, are marked in my dictionary (e.g. 爱人 “spouse” [book] àiren, [dictionary] àirén); and vice versa (e.g. 咳嗽 “cough” [book] késòu, [dictionary] késou). [06.10.13. Of course, this could be the con­se­quence of a typographical error.]

So in the end I’m not able to say much about this because it requires a knowledge of Chinese far beyond mine.

Zip and zither

The music of the 古筝 (gǔzhēng).

Guzheng (Chinese zither) After a somewhat lazy weekend which was only punctuated by lightening my wallet in an attempt to further familiarise myself with Chinese culture, I thought I’d go for a stroll this evening after tea and headed down the road past Jinli and Wuhou Temple. Outside Jinli, there was a girl on a raised platform playing a 古筝 “(Chinese) zither”, and there was a sign up about activities connected with the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节). Yup, I was able to read enough of it to have a half-way decent understanding of what the sign said.

I first saw a 古筝 about fifteen years ago being played down Petty Cury in Cambridge one Saturday morning. Since I was in need of some sort of diversion at the time, I listened for quite awhile.

Anyway, ’tis the Mid Autumn Festival tomorrow, I believe. We got given a box of mooncakes today, which, I see from inspecting them just now, do have the content identified on the wrapper. Sometimes it’s stamped on the mooncake itself. I can’t help but wonder what happens to the substantial packaging once people have gorged themselves on the contents. The box I have (and the ones I’ve had in the past) is pretty solid and cloth-lined. I suppose the Chinese unceremoniously dispose of the boxes which are then collected by the bin divers to be sold to the scrap merchants. Meanwhile, foreigners who are given mooncakes probably all say to themselves (of the box), “It seems like such a waste. There should be something I can do with the it.” Really, you just have to throw the box away, usually with the less palatable contents.

Some mooncakes are tolerable and others contain some hidden horror within. In the midst of some sweet, unidentified paste which you can eat without too much discomfort, there may lurk a salty egg yolk (cooked, natch) or some nameless lump of meat. After a few of these, you try and avoid mooncakes altogether, which is why the contents should be clearly labelled in English so that we can distinguish the ones we can eat from those which we would give to newbies who know no better.

I also have to wonder what happens to all the unsold boxes. No matter how often you go into any supermarket in the country, there are stacks of unsold mooncakes. The pile never grows, but it never gets any smaller either. I guess that at the end of the day you’re left with 月饼山.

I note the passing of Marcel Marceau. To recall his life, did people observe a minute’s noise?