The Scholars

By Wu Jingzi.

The Scholars (儒林外史; Rúlín Wàishǐ) is a satire on the imperial examinations system[1] which was used as a means of selecting officials. It was possible to rise to positions of great prominence in the government, but it was also possible to spend a lifetime in the examinations system and never advance beyond the first exam. This was the fate of Pu Songling, author of Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. Wu Jingzi, who came from a family which had produced many successful candidates, suffered the same fate, failing the provincial examination time and again. This was the spur for The Scholars.

The book is like a series of short stories which are often only related to each other because a character from one part is mentioned in another. Eventually, it settles on Du Shaoqing and his circle in Nanjing as a focal point. Du, who is apparently based on Wu Jingzi, is the closest The Scholars has to  a main character.

The various parts of the book satirise different parts and personalities of the system. One of the earliest characters is the elderly Zhou Jin, who finally passes an examination. He then passes Fan Jin, who’s not much younger than him, but merely because he seems to convince himself of the brilliance of Fan Jin’s essay after reading it several times. Ma Chunshang remains unsuccessful in his attempts to pass the exams, but edits essays and is often criticised by other characters for his superficial learning (although through such criticism those characters are often hoisted by their own petard; two other snobbish essay editors my criticise him, but they themselves are too afraid to sit the exam for fear of failure or passing by chance). One of the more telling barbs comes from Mr Gao who boasts, without the slightest hint of irony, that he passed the examinations by writing pastiches; yet he is another severe critic of Ma Chunshang.

The satire and the humour in The Scholars is often obvious, but at times I wasn’t certain whether Wu Jingzi was being critical of a character or his circumstances; sympathetic; or other ______ (please state). Du Shaoqing and Dr Yu fall into this category.

At times, Wu Jingzi seemed to expand his sights to Chinese society in general. I wasn’t sure, for example, why so much time was spent on Guo Tieshan’s search for his father, and tales about his encounters with fabulous beasts as he travels through the mountains to Chengdu. Perhaps it’s meant to be a parody of Journey to the West or similar stories full of the fantastic which had audiences going “Ooh!” and “Aah!” Similarly, much was written about Xiao Yunxian and the recapture of Green Maple City, but I’m not sure what the episode contributed apart from a minor dig at Xiao Yunxian’s reference to something he read in a book.

More obvious was Wu Jingzi’s treatment of the nouveux riches, the Peng and Fang families, whose arses are collectively kissed even by members of the established Yu (余) and Yu (虞) families, and his scathing contempt for geomancers who insisted that the location of burials would determine the fame and fortune of a family. In the case of the Yu (余) brothers, their parents are finally interred beside the ancestral burial ground – where they should’ve been buried in the first place.

One recurring reference to the book is the salt trade, although its obvious importance isn’t explained. Presumably, the salt merchants have wealth and power not because they passed the imperial examinations, but because of their business.

The particular translation I read is part of the Library of Chinese Classics series. As I noted, there are various typographical errors, but these are not that frequent and, therefore, unobtrusive.

Although I wouldn’t place The Scholars in the same rank as the four classic novels, it’s worth reading as a window on another aspect of Chinese history and culture. I used to think that the mania for science in China was because science allegedly deals with facts, which stops people thinking about other things such as freedom of speech, democracy, and all those other things that get Nanny reaching for the smelling salts. But I now see how the examinations system, which was stultifying and, in turn, stultified China, contributed to the country becoming a basket case for so long.


1. The core of the examinations system was the 八股文 (bāgǔwén; the eight-legged essay) a rhetorically complicated monster which was always about the Confucian classics and written in Classical Chinese (roughly speaking, the language of the early Han Dynasty, 3rd century BC). Part of Wu Jingzi’s criticism of this system is still applicable today: much knowledge; little understanding.

It would be as if the Civil Service recruited new members by having candidates write essays about the philosophy of Socrates or Plato in Attic Greek.

16.06.13. Edited HTML, added tags, and made minor changes to the text.


The Nine Plagues of Chengdu

No. 7 – The bike chain.

Two days ago when I went DVD shopping I’d got as far as 南大街, which is to say, not far at all, when the chain came off my bike, sundered by main force. I went to the bike shop outside my old flat and got a new chain. Chains here aren’t linked together using a special tool but rather but a clip which holds the links together. It’s easier to get on and off, but seems to be prone to catching.

Anyway, I went to Zoe’s for tea this evening. Just as I was approaching 南大街, the pedals seized up and, yes, the chain had come off the rear cog. Fortunately, I’ve been carrying pairs of disposable gloves recently and repaired it without getting my hands dirty. I passed through the intersection, turned right down 上池北街 and was just approaching the the skip at the other end of the street when, once again, main force did for the chain. I rescued it (although not before some taxi driver had driven over it – plonker) and took it to the nearer bike shop to get it put back together.

But I have no doubt that this will happen again. The chain doesn’t run smoothly, although I’ve had the rear wheel adjusted more than once, and the other day I had the main cog tightened up. This is chain number three since I inherited the bike from James. It’s not a bad piece of kit, but the parts that make it go are sorely wanting.

Your starter for ten

What’s a gabelle?

A infrequent, but noticeable feature of a number of translations from Chinese to English I’ve read is the presence of some very obscure words in English. I’ve been reading The Scholars by Wu Jingzi, translated (as ever) by the Yangs. In Chapter 18, Zhi Jianfeng has a little too much to drink and has a run-in with “The Assistant Salt Gabelle Comptroller”. Gabelle? The book has one or two typographical errors (e.g. “depantic” for “pedantic” in the introduction; “Then Kuang Chaoren was invited into his bridal chamber, and the beauty of his bride threw him into captures [sic!]” in Ch. 19), which made me wonder whether this was some sort of similar error.

I looked up the word online and found that it was a much-hated salt tax in France before 1790. I’m assuming the word is being used in connection with salt. The Chinese says 盐捕分府 (yán bǔ fēn fǔ). I’m not sure what it means exactly, but possibly something like “Salt Revenue Office(r)” might be near the mark. Because “gabelle” really refers to a French salt tax, it’s inappropriate diction; the word “tax” would’ve been quite adequate. I’m sure plenty of historians who study French history know “gabelle” and its meaning, but unless you’ve studied the subject, you probably won’t know it.

Later. Gabelle gets used quite a bit in subsequent chapters, but soon departs from “salt tax”, being used generally in connection with the salt trade itself when terms such as “salt merchant” or “salt shop” would seem to be more accurate for one thing and more transparent for another.

On the second syllable.

I see someone landed here wanting to know which syllable of “ahead” is stressed. Answer: the second one. Etymologically, it’s one of those words in English such as “alive” and “afoot” which started life as a prepositional phrase. Anyway, information about the pronunciation of English words is readily available in most dictionaries whether they’re 3D or online.

First Among Sequels

By Jasper Fforde.

For those of you who were reading when I bought this book many moons ago, you may remember that I thought this might be a sequel too far. I’m afraid to say that my prediction was correct. I enjoyed the earlier books in the series and they had come, as far as I recall, to a natural conclusion. There seemed to be no need for any more of them.

First Among Sequels (FAS) is set fourteen years after Something Rotten. Thursday Next is now pretending to work in the world of carpets when, in fact, she’s still more or less doing what she’s always done. She’s trying to train two cadets, Thursday1-4 and Thursday5 (a little self-referencing which should come as no surprise in Fforde’s alternative reality), smuggling cheese from Wales, dealing with a feckless adolescent son and the ChronoGuard, remaining highly suspicious about Goliath Corporation, etc. and etc.

As you can perhaps guess from this little list, there’s far too much going on in the book for it to be particularly coherent. It’s as if Fforde had a bunch of ideas for Thursday Next in his notebook, but had thought they weren’t worth pursuing. Then he got a call from his publishers.

“We need a new Thursday Next novel, Fforde. The pips haven’t squeaked yet, so get squeezing. Oh, and we want it by Tuesday next.”
“But my name’s Jasper Fforde.”
“What are you talking about, Fforde? Get writing that book or it’s back to editing GCSE accounting textbooks for you.”

Not wanting to edit GCSE accounting textbooks, Fforde had to get out his notebook and try and string a bunch of disparate ideas together. Perhaps if FAS had been a series of short stories like The Ladies of Grace Adieu, it might’ve worked better.

Apart from the mushy plot, FAS kind of gets bogged down in world building. The gags of the earlier books are largely missing, perhaps because they all got used up. That was one of my criticisms of those books – Fforde was squeezing the comedy pips. And now he’s paying the price, perhaps.

It’s disheartening to find that the book ends with a cliffhanger, but if there is yet another Thursday Next novel in the pipeline, I doubt whether I’ll bother; and the same goes for any more in the Nursery Crimes series. The horse is dead; flog it no more.

You’ve had your fun

Foreigners are not just for Christmas.

I see from Beijing gags anti-Western online anger that Nanny is now trying to dampen down online nationalist hysteria directed against the West be­fore it perhaps spills over into reality.

Good censorship or bad censorship? It’s definitely another manifestation of the doctrine of harmony and social stability, which is really what’s driving this. But should people be prevented from expressing their grievances on line no matter how misinformed or self-deluding they might’ve been in the first place? Of course, when the hysterical reactionaries fume and rant on line here, there may be a reaction in the real world.

My feeling is that this is bad censorship (with a fairly small b), but I can understand why Nanny might be out with her Internet tippex on this part­i­cular subject this year.

Meanwhile (and tangentially related), in recent months I’ve increasingly felt that the term “the West” is empty and meaningless. It seems to be a short-hand for a set of ideas which are loosely applicable across a range of disparate countries. For example, American culture isn’t Western culture, and not really representative of it. At best, I suppose the West is a group of countries whose culture is rooted in European culture; whose governments are nominally democratic; whose media is supposedly free to say what it likes without fear of censorship or retribution. But we don’t all share the same values, and the notion that the West is somehow liberal is laughable. Westerners might have a greater licence to express themselves and criticise their governments, but their sentiments are not necessarily liberal, and their attitudes not necessarily open.

Mr Bamboo and the Hunt for Breakfast Cereal

He seeks it here; he seeks it there; he seeks it nearly everywhere.
Carrefour has been doing its thing again. I want a certain sort of breakfast cereal; well, I’m not going to find it. None to be had at Carrefour in the Fortune Centre since I bought the last jar; none in the big Carrefour on 八宝街; or the big Parknshop (of which I had no inkling) along the road from it; or at Metro. That means eating one of those artificial breakfast cereals that have more in common with synthetic fibres than with something that might been grown in a field somewhere.
But the trip wasn’t without its spectacle. You may have heard about the call to boycott Carrefour because, allegedly, it or some company connected with it was believed to be funding all those Тибэтан "patriots" who recently fought to vandalise shops in Λhάσα. Or were they expressing a fervent desire for independence? Nah. They seemed to be more interested in vandalism and looting, and cynically using the Olympics for their own ends. It’s an allegation which is pretty much on a par with that recent nonsense about Coca Cola being a supporter of the same group. You may have heard about the guy in Kunming who noted that the products in Carrefour are Chinese and came in for much abuse as a result.[1]
The spectacle was a small-ish group of people outside Carrefour trying to get people to boycott the place. They were handing out leaflets to shoppers. Compared with the photos over on ESWN at the moment, it was insignificant. The branch itself was full of people doing their Saturday shopping. No one pestered me as I went in and no one bothered me when I came out. There were a few police around, but no one was getting hysterical.
The people in the cycle park were, it seemed, taking bike reg. numbers, although mine doesn’t have one and I believe such things are no longer required. They didn’t seem bothered by my arrival. The park itself was rather crowded.
1. It’d be so easy to assume that this is more insipientia sinensis, but the particular species I was observing – internetus fatuus – is international. They’re the sort of annoying people in Cyberia who will never accept that no matter how wrong they are, they’re never wrong, and that no point should ever be conceded, however falsifiable it is.

The phoenix sings in the wood

No? In the bamboo, then.

ming feng zai shu I was skimming my way through a translation of the Essay of One Thousand Characters by Zhou Xingsi, which was written during the Liang Dynasty about 1500 years ago. Zhou rearranged a composition by Wang Xizhi (CE 321-379) into a rhymed text. The book includes Wang’s original calligraphy (you can see my rendering on the left) which says, “The phoenix sings in the wood”.

Zhou’s text says (in simplified characters) 鸣凤在竹 (míng fèng zài zhú) “The phoenix sings in the bamboo”. Quite apt, I thought, for Green Bamboo.

Chinese Prose Writings through the Ages

Compiled by Dai Kang and translated by Xie Baikui.
meihua ru xue
This is a collection of short examples of writing from ancient times to the  Qing Dynasty, covering various subjects and including travelogues of journeys to various scenic places; filial reminiscences; memorials to emperors (one of which is by Zhuge Liang); and two Qing Dynasty pieces about travels in Europe. Like the other books in this series, the original text is given with pinyin transcription followed by a translation into modern Chinese and a translation in English on the facing page.
The writings are generally more serious than those in other volumes I’ve read, but in The Arbour of the Drunken Greybeard, the writer, Ouyang Xiu, tells the tale of some drunken revelry. He ends by saying,

The one who is able to share the common mirth when intoxicated and put it down in refined description when sobered is none other than the prefect. Who is the prefect? Ouyang Xiu of Luling.

Rather like the occasion when Winston Churchill admitted to being drunk, but knew he’d be sober the next day.
About half of the material comes from the Ming and Qing Dynasties so that prose from more recent periods would be better represented rather than concentrating on, say, Tang Dynasty prose.
fangxiang bu ran

Harry Potter and the Lexicon

There are precedents, m’lud.

When I first heard about the lawsuit against the publication of the Harry Potter Lexicon (Emotions run high at Harry Potter’s A to Z trial), I wondered whether it was truly possible to claim copyright infringement. Back in the day, long before Hollywood had got its grubby paws on The Lord of the Rings or the Internet existed, I owned several Tolkien-related books. There was an encyclopedia, a bestiary, and even a book with detailed maps of the journeys made by the Company of the Ring. Obviously, these weren’t appropriating chunks of Tolkien’s works, but using them as source material to produce original secondary works.

I’ve never seen this Harry Potter Lexicon, but since it appears that it’s all quotes and little or no originality, then Rowling and her deep-pocketed gorilla, Warner Bros., are right to pursue this one even although they’re going to emerge from it looking like petulant, hysterical bullies. And because Rowling herself used the online version, she ends up looking a little hypocritical. She’s benefited from someone who’s freely used his time to compile the whole thing. I don’t doubt the legality of the situation, but the ethics look a little battered.

It was there a couple of days ago

What a wit.

Although some people might like to believe I know every word in English,1 here is some proof to disabuse them of such a notion. I was glancing through William Hazlitt’s essay Of persons one would wish to have seen when I espied the word pertinaciously (“stubbornly, obstinately”) for the first time in my life.

I was vexed at this superficial gloss, pertinaciously reducing everything to its own trite level…

William Ayrton, a musician, has just cast aspersions of Chaucer with references to his rugged meter and quaint orthography. The subsequent observations are those ridiculous assertions of the age that Chaucer stood at the dawn of English literature etc., when he was, in fact, nearer the end of the Middle English period. In fact, I’m surprised that anyone even thought like that in Hazlitt’s day, though it was only 1826 and Skeat wasn’t to be born for another nine years.

At the end of On the Ignorance of the Learned, Hazlitt says in the final paragraph

Women have often more of what is called good sense then men. They have fewer pretensions; are less implicated in theories; and judge of objects more from their immediate and involuntary impression on the mind, and, therefore, more truly and naturally. They cannot reason wrong; for they do not reason at all. They do not think or speak by rule; and they have in general more eloquence and wit, as well as sense, on that account. By their wit, sense and eloquence together, they generally contrive to govern their husbands. Their style, when they write to their friends (not for the booksellers), is better than that of most authors.

I’m not sure whether he’s thinks he’s possibly being complimentary or what. But even if he is being a bit of a plonker, I’m opposed to judging someone of a different time and place by the values of our own. That was then; this is now.2

1. I found when I was an undergraduate that once it’d been revealed I was doing a degree in English, it would then be decided that I was an OED on legs. Untrue. If further proof is needed, I remember looking at random pages of my copy of the Concise OED once and being a little disturbed that I was confronted with so many unfamiliar words.
2. Yes, yes. Very trite.