Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Lost in Pinyin-ation

While in the Shanghai Museum a month ago, I picked up a museum guide flier “Treasures in museum’s collection” which featured this instantly forgettable sentence:

“Yuan Ji (Shi Tao), Zhu Da (Bada Shanren), Kun Can (Shi Xi), and Zhan Jiang (Hong Ren) were the four monk painters of the late Ming and early Qing period.”

It’s hard enough to internalize Chinese names if you don’t know Chinese (or if you do, but the characters aren’t alongside). But it’s even harder when everyone has two names, like all of these painters. The names in parentheses are their hao, what I would equate with self-selected pen names. Hao are often stamped onto paintings, in addition to signing. If the museum translated the hao after their names, the result would be as follows (my translation):

Yuan Ji (Stone Waves 石涛)

Zhu Da (Eight Big Mountains Person 八大山人)

Kun Can (Stone Stream 石溪)

Zhan Jiang (Magnificent Compassion 弘仁)

Now, those nicknames are much more approachable than the pinyin lets on! Visiting the Nanjing Museum on its free admission day over the May holiday, I found that the English translations alongside its artwork always gave just the pinyin names, too, even though everyone’s hao is interesting.

Someone should let these institutions know they need a new English translator. Do Chinese people not see the imagery of the characters like I, a non-native character reader, does? Hao remind me of Native American names because the symbolism is intentional, and are chosen to reflect the person’s personality. (Compare my dime-a-dozen “Lauren” to, say, “Buffalo Bull’s Backfat“).

Some famous Chinese have taken personalized naming to another level altogether: Qi Baishi (or should I call him Qi White Stone 齐白石), a modern Chinese painter most famous for his beginning painting at middle-age, used a host of hao on paintings, since he kept changing them over the years.

He didn’t stop with hao either; he also completely changed his first and last names, finally settling on the Qi Baishi by which he is best known. His “nomography” (I made that term up), which I have below, is a good example of how transitory a Chinese name can be (my translations):

Original surname and given name: 纯芝Chun Zhi

First hao: 渭青Green, 兰亭Orchid Pagoda

Later surname: 齐Qi

Later given name: 璜Huang

Later hao: 濒生Bordering Birth, 白石山人White Stone Mountain Person, 红豆生Red Bean Born, 木居士Wood Inhabitant…[1]

Qi Baishi is pretty typical in the number of names he’s taken as an artist. It’s as if a name is impermanent to Chinese people—at least all the famous ones, like artists, writers, and emperors. I wish I knew the history of this practice in China, or if any other cultures follow it. I mean, how do people do Chinese historiography research? How can you keep track of who’s doing what if their names constantly change?

Anyway, I don’t have those answers, so I’ll stop here and hope that someone will tell me. How is this at all relevant to laowai like ourselves? Maybe we should open out minds to the possibility of renaming ourselves as we change in life.

Next time you think about getting a chop made with your Sinicized name on it, reconsider getting a personalized hao instead. Or several. Maybe we can modernize them, as in “Skyscaper Hermit”, or “A retreat avoiding the crowds”…

[1] There are also some other weird hao he used which I don’t trust my own understanding enough to translate. He uses two characters, 寄 and 萍 often, which makes me think they have some personal meaning other than the vanilla translation. These are: 寄园, 寄幻仙奴, 寄萍, 毛萍, and 萍翁. If anybody has any guesses on these I’d love to hear.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

First Post

Hello dear readers,

Welcome to my blog. I suppose it needs an introduction--a rasion d'être--so if you feel the same way, read on. I decided to start a blog as a means of expressing my thoughts, mostly for my own sanity, but also for the benefit of friends and family in the US who want to keep up with my Life on the Other Side of the World, the P.R. of C. It was hard to pick a "theme" for the blog though. I know having a theme, like "Nanjing History Blog" or "Comments on the Chinese Press", would make the blog a more interesting read for people who want consistency and go to different blogs for their individual themes. However, not wanting to be confined by a) subjects I don't know enough about (AKA all of them) or b) the same topic all the time, I have decided the theme of this blog can only, initially, be whatever inspires me to write. This is getting back to the blog as an outlet. If people do find that interesting after all, great. And if my thoughts end up drifting in a particular thematic direction, I'd be fine with that too--maybe it will be a way for me to learn a decent amount about some subject, like art or history.

Enjoy! I know I will.

Our Harmonious Society

By now, just about all laowai should have heard of our “Harmonious Society”. The first time I saw those words was about three years ago, in Chinese “和谐社会”, written in huge font on a billboard along the road just after the Lupu Bridge in Pudong, Shanghai. At the time the sign was an anomaly, but within the last year it's become ubiquitous. It's on red banners. It's on billboards. It was a major theme in CCTV's 2007 Chinese New Year program, probably the best indicator of its priority as a government message. It’s the name of the new high-speed trains, the “Harmony Lines 和谐号”, which started running in April. It has even jumped the party line into corporate consciousness: witness KFC’s new ad campaign, “Harmonious Family 和谐家庭” (ugh). Facing somber issues like the rich-poor disparity, uprisings, and government corruption, the Harmonious Society is President Hu Jintao’s way of curiously both admitting and denying that China is currently unharmonious: great effort at all levels has been put into writing the word “Harmony” everywhere, yet no clear definition, examples, or instructions about how to actually go about creating the Harmonious Society were given to me. Not until Yu Dan.

A few weeks ago, XM’s mother asked if we could help her buy a copy of TV lecturer Yu Dan’s Insights on , since she had heard it was a popular new explanation of the Taoist classic. Not having heard of Yu Dan until then, and I generally being confused when people speak in Nanjing-hua, we bought her Yu Dan’s Insights on instead, since it was in piles at the bookstore (realizing our mistake, XM went back the next day and scouted out Zhuangzi too). I didn’t give much thought to Yu Dan or Confucius again until last week, when I learned via Danwei that a small group of scholars had publicly taken issue to Yu Dan’s outrageously popular TV appearances on the show CCTV Lecture Room, and her books.

In sum, the three apparent issues people have with Yu Dan are:
1) She has compromised her scholarship (she’s a PhD and Media Studies professor at Beijing Normal University) by bending/editing Confucian thought so it applies to creating the Harmonious Society;
2) She has taken this obtuse philosophy out of historic context and boiled it down into inane and sometimes misleading jianghu which is entertaining to the masses;
3) Some of her explanations are just plain wrong.

As for #3, I’m not going to argue for her mistakes, since Confucius is tough and everybody makes mistakes (even though one of hers was really stupid).

However, I think her critics have missed the big picture in their other two complaints.

As for catering to the masses, first, Yu Dan is a Media Studies professor who in her spare time consults TV shows. She’s a specialist in high ratings, not the Classics. Of course she knows how to “make learning fun!” (i.e., simplifying). Second, she has even openly clarified that her shows and the books are a product of her personal reflections on The Analects—not some groundbreaking scholarly exposition. They should not be treated as the latter. Lastly, her episodes on CCTV Lecture Room were broadcast during a holiday last year, which in China means that other than those stupid (I mean, intrepid) enough to travel, essentially all your average Zhou’s sitting at home watching TV while eating chicken feet were potential viewers. And they loved it. In fact, shouldn’t that be the beauty of Yu Dan’s CCTV Lecture Room talks—they were an extremely successful step up from the lame kung-fu historical dramas (I mean, American Idol impersonator competitions) on these days?

And isn’t that just why she was chosen by state-run CCTV for the show—she’s smart, entertaining, and talks about how to achieve Harmony with your family and neighbors? It’s common knowledge that the government actively uses media to spread its own messages, not just filter those it doesn’t like. (I myself have, unfortunately, been on one staged TV contest, and cheered on an Indonesian friend who, despite an awful performance all around, won another. One fellow observer’s guess was that featuring Foreign Friends in these shows is to expose average Chinese to foreigners in advance of the Beijing Olympics, when they will flood the country).

But back to the government and Confucius…what critics seem to be forgetting as they get all hot and bothered about scholarship is that the Chinese government has always, as long as there have been Classics to interpret, interpreted them to their advantage. Around 2,200 years ago, Han dynasty founder Liu Bang grudgingly accepted Confucianism to legitimize his authority, and then changed it so it better resembled his preferred philosophy, Legalism…In the 5th century Northern Wei Buddhist political patrons claimed Lao Zi and Confucius were disciples of Buddha, in order to wrangle power amongst their respective followers…In the ensuing Sui dynasty, Confucianism and Taoism were again fused with Buddhism to legitimize it…I’m going in order here, and we’ve got at least 14 more dynasties to go. In sum, Chinese philosophy has time after time been used or abused to suit the needs of the ruling power. No one should be surprised that Confucius now teaches us how to contribute to a Harmonious Society. And to their credit, no matter how you interpret The Analects, Confucius actually does talk about harmony: don’t filial piety, friendship, loyalty, morality, and following rituals all keep people in order?

When I asked XM’s mom how she found the books, she said, “My memory’s not as good as it used to be. I enjoy what I’m reading, but I forget what I read by the next day.” Hmm. Maybe Yu Dan’s message isn’t getting through as well as the government hopes. And just the other day on the news it was reported that the top desires of Chinese included more money, a luxury car, a villa, and to win the lottery. Nobody mentioned harmony, but probably because it wasn’t a choice. Maybe using corporate advertisements as a vehicle for Harmonious Society are the better way to go after all. They won’t make any more sense, but at least we'll know who’s behind them.