A Farmer Learns his Chinese Characters

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 2:05 pm

I haven’t been making any substantial posts to Frog in a Well of late even though I have been buried in fascinating historical materials as I write my dissertation. I have decided, however, to share the occasional short anecdote that pops up in some of the secondary and primary sources I come across.

If you have studied Chinese you may know how hard it is to maintain memory of those characters. I remember being impressed with a friend who attached little labels on everything around the house to help his girlfriend learn German vocabulary. Looks like this is a method with a lot of history behind it. In a section talking about literacy in Communist controlled areas of wartime China, Dagfinn Gatu brings up a patronizing anecdote from Jack Belden’s China Shakes the World I don’t remember coming across describing one way to remember the Chinese characters:

“A farmer plowing his field would put up one character on a big board at each end of the field. Thus, going back and forth all day, even his primitive mind could grasp the complex convolutions.”1

  1. Quoted in Dagfinn Gatu, Village China at War, p. 77. Originally in Jack Belden, China Shakes the World, p. 117. []


Holiday reading: Murder, treachery and genocide

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:39 am

As I am half-heartedly getting ready for the Spring I am putting together some readings for my students. What survey would be complete without a chunk from the Secret History of the Mongols? So if you are looking to take a break from your preparations for Taiwan’s Constitution Day this is a good way to take a break.  I would like to claim that I have carefully studied the whole text and picked out the best bit to give you a picture of Mongol society, but that’s not really true. It is a good read though, if a little long for use in class.

from Chapter Four

After getting Ong Qan to come, Cinggis Qa’an and Ong Qan decided to move jointly against Jamuqa. They set out downstream along the Keluren River. Cinggis Qa’an sent Altan, Qucar and Daritai as vanguard; Ong Qan for his part sent as vanguards Senggum, Jaqa Gambu and Bilge Beki. Patrols were also dispatched ahead of these vanguards: at Enegen Guileni they set up an observation post; beyond that, at Mount Cekcer, they set up another observation post; and beyond that, at Mount Ciqurqu, they set up a further observation post. Altan, Qucar, Senggum and the others of our vanguard arrived at Utkiya. While they were deciding whether to camp there, a man from the observation post which had been set up at Ciqurqu came riding in haste and brought the news that the enemy was approaching. When this news came, without setting up camp they went towards the enemy in order to gain information. They met and gained the information: when they asked the enemy patrol who they were, it turned out to be Jamuqa’s vanguard consisting of A’ucu Ba’atur of the Mongols, Buyiruq Qan of the Naiman, Qutu, the son of Toqto’a Beki of the Merkit, and Quduqa Beki of the Oyirat. These four had been going towards us as Jamuqa’s vanguard.
Our vanguard shouted at them, and they shouted back, but it was already getting late. Saying, ‘Tomorrow we’ll fight!’, our men withdrew and spent the night together with the main body of the army.
Next day the troops were sent forward and when they met, at Koyiten, they battled. As they pressed on each other downhill and uphill, and reformed their ranks, those very same Buyiruq Qan and Quduqa, knowing how to produce a rainstorm by magic, started to conjure it up, but the magic storm rolled back and it was right upon themselves that it fell. Unable to proceed, they tumbled into ravines. Saying to each other, ‘We are not loved by Heaven!’, they scattered.
Buyiruq Qan of the Naiman separated from the rest and went towards Uluq Taq on the southern side of the Altai Mountains. Qutu, the son of Toqto’a of the Merkit, went towards the Selengge River. Quduqa Beki of the Oyir went towards the Sisgis River, making for the forest. A’ucu Ba’atur of the Tayici’ut went towards the Onan River.
Jamuqa plundered the very people who had elected him qan; then he moved homewards following the course of the Ergune. As they were dispersing in this way, Ong Qan pursued Jamuqa downstream along the Ergune while Cinggis Qa’an pursued A’ucu Ba’atur of the Tayici’ut in the direction of the Onan.
As soon as A’ucu Ba’atur reached his own people, he had them moved along with him in haste. The Tayici’ut A’ucu Ba’atur and Qodun Orceng arrayed their troops at Ulengut Turas on the other side of the Onan, and stood in battle order ready to fight.
Cinggis Qa’an came up and fought with the Tayici’ut. They battled to and fro incessantly until evening came; then, in the same place where they had been fighting, they passed the night right next to each other. When people [the refugees] arrived, fleeing in disarray, they set up a circular camp and also passed the night in the same spot, alongside their troops.  In that battle Cinggis Qa’an was wounded in a vein of the neck. He could not stop the bleeding and was in a great plight. He waited till sundown, then he pitched camp just there where the two armies had encamped right next to each other.
Jelme sucked and sucked the blood which clogged Cinggis Qa ‘an’s wound and his mouth was all smeared with blood. Still, Jelme, not trusting other people, stayed there and looked after him. Until the middle of the night he swallowed down or spat out mouthfulls of the clogging blood.
When midnight had passed Cinggis Qa’an revived and said, ‘The blood has dried up completely; I am thirsty.’ Then Jelme took off his hat, boots and clothes – everything – and stark naked but for his pants, he ran into the midst of the enemy who had settled right next to them. He jumped  on to a cart of the people who had set up a circular camp over there. He searched for kumis, but was unable to find any because those people had fled in disarray and had turned the mares loose without milking them.
As he could not find kumis, he took from one of their carts a large covered bucket of curds and carried it back In the time between his going and coming back he was not seen by anyone. Heaven indeed protected him!
Having brought the covered bucket of curds, the same Jelme, all by himself, searched for water, brought it back and having mixed it with the curds got the Qa’an to drink it.
Three times, resting in between, the Qa’an drank, then he spoke: ‘The eyes within me have cleared up.’ He spoke and sat up: it was daybreak and growing light. He looked and saw that, all about the place where he was sitting, the wound-clogging blood that Jelme had kept on sucking and had spat about had formed small puddles. When he saw it, Cinggis Qa’an said, ‘What is this? Couldn’t you have spat farther away?’ Jelme then said, ‘When you were in a great plight, had I gone farther away I would have feared being separated from you. As I was in haste, I swallowed what I could swallow and spat out what I could spit out; I was in a plight myself and quite a lot went also into my stomach!’
Cinggis Qa’an again spoke: ‘When I was in this state, lying down, why did you run naked into their camp? Had you been caught, wouldn’t you have revealed that I was like this?’ Jelme said, ‘My thought, as I went naked, was that if somehow I got caught, I would have said, “I wanted to submit to you, but they found out and, seizing me, decided to kill me. They removed my clothes – everything – only my pants had not yet been removed when I suddenly managed to escape and have just come in haste to join you. They would have regarded me as sincere, they would have given me clothes and looked after me. Then, I would have jumped on a horse and while they were astonished watching me flee, in that brief moment I would have surely got back! So thinking, and because I wished to get back in time to satisfy the Qa’an’s craving for drink caused by his parching thirst, thinking this and without so much as blinking an eye I went there.’
Cinggis Qa’an said, ‘What can I say now? In former days, when the Three Merkit came and thrice circled Mount Burqan, you saved my life for the first time. Now, once more, you restored me to life when, with your mouth, you sucked the clotting blood from my wound. And, yet again, when I was in a great plight with a parching thirst, disregarding your life, you went amidst the enemy without so much as blinking an eye; you quenched my thirst and restored life to me. These three services of yours will stay  in my heart!’ Thus the Qa’an spoke.



Race in China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:49 am

A pretty good discussion from the New York Times.


Brick, baby

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:32 am

I don’t know how many Chinese cities have these, but in Xian the buses mostly have Emergency Bricks


They are set on those two pins, so they don’t move around, but you can easily lift them up. Why are they there? Well, if the bus flipped over you might need to break a window to get out. You would need like a brick or something to do it with. Well, here is the brick. There is even a sign pointing to it sometimes, in case you can’t find it.


This struck me as a very Chinese-y low-tech safety measure, but one that would probably work.1  Sadly I did not take one of these bricks home with me. It would have been theft of state property, which is bad, and it would have killed my weight limit. Now of course I regret it. My office really needs an Emergency Brick for those occasions,  usually involving administrators, when one feels that all one’s problems could be solved with the application of a brick to the right spot.

  1. Some buses had little hammers for the same purpose. I think a brick would work better. Also people might steal a little hammer []


China, where the future is already the past

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:15 am

I have tried to stay off the subject of how the internet will change the world, since there is enough of that on the internet already. I was struck by this piece, (Via Sullivan)  which gushes about the wonderfulness of self-publishing, specifically the idea that Joshua Marshall is hiring a publisher.

The sheer joy of the idea that the creators should have the whip hand and “publishers” just be errand boys who handle making the copies  (think of a university without administrators) is likely to cloud the mind, but there is more to this than just happy visions of publishers tending the gardens of the Forbidden City. What would the world look like without publishers? Without music company executives?

Happily, China had a thriving printing culture for a good thousand years before the introduction of western-style printing machinery in the late 19th century created a modern publishing industry, so we know something about this.  The Chinese reluctance to adopt movable type  is even now sometimes presented as a puzzling example of the anti-technological bias of those silly people, but actually there was no great need for it. Woodblock printing had already begun revolutionizing Chinese culture by at least the Song dynasty, and movable type did not add much. One of the big advantages of woodblock printing was that it cheaper and required less capital. To print a book with movable type need a set of type with many copies of each letter (expensive in the West, more so in China) and literate typesetters. Since the type is broken up up after printing a page you need to have the capital to buy enough paper (usually a major expense) and to wait for the things to sell or to swallow the loss if they don’t. With Chinese block printing you needed a literate author to write the book, but then you could paste the paper on a woodblock and have an illiterate (and cheap) carver cut it out. Storing all the woodblocks could be a pain, but since you did not break them up you could print as many copies as you needed (print on demand!) and then keep the blocks. At least some literati would leave their woodblocks in their wills. (I know Yuan Mei did, and I would guess others did too.) There was far less need for the work publishers do and the capital they provide.

China certainly had publishers going back at least to the Ming. Cynthia Brokaw has written about the small-scale publishing houses that churned out and distributed cheap books for the masses. The commanding heights of Chinese publishing, however, were occupied by the literati-publishers who were better known as writers, editors, and collators than as publishers.  If a person had a reputation that would sell books they did not need a lot of capital to go into business for themselves. China did not have much by the way of copyright law back then, but they were somewhat protected by the fact that they had already made up the printing blocks for their famous works. This would not help the small publishers making cheap copies of the Four Books, of course, so they lived in a cutthroat low-margin market while the more elite writers floated above that.

This seems to be sort of what technology is creating today. Publishers still exist, and if you want to publish “Chicken Soup for a Goldfish’s Soul” you will need a publisher to advertise it and make sure that stacks of it are piled up at the local gas station. If you are famous enough and not really wanting to go after Stephen King’s sales records self-publishing is getting easier and easier. We may end up with a two-tier system like China had.

Oddly, the one place where new publishing trends are not really taking hold is academia. You would think that given all the authors who sell dozens of books on their own reputations rather than marketing hype, and the fact that getting it out there rather than getting rich is the goal, scholars would go in for self or electronic publishing. Journals certainly have, but academic books of course serve a purpose other than being read, which is proving that you are a scholar by coming out in hardback with the name of a publisher on the spine so that you can keep your job. The cultural importance of publishers is still there, and it will be interesting to see how long they can resist the technological trends that are moving away from them.

There is a lot of scholarship on this, although I would not blame any of the people below for the errors above.

Brokaw, Cynthia J. Commerce in Culture: The Sibao Book Trade in the Qing and Republican Periods. Harvard University Asia Center, 2007.

Brokaw, Cynthia J., and Kai-Wing Chow. Printing and Book Culture in Late Imperial China. 1st ed. University of California Press, 2005.

Rawski, Evelyn. Education and Popular Literacy in Ch’ing China. University of Michigan Press, 1979.

Reed, Christopher A. Gutenberg in Shanghai: Chinese Print Capitalism, 1876-1937. University of Hawaii Press, 2004. 

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