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Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:22 am Print

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Thin layer sensing with multipolar plasmonic resonances (and showgirls)

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:12 am Print
Via Language Log, something on how to make a fool of yourself in Chinese. Apparently the Max Plank Institute asked for a nice Chinese poem for their cover and got awful calligraphy and an ad for strippers. Not much to add, really, although I do find their struggles to read the KK加美 bit a little odd. Apparently a lot of Chinese had trouble figuring out the place in line 2 where "KK加美" is shoved into the space that should have just one character. I'm not very experienced at reading ads for showgirls, but at least as late as the early republic it was common for Chinese texts to have commentary in a smaller font interspersed with the main text. (I bet there is a word for that) so I would read those four graphs in the order KK加美. Apparently this tradition is dead enough that Language Log's modern Chinese readers are not familiar with it. Or maybe they are better at having fun with words than I am.


Mountains, Vikings, and Chinese Poetry

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 3:42 pm Print
Lots of people seem to like Chinese poetry. The latest NYRB has a review of a reprint of A.C. Graham's Poems of the Late T'ang by Eliot Weinberger. ((Graham, A.C. Poems of the Late T'ang. NYRB Classics, 2008.)) The book was first published in 1965. A review now may seem odd, but it seems like its always a good time for people (everyone from Ezra Pound to Kilgore Trout) to talk about Chinese poetry. Part of the reason for this is that a lot of Chinese poetry, and especially Tang stuff, sounds very much like modern poetry once you translate it. I assume some translator of Chinese poetry has expressed this as well, but I take an example from Jane Smiley's introduction to The Sagas of Icelanders. ((The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection. 1st ed. Viking Penguin, 2000.)) The Sagas have been tremendously popular (in literary terms) in the twentieth century just like Tang poetry because they are both modern (more a novel in the case of the Sagas) and medieval at the same time. As Smiley puts it.
And yet, these stories are so clearly medieval And yet, they are not This is their fascinating paradox
Chinese poetry turns out to be much the same. Weinberger says that when Graham's translation first came out "most of the poets I knew avidly read it." One of the poems he brings up is Han Yu's The South Mountains (南山) It is a very long poem, and he only cites a few lines out of a much longer section of similes describing mountains.
Scattered like loose tiles Or running together like converging spokes, Off keel like rocking boats Or in full stride like horses at the gallop; Back to back as though offended, Face to face as though lending a hand
Weinberg says that this "combination of trance-inducing repetitive rhyme and hypersimilitude would not be attempted again for another 1,000 years, until the Chilean poet Vincente Huidobro's modernist extravaganza Altazor" As this is a blog an I have unlimited electrons, I can give you the whole section on mountains. ((This is from the Charles Hartman translation in Liu, Wu-Chi and Irving Yucheng Lo eds. Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry. Indiana University Press, 1990., so it is a tad different))
Climbing up high I reached the summit, Quickly bolting squirrels and weasels scattered. Before and below opening wide, Scattered and strewn corrugations piled up: Some joined like marriage Or constrained like combat Or relaxed like lying prostrate Or alert like startled pheasants Or dispersed like broken tiles Or guided like spokes to the hub Or floating like boat travel Or direct like horses running Or backed off like enemies Or face to-face like partners Or confused like bamboos germinating Or swollen like cauterizing moxa Or disarrayed like lines in a sketch Or sinuous like Great Seal Script Or meshed like star configurations Or dense like hovering clouds Or buoying up like waves Or breaking apart like plows Or like the valiants Meng Pen and Hsia Yu Who gamble victory fighting for the prize— The victor strong exuding power, The defeated stunned grumbling his anger. Or like the grandeur of a ruler Who gathers, at court the humble and youthful; Intimate, yet never too familiar; Distant, yet never estranged. Or like facing a banquet table With dishes in excess spread for show, Or like traveling through Nine Plains Where grave mounds embrace their coffins. Or stacked up like a double-boiler Or erect like a sacrificial urn Or upturned like terrapins sunning themselves Or collapsed like sleeping quadrupeds Or undulating like hidden dragons Or wings flapping like a captured condor Or equal like friends Or following like first and second Or adrift like exile Or pensive like waiting Or antagonistic like enmity Or close like marriage Or solemn like high miters Or swirling like dancing sleeves Or immovable like battle formations Or encircling like the great hunts Or submissive—flowing east Or restful—head to the north Or like the blaze from a roasting fire Or like vapor rising while steaming rice Or moving and not pausing Or left and not gathered Or aslant and not inclined Or slack and not taut Or naked like bald temples Or smoking like a wooden pyre Or like the cracks on tortoise shells Or like the lines of the eight trigrams Or level on top like po Or broken underneath like kou ((hexagrams from the Yijing)) Elongated-like: broken then joined again Unbending-like: deserting then meeting again Agape-like: fish mouths gasping from duckweed Sparse-like: constellations traversed by the moon Majestic-like: trees tall in the courtyard Peaked-like: granaries stacked up high Pointed-like: halberds standing sharp Glittering-like: holding jade and jasper Opening-like: flowers unfurling the calyx Dripping-like: rain falling from broken eaves Leisure-like: stretched out and calm Obstinate-like: familiar and pushy Superior-like: emergent and speeding Squirming-like: frightened, unwilling to stir.
For a Modernist this might just be playing with language, but for Han Yu it was something else. Steven Owen sees the poem as an example of "architectural representation", where each part of the description is part of a transparently orderly whole. The poem ends Mighty they stand between Heaven and Earth, in orderly function like the body's ducts and veins. Who was he who first laid out their origin? Who, in labor and striving, urged it on? Creating in this place the simple and artificed, with forces joined, he bore long-suffering toil. Could he have not applied hatchet and ax?— he must have used spells and incantations. No tradition survives from the Age of Chaos, such a mighty deed none can repay. I have heard from the priest in charge of sacrifice that he descends to taste the offering's sweet scent. Finely wrought, I made this poem, by which I may join in requiting him. So for Han Yu this is not a riot of descriptions, but rather an affirmation of the orderliness of the universe. Mountains, words, Han Yu, crocodiles, all of them are part of an orderly, knowable whole. Not how I would explain the modernist approach to art or reality. Not that I am really here to tell poets they can't say anything they want about Chinese poetry, but it is interesting to see the corpus of classical Chinese poetry leading two lives.


Voice of the people

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:08 pm Print

One nice thing about Chinese history is that there is a long history of recording popular songs. From the Han at least it was assumed that popular songs reflected the popular mind, and so collecting them was an early form of public opinion polling.

In the first month of spring each year, just before the many inhabitants were to scatter [for farmers went out to live in their fields during the growing season], the envoys would come shaking their wooden clackers all along the roads, in this way intending to gather up the local odes, which were then presented to the Grand Master [at court]. It was he who arranged their musical scores, at which point they were performed for the Son of Heaven. Hence, the saying, “The king knows All-under-Heaven, without ever peering out from his windows and doors.” Han Shu via Nylan Five Confucian Classics

Of course the songs we have written down are problematic in that it is not clear if they are really the songs commoners sung, or what they would mean if they were. Still, a lot of them were recorded. Even the Communists did it.

This is one from Shaanxi in 1938 or so, when the Nationalists were building #7 military school

第七分校 一派胡题建校 到处拆庙 摔碎砖瓦 专要木料 政治讲话八道1训练谈不到 骑兵无马 炮兵无炮 专等吹号 吃饭睡觉

Number 7 school Is complete nonsense A school built on false pretenses Everywhere they destroy temples Shattering the tiles And confiscating the timbers Political lectures are Wild talk (could be “Wild talk about the (Communist) 8th route army”?) Military training is Endless talk without results The cavalry have no horses The artillery have no cannon They spit out slogans Eat and sleep

Although the format (peasant complaint song) is very old, this one is pretty astute in its criticisms. In the second line the school is accused of being built on false pretenses. This could mean at least two things. One of the purposes of the school was to suck up students coming from the occupied areas and headed for the Communist base at Yenan. So as far as Chiang Kai-shek was concerned the purpose of the school was not so much military training as denying recruits to the Commies. For Hu Zongnan, the commander of the school, its purpose was to instill loyalty to himself and create the building blocks for a personal satrapy in the Northwest.

As the village the school was located in did not have enough large buildings for what eventually grew into a major training facility a lot of building was done, which required a lot of lumber. Some of this was acquired by forbidding peasants access to the forests, but a lot of it also came from taking apart temples. In the wood-starved Northwest temples would be a great place to find big timbers. Revolutionaries, both Nationalists and Communists, regarded temples as worthless dens of superstition and so loved taking them apart, not as a rule a very popular move.

Mostly though the song criticizes what went on at the school, which for the peasants seems to have been very little. This was the opinion of the students and their future commanders as well, as the school had a reputation for doing more political training than military training. From a good revolutionary point of view that is fine, but apparently the peasants were not buying it.

From 文史料存稿选编 p.743

1There are a couple of possible puns on the name of 胡宗南,Chiang Kai-shek’s commander in Shaanxi and commander of the school. (He was incompetent to the point that Chang and Halliday accuse him of being a communist mole.) There are other bits of wordplay in here too, I think.


Six Dynasties blogging

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:04 am Print

One of the things I have been doing for fun this summer is reading Family Instructions for the Yen clan 顏氏家訓by Yen Chih-t’ui 顏之推 (T’eng Ssu-Yu trans Leiden 1968) Yen Chih-t’ui (531-591 C.E.) was a literatus and court official under the Liang dynasty the Northern Ch’i, the Northern Chou and the Sui. He wrote extensively on religion, etymology, phonology etc.

He was also apparently a blogger, or at least that is what I gather from reading the section in the Family Instructions entitled “On Essays”

As for writing essays to mold your own nature and spirit or to give others unembarrassed advice, if you penetrate to the interesting part, it is also a pleasure. If you have leisure after your other activities you may practice essay writing.

Being able to write good essays does not necessarily bode well for your career. He points out that “many men of letters have suffered from a light (mind) and a sharp (tongue).” He then lists a litany of famous essayists who came to bad ends, including Ch’u Yuan who ended up drowning himself when the king disregarded his words, Li Ling, a general who was captured by barbarians, Feng Ching-t’ung who was not promoted and then was dismissed because of his unstable personality and Wu Chih who calumniated and alienated his fellow countrymen. Perhaps most interesting was Tso Ssu who, in order to produce good poetry had his house and garden furnished at every turn with tables and materials for writing so that he could write down his ideas whenever they occurred to him. (obviously he needed wi-fi in the house) When Tso Ssu finished his fu poem describing the capitals of the Three Kingdoms so many people wanted to copy it that there was a shortage of paper in Loyang. (sort of an early version of a server overload.)

While there are some essay-writers who have come out well, both in a career sense and in a moral sense most of them come out badly.

. . . a body of essays exhibits the writers interests, develops his nature, and makes him proud and negligent of control as well as determined and aggressive.

The main problem is that they seem to get wrapped up in their own wonderfulness

A proper expression of one fact or a clever construction of one sentence make their spirits fly to the nine skies, and their pride towers over (the other writers) of a thousand years. They read aloud again and again for their own enjoyment, forgetting other persons nearby. Moreover, as a grain of sand of a pebble may hurt a person more than a sword or spear, their satirical remarks about other persons may spread faster than a storm.

Some of them in fact get so tied up in themselves they loose all touch with reality. Specifically, they can’t tell if they are writing nonsense or not.

In this world I have seen many people without the slightest literary talent who consider themselves elegant, flowery stylists, while spreading their awkward and stupid writings. . .Recently in Ping-chou an aristocratic scholar liked to compose ridiculous poems, challenging Hsing, Wei, and other eminent writers. All of them mocked and falsely praised him; but he was so excited that he prepared feasts to entertain those with literary reputations. His wife, an intelligent woman, admonished him against (this folly) even with tears. The gentleman said with a sigh, “Even my wife cannot appreciate my talents; how can I expect much from strangers?”

Yen also includes various small tips about writing. One should avoid the use of the phrase 敬同 -respectfully echoed (indeed). One should also beware of misusing literary allusions. This is more tricky than you might think, since “”the miscellaneous tales of the many schools of philosophy are occasionally different, and their works have usually been lost or unavailable.” He then lists a series of little errors he has found in the writings of others. Needless to say he thinks these errors of his opponents are worth being preserved for the next thousand and a half years, and so he includes them, supposedly as a form of instruction, but I think just as a bit of pettiness.

It really is a fun book.


Hightower Obituary

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:18 am Print
If you're an H-Asia reader, you already saw this, but if you're not, it's an interesting look at the 20th century history of Asian literary studies in the US. James Robert Hightower has passed away, after an incredible career in Chinese literary studies and government service.

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