What's in a name?

If it's not obvious by now, I've been struggling lately with what this blog should be about.

I've got my other blog for showcasing my Chinese swordplay translations, and with the time I've been putting into that, I simply haven't had much energy left for other writing activities.

The original intent, of course, was to share my experiences as I progressed along the path towards a deeper understanding of Chinese language and culture. Sadly, the longer I live in China, the less interesting it seems to be to blog about the stuff of daily life. Even the most exotic country can seem ordinary after a while.

If I am to find a purpose for this blog, I think it is wise to revisit my choice of title, "Rehearsing for the big square world." The line comes from the XTC song Playground. The song develops the metaphor of the schoolyard playground as microcosm of all of the interactions that will happen later in adult life. You skin your knees coming off the slide, but climb up again for another go; the bully's run the show; and that sweet girl you were playing house with "runs off with a boy whose bike she'll ride." (Ouch). Thus, all of that playing on the big square playground is a form of rehearsal for life in the the "big square world" of adults.

I've always liked the song, and one day it occurred to me that the Chinese have always envisioned the world as square, or rather, that the earth is square, and heaven is round. Thus, I saw that my study of the Chinese language was indeed a form of "rehearsing for the big square world," or preparing myself to be a participant in the world of China. Perhaps the fact that I am now participating as a professional in that world makes the notion of rehearsing seem moot.

On the other hand, any activity, whether pursuing your career, your hobbies, or some hare-brained project, always seems to involve some element of learning the "rules" of that domain. For example, I've been trying to learn bluegrass guitar lately, and I'm discovering it is mostly about training your hands to obey a complex system of contextual rules in real time. I know many music fans will revolt at the notion that music is anything but an unrestrained creative outburst on the part of their revered idols, but I can assure you, your idols have a head full of rules, too, they're just better at bending, breaking and recombining them is meaningful ways.

Same goes for finding ways to drum up new translation business. There are rules about the way that people in a given industry operate. Novel ideas will get you noticed, but to be effective, you must understand the background rules that are operating so you know exactly what queues and signifiers your ideas will exploit. That's how you figure out what sorts of things will get you noticed in a positive way, as opposed to, say, attaching my business cards to bricks and throwing them through the windows of prospective clients (which would certainly be novel and get my name out there, but might not get me work).

Finally, I think that the phrase "rehearsing for the big square world" sums up one more meaningful insight for me: the persistent sense that I'm always preparing for that day that I will arrive. This used to be disturbing to me because it meant I was always behind the game, toiling away at stuff that would only yield rewards later on down the road. Lately, however, the idea of preparing for arrival has changed its significance. It's merely a metaphor for constant learning and growth. Now, it's the notion of actually arriving that scares me. I prefer the constant stream of new challenges, because that is where life is really lived. Thus, I hope I keep on "rehearsing" for many years to come, as opposed to achieving some kind of stagnant state of mastery.

Keeping all of this in mind, I'm considering making this blog a sort of clearing house for all of the strange challenges I am taking on, and the insights I have as a rehearse my way forward with them. In that spirit, let me share something I have been working on recently: my first attempt at translating fiction that I believe is actually publishable!

The book is called Rock Soldier, and it is written by Chinese author and underground folk musician Liu Jian. Liu has had the perhaps singular experience of being a soldier in the People's Liberation Army while also working as a punk/folk musician at a time when the word "punk" hadn't even entered the Chinese language. As such, he was a punk before he knew what punk was, and he did it in the context of the decidedly un-punk PLA. Go Liu!

As far as "rehearsing" goes, I've found that while my Chinese could always stand some improvement, the real challenge here has been pushing myself to be a better English stylist. I am constantly re-editing my work, and you can see one stage in the development of this translation in Adam Minter's lovely China blog, Shanghai Scrap. Minter was kind enough to publish this small excerpt in support of getting Liu Jian's work more widely known in English.

Take a look, and expand your notions of what modern China is all about.


Wuxia fiction update

Just letting everyone know that my translation is moving to a blog of its own. To continue reading the next installment of Swallow and Dragon please check out: http://swallowanddragon.blogspot.com/2011/04/chapter-1-girl-in-white-2.html



A Taste of Wuxia in Translation

I've been experimenting over the last few years with doing translations of Chinese martial-arts fiction into English. Just for kicks, I will start sharing some of the results of my experiments here. This first sample is from the novel Fei Yan Jing Long by Wo Longsheng. It is a fairly well-known example of the Chinese popular fiction genre known as wuxia. For those unfamiliar with the term, just think of the movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and you're basically on the right track. This sample is pretty short... enjoy!

In Northern Hunan province, between the towns Yuanling and Taoyuan, there is a piece of paradise on earth. If you take a boat up the Yuan River, from Dongting Lake past the towns of Changde and Taoyuan, past the bend in the river known as the Zhang Family Crook all the way to Shuixi, then leave your boat and climb up the bank, you’ll arrive at a large Daoist temple standing out from a background of mountains clad in peach trees. This is the Temple of the Unseen City, founded by the monk Hou Shixiu.

One spring day, when peach blooms blanketed the land between the river and temple with hues as exquisite as rich brocade, a young woman dressed in white appeared from the depths of the grove. Holding a branch of peach blossoms in her left hand, and the hem of her light silk gown in her right, she picked her steps carefully, circling around places where the trees were dense, slowly making her way to the bank.

Her face was naturally pretty, but when paired with the elegant simplicity of her gown, it acquired an otherworldly quality. With the added effect of the light filtering through the blossoms, which marked her face with soft glowing pearls, she was transformed into a beauty to surpass all others, an innocent nymph freshly emerged from the water.

She strode to the bank and fixed her gaze upon the rapidly flowing water, a delicate smile of satisfaction upon her lips. She abruptly plucked a few blossoms from the branch in her hand and threw them into the heart of the river where they rose and fell with the rapids as they were swiftly carried away. Exhaling softly, her smile faded and a hint of wistful sorrow arose in its place.

At the same moment, a small fishing boat appeared upstream and sped towards her on the rapid current like an arrow in flight. In no time a figure was visible standing at the prow, a monk with a kindly face, about 60 years old, dressed in grey robes. Upon seeing the monk, the delicate smile immediately returned to the girl’s face and she cried out in her charming voice, “Master!” She threw the peach branch to the center of the river, and with a light thrust of her dainty feet her delicately wrought frame sailed across the rapids, white silk trailing in the wind. Both feet lightly touched upon the peach branch where it floated on the water’s surface, and spreading her arms, she leapt again, flying directly to the side of the monk on the boat.

The old monk let out a hearty laugh and spoke, “How is it that at 17 years of age, and young lady can remain so mischievous?”

As he spoke his right hand grabbed hold of the boat’s anchor and he hurled it mightily to the riverbank. Then the monk himself took flight as if loosed from a crossbow. The voluminous sleeves of his robe spread wide as he sailed 25 feet across the river’s surface. Turning his head back from his new position on the bank he watched the girl in white as she also leapt for shore. She appeared to reach the limit of her powers midway and dropped as if about to plunge into the river. The old monk observed her closely as she thrust both arms upwards and again rose to a height of eight or nine feet. Her gown billowed outward in a circle the size of a wagon wheel as she came down beside him, a charming smile on her lips.

“Master, wouldn’t you say my Swallow Piercing the Clouds gongfu has reached a new level of achievement?” she asked.

The old monk nodded, smiling, “You’ve improved, but your internal cultivation is still lacking. Should you need to escape an encirclement you won’t be able to take your attention from your foes in order to leap, and you certainly won’t be able to flap your arms around like that!”

Upon hearing that not only was she not being praised, but that her internal cultivation was being targeted for criticism, the girl in white became silent and scrunched her face into a sullen pout.

The old monk tensed his brow, allowing his annoyance to show upon his otherwise kindly visage. It would not do to go on indulging her as he had in the past. It was better to take this opportunity, he thought, to scold her, thereby checking her impetuous nature. From now on he would have to be more strict when training her. He gazed at her standing amongst the blossoms fingering the end of her plait, her displeasure showing as a reddening beneath the powder on her cheeks. In her posture and expression, she was the very picture of impulsive innocence, and so reminiscent of her long dead mother that 30 years dissolved before the monk’s eyes, like a dream upon waking. Heartache long buried welled up within his heart. How could he scold her? Before he could restrain himself he called to her in a low voice.

“Xialin, come here.”

His voice brought her out of her self-reproach, and turning her head she was surprised to see him trembling ever so slightly, light glinting from his teary eyes. Crying out she rushed to him and knelt, clutching herself to his knees. She begged, “Master, don’t be angry. I’ll never do anything again to disappoint you, my dear Master, I swear.”

The old monk lifted her to her feet. Smiling, he spoke, “Yi Yang Zi is the name of the abbot of the Temple of the Unseen City. He is also one of the three leaders of the Kunlun Mountain sect. Their Spectral Light sword method is unmatched. For the sake of your continued training I have asked that the abbot agree to an exchange of disciples. He will teach you the Spectral Light method, and I will teach his disciple my 18 Arahats palm method. My hope is that you will learn it well, and then, for the sake of your parents, you can…” He stopped, his brow knitted in sorrow. His consciousness was submerged beneath images of the past and in this stricken state, he spoke no more.

Seeing her master’s mournful expression, Xialin became greatly concerned. Grabbing his hand, she pleaded, “Master, don’t be upset, I told you I won’t ever do anything again to anger you.”

Before she finished speaking it occurred to her that the monk was on the verge of saying something important, something she wanted to know.

“Master, just now you mentioned my parents. It’s been weighing on me for many years that I know so little about them, but you have never been willing to tell me anything. It’s a pity that I don’t even know what they looked like. Please, tell me more, or I’ll die from the pain of it.”

By the time she finished speaking, tears were rolling one after the other down her powdered cheeks.


The World Remade (but still Big and Square).

This blog has been neglected for a while. Three years, in fact.

Initially the cause for neglect was the fact that the Chinese government shut down access to blogger from within China. This happened following the 2009 Xinjiang riots when Twitter, Facebook and Youtube all got gfw'd (that is, stuck behind the Great FireWall in local parlance). I was a poor student at the time, and not so eager to pay monthly fees for a VPN connection to lay siege to the wall, so that was the end of it.

Thereafter followed a very busy and stressful two years in my life. As my scholarship money went dry I was simultaneously struggling to finish my MA thesis and find work so I could continue my life in Beijing. It took some hard work, and a lot of hand shaking, but eventually I was working at a large Chinese internet company, managing teams of translators and producing English versions of their Chinese online games. The hours were long, and I was still squeezing in time on the weekends to finish my thesis, but things really seemed to be coming together.

The next crisis came in the form of some tragic family emergencies which coincided with the final deadline for my thesis (hey, if they give you two years, why not use them, right?). I went on leave from work, and drained my bank account while living the US and dealing with all of the above. For those of you who are avid blog readers, interested in medieval literature, or just plain stalking me and my relations, may I suggest that you read the blog of my late cousin, Laurel Amtower. It's also hosted here on Blogger under the name critbritlit. Her death in the summer of 2010 was a devastating blow to the family. I don't like to blog about personal emotional stuff, but I can't pass over the events of that summer without letting you all know that someone very special passed from our midst. Her blog extends back a few years, and chronicles her always original observations on life, teaching, literature, and finally, cancer, the disease that took her life.

I returned to China in the fall of 2010 to find that my previous job no longer existed as such, and I began scrambling for freelance work to replenish the coffers. A few months of no work and abundant worries finally broke late in the year, and suddenly I was living the life I had been dreaming about for years: I was an independent professional translator in a fun and creative industry: computer games!

It is only now that I feel I can look back over the past few years and make sense of what I have been doing during this time, and where I am headed. Furthermore, I feel that a certain amount of leisure and levity has returned to my life, and for me, writing always requires these ingredients to get the juices flowing. This isn't my usual sort of blog entry. I promise not to be so introspective in the future. I just wanted to provide us all, myself included, a segue into the return of my blog: Rehearsing for the big square world!

And now, the big reveal: What is with the name of my blog, anyhow? The line comes from an XTC song called "Playground". It struck me as a good fit for my blog since the Chinese have always conceptualized the world as being square, and I was literally "rehearsing", (read: practicing my Chinese) so I could participate in that big, square world. My blog will probably begin to stray from that original intention. For example, I am currently on vacation in Indonesia, and in response to the encouragement of fellow travelers I have met here, I will probably start blogging about my experiences in Indonesia in addition to those in China. I don't plan to change the name of the blog, however, because I still see it as applicable in other ways. I won't reveal exactly how at the current moment. You'll have to wait for the next major shift in content for that explanation.

Thanks to all those who have tuned in (Made Bayak and Ng Yi Lian mostly!) and given me the encouragement to take this up again!


The Accidental Choir

Somehow, I've managed to be in Beijing for nearly six weeks and still haven't made it to the forbidden city. Those of you that know me well will probably see something telling in this; after all, I am the guy who is always inclined to think that the best experiences in life are waiting to be found just around the odd corner, rather than highlighted in block letters in the guide book. At the same time I claim to be a budding China specialist, so it is something of a professional imperative to check out the seat of imperial power at some point. I worked out a compromise between the demands of self and career a few weekends back and went to Jingshan Gongyuan 景山公园, the hill park behind the forbidden city that offers sweeping views of its red walls and yellow tiled roofs. From there I hoped to contemplate imperial splendor while enjoying the sense of discovery that comes with being at least a few steps off of the beaten path. Yes, the park is in Lonely Planet, but I have to imagine that no one visits it with any intention other than to charge up the hill and snap a few pictures from the top. That should leave plenty of untouched park on the back side of the hill for me to ramble in, and hope to stumble upon something inspiring.

Upon arriving at the park, the impulse to gawk proved overpowering, and I charged up the hill to drink in the anticipated overpowering view. It's impressive all right. A damn good place to put a hill, and a convenient way to dispose of the earth that was dug out of the imperial moat, or so the guidebooks say. As you can see in this picture, the curiosity of foreign tourists is overmatched by the enthusiasm that the Chinese exhibit for their own past. It was nearing sunset and the highest viewing platform on the hill was crowded with Chinese snapping pictures of sweeping ranks of yellow-tiled roofs.

As I snapped pictures of Chinese snapping pictures faint wisps of song floated up from the bottom of the hill. I circled the viewing platform trying to pinpoint their source. The voices became distinct when I worked my way through the crowd to the backside of the platform, coalescing into an erie polyphonic mix. I had no idea what I was listening to. Sections of the choir competed in sending their ascending melodies up the face of hill, seemingly without regard for the meter, tone, or key of their counterparts. When did anyone ever compose music like this? In its atmospheric majesty, it approached Tallis's "Spem in Alium"; yet there was a threat of impending chaos that reminded me of the terrifying choir heard in the soundtrack to "2001" in the final scenes depicting the approach of the obelisk. All interest in the view dissolved. My most profound musical discovery was calling!

Half-jogging the trails down the back of the hill gifted my ears with musical vignettes of every kind: a handful of musicians from Xinjiang, two saxophonists trading jazz licks, local opera accompanied by shrill and resinous bowed instruments-- Chinese parks are always centers of the cultural activity-- but the main prize still lay ahead: that magnificent choir!

The trees cleared and the sounds clarified, not into the one mad modernist choir I expected, but into the songs of separate clumps  of singers sprouting like mushrooms from the vast lawn, 20 or 30 to a group, usually centered on a vigorous conductor and an accompanist on accordion. Their music was surprisingly conventional in style, if exceptional in the enthusiasm with which it was performed. What had become of my shock-and-awe choristers? Nothing at all. When close to one group, their voices completely drown out the adjacent groups spaced perhaps 10 yards away. It was only high on the hill that their separate rehearsals combined into the divinely mad vocal performance that had lit my imagination. My disappointment at the dissolution of the powerful strains I heard on the hill was easily overcome by the joy of wandering between groups, enjoying the fervor with which they sang old love songs and patriotic tunes.

I ran into a long-haired European, a romantic for sure, gazing at one group, his face glowing with the satisfaction of some private conviction. 

"Do you speak English?", he asked.


"At home we think we are free. We think the Chinese  lack freedom. But look at this. There is no park in Germany like this. No one would sing like this. No one would dare to sing so freely. They would just get stared at. People would think you are mad. But here, they just sing. They love it."


What gets done when not working on ones thesis

Life back in Santa Barbara obviously doesn't get me fired up like life in the Orient, otherwise you would see more postings here! Still, it doesn't mean life isn't good. My girlfriend and I have taken trips to the East coast (Christmas), San Diego, and the Northwest (Spring break), and also to that funky little patch of Danish culture nestled in the Central California hills, Solvang.

Also known as the setting for the film 'Sideways', Solvang offers a few square blocks of charming faux-Scandinavian architecture, and baked treats which go beyond their flaky facades to deliver real old-world flavor. Most notable is the unassuming kransekager, a pinky-finger sized log of marzipan pinched so that it has a triangular cross-section, and baked in a thin crust. You will wonder at $1.75 price tag attached to this wee treat only until the moment it touches your tongue, after which you will gladly buy two more to perfectly complement your afternoon coffee. The Swedish Delight did not fail its titular promise, and went well with the second coffee. Main courses were hearty and  tasted best with a sour red cabbage dish reminiscent of sauerkraut, but did not achieve a lasting place within my gustatory fantasies as the pastries have. Kransekager... I know not how to pronounce your name, but I long for you so...

In between jaunts across the country I continue to study and find myself unnervingly close to the date I should produce a longish, and sadly, required piece of writing called a thesis. I do enjoy my topic, an 11th century Chinese lyricist, but until recently there have been any number of things that demand their due attention and prevent me from getting immersed in the writing process. There were scholarship applications, taxes, financial aid applications, a somewhat impractical translation project, and even a lot of cavities and a tooth that needed pulling before my student health insurance runs out. Fortunately, Lianting, my girlfriend and fellow MA student, is providing a stellar model of thesis writing behavior to make me properly ashamed of my casual attitude towards what should be a scholarly statement of some substance. I need to whip out a chapter soon, if only to preserve some dignity!

My dilatory tactics have not been in vain, however. A scholarship has been offered which will cover a significant portion of the costs of studying more Chinese in Taiwan for 6 months. Another scholarship offer seems likely which could land me in China for 6 months as well. Seems that I have filled the coming school year, and only need to make sure I actually graduate before the next adventure begins. 


Shanghai (and afterthoughts concerning Beijing)

On the 29th of Aug. I flew from Taipei to Shanghai, marking my first visit to mainland China, which felt rather late for someone who has been studying the language for the last 4-5 years. My girlfriend, Lianting, would be flying in on the 1st from Japan to take me to her hometown in Shaoxing. In the meantime, I was entertained and toured around by members of her extended family. Her uncle, Tu Guanda, was in charge of setting me up with lodging and cooking fantastic meals for me, while two cousins, Tu Ying and Tu Wentian, became my willing tour guides to the sights of Shanghai.

My first day of touring began at the Bund. It was an overcast day, not ideal for taking in the views, but it was still nice to visit one of those I've-only-seen-it-in-pictures spots. The fake Rolex racket wears on one's nerves after about the 11th offer, so it was nice to escape the Bund for another touristy spot that was somehow free of street hawkers, the Cheng Huang Miao, or City Temple area. Chinese tourists outnumber the foreign tourists in this extensive maze of shops all done in traditional Chinese architectural style. The center of it all is the Yu Yuan, a classical Chinese garden that is undoubtedly one of the most rewarding stops a tourist can make in Shanghai. Like any good Chinese garden, it excels at offering layered views into intimate courtyards, and recreating the wonders of nature on a small scale. Latticed windows, winding verandas, laced tree branches, hanging eaves, and tilting rock formations always define the boundaries of your view, and obscure the object of your gaze, making you feel that in each adjacent courtyard, or around the next bend, is a hidden world that you can't quite reach. Often I found myself peering through a moon-shaped doorway, or through a lattice, amazed that there could be yet another perfectly tranquil, and sublimely evocative courtyard, only to realize that I had already been there. The genius of this garden lies not in the space it creates, but in the views into spaces, such that each view conjures your delight anew, even if it is something you're already seen, albeit from a different angle.

On the second day I hit the Shanghai museum of art, which is another must-see destination. For students of Chinese history, art, or literature, it will open up a portal onto the past. I particularly enjoyed the ancient bronze work and the brush painting exhibits.

Before you pack your bags for Shanghai, though, I feel I should warn you that manners and etiquette here are not as developed as I expected given Shanghai's reputation as a global city. Lining up behaviors seem to be good microcosms for understanding a culture's sense of manners and personal space. While in India, you could never even hope for a line, and simply have to join the tussle to get what you need, Shanghai seems to be in transition, such that there appears to be lines, but there is constant jockeying for position. I found this particularly disturbing because the semblance of well-mannered lining behavior is quite convincing, but as soon as your guard is down, someone cuts in. At Watson's, an international chain that sells daily necessities, I made it to the front of an orderly line, only to have the two customers behind me actually reach under my armpits, shoving their goods and money into the face of the cashier, who readily accepted them!  It seems that you line up in order to get within reach of the cashier, and from there it's a free-for-all. This is an monumental shock after coming from Taiwan where things can be a little loose at, say, a street stall, but once you get into a chain store, an upscale restaurant, or onto the subway, manners are top-notch.

When I was in Taiwan, my main issues with regards to manners had to do with personal space, as the Taiwanese are always friendly, but sometimes so insistently friendly that you feel that it is difficult to extricate yourself from undesirable situations. Shanghai is far colder, and every man for himself is obviously the main operating principle. None of this applies, of course, to every last person, as Lianting's family treated me with every courtesy imaginable, but is simply a statement about the feeling one gets moving through public spaces.

Previously in this blog I had attributed this aggression and lack of courtesy to China's complex history and particularly to the effects of the cultural revolution, where manners were considered a bourgeois relic that needed to be excised, and also the rapid, and unequal, economic development which has created very real fears of being left out of the boom, and stoked competitive instincts. However, now that I have visited Beijing, I feel I must amend my statements, and even apologize for any hurt feelings caused by such judgements. Certainly I should not have been so rash as to assume that I could understand all of China through the microcosm of Shanghai. Beijing, for example, is a warm and courteous place. I can't say it is orderly or that queueing behavior earns top marks, but it is a place with a heart, where the kindly interest of strangers more than makes up for the occasional tussles and confusions that occur everyday in traffic, in communication, and yes, in lines. Are the striking differences between these Chinese cities due to their differing histories, local customs, or to the effects of the Chinese government's Olympian efforts to update codes of behavior to better receive Olympic guests? Who could ever know? But as far as the casual visitor need be concerned, the Beijing Olympics theme song says it all: "北京欢迎你“ or "Beijing Welcomes You".