Archive for the ‘Books I Read for Fun’ Category

Let the schools do their job

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

Each Leaf a Bodhi Tree: My Fifteen Years at Dunhuang (一叶一菩提——我在敦煌十五年, 2010) by Xiao Mo (萧默) is a memoir about the author’s career studying the Buddhist caves at Dunhuang, a fifteen-year period that began in 1963 and lasted until after the Cultural Revolution. I haven’t read it yet (it just arrived this afternoon), but a note at the very end caught my attention:

作者赘言

本稿完成后,有朋友说,你说的这些个“文革”中的事儿,好多年轻人早就不知道了,什么“造反有理”、“横扫一切”、“破四旧”、“无限崇拜”、“三忠于”、“早启示,晚汇报”……等等,现在的年轻人听了都哈哈大笑,以为是笑话,不会懂得,不如加上几条名词解释作为附录。我觉得有理,本来已开始做起来,转而一想,这件事本不该由我来做的,绝对应该是中学历史课本和大学政治课的主要内容之一,我来做,岂非越俎代庖?再说,作者还是对此等事保持点距离为好,要是年轻朋友真想知道,而今互联网发达,一查就能查到;要是不想知道,这整本书他都不会读的,便打消了这个念头。

Superfluous Words From the Author

After completing this manuscript, a friend said, this Cultural Revolution stuff you’re talking about — lots of young people don’t know a thing about it. Things like “to rebel is justified”, “sweep away all [monsters and demons]”, “smash the four olds”, “unlimited worship”, “three loyals”, “morning instruction, evening report”….young people break out laughing when they hear them now, as if they’re a joke. They won’t understand. Why not add an explanation of some of the terms as an appendix? I thought this made sense, and I had already started on it when the thought struck me that it really shouldn’t be my job to do this. It should absolutely be a major part of middle school history textbooks and university politics curriculum, so if I did it, wouldn’t I be meddling in someone else’s affairs? Besides, it’s best for an author to keep some distance from these things. If my young friends want to know, the Internet is quite advanced and they’ll find it if they look for it. If they don’t want to know, then they won’t read this book in the first place. So I gave up the idea.

I’m looking forward to reading it, partly for the history, and partly because Xiao is an interesting, opinionated writer. According to one review, he takes some shots at Gao Er Tai, another Dunhuang researcher with a memoir of those turbulent decades, In Search of My Homeland (寻找家园, 2004).


The book A Glossary of Political Terms of the People’s Republic of China by Li Gucheng (Google Books link), which I used for some of the terms Xiao lists, looks like an exceptionally helpful reference for translating texts from the Cultural Revolution era.

Han Han, Amy Cheung, and Wei Hui — from 2007

Monday, June 28th, 2010

The short reviews in this post were written in mid-2007. All three books were fairly ephemeral. I can remember some of the major plot points of Amy Cheung’s story, and I have a vivid memory of my mounting frustration at Wei Hui’s preposterous characters and ridiculous situations. I have no recollection whatsoever of the Han Han novel.

The Glorious Day by Han Han

韩寒,《光荣日》

Han Han’s latest novel was billed by promoter Lu Jinbo as “magical realism,” but it’s really just a loosely-connected series of moleitau vignettes. Like his previous novel, The Ideal City (一座城池), this book features a group of friends who have to find a way to support themselves in the remote town in which their journey unexpectedly deposits them. They get housing provided by a school in desperate need of teachers, but spend most of their time trying to make enough money to purchase the necessary supplies for a secret project that Mai Damai, the leader of the group, has cooked up. They have comical run-ins with local law-enforcement, take up with loose women, and exercise a corrupting influence on the young people who have been placed in their care. Han Han’s iconoclastic sensibility is as much in evidence here as in his earlier novels.

However, where City‘s action mostly involved just the three main characters, the shorter Day has to follow the activities of this larger group of classmates, few of whom receive any significant character development. And while City had at least some semblance of plot surrounding its extended joke sequences, this book provides very little to hold together the set pieces, which, in classic Hong Kong comedy tradition, are hit-or-miss. A scene of absurd violence at the start of the book is handled quite well, but there’s an unsettling misogynistic streak to this novel that hasn’t been present in Han’s earlier works. Still, it’s only the first volume, so we can hope that Han Han will tie everything together in the conclusion (if he ever gets around to writing it).

Hongyan Lushui by Amy Siu-han Cheung

张小娴,《红颜露水》

Last summer when I was in Hong Kong getting my visa taken care of, I picked up a copy of this book where it was on display atop the best-seller rack. I’d heard of Amy Cheung before (she was in the news a while back when she announced plans to switch gears and work on a series of vampire-themed horror novels), but I hadn’t ever read any of her work. The mainland edition was published in May.

The title Hongyan Lushui could be translated as something like “Dewy Complexion” if it weren’t taken from the name of the protagonist, Xing Lu (邢露). She’s a barista who left a job at a luxury jewelry store for the freedom that comes with working in a small coffee shop, but still smarts from the indignity of her situation: her family once had money and social standing. We follow Xing Lu’s romantic history through some initial heartbreaks until she hits it off with an impoverished artist, only to inexplicably break off the relationship and torpedo his career.

For about two-thirds of the novel I grew increasingly frustrated with the plot and the idiotic decisions of the main characters, kept interested only by a peculiar little man who turned up from time to time to frighten Xing Lu (I had the notion that the story was moving in a heavily psychological direction, and that this man was a hallucination, or perhaps something supernatural. I was wrong). The story’s conclusion eventually cleared up all of the mysteries and redeemed the characters themselves, whose motives were not as random as they initially appeared. Still, I felt cheated by the way the author had deliberately withheld background information for no reason apart from manufacturing suspense.

In any event, it’s a quick read — between the wait at the airport and the flight back to Beijing I was able to finish it off.

Doggy Dad by Wei Hui

卫慧,《狗爸爸》

A girl rejects her long-term boyfriend’s proposal for reasons she cannot explain and then goes in search of him when he suddenly leaves town. Oh, and she’s accompanied by her late father who has come back to earth as a dog.

Good stories have been written about talking dogs. This is not one of them. Wei Hui is the author of Shanghai Baby, a novel that became a sensation when it was banned for its frank sexual content. Wei’s latest book cuts out the sex, leaving the brand-name dropping and English-language asides feeling a little out of place within a simplistic story of a woman coming to terms with commitment.

The author has described her book un-ironically as “New Age,” and I suppose it’s not unfair to call it a supernatural parable of self-actualization. But it’s not one that we can actually appreciate. Our heroine’s impossibly trusting and generous nature inspires sympathy and understanding in everyone around her. Even con-artists reform themselves when she helps them realize that their profession is unethical. Practically the only purpose of her father the dog (Wei Hui’s publisher flubbed the English title on the cover by not calling the book The Dogfather) is to boost his daughter’s self-esteem by telling her that all of the problems in her life are someone else’s fault.

And that’s basically how the story wraps up. Questions are answered and conflict is resolved when the supporting characters awaken to the error of their ways and make their apologies.

Still, this won’t be the worst book you’ll read all year — you’re going to listen to my advice and not read it at all.

Secret numbers

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

During a trip to the Sanlian bookstore yesterday I discovered a shelf of language pamphlets published by Language and Literature Press (语言出版社). The series sort of resembles those “Very Short Introductions” as limited to the language arts field, and although the writing in the two that I picked up wasn’t particularly engaging, at 3 yuan or so per volume you can’t really go wrong.

The series includes titles by Ji Xianlin and Zhou Youguang; I picked up Numerals in Chinese (汉语的数目字) by Su Jinzhi (苏金智), of whom I know nothing except that one previous publication was a critique of Y.R. Chao’s scholarly work.

Here’s an interesting bit:

数目字在隐语中用其他文字来代替,这是文字的变异。商业活动中人们常常创造另外一套数目字,以达到经商赢利的目的。如明清玉器行流行的数目字隐语是,一为旦,二为竺,三为清,四为罢,五为语,六为交,七为皂,八为未,九为丸,十为章。十个数目字都隐含在隐语的文字中。苏州过去有一种数目字的隐语,也是采用这种字形变异的手法,只不过它直接说出变异的结果。这种隐语把一称为“旦底”,二称为“挖工”,三称为“横川”,四称为“侧目”,五称为“缺丑”,六称为“断大”,七称为“皂底”,八称为“公头”,九称为“未完(丸)”,十称为“田心”。

黑社会活动中,黑社会分子也经常有自己内部使用的一套数目字。

Numerals in coded argot frequently use character substitutions that take the form of written transformations. In commercial transactions, people often use a separate set of numerals in the pursuit of profit. A popular code for numerals in the Ming and Qing era jade sector ran 旦 (dàn), 竺 (zhú), 清 (qīng), 罢 (bà), 语 (yǔ), 交 (jiāo), 皂 (zào), 未 (wèi), 丸 (wán), 章 (zhāng), where each of the ten digits is hidden within a written character of the code. A coded argot once used in Suzhou employed the same technique, except that the result of the written transformation was stated explicitly: one was “the bottom of 旦”, two was “工 dug out,” three was “horizontal 川,” four was “目 on its side,” five was “incomplete 丑,” six was “broken 大,” seven was “the bottom of 皂,” eight was “the top of 公,” nine was “unfinished” [完 and 丸 are homophones, and an unfinished 丸 is 九], and ten was “the heart of 田.”

Gangsters frequently used their own set of numerals in their internal activities.

The book does not provide any examples of underworld usage.

I think I prefer the jade numerals as opposed to the hand-holding Suzhou system. Baidu Baike’s entry on 隐语, provides a slightly different version: 旦底、断工、横川、倒目、扭丑、交头、皂尾、分头、未丸. Ten is left off.