Thursday, November 19, 2009


Getting to Know Them Better: Ding Ling in the upper left; down one row and to her right is the poet Sun Li

Four translation gigs so far this semester have certainly eaten into my own research and creative writing time, but it was good work for all that -- work that simply increases background knowledge and language ability, familiarity with Chinese academic rhetoric. And more than anything, I think what is important is the feeling of work, of the pen rushing over the page, the output of something created, crafted. I'm just like a jewelry maker who receives an order over the internet, makes the product in his home, and delivers it back, hoping his fee is paid promptly and his customer is satisfied. There is a basic goodness to the ethic of the business transaction that in other areas of my work feels too sorely lacking.

Anyhow, it's time I began a full accounting of my translations, both for my CV and for my own notes. This latest article, for example, seems like it adds directly to my dissertation in two ways...

First, the business of "cross-period writers" suggests deeper comparisons with Yang Jiang. Like Yang Jiang, for example, Ding Ling lived a life that spanned the twentieth century and went through phases (albeit phases of a very different kind than Yang Jiang's).
Her life, from its ascent to fame in the 1920s as "yesterday's literate 'Miss'" to answering Lu Xun's call to arms with left-wing literature in the 1930s, to "Today's Martial General" under the flag of Mao Zedong, to facing over 20 years of suffering after 1957 before emerging once again in the 1980s, is a life of literary activities that spans the entire twentieth century. Her literary paths and her life experiences progressed in close lock-step with the modern and contemporary literature of China. They echo each other.
The really interesting question here is, how might these phases line up with Yang Jiang's? Ding Ling is a bit older, so we find no work by Yang Jiang in the 1920s to match up with Ding Ling's. But 1957 is an important year for both; Yang Jiang later wrote a sanwen essay detailing how 1957 was the first time she was "sent down."

Perhaps the main issue to consider is simply that Ding Ling was completely devoted to expressing the political in literature, even when she wasn't adhering to the rules of Mao's 1942 "Talks at Yan'an" literally. Yang Jiang, though is not terribly interested in "making literature for the service of the people." She is more interesting in finely-crafted portraits of human nature. Her art is of service, certainly, but not simply political service. In this she seems to have a soulmate in the poet Sun Li:
Sun Li was once and for all an old author known for discovering the beauty in human nature, of celebrating that beauty of human nature in song. In his later years he wrote a series of short works which, however, often lament the baseness of the human heart and the alienation of human nature; it was easy for people to see these as symptoms of his declining years. But actually, to observe coolly and calmy, with a transcendent attitude, the alienation of human nature during the revolutionary period is only a deepening and a complement to a poetic sensibility that had traced the most basic qualities of beauty of human nature during the war years. This warm style, plain-spoken and natural, but with internal resonance of meaning that draws readers to savor afterward, remained unified and consistent on the whole, before and after. There was certainly no great degradation.
The question of "degradation" in the quality of works by older writers is a most pressing one, so it is of interest to find that at least two Chinese scholars feel that old Sun Li did not degrade. One wonders if a Confucian bias towards respecting elders is at work here.

English Citation:

Liu Yong and Ji Xueyou. "Difficult Problems of the Practice of Holistic Approaches to Twentieth-century Chinese Literature: Taking the Study of Individual Cases of "Cross-Period" Authors as Examples" (Look at the turned-in draft of my translation, if you like)


Getting ready to teach Lao She

Cover for the French edition of Under the Red Banner

Interesting: just as with Yang Jiang, Lao She has found a French readership. The "avant–propos" of translator Paul Bady stands out in the CAJ database for being the only article to consider Lao She's text as autobiography (as usual, Chinese scholarship tends to dwell on the ideological significance of the text). Bady emphasizes the subject's unique precocity, his flair for dramatic, and most of all his candid and intimate observations of kith and kin.

Full citation:

Bady, Paul 保尔·巴迪. "Lao She zizhuanti xiaoshuo 'Zheng hong qi xia' de dutexing" 老舍自传体小说《正红旗下》的独特性 [The Uniqueness of Lao She's Autobiographical Novel Under the Red Banner.] Translated by Wu Yongping 吴永平. Studies of Ethnic Literature 民族文学研究 2004, issue 4 [retrieved full-text from CAJ Database].


Dissertation Outlining

Self-centered Style

Now that that last translation project is finally done, I made a bit of progress on my dissertation, incorporating notes I took down whilst reading Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives several weeks ago. It's upsetting to look back and see how slow my progress has been, but on the bright side, it's nice to see that taking good notes actually makes a difference.

In fact, I realize that at this stage, I think I have to combine real, honest-to-goodness writing with a more peremptory, brainstorm-friendly method of accumulating notes. This note-based outline of my first chapter will be my first attempt at doing just that.

Chinese Film in Off Hours

The Horse Thief 盗马贼

It's finally hit me that another way I could increase my familiarity with modern Chinese film and literature is to watch older films online. Many of these films are too slow, some how too involved in the business of drawing Chinese characters for Chinese tastes, to draw Adam in.

This film The Horse Thief, for example, I just learned about in a post on its director, Tian Zhuangzhuang 田壯壯. Tian is interesting for being a successful "Fifth Generation" director who has returned to the screen since being banned.

Another film that I'm watching at the same time is Er mo (links to, which was screened last night at the Bell Auditorium as part of the People's Republic of Cinema series.


Monday, November 16, 2009

Sima Qian's letter (pt 4, a tiny step)

A good companion is a severe distraction

Productivity has been low, but I'm going to bring it up, I can feel it. I can see into my dissertation, see how it will have to work, and what needs to be done. More than ever, this is a blog that will tackle the problems of my dissertation.

Returning to finish working on the Sima Qian letter. Really, I had no idea I would take so long to mess about with this. Nevertheless, a closely-considered look definitely seems warranted. Today's fragment:


Your servant in his youth was a talent that couldn't be bridled, but grown up, there was never praise for him in my home village. Our Ruler, fortunately, because of my late father, helped me to achieve some slight skill, emerging and entering the midst of Zhou and Wei. Your servant considered: if a man wears a bowl on his head, by what means will he ever gaze on Heaven? Thus I cut off all knowledge of visitors and guests and lost utterly the enterprise of our home. Day and night I thought only of using to the utmost my unworthy talents, serving with one heart this official post, that we might seek trust and favor before our Ruler. And yet, in the end, there was a great deceit that made it otherwise.
I like that even in this tiny, out-of-context fragment, we can see how personal the tone is with Sima Qian. His emperor is both a distant authority figure and a object of very personal feelings -- just like a father, we might think, except this is a father that also carries the all-encompassing scope of the sky itself. Such a ruler-father necessarily interrupts the correct relationship with the true father, and the clan he represents. I'm reminded that there is complete ambiguity over whether service to state is good for the family or not.

The phrase 周衞之中 was difficult, which turned out to be good because it pushed me a little deeper. No dictionaries carry the phrase, but if we look at Yan Shigu's 彥師古 commentary to the Han shu at this point, he says "Zhou and Wei means that he was staying in the most secure, most enclosed place" 周衛,言宿衛周密也, i.e., the interior of the palace.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Sima Qian's letter (pt 3, pressing ahead in small steps)

Tang Yin demonstrates the aesthetic of leisure

My lecture on Ming portraits went fairly well, and I'm excited about the consultation I have tomorrow over the view of the performance. With any luck, segments of the video will show up in this blog soon.

After class I was not so productive. After staying up late the night before, I fell asleep for a bit while working on classical Chinese. And I'm behind on grading, and the Tretter projects, and my translation work, etc. Still, I press ahead:


In the past, your servant was even once [on] the listing of officers at the foot of the hall. I had the honor of accompanying the outer court personally. I did not at that time draw on the rules and principles, nor did I use to the full my critical thinking ability. Now, my corrupted form is a slave who sweeps up remnants. As a mediocrity of low grade, were I to desire to lift up my head and stretch my brows as I discoursed on the ordering of right and wrong, wouldn't that do even more make light of the court and shame men of this world. Alas! Alas! As for your servant, now, what can he say now? What can he say now? Besides, the origins and conclusions of events are not easy to explain.
This passage was much more straightforward, except for the complex time sequence involved in 今...乃...不亦. Since the sequence begins with 今, the sentence becomes a clear example of a conditional or subjunctive mood (it's not clear to me the difference in cases like this.)


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sima Qian's letter, continued

I found a bit of time to work on my classical Chinese in the afternoon, after translating the latest article for pay and making a few lecture notes for tomorrow's class.

Zeng Jing (Ming dynasty), Portrait of Ge Yilong


Your servant depends on the accumulated work of his late father, having obtained the wait for punishment under the royal carriage for more than twenty years now. This is why I think of this: First of all I was not able to bring in loyalty with utmost confidence, [nor] to have a reputation for marvelous strategems or courage, [nor] in recommending enlightened rulers. Second, there was also no way to make good on omissions, to repair the gaps, [nor] have I sought worthy men to advance their abilities, [nor] brought to light good men from caves on high. Third, I was not able to take a place within the ranks of soldiers, attacking castles or making war in the wilderness, [nor] did I ever make an attack that destroyed a general and captured his flag. Lastly, I could never accumulate days of exhausting labor. I [never] took a respected office with ample salary, [never] made my clan or my friends any glory or any favorites. Of these four, not one; so following, that I improperly took my shelter [even though] I lack any accomplishments, small or large -- you can see from this!
The passage about Sima Qian's sense of failure is especially difficult because Sima Qian does not provide enough negative particles; the reader should tell from context that Sima Qian is speaking in a completely self-deprecatory way. Watson n. 112 on p. 216 also refers us to a nice passage in which Sima Qian establishes the "five merits" of a successful man:

The Grand Historian remarks: In ancient times men-subjects of merit held five grades. Establishing their clan temples and certifying their sacrificial altars by means of their inner virtue was called xun 勳, "meritorious service." By means of words is called lao 勞 "labor." Using strength is called gong 功 "achievement." Enlightening one's rank is called fa 伐 "eminence." Accumulation of days is called yue 閱 "experience."(Historical records, juan 18, "Table of Gaozu's subjects of merit")

Of particular interest to me here is the proof of the idea that Sima Qian constructs values for himself when he constructs the values of others. He measures himself against the successful government servants of the past, and feels keenly the lack of the values he finds in others.


Watson, Burton. Ssu-Ma Chʻien, Grand Historian of China. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958, pp. 57-67 and notes pp. 207-220.

Ban Gu and Yan Shigu. Han Shu. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, ?, vol. 9, pp. 2725-2736. This is one of those editions with commentary drawn from a variety of places, yet it remains extremely difficult to make anything out. At least the typeface comes in a suitably large size. The edition that Watson uses is the 1900 edition of Wang Xianqian Link王先謙 (1842-1918) which seems to be available here: TC Wilson Library East Asian AC149 .K9x v.384-389報任安書 [last accessed Nov. 10] I'm always pleased to find a whole version on Wikisource -- good formatting for cutting and pasting and for printing.


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Back to Classical: "Letter in Reply to Ren An"

Update, 11/8: My productivity has been shot lately, but I'm determined to win it back.

Update, 11/5: this is much harder than I imagined. Or else I did imagine it to be quite difficult, which is why I have been avoid it. But this sort of thing is like working out -- it is good exercise of the mind, and good defense against laziness. I'm making this my main priority for the next few days.

I've decided to make a concerted effort to return to the study of classical Chinese. I'll do this by going through a number of works related to my dissertation work in close detail.

To begin, I'm going to return to a text that has come up many times in my course "Writing Lives in China:" Sima Qian's "Letter in Reply to Ren An"

The Grand Historian, your humble servant Sima Qian, offering redoubled words of salutation to Shaoqing, at whose feet I sit:

Before, I was granted the favor of receiving your letter, which taught prudence in dealing with matters, as well as the duty to recommend worthy men and to good men. This concern was considerate and honest. It may be that you gaze darkly at your servant, not having tallied with his teacher, speaking of how he has made use of men swimming in vulgarity. Your servant would never dare to be this way. Your servant, though a used-up nag, still has heard and indeed, even listened closely to the inherited customs of the elders. I look to myself and I know my body is mutilated. I live in degradation. If I act, I'm reprimanded. If I want to help something, I actually hurt it. No one will speak with me, which is why I am so depressed by loneliness.

A proverb says, "For whom will you do it? What person will you manage to listen to it?" I think that once Zhong Ziqi is dead, Bo Ya to the end of his days will never again play on his qin. And why? The good man is for the employment of the one who truly knows him; a girl is made beautiful by the one who truly finds pleasure in her. It may be that the greater substance of your servant is already polluted now. Though my talents embraced Sui and He, and even if my conduct were like You or Yi, in the end, I can not be praised, for I am suited only to be laughed at, a disgrace to myself.

A letter's tidings deserves an answer, but together East following His Highness I came, and also I was pressed by private matters. Our days together were so few -- I was hurrying and hurrying, without a moment of leisure to tell you all of what is on my mind. Now you, Shaoqing, harbor this unfortunate accusation. Weeks and months have passed; the winter season presses upon us. Your servant again must follow urgently His Highness to Yong, and I fear very soon that which we cannot render unspeakable. If because of this your servant would never get to express his outrage and resentment, that it be known to you, honorable sir.

Otherwise, the traveling and lingering souls of the long departed will harbor private hatred that knows no bounds. Please allow me to briefly lay out my stubborn lowliness my stubborn lowliness. And for delaying so long without replying, please don't take offense.


Your servant has heard something: those who cultivate their person are the tallies of wisdom; those who treasure giving are the extremes of benevolence; taking and giving is the mark of righteousness; shame and disgrace are the determinants of courage; establishing one's name is the ultimate in conduct. When a man has these five, then can he be put out into the world and listed among the groves of superior men. Consequently, of misfortune, none is more latent than the desire for profit; of sorrows, none more painful than a broken heart; of conduct, none uglier than shaming the ancestors; of punishments, none greater than the palace punishment. For the person who remains after the punishment, there is no group to which he can associate; this is not one generation, but with a provenance that is long and far indeed. [feels like textual corruption here to me, or else extremely vague Chinese] In the past, when Duke Ling of Wei and Yong Ju shared a ride, Confucius went to Chen; when Shang Yang was because of Jing Jian seen [by the ruler], Zhao Liang became cold of heart; When Tong Zi participated in the ride; Yuan Si changed his color. From ancient times all were ashamed of them. Now, men of intermediate-level metel, affairs having relation to eunuchs, none do not have an injured air. So how much the more for the vehemently good man? As in this day, though the court lacks men, how can one command this remnant of the knife-saw to recommend stalwart men under Heaven?

A few sources:報任安書 [last accessed Nov. 2] I'm always pleased to find a whole version on Wikisource -- good formatting for cutting and pasting and for printing.

Apparently the text is also in the Wen Xuan.


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