Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Chapter 4 Chart of works read, in progress

Well, I didn't quite write a full 1,000 words, unless you count my review of Kramer vs. Kramer, which I tend to do, but only self-indulgently. Still, I did get through the story "Romanesque" all in one sitting and wrote a brief response to it, which definitely counts for something. Before taking off for the day I also put in place the chart of works I'll be looking at from three different volumes of essays.

The point of this chart (just an annotated table of contents, really) will be to have a large-scale view of the primary texts I might consider, and slowly prune away those that can be omitted, mentioned only in a different part of my dissertation, or else mentioned as part of my exposition but not focused on.

The story "Romanesque," for example, was well worth reading, and probably goes into my future chapter on Yang Jiang's novel. And the essay on translation, "The Experience of Failure" may get a brief mention in this chapter by way of contrast with Yang Jiang's biographical essays. "The Experience of Failure" is written in a highly structured format, but it is still quite short, with a very modest scope. I'd like this fact to help color the idea that Yang Jiang's biographical essays are similarly short for a certain modesty of scope but also quite crafted -- in some cases such as "Sent Down for the First Time," I really have to convince myself that there is a structure there.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Writing Without Motivation

A Glimpse of My Draft

I really lost my motivation again today, making work of any kind a real pain. And yet, I did manage to get in 1,000 words of writing, as well as a fair lecture delivered to my class. In some way, I feel heartened for the progress to be made tomorrow. I think I just have to work to seem to be concentrating to actually be.

To do after my next reading is complete: clean up the chapter 4 file. Move the individual essay notes to separate Google files and create a neat listing based on the table of contents for my current volume, as well as headings for the next two volumes.


Saturday, April 24, 2010

Half of Man is Writing

Cover of Zhang Xianliang's first major work in its English edition.

Below I paste in code from a review I wrote over at, which seems both a nice tool to send off reviews to Twitter and a community of intelligent readers. See the site for a well-written negative review of this book and several other interesting comments.

Once again I feel the need to press some internal "reset" button and strategize once again for a method of work that will give me real results on my dissertation. I feel what I'm lacking now is a firm system for managing time. Time is constraining, but also liberating. There is the bare fact that the entire project is on a deadline, and then there is the problem of how to use a single free day. This is essentially a problem of management, of making action and timing both deliberate.

So. To manage myself, I will say that I must have the first fully-drafted chapter of my diss by June 1. That leaves about 37 days to get the draft done. Plenty of time, I think, as long as I give it a concentrated effort. The draft I will have on June 1st will simply be a crafted summary of what I have read by then. Thus, the key method will be to read and write reciprocally.

This blog will remain a hybrid document that contains small reviews and comments from my research, as well as self-reflective comments on the larger project at hand.

Half of Man Is Woman Half of Man Is Woman by Zhang Xianliang

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Zhang, Xianliang. Half of Man Is Woman. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1988.

Casablanca in the Gulag

Zhang Yonglin is a Chinese Rick -- they probably would have fought on the same side during the Spanish Revolution in 1936, if Zhang had been there. But Zhang wasn't -- he was probably only born around then. By the time he had grown up, this sort of meritocratic freedom fighting was under attack in the Anti-Rightist Campaign. Zhang had been condemned, politically, socially and every other way, and sent to the first labor camps of those days, where he remained till 1966, when our story opens.

The inciting incident of "Half of Man is Woman" is boy sees girl, "Woman needs man/And man must have his mate./ That no one can deny." Zhang Yonglin, a virgin at 39 (picture a virgin Bogart! Sheesh!) is working in the fields one day when he sees -- a naked woman! He's so unbalanced he enters an amazing crisis punched into us via Zhang Xianliang's blockish prose. It is almost a coincidence that the very same year, a new political movement known as the Great Cultural Revolution is beginning. But after all, right, "It's still the same old story/ A fight for love and glory/A case of do or die."

The conceit of the story is that Zhang is working out his ideas about what life is all about in both his relationship with the woman and with his observations on the political events in the following years, 1968-1979. Like Rick, Zhang knows in the end that it's "a case of do or die," and makes the decision that determines his marriage and his very life.

Any reader who understands this work first and foremost as a documentary of life in China is a tremendous fool. First and foremost it is a great work of fiction, a crafted expression of a life, with turning points full of the interior thoughts of a man, including doubts, fears, desires and weaknesses. It probes just what would make a thinking man live through a dark night of turmoil that might last for decades, leaving a deep, national version of Stockholm's syndrome on the psyche. China here is the setting, no more.

Zhang's language throughout the book reminds me that story is about plot and character structure, not language. Zhang Yonglin, his girl, and the supporting cast with a wide range of fascinating subplots is a good story, but it is seldom a well-written. It is crafted, but in a garish, earthy style that is often repugnant. Martha Avery would be sublime translating "Baotown" just after this, but writing in 1986-7 she seems certain of Zhang's importance as a story craftsman but often unable to handle his clunky dialogue, flat jokes, flowery landscape description, all of which feed into an enigmatic (to the English reader) because so darkened, black-humor perspective on life. A debased pessimism pervades the work, and clearly Avery has understood the need to render this in English, but only hints of it were possible. I won't read this whole volume in Chinese, most likely, but you better believe I'm going to turn here when I want to practice my snark.

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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Poem: "Walking at Night near Gorge with a Stream, to Zimei and Shengyu" 水谷夜行寄子美圣俞

Ancient things today hard to sell./These two masters were a pair of phoenixes,/The most resplendent and charming of the hundred birds. Thanks, HK Jade market

Whew! This is just one poem from the paper I'm finishing up. What work this is! The author takes this poem as one example among many of a characteristic style among many. The whole paper is basically just a small anthology of poems with tags. The author briefly explains why we tag some poems "ancient and hard," and others "balanced and mild," and these explanations are useful,'s easy to lose sight of what poetry is all about when your main objective is to tag it. Better sometimes to let it speak for itself.

This poem is from 1044, and memorializes two older poet friends who have been exiled. The poet here has long been an admirer of his friends; it has suited his own identity well to consider them his superior in the world of art, though he has always been more successful in his official career.

"Walking at Night near Gorge with a Stream, to Zimei and Shengyu" 水谷夜行寄子美圣俞

The cold rooster cries in the wild woods,
Over the mountain slope, the moon hangs down.
I put on my clothes and rise to observe the night,
I hitched up my horse and thought to walk right on.
When I came, it was the first clouds of spring,
Now the cold season had arrived.
The milky way leaked into the vast sky,
Falling powerfully out of the nine continents.
A light breeze chilled my lapel,
Warm air cleared me after sleep.
I cherish the memory of my friends in the capital,
With their literature and ale, and invites to high banquets,
Among them were Su and Mei,
Both of them so respected and loved,
With compositions rich in breadth and depth,
And matched, though competing, reputations.

Zimei’s qi was especially heroic,
A thousand pipes that sang with a single will,
Sometimes it was eccentric, even crazy:
Drunken ink that splattered all over.
He was like the thousand-league horse:
Once started it couldn’t be killed,
But surged forward with the ultimate gems,
Each one as good as the last.

Old man Mei dealt in precision,
With boulders worn away by rapids.
For thirty years made he poems,
Look at me, such a one of the younger generation,
His rhetoric was much more clear and new,
Though his mind was older.
He was like a beautiful seductress,
Now aged, but with her own special charms.

Recent poems are so ancient and hard:
One chews only to find them bitter and hard to swallow.
At first it is like eating olives,
For a long time flavor lingers, even increases.
Su’s heroism conquers with its qi,
All over the world the rest of us are frightened,
Mei was as unique as I’ve ever known,
Ancient things today hard to sell.
These two masters were a pair of phoenixes,
The most resplendent and charming of the hundred birds.
Soaring through the cloudy mists,
Their wings were damaged at once,
How can we follow after them,
To the end, cries like the sound of a bell.
Why? I ask, Should remember them so bitterly,
To them we raise our drinks, and grasp our new crabs.

My translation no doubt contains errors, but I am after all a beginner, and this is done with a deadline in mind! Chinese text:


譬如妖韶女,老自有余态; 近诗尤古硬,咀嚼苦难嘬,初如食橄榄,

Week 11: Work and Tears

"Boy Painting Lilies" by John Lautermilch (Thanks to FineArtAmerica)

But when you raise bitter intentions to lofty heights,
None would imagine that in ending the poem, the dusk of the way is tears
---- Mei Yaochen, "Poetry Addiction"

“但将苦意摩层宙,莫计终穷泣暮津。”(《诗癖》)[These lines are fairly mysterious to me still...]

This week I've decided firmly to re-approach Chinese poetry as a paying job, an artistic avocation, and a subplot of my dissertation.

First, the paying job: a 20,000-word article I accepted as a translation gig needs to be completed. Requires completion. Cries out for completion. And so I do it.

But at the same time, I profit myself more than monetarily by creating an archive of poetic expression that will be a resource for story creation. More on this soon!

Also, I will craft a section of chapter 1 of my dissertation to be called "Autobiography and Poetry in Chinese Literature." Or something like that. It will center on the quotidian as a pacte with the reader to develop genuine identities, and it will claim that the chronologically-organized poetry collection is a powerful form of life writing. Much, much more to come on this. (Possibly a new chapter to the dissertation. Sigh!)

Review: Baotown by Wang Anyi

Even a few reviewers of the book back in 1989 couldn't resist commenting on how striking Ms. Wang's back-cover author photo is...

Wang, Anyi. Baotown. Translated by Martha Avery. London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1989.

This is an extraordinarily thoughtful story of an impoverished but benevolent Chinese village. It begins with slow-moving portraits of various characters -- the boy who wants to be a writer, the strong-willed teenage girl, the old man who wishes he were dead, the young boy who will be his friend -- and on and on.

But just when you think it's nothing more than a Chinese Spoon River Anthology, an exciting sequence of climaxes proves Wang's mettle as story teller of real power and insight. People die! Lovers break up and come back together! Huge natural disasters strike! And throughout, the real value is clearly human goodness in its purest form, a love of life that is willing to sacrifice to help another life continue.

The final chapters drag our little village into the public life of mass media when a good little boy's memorial biography becomes an exemplary life. This resolves the tale and also tells us more than a good deal of scholarship about how biography works in modern China!

Review: Save the World on Your Own Time by Stanley Fish

Cover of the Book

Fish, Stanley. Save the World on Your Own Time. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

This is an elegant and extremely enjoyable read that has the effect of really making me want to teach. The key chapters are "Do Your Job" and "Don't Try to Do Someone Else's Job," which confront the problem of liberal ideals in higher education.

In a surprising attack not just on multiculturalism but even the notion that the liberal arts should help produce good citizens, Fish avers, "No, no, no, and no. ....respecting the voices of others is not even a good idea. You shouldn't respect the voices of others simply because they are should respect the voices of those others whose arguments and recommendations you find coherent and persuasive."

He spends a lot of time delineating what is distinctive about the liberal arts, and returns time and again that its all quite analogous to poems. Like poems, the liberal arts are only efforts at getting us to stretch our imaginations and ask pointed questions, and then to try to answer those questions. Nothing more. What a beautiful thought for the literature teacher to encounter!

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