Archive for February, 2009

I speak braille

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009
Life as a blind masseur

Life as a blind masseur

Bi Feiyu’s Tuina (推拿, a traditional form of theraputic massage) won acclaim and awards in 2008 for its portrayal of the lives of blind masseurs in Nanjing.

Tuina is a slow-moving, character-driven novel in which nothing much happens in the first third beyond introductions and background information, but once you get used to the pace of the author’s plain prose, it’s a hard book to put down. Each of the dozen or so masseurs has a story to tell about being blind in China today. Some are touching love stories, others are tragedies in which personal desires go unfulfilled in a society that has certain expectations of people with physical disabilities, and still others are harshly cynical about a culture that is blind to the interests of people who cannot see.

One of the bleakest, and funniest, stories is about Du Hong, a late arrival to the massage business who started out as a piano prodigy. After discovering she had a talent for music, her teacher set her straight about the way the world works:

Du Hong, you don’t know, you don’t understand! You’re blind, so where’s the future in becoming a singer? You’re not deaf, and you’re not mute, so where will you get by singing? Where’s the special education? Ah, how can you understand? In special education you’ve got to find something difficult, do something you’re unable to do. Like a deaf-mute singing, or like a physically-disabled person dancing, or like a mentally-challenged person inventing something. Each of these shows off the school and the miracle of education. In short, a disabled person only has the power to touch people’s hearts, to move a generation, and to shake society when she endures incredible hardship and puts herself through the fire to do something that is difficult or even possible for her to do, and does it well. What’s so special about a blind person like you singing? All you have to do is open your mouth. But playing the piano is hard. The hardest thing for a blind person is to play – the – piano. Understand? [62]

Du Hong eventually quits her studies after learning first-hand exactly why her playing touches people’s hearts. At a benefit concert, she chokes and turns in an awful performance, yet the crowd gives her a standing ovation. Afterward, the host interviews her for the cameras:

And then with a flourish she asked the big question: “And why did Du Hong come to perform for you all today?” Yes, why? Du Hong  herself wanted to hear the answer. A hush fell over the gallery. The host answered her own question in words that would bring a tear to your eye: “Poor Du Hong” came “to repay of society — all of you grandfathers and grandmothers, all of you aunts and uncles, all of you older brothers and sisters, all of you younger sisters and brothers — for the love you have shown her!” The violin music that had been playing in the background swelled up underneath the host’s words and echoed through the hall and throughout every corner of “society.” [64]

Language plays a noticeable role in the novel. Speech registers separate blind from sighted, although it’s not made clear exactly what that means. For example, Doc Wang, a masseur who returned to Nanjing from a high-paying job catering to foreign clients in Shenzhen when the economic downturn at the turn of the century evaporated his business and torpedoed his stock investments, often describes his old friend Sha Fuming as “talking like a sighted person,” and occasionally the narrator will observe that a statement that would have seemed entirely normal coming out of the mouth of someone who could see was surprising to hear from a blind person.

Written language also shows up briefly. The back story of Sha Fuming, who co-founded the massage business where most of the book is set, involves an episode in which he skips class to visit a bar with a sighted woman who introduces herself by writing her name on his hand with a piece of ice. He has to tell her, “I…can’t read.”

Sha Fuming was telling the truth. He spoke Chinese, but it wasn’t genuine Chinese, it was a special language. More precisely, it was braille. He had never spent any time learning Chinese characters, even though he knew the Three Hundred Tang Poems by heart. [123]

Chinese Braille is printed twice in the book: once when Sha writes his name in droplets of water for the woman (“That’s…so cool!” she says), and once on the cover. It’s mentioned a few other times, but Bi Feiyu isn’t really concerned with the mechanics of surviving as a blind person in Chinese society so much as the feelings that are created by the experience.

Search the Hong Kong Film Archive

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009
Hibiscus Town results

search results

The Hong Kong Film Archive’s search tool is an invaluable resource when you’re faced with the task of translating movie titles that may not be well-known enough (or involve enough Internet-savvy westerners) to be listed in the Internet Movie Database. It’s also great for finding out the standard English names of tiny production companies and major production staff, as well as Chinese translations of foreign movie titles.

After spending hours combing the Internet for obscure movie titles and common transliterations of the names of particular crew members for use in director bios and other festival materials, this will be the first place I’ll look from now on. It’s not perfect, but it’s a great starting place.

Code switching in The Tibet Code

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009
The whole world wanted the rights to this book

The whole world wanted the rights

The story that drives the five volumes (so far) of The Tibet Code (藏地密码) revolves around a grand quest for the wonders of Tibet’s legendary past: the treasures of a lost temple, the race of mystics who guarded it, and a massive, ferocious variety of Tibetan Mastiff, known in the historical records as the Purple Qilin.

Although the mythology in Volume I is dispensed with a regularity that keeps the story moving at a decent pace, the plot is really nothing more than a wild goose chase: after traipsing back and forth across Tibet in search of clues that won’t be revealed until later volumes, our heroes assemble their elite adventure team and, in the final pages of the book, are finally prepared for the true quest to begin. Unfortunately, judging from the table of contents for Volume II, that appears to be a trip to the Amazon, a plot twist for which Volume I laid absolutely no groundwork.

Mandarin is the dominant language of conversation for the characters in The Tibet Code, and when they switch to Tibetan it’s noted in the narration but not marked in their speech, with one interesting exception. Early on, Tibetan mastiff breeder Chomo Jampa is telling his mentor, professor Fang Xin, about the legend of the Purple Qilin. He begins by translating the texts into Mandarin. This reads perfectly well, but his pauses frustrate the professor, who asks him to continue in Tibetan.

So he switches to Tibetan (which for some reason the author chooses to describe as “fluent,” even though that should go without saying for an ethnic Tibetan born and raised in the region). Tibetan conversations in the rest of the book are rendered in straightforward Mandarin, but in this case, the character is reciting an ancient text, presumably in classical Tibetan of some sort. To convey this, the author uses classical Chinese for this portion:


The emperor Langdarma loved hunting and delighted in chasing wolves across the wilderness. When he ascended the throne he declared Buddhism abolished, dismissed the monks and forced them to go hunting, destroyed images, and did not submit to the will of heaven.

The Tibet Code was originally published online and appears to actually have been edited somewhat before appearing in print, at least judging by the polished and expanded classical Chinese passages. I’m not all that eager to read any more of it again, however.

Dirty nursery rhymes

Sunday, February 15th, 2009

A Survey of Chinese Children’s Songs

童谣 is often translated as “nursery rhyme,” but the rhymes discussed in this KDNet article are really examples of folk doggerel in general. Some of them are pretty dirty:

Arising among the people, rhymes unavoidably had a good deal of sexual content. This was particularly the case in the countryside, where the wanton rutting of cattle, horses, pigs, and dogs greatly contributed to children’s awareness of sex. Children in modern cities do not have this sort of opportunity.

In those days lots of nursery rhymes contained sexual overtones. Children were not overly concerned with all the details; they merely thought them funny, and reciting them was something new and different.

On literacy and the dumbing down of culture

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

Xu Jinru (徐晋如), a self-described “poet, scholar, and conservative thinker,” writes a rant against simplified characters and pinyin that’s good for a laugh. Like a number of Xu’s other anti-simplification pieces, Character Simplification, Spread of Pinyin Leave an Awful, Lasting Legacy quotes part of the 1927 essay “A Literacy Problem?” by Pan Guangdan, a noted sociologist.

In places where society has reached a certain level, the average person’s reading material, even if it is worthless, is not absolutely harmful. In the US, for example, the topics of endless interest are instructions on how to succeed, how to improve your memory, how to be a clever speaker, and laments over public misfortunes: none of these accomplishing anything more than duping a few of the more eager believers. In places where society has not reached a certain level, you don’t even want to know about what’s being read. Wickedness, theft, evil, perversion, and everything else that stimulates people’s base impulses. Anything, regardless of whether it is true or false, can be used as material. This is the extreme end of a social phenomenon we can see wherever we look in China today. Conspiracy novels flourished a few years ago, and the “new knowledge and new culture” now constantly pouring forth demonstrates that under today’s policies that promote education, day by day more people will be able to read, yet day by day the standard of our reading material will drop.

Pan’s argument, or at least the parts of it that Xu most frequently quotes, boils down to: “The more literacy spreads, the further culture declines” (Xu’s formulation from an interview with BQ in 2007). It’s an argument against the use of simplified characters that I’d never read before: the increased literacy that results when characters are made easier to learn is ultimately responsible for destroying Chinese culture.

At the end of the essay, Xu writes in phrases that echo familiar ideological dogma that traditional — complicated — characters are a historical inevitability:

There’s a noted scholar of ancient Chinese at Zhongshan University who applauds simplification for the reason that Chinese characters in the age of oracle bones were very simple. But on the other hand, he also explains how from the Shang and Zhou dynasties through today, the development of Chinese characters has followed a law of increasing complexity. Using an administrative edict to simplify characters is precisely in opposition to this law.