Friday, December 30, 2005

FCA's "Chinese Made Simple(r)?" Series - Parts 1-4

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Part 1: Linguistic Foreground
Part 2: The Chinese Problem
Part 3: Past Efforts to Simplify
Part 4: Catical Pīnyīn (Bóyǔ 帛語)

Chinese Made Simple(r)? - Part 4

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Last time, in part 3, I discussed the flaws in mainland China’s efforts to simplify and pīnyīnize China. Now it’s time for me to discuss my own modest ideas in the way of rectifying these flaws.

Although I do propose a ‘solution’ (or a proposal in the direction of a solution) to the ‘Chinese problem’, I must make it clear that I believe the problem is over-inflated if it adverts to two extraneous issues. First, my proposal pertains to nothing more than Chinese script. I, unlike some of my friends here, have no illusions Chinese ‘cannot survive in the modern world’, or that it just ‘can’t express complex, new ideas’. Nonsense. Chinese is a durable language and will have no problem absorbing, as well as producing, new concepts in step with world developments. However, what I *do* agree the Chinese language cannot survive is its own written format. I have no pretensions of converting Chinese into Sino-Esperanto (as in Philip K. Dick did, mutatis mutandis, in _Blade Runner_), nor into some Chinglish proto-global-language. I want Chinese to remain what it is semantically and syntactically, but I do believe it can and should develop past what it is

Second, I think such a ‘solution’ is necessary only as long as China says it should be. To think a thought, let’s assume my system (or anything like it) becomes de rigueur in China. Should students stop learning traditional Chinese? By no means! I intend my system to be a sort of advanced pidgin (i.e., a commerce or function-niche language). Business people, politicians, scholars, etc. could and would learn it, while they and everyone else would still know traditional Chinese. Two benefits of my proposal are 1) it would remove the need for the half-solution-no-solution that is jiǎntǐzì-fication and 2) it would simultaneously give foreigners a doorway into China’s ‘Great Wall’ and the Chinese a way out to the workaday world that has no time or interest in learning ‘all those funny symbols’. As far as Mandarin learners are concerned, my system (‘Buy now, pay later!’) solves two competing problems. One is the need to learn lots of Mandarin phonetically (e.g., just what can jīngzhì mean?). The other is the need to ‘crack’ characters based on their radicals. But, as I learned early on, studying radicals in isolation is not only boring, but also mostly useless for phonetic learning, since the radicals rarely influence a character’s pronunciation in a consistent fashion. On the other hand, focusing as heavily as I did on phonetic Mandarin kept me ignorant of the illuminating written patterns radicals can provide. In my system, however, by learning the radicals in tandem with whole characters’ pronunciation, foreigners and students can achieve both goals simultaneously. Being forced to know the radicals, without also having to slog through the characters, even in their simplified forms, both saves the beginning learner time and equips him to analyze characters with the radicals as he progresses to learning characters.

Enough preface. My idea stands on a combination of the three linguistic modes I discussed earlier (vocal, orthographical and communicative) and Hànǚ pīnyīn. The first step would be to reduce or ‘denature’ all Chinese script into a few key category-radicals (à la the key amino acids of protein-life). These could be things like ‘person’, ‘implement’, ‘food’, ‘fluid’, ‘structure’, ‘breath’, ‘feelings’, ‘action’, etc. These would become, or perhaps simply tidy up, the radicals as we now have them. The ‘caticals’, as I shall henceforth call them, would correspond to the fundamental layers, or domains of reality which we use and try to teach to children all the time (what do you think separate lesson topics are for?). Of course, I admit a perhaps simpler, less abstract method would be just to use any character’s already given radical. Hence, rather than debating whether ‘grieve’ (shǐbēishāng, 使悲傷) is an active action, a passive action or a feeling, we could just retain the radicals, hence, 亻shǐ 忄bēi 亻shāng.

The second step would be to convert all words into, yes, pīnyīn. Why? Because China, and the world with it, is already laying a huge foundation for pīnyīn. Why fight it? Let it flourish. As I said, pīnyīn is better for English-speakers breaching ‘the Great Wall’ and simultaneously better for the Chinese to learn as bridge into the English alphabet. In fact, in the off chance a computer program didn’t automatically add pīnyīn’s tone markers (which you’ve seen over the letter in this post), I’d even be so magnanimous as to incorporate the Yale (?) technique of writing the tones as numbers next to the transliterated Chinese. It’s ugly and nerdy-looking (‘Wǒ yào chī fàn.’), but extremely efficient.

Now, if you’ve paid attention, you’ll quickly see why step two leaves us in a hard spot. If all the words are pīnyīn, how do we get out of the nightmarish ‘homophone maze’ that is Chinese? Simple, step three: add the appropriate caticals to the pīnyīn and they would immediately fall into cognitive place. For example, hearing, or reading, shī by itself in pīnyīn could mean ‘moist, damp’, ‘poem’, ‘lose’, ‘execute, do’, ‘lion’, ‘corpse’, or ‘hiss’. But with the caticals snugly in place? Moist becomes ‘fluid-shī’, poem becomes ‘speech-shī’, lose becomes ‘[passive?] action-shī’, execute becomes ‘[active?] action-shī’, lion becomes ‘animal-shī’ and hiss ‘breath-shī’ (水shī, 言[讠simplified] shī, 宀shī, 扌shī, etc.). For the sake of aesthetics and space usage, you could even fit the pīnyīn into (sometimes slightly expanded) overhanging, underlying or enclosing radicals (e.g., 丶, 亠, 冂, 凵, 勹, 厂, 囗, 宀, 廴, etc.).

In English, I call it ‘Catical Pīnyīn’ (CP). In Chinese, I call it Bóyǔ (帛語 ‘Bó language’), based as it is on the thinking of a man whose Chinese surname is Bó.

CP is, if I’m not mistaken, similar to Japan’s Kangxi (Kanji) system, insofar as it uses both Chinese characters (and their rudiments) and phonetic ‘letters’. Well and good. I’m glad I may be in the step with the mind of Japan (...wait, no, on second thought–!). Notice this system, which I’ll henceforth call ‘CP’, does not compromise spoken Mandarin (or any other Chinese dialect, for that matter). It is still up to the student to learn to hear and speak Chinese. The benefit of CP, then, is to level the learning field so that learning written Chinese (a true endeavor) is only slightly harder than learning spoken Chinese (a relative snap).

Recall our detour into the world of Chinese dictionaries. How can CP help this, um, dynamic feature of Chinese? First, since the pīnyīn makes it obvious, there is no guessing at the pronunciation of a word, which you may have seen in passing or which may obstruct your progress in reading a text. Second, since CP expects them to learn each word’s radical, students are comfortable locating words in the radical index. Ideally, they learn the radical counts cold and then just jump them for any number of words that radical may find itself in. Third, remembering radicals’ stroke counts (which go no higher than seventeen, and that for only one radical) is far easier than tabulating every random character’s stroke count. Basically, CP recognizes and works according to a fundamental reality of Chinese: radicals are essential. (Perhaps you recall the bei1 example I discussed in part 2.) They are the seed of all Chinese and, to this day, even simplified characters aim to preserve them. CP simply lets radicals have the influence they should in any proper understanding of Chinese.

Let me also make it clear that CP is not intended to replace Hànyǔ pīnyīn. CP is not an all-purpose commerce language; as I say, Hànyǔ pīnyīn takes the cake in that field. My system is principally an academic, didactic language, an academic pidgin if you will. Chinese students learning CP simultaneously learn pīnyīn and the radicals needed to master their own language as they mature. In turn, CP allows non-natives 1) to communicate in a market setting, 2) to be most easily understand in all written cases of communication and 3) also gives them a leg up into ‘real Chinese’ if they will or must ultimately learn it. A final benefit of CP is that, by being clear enough for outsiders and ideographic enough (vis a vis radicals) for Chinese, the system allows the Chinese to continue using fántǐzì. As it stands, on the one hand, simplification is too much work for Chinese students, while on the other hand, pīnyīn is too little support for non-native students of Chinese.

Now, since I’m willing to admit fragments of ambiguity will almost certainly remain CP, we must finally advert to the third mode of language, communicative semantics, for a way out. Since, generally, the only people who deal with individual characters, in isolation from the clarity of communicative semantics, are students, and since they encounter these isolated words *in* reference books, there is only a miniscule risk real users of CP will be confused by ambiguity. As soon as any catical homophone is read in conjunction with its communicative ‘partners’, it will immediately be clear which catical is being used (recall the ‘bat/bat’ example).

While I have called this system ‘my’ proposal, I am happily aware numerous other people may have already proposed it and found it inadequate or may even now be pushing it to the highest levels of Red Chinadom. I’d love to learn more about linguists, scholars, etc. pursuing, perhaps even opposing, ideas similar to CP. As always, I welcome your questions, suggestions, corrections and charitable rejoinders.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Resource links for FCA

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BIBLE
Search or Browse the RSV Bible

(Old and New Testaments, with the Deuterocanonicals & Apocrypha)

CATECHISM
Catechism of the Catholic Church
Roman (Tridentine) Catechism
Daily Roman Missal
Being Catholic
EWTN'S Massive Document Index
Ecumenical Councils and Decrees
The Cogitator's patristic florilegium on the Bishop of Rome as the successor of Peter, head of the Apostles
the Summa Theologiae
Canon Law

PRAYER
Daily Byzantine Catholic Prayer & Lectionary
Living Tradition (daily quotes)
Holy Icons and Sacred Music
Catholic Liturgical Library

LANGUAGE & WORLD
Slang Dictionary and Urban Dictionary
Etymology of Sayings & Phrases
Travellin' Light

中文.com (www.zhongwen.com)


FCA's TO DO List

Roller coasters, nausea, hydrophilia, creation and more

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[The following is a longish narrative essay from an insanely longer post I from my Xanga blog {8 May 2004}. I always liked its bounding prolixity, but what triggered me to post it here is that I just mentioned my hyrdophilia in the post about Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska.]

In the past nine months I have picked up some slang and catch phrases from my roomie, Erick, I may never be able to shake: “I’ll allow it!” … “dumpy” … “I roxor the boxor” … “Don’t focus on the wrong part of the story” … “Don’t be ‘that guy’… You’re ‘that guy’, aren’t you?” and of course, the one, the only: “Punch it in.” But perhaps the most fitting Erickism to describe my life a few Saturdays ago (17 April 2004) is “weak sauce.” Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am weak sauce.

Yesterday I and some friends went to Jian Hu Shan Fancy World, an amusement park conveniently located almost two hours outside of Taichung in the middle of nowhere. It was a cool, overcast day, with only five minutes of light rain when we first arrived about 10:00 AM. Fancy World was superior to any amusement park I’ve been to before for all the wrong reasons: it had a lush, rolling landscape, it was undercrowded and it was quite inexpensive. Predictably enough, Fancy World had its own cast of characters to guide and amuse you during your visit.

First there is Hato KuKu and Hato KiKi, presumably a cartoon couple or siblings. Hato KuKu is, I quote the brochure, “a smart, cute little boy pigeon who loves challenges.” When I first looked at the brochure, I realized the biggest challenge for this little boy pigeon must be flight, since he has arms and fingers without wings and a rabbit’s bobtail and feet. Hato KiKi is a “lovely little girl pigeon who loves to say hello to everyone.” While she does have some tail feathers, the problem now is that KiKi looks like a yellow and black penguin with fingerless flippers, has thick duck feet and wears a fluffy crop of pink bangs. Fortunately, I looked inside the brochure and realized all this mad morphology – except for the pink bangs – is only part of some costumes.

Then there’s FeFe, “a slow-moving horse who is extremely caring.” I think this is Jian Hu Shan’s way of saying he is the lonely, quite, stupid one. He’s on the brochure only once, and that, dressed as a dragon. And that’s I have to say about that.

Next there are DuDu and CaCa. Yep, that's right: "do do" and "ka ka." DuDu is “a timid but curious little parrot who loves to walk around waving her little wings.” (It says quite a lot when the one of the most consistently used adjectives for amusement park characters is “little.” Are we going to assume they’re enormous? Are we going to like them more if we know how little they are and how little their body parts are?) Maybe it’s the ominous inscrutability of a parrot walking around aimlessly flapping its wings – like a caged bird going into apoplexy before a storm, or like one of those little toy-droids in Blade Runner that you know could snap and lunge at your crotch or kill any curious little, little child – maybe that’s what repels me about DoDo. Or maybe it’s just that stupid name. CaCa, on the other hand, seems as harmless as he is random: “a passionate and daring cakeman who wants to give you a big big hug.” A cakeman. A passionate cakeman. A passionate cakeman that wants to hug me. Excuse me?

As an aside, I’m sure it says something about the sense of human dignity in Taiwan that no live person was used to “be” any of these characters (except during some stage shows I’ve only seen on the webpage). There was no giant DuDu or CaCa for kids to hugs and punch and run from. All of Fancy World’s characters are fiberglass statues in all sorts of poses.

Now, finally, there is BoBo, “an ever-changing bubble who is full of ideas and loves to make people laugh.” He (?) has a body like an inverted snowman and has massive white eyes and what I think is a herpetic polyp on his head. BoBo is no less a mystery than his mates. Despite being touted an ever-changing bubble, in all three of his photos on the brochure, BoBo looks exactly the same. Same hand positions. Same posture. Same face. Same color. Is this supposed to be some kind of Buddhist riddle? Is BoBo a cartoon parable of the Heraclitean flux? Is he ever changing precisely by never changing? Is he one bubble precisely by being three bubbles with two arms and a face? All the same, if I had to pick – and as we walked around and around the fancy land, picking a favorite mysteriously became a burning priority for me – I’d choose BoBo. I think he reminded me of the little fly from Chip and Dale’s Rescue Rangers. Or maybe his head reminded me of a Clue game piece.

Suffice it to say, I have a sneaking suspicion that Fancy World’s cast of animal characters just won’t burrow into the global pop-consciousness like Mickey, Minnie, Donald Duck and Goofy all have. Speaking of Goofy, let me re-open an ancient question: what is Goofy? I know Goofy’s “supposed to be” a dog – but then what is Pluto? If Goofy’s a dog, who’s his master? Where’s his collar? Where’s his doghouse? As smart as he is, Penny’s dog, Brain, still has a collar and can’t speak human. If he is a dog, Goofy is some kind of irresistibly stupid and affable Überhund (“oober dog,” for the attentive non-German-speaker): erect, dressed, literate, verbally intelligible, employed, capable of driving and shopping, an uncle. Sure, Scooby Doo can stand up; but otherwise he’s a blubbering idiot with a pothead owner. (“Here boy, fetch the doobie! Come on, boy, fetch! Fetch Shaggy’s roach clip! … Good boy! … Ffffsssssshhh! Gooooooood doggie. Whoa, totally check out that mummy. Mmmmmmummy. Yaaaah. Hunh heh, Daphney’s hhhhot.”) If I’m stuck in the county well someday, or trapped in a tenement fire, I, without a second thought, will take a buck-toothed, shuffling, klutzy man-dog over some clever barking little actor-pooch. Better yet, send me Goofy’s gifted little nephews. Or at least Mr. Ed.

Honestly, when you consider everything we know about Goofy – not to mention what unknowns we can imagine – he’s incalculably more useful than Lassie or Benjy. Goofy is so far above any other cartoon- or TV-dog that he defies being called one. Goofy is for the cartoon world what Chewbacca is for the sci-fi world. Neither is human – but can we really say either is a dog?

At any rate, I didn’t go to Fancy World for the characters (and certainly not for DoDo the pirate parrot.) I went for the rides. In other words, I went to get sick. I did my best to maximize my vulnerability. I got only about 4 hours of sleep Thursday and Friday nights. I had a small, cold breakfast with cranberry juice. Now, as I said, I’m weak sauce. But I’m not a total wimp. In fact, I really like rollercoasters. I like to speed and the rocking unpredictability. I like free falls and screaming hydraulic boosts into the air. I like swirling around in wild waters. But I cannot, at all, for any amount of time, handle spinning. I am weak sauce.

Things were fine before lunch. We first rode the G5. I guess calling it the G5 is more exciting than calling it what it really is: the G1. The G5 consists of a wide, two-bench car that climbs to about 100 meters, pauses at 45 degrees over a sheer drop, suddenly zooms down into a tunnel, shoots back up into a brief right twist and then quickly stops on a horizontal docking track. (Maybe the 5 G’s came at the upward loop, but I wasn’t counting.) It was pretty solid. [These guys, apparently, thought it was f---g awesome!!! CAUTION: Turn down your volume to avoid the waves of cussing through the whole video.] The lines were so short that we went again.

Then we went on the Floorless Rider, or some other floorless thing. This was pretty much a Batman ride. It could have been a lot faster, but it had a couple good loops and one jagged yank near the end. It took a little time to decide what we wanted to do next. During the downtime I witnessed what I can only “yellow trash.” (ACLU Alert!) Tattoos, cigarettes, loud, open-mouthed laughter and slurred jokes. Tanktops, bloodshot eyes, men clinging like aimless heroes to braless women in tube tops. It was just like the fauna at a U.S. amusement park, only in Chinese, and with less facial hair.

For lunch I further weakened my sauce by scarfing a greasy fried chicken-mayo-shredded- cabbage-and-ketchup sandwich fries and a coke for lunch. Seeing the Fancy World feeding pond could not have helped. This pond was a biological nightmare. It was clean enough, I suppose. It was well built and had a nice garden by it. No, the nightmare came from beneath the water. I am hesitant to say the fish were the problem, since as far as I could tell there were no fishes in the pond. There was only a single large, twitching, slimy bundle of fish-mass that sucked with a hundred mouths at any and every fish pellet people sprinkled in. Goldfish are pretty dumb to begin with in my book. But this was a new low. This was nothing more than a shimmering, frenzied mouth with eyes and fins floating in water. At the first sign of food – which is nearly constant since there are no restrictions on who can feed the fish or how much they can eat – the floating mouth snaps into brainless action. The water suddenly becomes a frothy green vortex of fish mouths tirelessly popping out and open and closed, while thick fish bodies slide and flop over the whole mash in a desperate effort to get that one fish pellet that is never there. It was a truly disgusting sight. But it makes good business sense. People pay the park to feed the fish and I’m sure the overfeeding keeps the population in check.

Soon after lunch we went on the Poseidon (sounds fishy, right?). The Poseidon is just one of those big boat cars that rolls back and forth like a huge pendulum. (Anhkhoa would have loved the pirate motif. Dyaarrrgh!) I guess it was having my guts punched up on every down swoop, but it kind of made me sick and woozy. Janet and Vivian were too full to go on the Inverter, but I was all about it. As Carrie and I stood in line – with a whopping four other people – she got cold feet. The Inverter is a side-mounted pendulum ride that adds a vertically rotating car. The arm rotates clockwise while the car itself stops, reverse, releases, stops, spins forward, stops, reverses, etc. They wouldn’t let us on for a while since maybe the machine was cooling down or they had to wait for more people – ha! I wanted to ride it, but Janet and Carrie wanted to ride the Flying Saucer instead. I was feeling self-destructive and I wanted to keep up the team camaraderie, so I caved and walked onto the Saucer with about twenty other people. (Vivian got the Not-Idiot Award for the day by not riding what she knew would be terrible.) The Saucer is a horizontally spinning platform attached in the middle to a giant metal sawhorse by a massive pendulum arm. I had seen this beast running earlier and knew I was doomed. But I had the apathy of the damned. I took my seat. I looked at my fellow riders. I assessed my stomach. (What would come out first? The chicken? The coke? The fries? Who would get a face-full?) We began rocking back and forth. Then we began spinning. I clamped my eyes shut. We swung higher. We spun faster. Carrie began laughing. I began huffing and puffing. Between her non-stop laughter, Carrie kept shouting to me and Janet, “It’s better if you close your eyes! Hahahaha! Oh my gosh! Hahaha! It’s not so bad if you close your eyes! Hahaha!” Twice, maybe three times, I opened my eyes. I saw Dante’s Inferno. I closed my eyes and kept hyperventilating and moaning. My food climbed higher and higher in my stomach, stirring and sloshing like a greasy, peptic smoothie. My fingers began tingling from my hyperventilation. I literally had to swallow back my gag one time. If I had not, I would have chunk-sprayed the saucer.

But I made it. We stopped spinning. We stopped swinging. I stumbled off the Saucer to a nearby bench and almost spewed again when I lied on my back. I recalled my EMS training and turned on my right side so as to keep my stomach contents in the antrum away from the twitchy pyloric sphincter into my esophagus. (Medical Tip #1: If someone you know ever drinks too much, lay them on their left side so as to keep the alcohol from absorbing into the greater surface area of the antrum, as well as to irritate the pyloric sphincter enough so the person pukes up the booze.) The ladies wanted to go into the shade, but I almost hurled again when I stood up. They left me to lie and groan. Eventually I got up and found them by a snack bar. I needed ice. (Medical tip #2: Cold water and ice on a person’s forehead suppresses the gag reflex.) I had to buy a slushy since the entire park apparently lacks ice outside of the sodas. We sat and then washed our faces with cold water. I was pretty much done for the rest of the day. In fact, I got sick again just watching the ladies ride their last two machines. Like I said, I am weak sauce. But at least I got my money’s worth.

I started to feel better only when I took Carrie’s advice and drank a Sprite. (“Yeah, if there’s a problem, just put more stuff in my stomach,” I said.) A few good burps later, I felt less queasy. Just in time too. After all the rides we went to a water show. Philistine that I am, I was expecting a bunch of dancers or swimmers to be splashing around and singing for thirty minutes. Fortunately not. It was much more elegant. Forget the fact that I was surrounded by children in a sub-par theater filled to quarter capacity. Forget the fact that I had just been ready to vomit. Forget the fact that I wasn’t “doing anything productive.” Forget all that; I did; and that made the difference. The water show was the peak of the day for me. I’m not sure why. The whole show was pretty short. The music – divided into six rudely connected “movements” of totally different genres – was only occasionally enjoyable. The whole show was pretty short. It helped that I took off my glasses. The water blurred together into a kind of musical miniature aurora borealis. It was enchanting. It was soothing. It was very nearly sublime. And because it was all those things, the experience is a bit baffling.

Why was I so moved by choreographed bursts of water? Some of it surely must be that I lived almost my whole life in Jacksonville, a city bisected by one of the largest rivers in the USA, and cushioned on the east by the Atlantic Ocean. As a child, when I read the kids’ book, The Five Chinese Brothers, I always envied the brother that could hold the ocean in his mouth. The other brothers could not be killed. Well and good. But that one ocean-gulping brother could explore. Hallelujah! He could lay bare the tomb of the world, the ocean.

I’ve always liked water. As a child, I would spend hours sloshing around in the pool, making small tsunamis with my hand, batting at water towers that jumped up in the wake of a fallen tennis ball, plunging my hand down to make sucking vacuums. As a rower, I spent countless hours of my life gliding above the water in a shell of fiber glass, dreaming about my oar entering the water, about our bow nodding in and out of the after as we raced. I once seriously considered joining the U.S. Merchant Marines to serve my country – on the ocean. I nearly served with the Mercy Ships to serve God – on the ocean. I love drinking water. I love seeing water. I love feeling water. I also love releasing water. I am truly a hydrophilic person. Why? Whence this desire? The answer is bigger than me and my past.

There is something elementally beautiful, something primally attractive, for humans about water, especially when it’s in motion. Water, especially flowing water, is one of the richest symbols in all of human history. The Bible, for example, is literally overflowing with water imagery. One of God’s first acts of total sovereignty as the Creator was to subjugate and separate the waters of chaos. For the ancient Jews, water – cold, impenetrable, raging water – was the apotheosis of doom. (Good to read Job, the Psalms and the Prophets with that in mind.) There is something simultaneously magical and scientific about water. It is, even from a strict biophysical perspective, a masterpiece of fluidity and cohesion, adaptation and permanence. Water bulges and spreads, but never easily leaves itself behind. Water slithers up a tree’s phloem like a headless serpent, all the while dragging itself behind in a linkless chain of hydrophilic tension.

The sky may be vast and seductive, but it is a shell compared to the dense vitality of the ocean. The ancient Greeks knew this. Hence they crowded the vacuous heavenly Olympus with gods but left the stolid sea to Poseidon alone. The sea did not need only one god over it; rather, it tolerated only one. The sky is tempting because we hope to enter it by our own choice and effort. The ocean is terrifying – and thus tempting – because we can fall into it at any moment. The sky welcomes us; the oceans swallows us. Entering the sky is one of humans’ highest hopes; leaving it once there is sure plummeting doom. Entering the ocean is a lethal risk every time; being released from it is a symbol of hope. Icarus, you’ll recall, did not fall up into the sky, but down from the sky into the sea.

The sky is quite literally for the birds. The ocean, neither outer nor inner space, is our last frontier. The sea is two-faced, and that’s why we like it. Careful! You can get lost in the ocean. Good news! You can get lost in the ocean. In its mystery and sheer unspoken power, nothing compares to so much water gathered into that one place called the ocean. The Titanic was such a nightmare precisely because one of modern humankind’s greatest toys was sunk by the sea. The sky did not destroy the Hindenberg, but the ocean destroyed the Titanic.

Human culture, like human neurology, is wet. And if you ask the last fifty years of biologists, they’ll tell you culture is but evolution in a distinctly human key – evolution put to music, so to speak. On more than one level they are wrong; but it’s what they’ll tell you nonetheless. Depending what cosmogenic view you take, our attraction to water could be a result of the centrality of water in the development and preservation of biological life. Or it could be a sublime spiritual affinity placed in us by God as part of His self-testimony in nature. I’m inclined to say it’s both. Water is life and human life is the playing field – or, too often, the battlefield – for the image of God in us.


Water is beautiful because it is simple. Water is simple because it is humble. And water is humble because it is powerful. Water both reminds us of our murky demise and fills us with the hope of life. Water is not divine, but it can point us to divinity. Indeed, on its own, no one thing points us to God. As Philip Yancey notes in his sometime discussions of the brutal mechanisms of nature, nature, when analyzed as distinct phenomena, may in fact point us away from God. But when appreciated together, life points to a Lifegiver; the story, to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, cries out for a storyteller. To paraphrase that rotund Englishman again, I am not convinced of God’s existence by anything – but by everything.

Hence, water, seen as a supreme part of that totality called Creation, can and often does point us unmistakably to God. As only one example, it is completely fitting that the cover of Thomas Dubay’s The Evidential Power of Beauty (Ignatius, 1999) is adorned by the simple beauty of water.

We love water; we hate water. We know water all too well; we hardly know it at all. I see the same dual dynamic at work in our tireless interest in the spoken word. Taking an evolutionary or creative-evolutionary approach to biology, we congratulate babies and children so warmly for leaping linguistic hurdles because we know at some deep, ur-genetic sense that it is this ability, this skill, this power, more than almost any other, that separates us – potentially at least – from the instinctual gyre of the animal kingdom. Taking a more stringently “special creation” approach to life, we extol and indulge in the spoken word so passionately because it is one of the chief ways in which we share the image of God. Again, I’m inclined to affirm both. Ask any poet or theologian: to speak is to divine. Perhaps for me, to swim is too.

Movin' to Montana... soon?

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Ever since hearing Frank Zappa's song in high school about the peregrinating dental floss tycoon, since reading Willa Cather's Nebraska-novel, _O Pioneers!_, and especially since drooling over my good buddy's pics and anecdotes from Wyoming, I have had an inexplicable, and inexplicably acute, hankering to live in Montana, Wyoming, or Nebraska, and in that order of preference. I've even taken a few longer than blinking looks at those states' big universities. (Grad school has to happen somewhere.) Something about the remoteness, the cold weather, the mountains, the forests and the echo of a Native American frontier world all draw me to the great central-northern states (why Idaho, North and South Dakota and Minnesota leave me cold, I don't know, but they do). I haven't ever visited them, ever, but these places, my “big three”, are profoundly beautiful to me, I think because they bespeak a kind of imperturbable majesty. They are, even more than our big cities, quintessentially USAmerican geography. Vast and abundant, stark and unbending, terrifying and sublime, both surreal and unsparingly real. These states are an ocean of land and therefore just as mysteriously alluring as the sea. (Did I mention I love water on many levels?)

I think I was taken with such beauty -- the beauty of vastness – during my bike tour through eastern Colorado and Kansas. Kansas was the most boring state I’ve ever seen, yet also one of the most beautiful. There is something like pure magic in seeing red, yellow and blue hunks of old combines studding miles and miles and miles of shimmering wheat. Natural cubism. Obviously, my big three aren’t flat or shimmering like Kansas, but they do have the same allure: to look and look and still see only more!

At any rate, I'd love to hear any readers' perceptions or experiences of my big three, or anything else in this post, for that matter, eh?

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

New FCA Hero Day!

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[Fr. Jaki has long been one of my favorites, but I didn't think to add him here till recently. Voila!]



-- Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, OSB (AD 1924--), holds doctorates in both theology and physics. The Hungarian-born priest moved to the USA in the 1950s where he then completed a PhD in theoretical physics at Fordham University. Since then, he has been a prolific lecturer and writer, particularly concerning the history of science and its surprisingly intimate connections to the Catholic worldview. Unquestionably on the pugnacious side, Jaki's witness, like that of most prophets, "hurts so good": his writings are historically dense and tightly argued and his staunch commitment to the Catholic Church of Christ is leaves no quarter for vapid secularism, much less for vapid theism.

Unfortunately, many of his works are usually very hard to find and most popular science authors, to their shame, simply seem to have no idea about Jaki's significant contributions (which is odd, considering his many prestigious accolades and lengthy CV). If ever there were a thinker who's time has not yet come, it is Jaki. Also an astute ecclesiologist and a leading Newmanist, Fr. Jaki is a hero of sorts for me, not only because he models academic and spiritual excellence in the examination of science, history and faith, but also because his book, The Savior of Science, played no small role in my entry into the Church.

Chinese Made Simple(r)? - Part 3

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In the last installment, I closed by asking whether Beijing’s simplified characters (jiǎntǐzì) and Hànyǔ pīnyīn phonetic system do, or even can, achieve the goals of clarifying and universalizing Chinese. Well?

One argument made for pīnyīn is that it is the clearest, fastest way for non-native speakers to process Chinese documents. Spared the tangle of characters, simplified or traditional, foreigners can at least both read and write phonetically correct Chinese. An argument for simplification is that it makes literacy for easily attainable for ‘the masses’. With the first argument I have no quibble. As far as base-line ease and accuracy goes, yes, I think pīnyīn is the easiest method for outsiders. Hence, I will bracket discussion of Hànyǔ pīnyīn until I get into my own system.

The second argument, however, I must reject. Far from opening literacy to everyone equally, simplification in fact paints the present and ensuing generations in a corner filled only with jiǎntǐzì. If students would like to explore pre-Máo Chinese, they must learn traditional characters. But if they simply want to stick with simplified Chinese, notice how they effectively become prisoners of their own age. As far as they are concerned (in terms of firsthand literacy), there is no Chinese prior to Mao’s jiǎntǐzì revolution.

Now, while simplified characters (jiǎntǐzì) seem to be the obvious way to go, there are at least three problems with it. First, jiǎntǐzì are ugly, the Orcs of China’s epic language. I’m no Sinophile, but I do enjoy Chinese for what it is: Chinese. So, seeing these stunted, hacked-up little jiǎntǐzì loitering all over mainland documents makes me shed a little tear. Traditional Chinese characters (fántǐzì) may be a hassle to learn – no, wait, they are! – but they are so elegant, so rich, so sumptuous, especially when crafted with a supple calligraphy pen. Obviously, I think some, even many, characters can and should be simplified (e.g., ‘Taiwan’ goes from 39 to 17 strokes), but by unilaterally simplifying the whole Chinese script, so-called ‘jiǎntǐzì-fication’ alienates each coming generation from its own millennia-old literary heritage. Jiǎntǐzìfication is a sad victory of convenience and ‘ease’ over elegance and tradition.

Simplification is not merely a device. It is a radical cultural revolution. Indeed, jiǎntǐzì were born of Má Zédōng’s anti-traditional, iconoclastic Cultural Revolution! It may just be, but I am stunned time and again by how deeply in love with words as visual creations – how deeply ‘graphophilic’ – Chinese culture is. As anecdotal proof (which must stand together with what I hope is a commonly, if only vaguely, recognized generalization among my readers): at the national museum in Taipei some time ago, I entered what I can only call the document exhibit. In glass case around the room were scrolls and sheets of old to very old documents, covered in sumptuous calligraphy and tattooed with bright red chop marks. To the Chinese there (and I suspect the other Asian tourists as well), it was art. Pure, word-based art. To me, on the other hand, it was a glorified filing room, or perhaps some kind of MTV prank. I pointed this out, whimsically, to my Táiběi friend. ‘You mean that contract there – the little piece of paper – is art?’

My normally jolly friend’s demeanor became as dark and heavy as lead. ‘Oh no, I tell you, that is beautiful art. We love to see who had these writings, and who chopped them.’

I nodded, and my understanding of Chinese culture entered a new phase. To be Chinese is to live and die in a world of ink, stamps and brush strokes, to live and breathe a graphic history.

My point? Snipping, squishing, rearranging, dehydrating, streamlining – in a word, simplifying – characters is a form of cultural masochism, if not suicide. Imagine converting Shakespeare into ‘modern prose’ for the ‘ease’ of a wider audience. Imagine a segment of Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, as the following:

ABE: “Are you flipping us off?”
SAM: “I am pointing my finger.”
ABE: “I said, are you flipping us off?”
SAM: [aside] “Are we in over our heads, yes or no?”
GREG: “Way over.”
SAM: “No, man… I mean, I am pointing, with my middle finger, but I’m not flipping you off.”
ABE: “You wanna go, punk?”
SAM: “No, man, chill!”
ABE: “I’m here. Bring it on.”

And so forth. Interesting, entertaining, yes, but at what price? At the price not merely of intellectual ‘standards’, but, more importantly, at the price of intellectual depth and cultural continuity. ‘Dumbing down’ Shakespeare may open him up to anxious high school students and mid-life , but it ultimately destroys what Shakespeare is and should be: a high-water mark, an indefatigable bastion, of good English, of words finely used and immensely treasured. In denaturing Shakespeare, the English-speaking world would succumb (even further) to a flinty, arid, results-driven pragmatism. (Oh wait, too late.) Likewise, in denaturing their own ancient ideographic heritage, the Chinese are succumbing to a commercially-driven pragmatism. Using a different analogy, simplifying characters is akin to ‘MSN-English’, the fastest, leanest language on Earth. So, agan, i giv u Shksper:

A dud stop flipn us off, ass
S not, jrk, jst pointng idiot
A ur stil doin it jrk
S trbl eh?
G tonz
S no dude im jst pontng ovr ther
A ur dead ass
S dude no chil
A brng it yatch

I’m being excessively satirical, obviously; but I do so to make a true point. Trimming down a language – like clearing a forest -- is a risky move, and I fear China, while preserving its language’s deepest roots, is close to wiping out its rich topsoil.

But then again, really, it’s not. For, as it stands, learning jiǎntǐzì means double-work for the Chinese. In order to the meaning and full ideographic ‘heritage’ of the jiǎntǐzì, they must learn them under the rubric of fántǐzì. While they are not aiming to learn the latter, they must nevertheless study it in order to understand how we get to the former. Which leads to the second problem with jiǎntǐzì: they are historically and intellectually insular. What does someone trained exclusively in ‘simplified’ Chinese do with documents older than Máo Zédōng’s implementation of jiǎntǐzì? Must she learn both traditional and simplified characters? If so, why learn simplified in the first place? If not, how can she engage the whole literary record that is China? I assure you the comprehension gap is real, and significant. My Taiwanese friends, generally unfamiliar with jiǎntǐzì, often shake their heads and frown at jiǎntǐzì – ‘What is that supposed to be?’

Third, despite all the claims of its supporters (in Red China), simplifying Chinese isn’t radical enough (pardon the pun). The chief goal of simplification is to quicken writing and facilitate reading, both for native Chinese and foreign students. But if this is really the goal, even, obviously so, at the expense of continuity with its linguistic history, why not go all the way and make Chinese truly simple? Why not just convert everything to pīnyīn as the official diplomatic language of China, and preserve Chinese Chinese as the folk or academic language? Surely the communicative semantics would solve the homophonic ambiguity. Is it so incredible to imagine jiǎntǐzì will actually turn out to be a transition phase to full-scale pīnyīnization (or something like it)? Likely or not, as it stands, so-called simplification is a half-way solution to a genuine problem – genuine as far as the current economic and cultural goals are concerned – and is therefore really *not* a solution.

But fear not, this is where my idea comes in ... in the next installment (part 4)!

Monday, December 26, 2005

Can or Canterbury the axe?

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Major Anglican Group Prepares for Full Communion With Rome

(by Edward Pentin, Register Correspondent, National Catholic Register, December 24, 2005 [c/o a reader and missionary in the Middle East via Virtue Online, 24 Dec 05])

As the Anglican Communion threatens to break up, one large group of Anglicans is blazing a trail to Rome, and another could follow suit.

The Traditional Anglican Communion, an autonomous group of 400,000 clergy and laity separate from the Anglican Communion, has drawn up detailed plans on how to come into full communion with the Holy See.

After 12 years of consultations, both internally and informally with the Vatican, the group - with the help of a Catholic layman - is preparing a "Pastoral Plan" asking the Vatican for an "Anglican Rite Church" that would preserve their Anglican heritage while allowing them to be "visibly united" with Rome.

The Traditional Anglican Communion's worldwide primate, Archbishop John Hepworth, hopes the group's College of Bishops will approve the plan at a possible Rome Synod in February 2006.

The church's members are so far reported to be unanimous in their desire for full communion. If formally agreed, the proposal would then be presented to Vatican officials.

If Rome approves, the Traditional Anglican Communion, a worldwide ecclesial body based in Australia, could become the largest Anglican assembly to return to the Church since the Reformation. ...

For Anglicans like Archbishop Hepworth..., it is a question of not if by [sic] when the Anglican Communion will fracture. But even if they're right, the Vatican is not inclined to work out precise plans for receiving large groups of Anglicans. Each case is likely to be different, which precludes forward planning.

The Vatican is, however, understood to be urging those groups wishing to come into communion with it to demonstrate they are comfortable with Church teaching, and that they aren't motivated soley by disillusionment with the Anglican Communion.

I like that last clause.

Wow, this is big news. I always love to hear of such reunions. The Ruthenian Catholic, Coptic Catholic, Greek Catholic, Chaldean Catholic, etc. -- all witness to the slow but sure power of Christ's prayer "that all may be one". Let us pray for this Anglican mend.

One Lord, many nations! The Church is many, the Church is one!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

It's Christmas, eh?

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Keeping an obsessive eye on my blog counter stats (no, not really) has led me to the conclusion that - gasp! - people might be doing better things that reading my blog (or others', if I may be so bold). Eating, resting, being family, and the like. You know the sort: humans.

Not one to roll against the punches, I've decided to let the Chinese-made-simpler (??) series rest a day or so. Here's part 1 and part 2, for those interested in the meantime.

I bid you, quite literally, adieu, adios, zu Gott. Open the gift of Christ! Wrap yourself in His love as a gift to the Father!

A culture wars interlude (volley 3)

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[The following information was sent to me by one of my favorite readers, himself a former JW, if I'm not mistaken.]

The Watchtower Society (parent organization for Jehovah's Witnesses) this week has shut down the whistle-blowing website http://quotes.watchtower.ca as part of the settlement of a lawsuit against it's previous owner, Mr. Peter Mosier. The "Quotes" site contained quotes from Watchtower Society publications which they said were posted to "try to embarrass" them. (Initial details and commentary on the lawsuit and a radio interview with Mr. Mosier can be read at the following links:

http://www.theopenpress.com/index.php?a=press&id=4153
http://romancatholicblog.typepad.com/roman_catholic_blog/
2005/10/jehovahs_witnes.html
http://www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/8.30/relrpt/stories/s1501367.htm )

As part of the settlement to the lawsuit Mr. Mosier turned over all control of the website to the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. The site apparently was taken down by them on December 22nd. Mr. Mosier explained his understanding of the settlement on an ex-Jehovah's Witness discussion board:

http://www.jehovahs-witness.com/11/104279/1.ashx

The actual legal settlement can be read here:

http://peter.mosier.ca/2005_Watchtower_Mosier_
Settlement_EXECUTED.pdf

A mirror of the old "Quotes" site on the Internet Archive can still be seen here:

http://web.archive.org/web/20041012012555/
quotes.watchtower.ca/

In his comment on the ex-Jehovah's Witness discussion board, Mr. Mosier says:

"I am truly sorry that I have been forced to remove this resource due to [the] Watch Tower's persecution. But the world turned before my site came along, and I'm certain that it will continue to rotate now that "Quotes" is dark.

I have long felt that the most damaging, most effective tool against [the] Watch Tower (or any other High Control Group) is to carefully and rationally study the group's words and works. [The Watchtower Society] thrives on information control, including controlling access to their own information -- not too much, not too soon. Clearly my site struck a nerve with the old men that control [the Watchtower Society.] Their Statement of Claim plainly stated that they feel that a collection of their own words can only have one purpose: to embarrass them. (BTW, I've never figured how they felt that, even if such a ridiculous claim were true, how it is relevant to a case of alleged copyright infringement! I didn't see any "embarrassment" clauses in the Copyright laws.)

Perhaps one day another young Jedi Paduan, or old Jedi Master, will pick up the torch. The funny thing about squishing Cockroaches is they seem to be able to reproduce faster than you can squish them. You don't have to worry about the one you just squished, you have to worry about the 10,000 offspring hatching under the cupboard."

A culture wars interlude (volley 2)

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[I added the following in reply to SOV2, not the least because he is guilty of abusing, ever so subtly, a commonplace that Buddhism is either a) more lax and less "puritanical" than bad ol' Catholicism or b) less implicated in violence or c) both. Certainly, the Faith has blood on its hands and ankles; that is its own hard issue. My point here is to wrest from SOV2 an annoyingly maladroit line of rhetoric.]

Your mantra about benevolent, halcyon Buddhism is naïve and a non sequitur, so please drop it. To keep things simple, have you ever heard of the Rape of Nanking and/or the playgrounds of sadism that it left behind in Pingshan (Unit 731 and Unit Ei 1644)? The pinnacle of a Buddhist empire fomented war in China and the Pacific for at least twenty years. Dwell on that. Sure, it was a violation of Buddhist principles – but it shows how weak your “argument” is, since Christian brutality is just as much an oxymoron. At the very least, the Buddhist rape of China puts the lie to your Crayola history: Cro-Magnon Medieval Savages vs. SOV2, Tom Watts and the Buddha, with Hearts. Or perhaps you should consider the Sri Lankan Buddhist monks battling (literally) Tamils in our own day. Or perhaps you should consider the idea that not all cruelty manifests as formal inquisitions and witch hunts. Neglect, oppression, injustice, malfeasance, etc. can and do manifest in a variety of ways in Buddhist contexts. (Why oh why is the sex slave trade most active in Asia?) As a metaphor of aphorisms, to the truism that reincarnation entails kindness to animals, who are ontologically equivalent to humans, the plain retort is that such onto-egalitarianism rapidly devolves into the Buddhist truth that humans are, by the hard laws of karma, no better than animals.

I don’t mean any of this as a rigorous argument; I simply implore you to drop the rubber mallet of “benevolent Asia / evil West” and add some solid historical realism to your rubber arsenal. The truth is, your beef with Christian savagery amounts to saying you prefer Buddhism because it is not guilty of the SAME sins as Christians.

[SOV2 then replied he does not reify Asian goodness or Wetsern badness, but merely encourages the latter region to learn from the former's obviously less militaristic heritage. Good! Unfortunately, though, SOV2 slides too easily into washing the hands of Buddhist Japan, by insisting Japanese are falling over themselves to apologize for past crimes. I replied with a series of links to the contrary. To wit, Japan still makes formal efforts to deny the horrors of Nanking, and signs are still that Japan has little faced up to the wide range of its dark side.

The links:

denial 1

denial 2

lone voice

full story 1

full story 2

full story 3

full story 4 ]

A culture wars interlude (volley 1)

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[Recently posted this at one of Dr. Blosser's blogs. It answers a notoriously liberal priest, "Spirit of Vatican II", in Japan with whom I've locked horns before. The following is rough, but, well, maybe someone will derive some good from it. Long and short of it, the _____ priest SOV2 denies angels, mostly because, I argue, he denies revelation.

At any rate, Merry Christmas, rejoice in the light of Christ our Infant King!]

What grounds your (presumable) belief in the immortal soul that does not ground your belief in angels? Alternatively, what negates your belief in angels that does not also negate your belief in the soul and, in the words of the Nicene creed, "life everlasting"? Both are "imports", as you might say; and then again, neither are: they're both Catholic truth.

Does God “fabricate” his message by tailoring it to our sociolinguistic comprehension? Would He, then, compromise the reality of theophanies by casting them in a sociocultural light appropriate to the witness? Further, in what other way might a man beholding angelic epiphanies describe the indescribable than in the language most closely approaching it in his day? Further, what grounds your belief in Christ the Savior that does not ground your belief in the many saviors of Hellenism? Saviors have been in every culture; should I then presume it is impossible to say Christ is the Savior of ALL cultures? In short, how or why does the merciful “con-descension” of God necessarily negate His holy sovereignty? (As an aside, you completely ignore the widespread activity of angels in the Church today and in all ages.)

As far as cultural borrows go, you may as well say, by analogy, Jesus the Christ could never have been born as a true human since all that DNA of His was but the accrued inheritance of His forebears. Christ, as the embodiment of what and *how* revelation was and is, was and is true Man precisely insofar as He drew upon the biological, cultural and spiritual heritage into which He was made flesh. Being Catholic means affirming God inspired the scriptural authors (and, yes, redactors) precisely in their appropriation of various cultural, historical, philosophical, etc. icons/patterns.

Fr. SOV2, I'm amazed time and again at how "nuanced" you can be in the name of "reappraising" the faith, yet how brazenly wooden you are about facing orthodoxy. Whenever you write I am reminded of a quote by blessed Cardinal Newman:

People say that the doctrine of Transubstantiation is difficult to believe . . . It is difficult, impossible to imagine, I grant - but how is it difficult to believe? . . . For myself, I cannot indeed prove it, I cannot tell how it is; but I say, "Why should it not be? What’s to hinder it? What do I know of substance or matter? Just as much as the greatest philosophers, and that is nothing at all;" . . . (Apologia vita sua, Garden city, NY: Doubleday Image, 1956 (orig. 1864), p.31

What do you, Fr. SOV2, know of cultures, borrows, etc.? As pb said: Hubris, eh? Pot, kettle, etc. Rinse, dry, repeat.

If I may be frank (still), you remind me of a child who has soiled himself sometime during the day, but is unwilling to fess up and simply change his drawers. So all day long the lad squirms and shifts and shuffles: it’s itchy, and he daren’t let a soul find out. It is almost painfully amusing to observe how acutely uncomfortable you are with orthodoxy ('In this day and age--gasp!? Why *I* could never say--!') while also being at such a sheer loss as to how to face yourself and just follow through with a total John Shelby Spong or a Matthew Fox (or perhaps even a Dan Barker?) Of course, in your shoes I would squirm, for you must know, you are famous in St. Blog’s not for being a priest, not for being an alter Christus, but, tragically, for being a liberal caricature, a living meme, a giddy, willful alterer of Christ. Great scott, man, think about it: you’ve apotheosized yourself as some Hegelian Spirit of the Times! You’ve so fixated on liberating the Church that you’ve enslaved yourself to liberalizing this or that comment box. You’ve so aimed to relive the sixties that you’ve actually shrunken yourself in a cliché! It’s hysterical!

At any rate, I wish you a merry Christmas, Fr. Nevertheless, I cringe to wonder if that means anything more to you than a Japanese platitude after indulging in tightly clad fairies? [The ______ priest had said he is willing to believe in angels such as he saw in a Japanese Nutcracker ballet.]

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Chinese Made Simple(r)? - Part 2

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[NOTE: A reader alerted me that part 1 of this series looked quite out of sorts, with misspaced commas, apostrophes, missing letters, etc. I use Mozilla at home and, as much as possible, at work; but today when I perused my blog on Explorer I was flummoxed by just how bad it looks in that browser! All I can say is, 1) I am sorry for the annoying glitches, 2) my condolences to those of you who still use Explorer, and 3) stop using Explorer and start using Firefox.]

In part 1 we looked at the linguistic ‘modes’ a Chinese learner faces (and, in fact, that any language speaker deals with). I concluded by saying the pervasive ‘homophonic redundancy’ in Chinese is a stumbling block to making Chinese an otherwise globally accessible language. I also alluded to the importance of radicals (bùshǒu) in navigating homophones.

Now, unless you’ve studied Chinese, you may ask yourself what is so important about these ‘radicals’ I keep mentioning. Without an alphabet, the Chinese must use any of three (or more?) methods to find words in a reference work. First, if they know how to pronounce it, readers can scan a phonetic index and then go to the word. For example, if a kid hears ‘fán’ but wants to study it more, he can look for fán and then try to pick the right homophone. This is a headache for non-native students until you have a serious grasp of which homophones can express what (as well as a good memory and communicative intuition of what the people might have been discussing when you heard the homophone!). Second, if they know the radical, people can scan a radical index, arranged according to radical stroke-count, go to that sub-list, and then find the character based on its remaining stroke count. For example, the radical for shèng (‘holy’), which has thirteen strokes, is ér (‘ear’), which has six strokes. You scan the six-stroke radical list, flip to page 1228 (in my Far East Chinese-English Dictionary), then tabulate the remaining strokes (seven) and find shèng in the left column (of three) on page 1231. Not a walk in the park. Third, if they have no idea how to say it, or if they forget its’ radical – and I assure you even native speakers forget the correct radicals none too infrequently – or if the dictionary at hand uses a different radical to classify the word – no small dispute over the past centuries! – if all else fails, Chinese readers can peruse the dense-as-a-telephone stroke-count index to find the elusive word. This method is also how the Chinese list family names, from simplest to most complex. Then again, what if you can’t visualize the right number of strokes...? Put the dictionary away and just go ask your Chinese friend for help!

Say what you will about English’s atrocious, idiosyncratic spelling, but after studying Chinese, I assure you an alphabet and a Webster’s never looked so sane. To give you one example, which, as a matter of fact, happened to me only two days after the shǔ shí example I mentioned above, in part I. I was telling a Taiwanese friend about some of the hilarious oddities and activities in my English class – deciphering Orphic, bilingual nicknames, developing new wonder drugs, singing and dancing to ‘Yakety Yak’, blowing my nose as signal to shout the missing word in a listening activity, and so forth. I mentioned how one of my senior high students, Milestone, and how I sometimes call him by a direct English translation of a direct Chinese translation of his name: Yīnglǐ Shítóu. Alternatively, I use the same hackneyed translation method for how he pronounces his name when asked (‘My’ol’ston’), thus calling him ‘Wǒde jiùde shítóu’, from ‘My Old Stone’. My friend happened to know ‘milestone’ in Chinese and told me: ‘lǐ chéng bēi’. ‘Good to know’, I thought, ‘Can you write that down for me?’

Then things got very interesting. My friend may have known how to say ‘milestone’ in Chinese, but she could only remember how to write lǐ and chéng. She could only give me the phonetic spelling for bēi, which I already knew from hearing it. Normally I would have just taken the note and looked up the word at home. But, since I was in the midst of writing this series, I was more keenly aware than usual of the difficulties of language-exchange. I wanted to know bēi. She couldn’t remember. ‘Well, what if there are a dozen bēi’s in my dictionary?’ I asked, truly distressed. ‘Let’s be scientific,’ I continued, and took out my electronic dictionary to type in bēi. Sure enough, there were twenty-two options for that phoneme! Worse, many of them had the same character elements in them. So much for the phonetic approach. I needed to at least know the radical so I could properly look up bēi. This my friend for do for me: 石bēi. Thus, with only five additional strokes, I had all I needed to research the character. (Better still, my friend had a small epiphany about the soundness of my method... but I’m getting ahead of myself.) Admittedly, this is only one example, and mild at that, considering I could have looked up ‘milestone’ in an English-Chinese dictionary or lǐ chéng bēi in a pīnyīn dictionary. Nonetheless, the ambiguities I faced in this case are instructive: At every turn, Chinese chants a deafening and defeating, ‘Beware all ye who enter here!’

But there is hope. Simplicity, clarity and accessibility are much the basis for Hànyǚ Pīnyīn (or the current Romanization system). If every sign had a pīnyīn transliteration, though, I could at least remember the street or building name as a ‘normal’ foreign word (like ‘Krankenhaus’ or ‘gelato’) and ask a local for help based on pronunciation alone. Let me say it plainly: I think pīnyīn is a wonderful thing! While Wade-Giles may be more correct from a technical phonetic standpoint – well, who cares? Pīnyīn is more compact than both Yale and W-G, as well as more immediately accessible to English-speakers (both native and second-language speakers). Ask any European student of English to read ‘Peking’ (W-G) and you will hear ‘puh king’ or ‘peh king’. Ask them to read ‘Beijing’, on the other hand, and you’ll probably hear ‘bei jing’, ‘beh zhing’ or maybe ‘bai jing’. Or, ask any native English speaker to read ‘Zāo gāo le, wǒ fēicháng è le’ and, while you won’t hear correct Mandarin, you at least won’t hear nervous pauses, choppy inflections and toneless mutterings of W-G’s ‘Tsao’kao le, wo fei’ch’ang o le.’ Even people who can read W-G don’t know the tones, since W-G just writes the phonemes!)

Further, a key feature of true pīnyīn, as opposed to tóngyīn, is the incorporation of the tones (as you see me trying to do in this post). ‘Folk pinyin’ would write Běijīng as Beijing. But, to be technical, is it Bēijíng, Bèijīng (‘quiet and secluded’), Běijǐng (‘background’), etc? Those of us who want to know the characters for learning purposes can’t make do with toneless pinyin, er, pīnyīn!

But, hey, there’s no need to be overly picky. Chinese phonetics is no perfect science. The far bigger to fry is the writing system. I am convinced that if Chinese could develop a simpler, more accessible, more flexible, more universilizable writing system, it would be perhaps the easiest language on earth.
As Barry Farber, autodidact hyperpolyglot, puts it, Chinese doesn’t have grammar so much as it has ‘interesting ways of speaking’. Far from English maze of conjugation – I am hungry, you are hungry, he is hungry – Chinese simply puts logical components in a basically rational order – I hungry, you hungry, he hungry. Rather than saying ‘I want to eat, but does he want to eat or not?’ (or, in German, ‘Ich möchte essen, aber möchte er auch essen, oder nicht?’) – which is, I admit, an intentionally formal way of speaking – a Mandarin speaker simply says, ‘I want eat, but is he want not want eat?’ When you first start learning Mandarin, it sounds absurdly crude, like baby talk – but, as far as conveying thoughts efficiently and simply, I think Chinese is amazing. (As did George Orwell, apparently. The language of his political apocalypse, _1984_, ‘Newspeak’, is none too loosely based on the binary nature of Chinese grammar.)
The proverb ‘Qǐ hǔ nán xià’ translates literally to ‘Ride tiger difficult down’, and dynamically as ‘It’s hard to get off [i.e., solve] the tiger [i.e., a complicated, perilous situation or relationship] once you start riding [i.e., having] it. Point being, if writing Chinese were as easy as speaking Mandarin, Chinese could be any language student’s dream come true!

But the unfortunate reality is that Chinese deserves its infamous reputation on the (de)merits of its writing system alone. As one of my coworkers puts it, none too diplomatically: ‘Chinese is retarded! Every other damned culture moved its language away from symbols and hieroglyphs ten thousand years ago. Why? Because alphabets are simple! Alphabets are good! But Chinese? It still uses characters! Come on, China, play Jeopardy: just buy some letters. Stop killing kids with rote memorization. Etc.’ Diplomatic or not, my coworker is right. Chinese is its own biggest problem.

As my coworker also likes to point out, and I myself have seen numerous times, once Chinese students get proficient enough in English, they’ll actually take notes in English during a Chinese lecture! The characters, when they can remember how to write them, are just too much of a hassle. Writing turtle, for example, in English requires at most eleven strokes of the pen, whereas in Chinese the word (wūguī) requires a staggering twenty-six strokes! ‘Cat’? Six strokes, at most. Māo? Sixteen strokes! And then, what if you *can’t* remember how to write the character? I wish I were joking, but I have asked various Taiwanese how to write sock (wàzi) and have gotten 50-50 results: half the tie I hear, ‘I can’t remember!’, while the other half I hear, ‘[pause] ... That’s a hard character, but....’. The word finally emerges from a tentative set of strokes.

A century ago when the Chinese wanted to ‘move ahead’ into the ‘typing age’, how did they do it? With massive, removable typing racks, which, hopefully, had most of the necessary characters for news and diplomacy. But if you needed that one character not on rack A? Roll out of rack A, lock into rack B, type what you need, and then go back to rack A. (See here and here, for instance.)

Of course, don’t be fooled; while computers have indeed things easier for the Chinese, it’s not safe to say PC typing has made things that much better. The Chinese still face two big problems. First, cell phone texting, of which the Chinese are the world’s leading users, still requires tedious sifting through frequency lists of homophones. I know plenty of Taiwanese friends who prefer typing in English, since Chinese texting is up to three times slower. Consider, just to type chī fàn (‘eat’) requires seven taps (two to open the phonetic options list, one to select chī, two more to select fàn [when it’s automatically suggested], and another to exit the suggested character list. Another English has is abbreviation. There’s just no abbreviating digitized characters. ‘Nǐ yào bù yào qù kàn diàn yǐng?’ can only be ‘你要不要去看電影?’, whereas in English ‘Do you want to go see a movie?’ could in a pinch (or as I text with friends!) be ‘wanna go c a movi?’. ‘Nǐ hěn bàng!’ is always and only ‘你很棒!’, whereas it’s easily texted as ‘ur rly awsom!’. In fct, I thnk txt Englsh is so handy n intellgbl, I cld use it 4 al my typng n u prbly wldnt mind 2 mch, rite?

Second, the longer Chinese people use PC character programs, the more rapidly they forget how to hand-write the characters. The new typing programs not only instantly provide a list of possible characters for the phonetic input, but many also prompt possible characters that go with what was just typed (sort of like auto-spelling in English cell phone texting). But this trains the Chinese at best to recognize the fitting word at a glance – when the PC is off, though, they are often not much better remembering correct stroke count/order than a very advanced foreign student, at which point they’ll just write the phonetic transliteration (which in Taiwan is known as zhùyīn fúhào, or ‘be pe me fe’). So much for the Chinese love of the finely written word! Sad but true.

The solution? For the past half-century, mainland ‘Red’ China (a.k.a. Běijīng) has insisted the solution lies with using ‘simplified’ characters, principally in an effort to open the language not only to the illiterate hordes but also to all those wealthy English-speakers. To put as simply as I can (and to stay within the limits of my meager knowledge), simplifying Chinese entails removing or collapsing gratuitous strokes as long as the key radicals and essential form of the word remains. For example, the infamous wūguī that we just saw (‘tortoise’) goes from 烏龜 to 乌龟 (i.e., from 26 to 11 strokes). Hopefully, you can see the morphological, and perhaps also radical, continuity. (And, ideally, you can see the bird’s-eye logic of the ideographs, especially guī: a head above a left claw-foot and a boxy shell, closed out with a bent little tail.)

I recognize languages change. I also believe Chinese can and will maintain its integrity. Am I saying nothing good can come of simplifying characters? No, I’m not. First, I agree many characters can and should be simplified. Second, I realize the divergence is greater between ancient Chinese and jiǎntǐzi than between jǎintǐzì and fántǐzì. My concern is based not simply on the ‘newfangledness’ of simplified characters, but rather on the inability of that move to meet two contemporary goals. The first goal is to even the learning field so poorer citizens can attain literacy more easily. The second goal is to open China up linguistically in order to open it financially. Pīnyīn ties into this effort, since it is simplest China can make its language for foreigners unwilling to learn even the jiǎntǐzì.

But can simplification and pinyinization really achieve these goals?

In the next installment, I will argue it cannot and that a simplification for the simplification is needed. Y’all come back now, ya hear!

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Chinese Made Simple(r)? - Part 1

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[I've been sitting on my hands, and on this series, too long. It's time to post. I'm not satisfided with its rough-draft quality, many of its awkward phrases, its undoubted factual and logical errors, its wobbly paragraph arrangement, etc. But what writer really ever is satisfied with his own work? Sure, I would love to refine this more, but I've had to come to grips with the fact that "THIS IS A BLOG, ELLIOT!", not a refereed journal or some final intellectual tribunal. I've been aggravated and depressed about enough other stuff in my life lately; posting this series, in whatever condition, will be a step towards livening my spirits. Enough -- no, too much -- preface. Away!]


I make no claims to being an expert linguist, an astute observer of life, nor even a very good writer. But, having lived over two years in Taiwan, and having added Mandarin to my meager repertoire of usable language – plus, having a blog – I’ve decided to share some thoughts about this culture, and especially this language, which I have come to love. And while I may have announced this series as an attempt to ‘simplify’ Chinese, that was itself a simplification of my aims. It’s more accurate to say I am 1) addressing how Chinese is not simple and 2) considering how we might improve certain devices for learning and ‘opening’ Chinese. As you’ll see, I actually have great reservations against trying to ‘simplify’ Chinese. But that is yet to come. Despite some technical depths I get into about Chinese, I hope even non-students can appreciate the cultural and commonsensical insights I may bring to bear on a perhaps otherwise numbing topic.

I shall begin this series with an Anselmian prayer, which I hope conveys the spirit of this series, and of all my efforts, followed by a brief introductory linguistic analysis.

O Lord, creator of heaven and earth,
And the Divine Word both behind and above all human words,
Thank You for the gift of light,
That Light which is You,
Given to all men,
And, in time, to me.
I thank You for any and all sparks of wisdom you may stir in my mind.
Keep me ever-open to Your all-pervading wisdom,
As well as ever-humble before Your all-overshadowing glory.
For any wisdom I may pass onto my readers as new insight,
May You receive all the praise and honor.
And where my supposedly new ideas are but the restated, and poorly restated, wisdom of a predecessor,
May You also receive glory and honor for stirring the same embers of wisdom in two mortals.
Ad majorem Dei gloriam, ad majorem Tuum, Domine.
Amen.

And now, time for some amateur linguistics.

In Mandarin Chinese there are, to put it roughly, three levels or ‘modes’, of meaning, and hence, three corresponding modes of comprehension. Although I’m not a professional linguist, nor even a dedicated amateur, I’m inclined to say this holds true for all languages. First, there is the mode of ‘pronunciated’ meaning, or what I’ll call ‘vocal semantics’. Even without a grammatical or communicative context, we know fā (‘emit’) is a different word than dòng (‘hole’). Likewise, in English, just by hearing the word ‘bat’ we know it means something other than ‘refrigerator’. Of course, vocal semantics is far more complex in Mandarin (and other tonal languages), since it is (and they are) loaded with homophones. Fá, for example, can mean ‘cut down’, ‘penalize’, ‘lack/weary’, powerful person’, ‘valve’, or ‘raft’. Nonetheless, even with all this ambiguity, the mode of vocal semantics at least enables a Mandarin speaker to differentiate one cluster of homophonic words from another.

The second mode of linguistic meaning is what I’ll call ‘orthographical semantics’. This refers, in Chinese, to the (in)famous character ‘radicals’ (bùshǒu), which I will discuss at some length below. Radicals could, very loosely, be likened to word parts in English (i.e., affixes, roots, etc.), an analogy I try, very tentatively, to impress upon my students. Rather than just memorizing word by word by word, effective learners become familiar with recurring word parts and then analyze any new word along those lines. The word ‘evacuation’, for instance, is immediately over my younger students’ heads; but my goal is to equip them to analyze such a word in order to gain at least a little insight into it. They can and may remember that ‘e-’ often means ‘out (of)’ and they should recall that ‘-(a)tion’ signals the word is a noun. Or consider ‘participation’ as a second example. Well over their heads at first glance. But... if they use their English scissors and ‘cut the word, cut the word, cut the word’ (as I always chant!), they can get a leg up on this overbearing word. Plainly enough, ‘part-’ means ‘some of’, or, simply, ‘part of’; ‘-ation’ means it’s a noun; and The Famous Bougis ‘-ation to -ate’ Rule ™ (what, you never knew?) might help them trigger knowledge of ‘participate’ which raises the odds of comprehension simply because knowing one of two closely related words is a quick way into knowing the other one.

So it is for Mandarin students. While no Mandarin student can escape the sheer brute requirement of memorizing character after character (including tone, stroke count-and-order, and meaning), she can nevertheless use radicals as generally reliable wedges into the language. Seeing rò, for example, signals the character has something to do with flesh, animals or meaty foods. Similarly, seeing qīng often allows you to assume the word has a similar pronunciation (e.g., qīng, jīng, qǐng, qíng, jìng, etc.). (Alas, even this phonetic divining-rod-method is only sometimes reliable, since, for example, the qīng radical is also in diàn and tiān!) So, in this second, orthographical mode of semantics, even if a reader has no idea how to say the word or what exactly it means, she could still pry into it a little with radicals (and word parts).

The third mode of meaning is what I’ll call ‘communicative semantics’ (though I realize that is a redundant concept). Communicative semantics is based not only on grammar, but also on situation and inflection. For example, in English, we are all but certain ‘He hit the ball with a bat’ does not mean Johnny B. Atheplate slugged a dance party with a flying nocturnal mammal. By contrast, hearing ‘He hit the ball with a bat!’ signals to us that we should think this bat is more special than a regular wooden beam – and then it dawns on us, ‘He hit a ball with a bat! How cruel!’ Notice that this flash of insight does not rely on grammatical changes, but only on inflectional changes, which is to say on changes in the total communicative semantics.

In Mandarin, this semantic mode is especially important since, as I said, homophones are everywhere. Míng, for example, could mean ‘bright; clear’, ‘name; fame’, ‘cry out’, ‘engrave’ or ‘dark; netherworld’. So hearing ‘Tā hěn yǒu míng’ (‘He is very famous’) is, technically, ambiguous. Technically, in terms of vocal semantics, ‘famous’ and ‘bright’ are the same word. ‘Míng?’ a new Mandarin student might ask himself, ‘Don’t I know that word? ... Yes, but is he dark, bright or famous?!’ Fortunately, the grammar disambiguates such a problem immediately, since, to my knowledge, you cannot say ‘Tā hěn yǒu míng [bright]’. And if you think isolating one word is ‘unfair’ or unrealistic, how about a two-character word? Jīngzhì can mean ‘exquisite’, ‘make with extra care’ or ‘crystalloid’. Jìngzhòng can mean ‘revere’ or ‘net weight’. Jìngzhí can mean ‘net worth’ or ‘directly’. How is a student, tourist or businessman supposed to hang in a conversation when everything else literally sounds like everything else?

Or consider an example I experienced even as I was wrapping up this series. One day I was talking with a Taiwanese friend in Chinese and wanted to use some new vocabulary I had just adapted. (Digression: my method for learning is, apart from classes and standard grammar bookwork, I carry a notepad with me at all times, partially to take memos, but primarily to write down new Chinese. If I hear a new phrase, or if I realize I want to know how to say ‘-----’ in Chinese, I write it down. Then a few days later I’ll look it up in a dictionary and make a note card for that word or phrase. One side shows the characters; the other, flipped lengthwise, has the translation at the top and the pronunciation plus a smaller copy of the characters at the bottom. I carry a bundle of cards with me at all times, and try to study between classes at my desk, over lunch, while waiting in line, in the bathroom, or sometimes even at a long stoplight.) At any rate, that morning I had made a card for shǔ shí (‘true’) and ran it by my friend in passing. As I continued to speak, she started counting, ‘1, 2, 3, 4…’. I glanced at her. What gives? ‘You told me to count to ten,’ she answered in English. ‘No, I said, “true”,’ I answered, irritated. ‘You know, shǔ shí?’ The confusion? The homophonic pair shǔ shí means both ‘true’ and ‘count [to] ten’! And, to make matters worse, when using a third tone, as in shǔ, it is easy to confuse the final rising slope of the tone with a second tone, as in shí. Assuming I did screw that up, and said, shú shí, I’d be saying ‘cooked food’. I’m not griping about this, since all such peccadilloes make learning a new language fun. But I am throwing light on the fact that, for students and non-native learners, relying on Mandarin pronunciation alone is potentially fraught with error.

How about proper names? If I give someone my name – Bó yǎ shān – he is faced with perhaps ten different characters to analyze before visualizing just which bó, yǎ and shān I have. Hence, to make things easier, Chinese people reflexively ‘spell’ their names by referring to other words the characters can be found in. So, when introducing myself, I don’t simply say, ‘My name is Bó yǎ shān.’ Rather, I will say, ‘My name is Bó yǎ shān – bó huà de bó, yǎ zhōu de yǎ, alǐ shān de shān’ – which is to say, ‘Silk painting’s silk, Asia’s Asia, Mt. Ali’s mountain.’ Of course, I admit this humorous ritual is a very good idea for remembering names, since people are forced to make mnemonic connections, a habit we in the West usually only learn for networking and power-mingling. ‘John Smith, nice to meet you. Where do you work, John Smith? Smith – how do you spell that?’ Wouldn’t it be so convenient to *have* to remember black-haired John Smith’s Smith is also blacksmith’s smith? (Maybe I’ve been in Asia too long.)

Of course, things get absolutely nightmarish when it comes to third person singular pronouns – or should I say, the third person singular pronoun: tā. Tā, I kid you not, means ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it [animal]’, ‘it, that [object]’, ‘he/she/it [deity]’ – oh, and don’t forget ‘collapse; droop’! I’ve faced the Tā Problem more than once. ‘The Tā Problem’? What in English is a perfectly straightforward anecdote becomes in Chinese a perfectly inscrutable maze of pronouns. The stilted but still very clear (míng?) English sentence, ‘Even though it [animal] stinks, she likes it, so he likes her’ becomes an Abbott and Costello routine: ‘Suīrán tā chòu chòu de, kě shì tā xǐ huān tā, suǒyǐ tā xǐ huān tā.’ Who’s on first? Tā! Who’s on second? Tā! Well then, who’s on third? Who else – tā!

All humor aside, my point is that Mandarin speakers deal with a *lot* of ambiguity – and many Chinese linguists are themselves the first to admit it. ‘Homophonic redundancy’ is a genuine difficulty in Chinese. Lu Zhuangshang, Lu Xun, Mao Dun, Wang Li, Zhou Youguang – all of these scholars, whose lives span from1854 to the present, worked to simplify and standardize Chinese, not the least because doing so would promote China’s position in an increasingly, and now radically, Western, English-based world. I’ve often quipped that though the Great Wall was breached long ago by warfare (in 1211 AD by Genghis Khan), and, even more decisively, more recently etiolated by tourism, nonetheless the Chinese still have their language, which is but the primal model on which the Great Wall was based. The Chinese language is, unlike, virtually all other languages, utterly inaccessible to the outsider. (Not only that, it was historically also a device used to keep the illiterate peasants ‘in line’. Just what does the new imperial edict say, exactly? Well, who knows, apart from Wú Shì Zhāng’s proclamation of it?) With most (Romanized) alphabetic languages, an outsider, with even rudimentary training, can at least hobble along the letters. But, by contrast, even though I’ve been studying (written) Chinese seriously for nearly a year, and have been living here for over two years, if I encounter a word I don’t recognize, that’s just the end of it: I just don’t know it. Period. No sounding it out. No analyzing consistently reliable semantic or phonetic roots. No dipping into related languages’ cognates. And, unless I know what the product or store is, or know the surrounding characters, there’s also no guessing the character. My only hope is to remember its appearance and/or radical until I get to my reference materials, or maybe scribble it down for future reference. So, as I say, and as others acknowledge, the more-than-typical impenetrability of Chinese is a stumbling block in today’s global village.

For the record

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A reader told me he was dismayed about the first line in my Blogger Profile:

I am an oxymoron - a committed Christian - and a scattered muttering Catholic writer in the making."

He said it was unbearably arrogant to say such a thing about myself. I, and others readers, are not of the same mind. Hence {{TONGUE IN CHEEK ALERT!!}}, stooping from my lofty throne, I shall deign to explain that line is based on the rather unpleasant premise that a committed Christian is, like it or not, by and large, an oxymoron.

On the one hand, by saying I am a 'committed' Christian, I am saying I openly and seriously 'wear my faith on my life'. On the other hand, virtually any honest Christian would have to admit even his 'committed' relationship to God is rife with infidelity, hypocrisy, acedia, etc. So, perhaps betraying my old Lutheran leanings, in that first line I am simply trying to make the best of a tough situation as simul iustus et peccator ('at once righteous and a sinner'). The oxymoron is not that I stand out head and shoulders above 'all those other so-called Christians', but rather that I (proudly?) take my ranks among the oxymoronically redeemed -- God's beloved unlovelies, His holy unholies, His saved lost causes -- all by the work of an infant King and a crucified Victor.

This oxymoron, and my place in it, became clear to me one day during my last year at college. I was talking with a friend, a fellow 'committed Christian', and he brought up his mom. 'Is she a Christian -- committed, I mean?'

Without a pause, and without any guile, he answered, 'Is anyone?'

I'm still left stinging awake by that.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Seek and ye shall find?

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After sitting without comments for several days, and after I left my survey about why people so seldom comment here, I found a comment way down the page for my post about my new grad studies (among other things). I figured it unlikely for the reader to re-visit the combox for an answer, so I'll drag it up here into daylight as per usual:

You talk about your Confirmation as still in the future. Yet if I remember rightly, you were received into the Church (welcome!!) not long ago. Why were you not confirmed then? That's the way it's normally done with adults.

Just curious. Are things normally done differently in Taiwan?

Are things normally done differently here? Everything is done differently and nothing is done normally here! ::emoticon::

It's true, though, not getting confirmed threw me for a loop (as well as parts of the liturgy, but that's slated for an upcoming post...!). I was all set to get a "threefer": Confession, Holy Eucharist and Confirmation all in one go. But apparently, to put it a little crudely, I only got to get the Eucharist. As far as I have heard, under the guidance of my priest at Providence University, the confession and renunciation of sin for my (conditional) Baptism covered Confession (which, at any rate, I have formally partaken of since then), and my Confirmation depends on the bishop's order. Since only the bishop does confirmations, he generally does them in batches, and he likes to let a number of people pile up for a more communal, more one-strike convenient service all for Confirmation. (Although I know of at least two lifelong Catholics, both in their early twenties, who have not yet been confirmed. For me, I must admit, that carries a whiff of scandal.) In the meantime, as mentioned, Fr. Ramon insists I deepen my theological formation; then, in a sense, there'd really be something substantial to confirm.

It's funny: since I am in Christ by Baptism, but lack Confirmation, am I really, technically a member of the Catholic Church? In which case, might I, a Protestant, get a commission for my zeal? Is there an Ecumenical Trust Fund? The First Bank of Baptism by Desire? ::emoticon::

P.S. To be clear: when I raised the question of sparse comments, I really was not pleading for more. I'm always happy to get (edifying) comments, but I admit, handling a lemming swarm of comments like Mark Shea is one of my waking nightmares. Soooo tedious. I like comments, really I do -- but I also like the fact that my readers let me like them in small doses. ::emoticon::

P.P.S. Why the "::emoticon::"? It's a joke between me and my old roommate in Taichung. He has an old version of Windows Messenger which doesn't allow all the new bells and whistles of MSN Messenger. On top of that, even were he to use the latter, he refuses to resort to emoticons. First, they are rhetorical head fakes. You can twist the meaning of your words too multifariously too allow for clear, simple communication. Every plain statement becomes nuanced and re-nuanced to death. Second, ironically, emoticons are so graphic and meaningful that they're actually trite and meaningless. The smiley could, and often does, mean anything and nothing at once. We both find the "::emoticon::" to be just as effective as the most graphic emoticon. Neat, huh? ::emoticon::

P.P.P.S. Since the notion of having to “add” confirmation into the Church to baptismal incorporation into Christ probably offends my Protestant or liberal readers, I’ll say the difference amounts to saying “I am a member of the human family” and “I am a member of this or that particular family of particular people”, a difference much like what Chesterton said about the Eucharist: “The difference between the Eucharist and anything less, is the difference between saying ‘God is everywhere’ and ‘God is in the next room’.” Baptismal incorporation into Christ realistically entails an equally sacramental and equally concrete union with His Body.