Friday, April 30, 2010

White hats, black hats…

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A very brief article by Phil Lawler notes the following:

With the latest revelations by Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, a clear picture begins to emerge from what had been a haze of confusion about the Vatican's approach to sex-abuse complaints.

There was a conflict within the Roman Curia over how these complaints should be handled. That conflict apparently endured through much of the pontificate of John Paul II. It ended with the election of Benedict XVI.

… The Congregation for the Clergy, under Cardinal Castrillon, argued for protective treatment of accused abusers. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) under Cardinal Ratzinger, argued for decisive disciplinary action. Sometimes Cardinal Ratzinger had his way, as in the handling of the Groër case; sometimes he was frustrated, as with Maciel case; sometimes the results were indecisive, as with the Burresi case.

Then in 2001, after the abuse scandal exploded in the US, Cardinal Ratzinger won a major victory, with the assignment of abuse cases to the CDF. The lenient attitude of the Congregation for Clergy was no longer a factor; prompt and serious discipline was possible. The second, decisive victory came in 2005 with the election of Pope Ratzinger. Within weeks the Maciel and Burresi cases were resolved.

That to which Lawler refers about Cdl. Hoyos is basically the following, as reported in another article from Catholic World News:

Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, has escalated his defense of a policy that protected priests from prosecution for sexual abuse. Meanwhile the National Catholic Reporter has unearthed evidence that Cardinal Castrillon pressured an American bishop to halt disciplinary proceedings against a notorious abuser.

In an April 22 radio interview, Cardinal Castrillon said that he did not regret writing in 2001 to congratulate a French bishop for not informing police about an abusive priest. He said that for a bishop to inform on a priest would be like a father testifying in court against a child. "Why would they ask that of the Church?" he said.

Without making any definitive judgments about Hoyos' soul and penitential status in the Church, I must say this is one of the worst cases of clericalism I've seen. It's like my confessor told me this afternoon, "Don't feel too bad if you don't have moral credibility. The Church has always been that way. It really is like a sinking ship––and it really looks like it's about to sink at any moment––but we have to keep going. That's why we have faith, the hope to keep us going." It certainly is what's keeping me going. Confessed, cleansed, chastened, clear-in-waiting. Hear Christ:

[Luke 6:21] "Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied.
"Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.
[22] "Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! [23] Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
[24] "But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation.
[25] "Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger. "Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
[26] "Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.
[27] "But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, [28] bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

I doubt there are harder words to hear and heed from our Lord than the above at times like these, especially that last clause as it strikes the wounded ears of the abused victims. Mater Dei, ora pro nobis!

Emergent Aristotelianism Alert...

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In neurological language, the primitive neural patterns emerging from the brain stem become "vulcanized" and impede the higher level neural patterns originating in the cortex. ("Vulcanization of neural patterns is modern scientifical talk for "habits." Cf. Cohen, "The Vulcanization of the Human Brain: A Neural Perspective on Interactions Between Cognition and Emotion". Note the emergent Aristotelianism: Cognition and Emotion here coding for Intellect and Will.) But this subordination denies our essence as rational beings in favor of a view of humans as mere bundles of appetites.

-- from Mike Flynn's "De moralitate atheorum"

Who you are...

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...when what you want isn't where you are.

I read a great quotation from a friend yesterday: "...we are measured by what discourages us." Apparently it is from Bill Wilson, whoever that is. Very inspiring and challenging thought.

My own way of saying the same kind of thing is this: "Our love is the index of our dignity and our suffering is the index of our love."

Like breaking a watch, in reverse...

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The average human––if such there be––picks up social contacts––treads into personal entanglements––as easily as she might break the average wristwatch. She can sever those ties as easily as she might put the watch back together.

–– Elliam Fakeseare

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


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1)从大开始再划一笔而得写出另外六个字。 繁体简体字都可以。 大。。。

2)从日开始再划一笔想出其他九个字。 繁体简体字都可以。 日。。。

3)无查字典的话,你可以写出几个两笔画的字呢? 部首也可以。 繁体简体字都可以。

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Shroud unshrouded…

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I recently went on a Shroud-of-Turin jag and I thought I'd post a few good links.

This is the overview of the latest in "sindonology" which led me to the rest of the links, below.

If you were to travel to Italy before the exhibit ends on May 23, you wouldn’t see what’s truly stunning about the 14 ½- x 3 ½-foot cloth. For that, you have to see the negative version, as amateur photographer Secundo Pia did when he took the first photographs of the Shroud in 1898 and saw, as he lifted the photographic plate from its chemical baptism, the man’s face as a positive image on the negative. Pia had no doubt whose face it is, and his discovery launched “sindonology,” the scientific study of the Shroud.

For the 2010 exhibition, a new book and a fascinating documentary have been released, both of which deal forthrightly with the controversies that seem warp-and-weft with the fabric of the Shroud itself.

The Truth About the Shroud of Turin: Solving the Mystery by Robert K. Wilcox is the most current survey of the key issues about the Shroud and includes a brief description of the very recent discoveries of Dr. Barbara Frale, about which more in a moment. And the History Channel recently premiered (and offers now on DVD) “The Real Face of Jesus?” – which covers much of what’s in the Wilcox book but also chronicles the attempt by computer-graphics expert Ray Downing to reconstruct the face on the Shroud using modern wizardry and some old-fashioned artistry as well. The result of his forensic animation is stunning.

It's worth recalling one short migration the Shroud made during the Second World War, as this story explains:

The shroud was transferred for its safety to the Benedictine sanctuary of Montevergine in Avellino, in the southern Campania region of Italy in 1939 and was only transferred to Turin in 1946. The current director of the library at the abbey, Father Andrea Cardin, said the reason behind the move was because Hitler was "obsessed" with the sacred relic. … "Officially this was to protect it from possible bombing (in Turin). In reality, it was moved to hide it from Hitler who was apparently obsessed by it. When he visited Italy in 1938, top-ranking Nazi aides asked unusual and insistent questions about the Shroud."

This is part 1 of an excellent documentary (DVD), The Fabric of Time, about the Shroud, with a uniquely strong emphasis on theoretical physics. Follow the links for parts 2–6. "…a two-dimensional photograph of a two-dimensional artifact, but … there emerged three-dimensional information."

And hot dog I just managed to find the History Channel's very new The Real Face of Jesus? on Youtube. Here's part 1, then you can follow the links to parts 2–9. (Click-load-and-then-view it while it's still up!)

And while I'm at it, I should provide a link to part 1 (etc.) of Jesus and the Shroud of Turin, which I have watched more than once, and consider one of the finest resources on the Shroud, especially considering it is only an hour.

Moving along.

In this post, the Shroud of Turin Blogger (STB) insists, "…tell me how by faking a shroud, as the Italian Union of Atheists and Rational Agnostics, have done, proves that the possible real shroud is a fake. It is like faking the Mona Lisa to prove that the real one is a fake. All it proves is that these folks are not 'Rational.'"

Here STB cites approvingly a comment from a reader, arguing that "a forger only fakes something either preexisting or something which is known throughout the [sic] history. … Both conditions are not satisfied in the case of the Shroud of Turin, because neither the New Testament nor the apocryphal writings mention a single line about the existence of a cloth with the dorsal and frontal images of Jesus’ body."

In this video, we learn about how Barbara Frale, a scholar of the Knights Templar (how cool is that!), claims to have deciphered an inscription on the Shroud. This is the most astounding thing I've seen about the Shroud in a long time. Frale's inscription translates thus: "In the year 16 of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius Jesus the Nazarene, taken down in the early evening after having been condemned to death by a Roman judge because he was found guilty by a Hebrew authority, is hereby sent for burial with the obligation of being consigned to his family only after one full year." I think this sort of evidence dovetails nicely with the discovery of the burial ossuary of James a few years back. The more archaeologists unearth, the harder it is to dismiss the Gospels as sheer, unhinged religious fiction from the real times and places they describe.

But to continue. This story reports that

Dr Frale said that the use of three languages was consistent with the polyglot nature of a community of Greek-speaking Jews in a Roman colony. Best known for her studies of the Knights Templar, who she claims at one stage preserved the shroud, she said what she had deciphered was "the death sentence on a man called Jesus the Nazarene. If that man was also Christ the Son of God it is beyond my job to establish. I did not set out to demonstrate the truth of faith. I am a Catholic, but all my teachers have been atheists or agnostics, and the only believer among them was a Jew. I forced myself to work on this as I would have done on any other archaeological find."

A similar story, here, reports:

Barbara Frale, a researcher at the Vatican archives, says in a new book that she used computer-enhanced images of the shroud to decipher faintly written words in Greek, Latin and Aramaic scattered across the cloth.

She asserts that the words include the name "(J)esu(s) Nazarene" -- or Jesus of Nazareth -- in Greek. That, she said, proves the text could not be of medieval origin because no Christian at the time, even a forger, would have mentioned Jesus without referring to his divinity. Failing to do so would risk branding the writer a heretic.

"Even someone intent on forging a relic would have had all the reasons to place the signs of divinity on this object," Frale said Friday. "Had we found 'Christ' or 'Son of God' we could have considered it a hoax, or a devotional inscription."

In another story, here, we read:

“I [Dr. Frale] know practically every facet of all the scientific examinations conducted on the Shroud in the last 20 years, including the famous Carbon-14 test which was used to proclaim to the world that the relic was nothing but a medieval forgery. I have also studied carefully the claims of those who have tried to reproduce a similar relic in their laboratories using the same means and equipment that a medieval scientist had at his disposal. They claim that the Shroud could easily have been produced in a medieval laboratory. I can confirm to you and your readers that these claims are outdated. The latest discoveries on the relic turn the tables on these sceptics, and reaffirm what tradition has always maintained, that is, that the famous linen cloth kept in Turin really did cover the body of a man who lived at the beginning of our era.”

Barbara Frale has committed her findings to a bulky, 392-page volume called La Sindone di Gesù Nazareno, which was recently published in Italy and which we hope will soon be translated into English.

This same piece, which includes an interview with Dr. Frale, goes on to report that

Barbara Frale is an engaging 39-year-old, fair-haired woman, and a highly qualified scientist. She is married to an engineer and has two very beautiful children. After graduating in Medieval Archaeology, she went on to specialise in Palaeography, Diplomatics and Archives Administration, and then in Greek Palaeography, and in 2000 obtained a PhD in Historical Research at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice. She has worked in important archives both in Italy and abroad, and for the last couple of years she is a historian on staff at the Vatican Secret Archives, where the world’s most important historical documents are kept.

In the interview, we read the following, which I find as intriguing as it is sober:

[Frale:] In 1994 research on the Shroud was taken up again as the shortcomings of the C-14 test came to light. Some French scientists stared examining the inscriptions discovered by Piero Ugolotti. Professor André Marion, who teaches at the Institut Superieur d’Optique d’Orsay in Paris, examined the Shroud with the aid of specific software capable of detecting old or ancient writings that are no longer visible to the naked eye. Now, right under the face he found the Greek word ‘HOY’ which could be interpreted as ‘IHOY’. This is the Greek translation of the Semitic original ‘Yeshua’, which stands for ‘Jesus’. This word, when placed next to the one deciphered by Marastoni, forms ‘IHOY NAZAPHNO’ that is ‘Jesus Nazarene’. Professor Marion also found other signs in Greek and Latin placed around the face, and published these findings on a scientific magazine. He then consulted with other specialists from the Sorbona University, who concluded that the inscriptions were from the first Christian centuries, perhaps even from before the third century after Christ.

Professor Marion’s studies were continued by other scientists, in particular by the French analyst Professor Thierry Castex, who was able to discern the fragment of a text with a central phrase, which could be translated as ‘we found’ or as ‘because found’. These words bring to mind the accusation which members of the Sanhedrin levelled against Jesus in the presence of Pontius Pilate, “We found this man perverting our nation…” (Luke 23:2).

Professor Castex sent me these words and asked for my opinion. I examined them carefully and then sough out the opinion of two renowned scholars of Hebrew. These inscriptions, along with the ones found by Professor Marion, really do give the impression of being the trace of an original document regarding the burial of a person called Jesus of Nazareth, which in the local idiom was ‘Yeshua Nazarani’.

My book is a long, detailed and meticulous study of those writings, and I have come to the conclusion that they lead us back to Jerusalem at the time of Emperor Tiberius, who reigned from AD 13 to 37. The inscriptions regard the burial of a man called Yeshua Nazarani. So my conclusion is that, from a historical point of view, there is a plethora of facts connecting the Shroud of Turin to the first thirty years of our era.

[Interviewer:] Are you therefore telling us that the Shroud of Turin really is the original linen cloth that covered the body of Jesus?

I am a scientist; it is not my task to determine if that linen cloth actually enveloped the body of the Son of God, if the blood stains on it really are those of the God-Man. My task is to study all the documents regarding the Shroud, to interpret them, to arrange them in systematic order, and then to draw logical conclusions from them.

On the Shroud of Turin there are words. If we find a tombstone on which the words Minucio Felice are inscribed, we say that that is the tombstone of Minucio Felice. On the Shroud we have found the words ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, so we are authorised, from a historical point of view, to conclude that that is the shroud of Jesus of Nazareth. Now, to determine if the Jesus of Nazareth that was enveloped in that Shroud is the same individual of whom the Gospels speak is beyond my task and competence as a historical scientist.

A brief article from the Knights Templar Vault, the author of which is ultimately skeptical of Frale's findings for now, writes:

In 1997 two French researchers, Marion and Courage, claimed to have discovered previously unseen characters on the surface of the Shroud of Turin, using certain image processing techniques. The letters did not make a whole lot of grammatical sense, and few were convinced that they really exist. In 2009, Barbara Frale published a book where she gave her own reading of these words. She also provided additional support for the theory that the Shroud was in the possession of the Knights Templar. Possibly this relic was the actual object that started the rumors about a mysterious "head" worshiped by the Templars.

As this post by the STB indicates, not all "Shroudies" are sold on Frale's findings, as the following excerpt from a Shroud-blog makes evident:

Frale claims she has "discovered" inscriptions on the Shroud that prove it is authentic. However, she is basing her conclusions on the work done by French researchers Marion and Courage (published in the late 1990′s) which made these same claims. Rather than submitting her work to a journal that could review and verify her research, she too, like Garlaschelli, is publishing her work in a commercial book (and only in Italian). In fact, the recent press coverage seems to be mainly designed to promote the sale of that book. Once again, we are seeing "science" reported by press releases rather than in the conventional scientific literature.

As for the Marion and Courage inscriptions themselves, these were carefully evaluated from a linguistic point of view in 1999 by Shroud scholar and language expert, Mark Guscin, who published his results in the British Society for the Turin Shroud (BSTS) Newsletter in November 1999. That article, titled, ‘The "Inscriptions" on the Shroud,’ was ultimately reprinted on this website and can still be found at this link:

In the end, Guscin concluded:

"So none of the inscriptions which some claim to be able to see make enough grammatical or historical sense. This in itself is enough to doubt their very existence on the cloth, but the clinching point was evident in the presentation of the work in the symposium at Nice (1997). The slides that Marion and Courage used showed the areas of the cloth where they could see the inscriptions, and then the various optical treatments they had subjected it to, and finally the inscriptions written in over where they were meant to be. They were only visible on these last slides. There was absolutely nothing visible on any of the other slides.

Finally, this piece provides nice large images of the incriptions in question, which must be read in conjunction with this site, as the latter provides detailed analysis (albeit in Italian) of and images of the inscriptions in the Shroud itself. Letters are clearly visible in the images in the Italian webpage, but STB's complaint is that the "raking" orthochromatic photographs taken by Enrie in 1931 were too harsh, or crude, and distorted the linen's 'contents' by making grays into falsely contrastive blacks and whites.

Nonetheless, I would point out that the same thing has occurred many times in the Shroud's history, namely, aspects of it have only become detectable with the advent or application of different technologies. The image of the corpse, for instance, really only became lucid in 1898 when the Shroud was photographed by Secundo Pia. This, combined with the high likelihood that the Shroud was folded up and seen only as a face, does away with the objection that there was no long-standing devotion to the Shroud as a burial cloth until many centuries after Christ's death. As the documentaries, Fabric of Time and The Real Face of Jesus, indicate, some of the richness of the Shroud has been literally invisible until our own day, when techniques like 3D imaging and holographic analysis give eyes to a world of Thomases. Even so, I side with the Church that the Shroud is neither an article nor a pillar of the Faith. But fair-minded skeptics are hard-pressed to deny its historical veracity as an authentic first-century burial shroud of a crucified man in Israel.

The highest and lowest forms of dignity…

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It is the highest form of virtue––charity––to accept others "just as they are." It is the lowest form of virtue––self-righteousness––to accept oneself "just as I am." The former grants a space of freedom and light in which the other person might be relaxed enough not to fall for self-righteousness. The latter grants oneself enough vacuous self-confidence that they only become the greatest challenge for others in showing charity.

–– Elliam Fakespeare

Monday, April 26, 2010

If we pity the Pandorans...

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The "moral" of Avatar is that scroogy, colonialist, secular, technocratic humankind should ultimately root for a more eco-friendly, more spiritual, more primitive society. If the Navi are seen as archetypes for what humans could be in their primal authenticity, why is their grasp of "deep natural religion" praised as "profoundly human" but something like Christianity is scorned as total bunkum?

MORE TO COME when I get a chance to sit down...

To build a fire...

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The book recently for my smallest students has been about the weather, so I've had the chance to further damage my vision by demonstrating "the power of the sun" with a magnifying glass and assorted petroleum-based objects. In one class, the game today was to say, "The sun makes fire," when I pointed to that picture. The other two pictures were to prompt "The sun is hot" and "The sun is toooo hot," but since two grammar patterns was too much for most of them in a game, the fire pattern devolved into "The sun is fire." Which got me thinking. The fire created by the beam through the magnifying glass really is the sun's heat. It is a way of concentrating the literal flames of the sun into a small enough space to ignite what would ignite at much closer distance to the sun. But my quandary is this: which flames of the sun are actually causing the ignition under the magnifying glass? It's not the flames erupting "right now" as I hold the glass, since the energy from those flames won't reach earth (and my lens) until eight minutes later. But if it is the flames from eight minutes before, can we really say those flames were emitted in order to create a small ignition on earth in a kindergarten playground? My point is that at the time they erupted from the sun, the solar rays which eventually started my little fire did not have as one of their causal functions (or causal ends) "to ignite waxy paper 93,000,000 miles away." At the time those rays left the sun, they lacked the causal power to ignite the paper under my lens, since the paper and the left wouldn't be in hand in the sunlight at that time. The lens and paper would only be ready for ignition eight minutes after the rays began their flight. And yet clearly it is nothing less than those rays which cause the ignition on earth. So the question is, how large is the sun? It seems that it's causal powers extend well beyond its 'immediate' solar dimensions (qua "the sun"), since its energy causes ignitions eight minutes away in spacetime.

I intend to write more about this when I get a chance to sit down, but my main concerns for the moment are 1) in what spatiotemporal frame of reference should we consider the rays as they pass through the lens, 2) in what spatiotemporal frame of reference should we quantify the sun, and 3) how should we understand the causal powers of solar rays if they can assume unpredicted new powers outside their own spatiotemporal so to speak frame of existence? At the moment the rays were emitted, there was no way an observer could really say they 'contained' the power to ignite Teacher E's waxy paper on earth, since, at that time, the waxy paper etc. were not 'there' to 'participate in' the solar rays' causal impact.

Maidens, dukes, kings, and queens...

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The rise in combined spouse names (e.g., a married Susan Harris is not "Susan Parker" but "Susan Harris Parker") strikes me as reminiscent of the feudal practice of combining estates by marriage, as in Gwendolyn of Farlough becoming Lady Gwendolyn of Magdeshire. The difference now is that the combined names are like tiny flags planted in estates the size of two people. The more profoundly individualized our society continues to be, the less secure people-- mainly women-- will feel in "losing their identity" in marriage. Is marriage just a small corporate merger?

A lion and a liar…

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The nice thing about meeting a lion as compared to a liar is that with the lion at least you know which end the shit comes out of.

–– Elliam Fakespeare

Imaginary friends?

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You are worried your child spends too much time talking to imaginary friends?


Well, stop letting him use Facebook.


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I was privileged to attend a private piano recital at the house of a very devout Catholic family tonight. One of the pieces played was Mozart's Fantasia in D Minor (K.397), now one of my favorite pieces. I think I was spoiled (biased?) in one sitting, but the following performance captures some of how good the performance was tonight. Any performance that reaches six minutes is too long/slow, methinks.

My new blog…

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Borders Without Borders


Sunday, April 25, 2010

Peter Whitson done good…

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The following is an excerpt from a report card for Peter Whitson, a seventh-grader in the United States, written by his English teacher, Mrs. Claren:

"I'm very pleased with Peter's progress this semester. He has demonstrated a clear grasp of analogy. He can make clear connections between different areas of knowledge and even link different levels of experience. Also, he has led the class in our 'mind-mapping' activities. When I show the class seemingly random pictures and words, Peter regularly shows how they link up in intelligible ways. He has had some trouble with expressing values but clearly recognizes a 'hierarchy' in the world, such as when we discuss new stories from different cultures. He seems very comfortable with abstract concepts, and can 'interact' with things well beyond his immediate experience. He's got a bright future ahead of him if he keeps it up."

Now here is an excerpt from Mrs. Claren's comments about Harold Morgan, who happens to be mildly autistic:

"As we have discussed before, Harold has done as well as we can expect, given his different needs in class. I'm glad to see he's interacting more with classmates this semester. But he still has trouble with analogy. When he sees one object in one category, he hasn't quite made the leap to seeing how it can function as something in another arena. But, again, you know this as well as I do. I think he has a chance for real progress in free association activities (mind-mapping) but he'll need lots of stimulation at home. If Harold can be encouraged to look for 'links', I think he can overcome his… distaste for making such links. More than once, though, he has flatly refused to admit how one series of facts even possibly leads to another larger set of ideas. I think some extra modal grammar exercises might help, but I'd love to hear from you your own thoughts."

Now, transpose Peter into a theist and Harold into an atheist.

! and ?

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God is the ! that makes a ? of the world. He is the Absolute Fact which puts into question the stability and self-ness (自然) of Nature (大自然). I might, thus, symbolize divine aseity as !. God is the inexpressible mystery of Being which asserts its own richness like an eternal ! and leaves a taste of ? in the metaphysical mouth. Conversely, the world is the inescapable ? which makes clear God's own ! status.

Yet, a strange conversion can take place. The more accessible, reliable, absolute, and mundane the world seems––the more it seems to be the only ! worth noting––, the more God resembles a ?. This is naturalism. The world just is! The more, however, we ponder the ?-shape of the world––its random particularities and unpredictable joys––, the more we are drawn to ponder a reality devoid ?, full of !. The ultimate irony, though, is that once the mind grasps how ! God is, the more His ! becomes shrouded in ?, for something so inexhaustibly ! is itself a kind of ultimate ?.

God is the mirror in which both He sees Himself and the world sees itself qua world.

Pan your plans…

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What's my plan?

Why should I have a plan?

Even if I do (and I 'do'), what good does it do me if things change and I can't fulfill the plan?

Why is "having plans" a superior way to live?

Because it typically leads to frustration, resentment, and despair when those plans don't work out?

Because it clouds the mind with hypotheticals that blind you to the needs of others around you?

Or because it gives a person an air of confidence, a certain unnameable 'edge' over others, in a world of constant change and predictable unpredictability?

Did you really plan to be where you are right now? Did you plan to have the exact, concrete children you have, or the spouse you have, or the car you have? Or, conversely, did you plan not to have any of those things you lack?

Knowledge unknown…

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Is it really knowledge if you don't know that you know it?

What is the capitol of Minnesota?

I don't know, and yet, a couple names spring to mind. If the one I select happens to be correct, do I in fact know the capitol of Minnesota?

It is 'in' my "memory banks", is conceptually and linguistically intelligible to me, and is ex hypothesi correct. What other features does 'knowledge' require? Certainty, a feeling of certainty?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


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On Facebook a friend of mine recently lamented how people rely too much on publica health care, without taking their own health in their hands. He notes that his complaint it not just a spectator's griping, but a sort of testimony from his own experience. In the past few years he has shed 40 pounds and become a fairly competitive long-distance runner. The problem he's lamenting is what I call "healthcaritis". Healthcaritis disproportionately afflicts citizens with socialized health care. If you know the government picks up most of the tab, it's awfully tempting to go see the doctor for the slightest discomfort. Nothing better do on hot summer days? Go visit a clinic, enjoy the AC, and walk away with cheap, new meds!

I was reading a little of Zhuangzi last night and his chapter on "Mastering Life" (達生) struck me as an oblique echo of the "healthcaritis" worries had by my friend. The title of this post is 悲夫! (beifu2), which means, "A pity, no?" or "Alas!" or "Isn't it sad?" (夫 is read as fu2 in 文言文 and is akin to 岂 qi3 or 吧 ba, all of which signal a rhetorical question or an implicit affirmation.) I will cite the Chinese Text Project's (CTP) edition of Zhuangzi (which translates 達生 as "The Full Understanding of Life"):


He who understands the conditions of Life does not strive after what is of no use to life; and he who understands the conditions of Destiny does not strive after what is beyond the reach of knowledge. In nourishing the body it is necessary to have beforehand the things (appropriate to its support); but there are cases where there is a superabundance of such things, and yet the body is not nourished.

"物有餘而形不養者有之矣 (There are cases where there is a superabundance of such things, and yet the body is not nourished)。" The most medically well groomed people can sometimes be the least healthy. A strange truth, but there it is. If "visiting the doctor" and "taking medicine" were enough for "good health," then medicine should have put itself out of business long ago. 悲夫! To continue citing Zhuangzi: 


In order to have life it is necessary that it do not have left the body; but there are cases when the body has not been left by it, and yet the life has perished. When life comes, it cannot be declined; when it goes, it cannot be detained. Alas! the men of the world think that to nourish the body is sufficient to preserve life; and when such nourishment is not sufficient to preserve the life, what can be done in the world that will be sufficient? Though (all that men can do) will be insufficient, yet there are things which they feel they ought to do, and they do not try to avoid doing them.

Reading further, what catches my eye most are words following the above citation:

悲夫!世之人以為養形足以存生,而養形果不足以存生,則世奚足為哉!雖不足為而不可不為者,其為不免矣。 夫欲免為形者,莫如棄世。棄世則無累,無累則正平,正平則與彼更生,更生則幾矣。

Here is a translation of this excerpt by Burton Watson (c/o

How pitiful the men of the world, who think that simply nourishing the body is enough to preserve life! But if nourishing the body is in the end not enough to preserve life, then why is what the world does worth doing? It may not be worth doing, and yet it cannot be left undone - this is unavoidable. He who wants to avoid doing anything for his body had best abandon the world. By abandoning the world, he can be without entanglements. Being without entanglements, he can be upright and calm. Being upright and calm, he can be born again with others. Being born again, he can come close [to the Way].

Here it is from the CTP:

Alas! the men of the world think that to nourish the body is sufficient to preserve life; and when such nourishment is not sufficient to preserve the life, what can be done in the world that will be sufficient? Though (all that men can do) will be insufficient, yet there are things which they feel they ought to do, and they do not try to avoid doing them. For those who wish to avoid caring for the body, their best plan is to abandon the world. Abandoning the world, they are free from its entanglements. Free from its entanglements, their (minds) are correct and their (temperament) is equable. Thus correct and equable, they succeed in securing a renewal of life, as some have done. In securing a renewal of life, they are not far from the True (Secret of their being).

Feeling old? Feeling tired? That's your body saying, "What have you done for me lately?" But as Zhuangzi reminds us, it is equally important to ask oneself if one is feeling cynical, or beset with anxiety. That's your soul saying, "What have you done for the Good One lately?" To touch the Way, the very Secret of one's own Being. Is there anything more noble, and yet more challening? Readers of FCA may have noticed that one of the quotations at the top of the page is from St. Irenaeus, "For the glory of God is a living man; and the life of man consists in beholding God." I suspect Zhuangzi would agree.


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Well, perhaps it's not too suprising, but the more I learn about classical Chinese (wenyanwen 文言文), the more I like it! I say this is not too surprising because, a) I'm a bit of a polymath (sans the savant ability or a genius faculty), so nearly everything interests me, and b) I take it to be a basic metaphysical truth that knowledge of the real stokes love for the real. An old Latin adage (are there any new Latin adages, I wonder?) has it that "nihil amatum nisi prius cognitum" (nothing is loved without first being known). My boss in my first year of university insisted, perhaps in vain to freshman undergrads, that some things seem boring because of our ignorance of them. He was "an atheist ... [pause] for aesthetic reasons" but still acknowledged this deep metaphysical truth: to encounter the real is to encounter the good, and to encounter the good is to love it. The more a thing 'is', therefore, the more it merits our humble adoration, just as the ocean merits fearful infatuation more than a kiddy pool does.

In any case, I think my character makes it easy for me to love what I learn and keep learning what I love. In my usual fashion, I am picking through various resources on 文言文 and even with a rudimentary grasp of some high-frequency words and core function words [基本虚词] (e.g., 乎,也,夫,于,与,etc.), I am finding 文言文 much less inscrutable, dare I say a hair scrutable?

So let me refer you to a brief post at 无不为 about "an ambiguity in Confucius" and another brief post there about 也,也者,and 者也。 I am not competent to make a decision about the ambiguity in Confucius, but I do find Daan's reading more coherent. As for the differences between 也,也者,and 者也, I have a hunch which can only possibly claim a Zen-ish value as coming from a "beginner's mind." I have had Daan's question about these three phrases on my mind ever since I saw the post a couple weeks ago, so my feelers have been out for them in any Chinese I read. While I was reading the third or fourth chapter of Pulleybank's Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar earlier this week, I noticed he said 也 can sometimes be used as an adverbial marker of continuation. (I will have to provide specific citations if and when I find them later at home.) I also notice he says some words appear frequently in some authors and almost never in others, the difference being based on dialects. My hunch is that instances of 也,也者,and 者也 must be parsed as either i) suggesting a sustained or, perhaps, especially emphatic belief or description of a state of affairs, or ii) simply reflections of ancient phonology in the author's (and readership's) respective dialects. But again, I am far too incompetent to offer more than this hunchwork.

In any case, for my pleasure and perhaps for the good of some equally novice learners, I would like to explain the title of this post: 來!予與爾言。 It comes from the passage Daan cites (at the Chinese Text Project website) for the ambiguity in Confucius. 來!-- a request for someone to come. 予 yu2 -- I, me. 與 yu3 -- with or to. 爾 er3 -- you (thou). 言 yan2 -- speak or talk. Literally, "來!予與爾言" says, "Come! I with/to thou speak," and means, "Come, let me speak with you!"

I would like to point out, however, that the CTP note for 予 explains it as yu2 and meaning "I, me," but I was inclined to read it as yu3 meaning "to give, bestow." For example, yu3 is part of 給予 gei3yu3, which means give/grant, and 准予 zhun3yu3, meaning grant/allow. (So much for Mandarin helping me with 文言文!) Even so, the only reference for 予 in the index of Pulleybank's Outline write it as yu3. So which is it, yu2 or yu3? If it is yu3, 予與爾言 does not exactly roll off the tongue as far as the tones go (yu3 yu3 er3 yan2), though I'm sure it sounded more mellifluous in Ancient Chinese phonology.

You might notice I sometimes use simplified characters 简体字, even though I have learned traditional (or standard) characters 繁体字 all this time in Taiwan (and don't much like simplified characters). This is because it's just too slow for me to peck at 注音符号 Zhu4yin Fu2hao4 on the office computers I can use, so I have activated 汉语拼音 Han4yu3 Pinyin for their keyboards (tee hee hee, aren't I sneaky?). That way I can actually get some blogging done about Chinese now and then. Depending how I feel, I might convert simplified characters into standard characters. It's nice to know standard texts in 文言文 all use 繁体字!

The pig says...

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The child says...

Teacher E.: "Who likes juice?"

Various Students: "I like juice!"

Max: "I don't like Jews!"

+ + +

Teacher E.: "What's this?"

Various Students: "Cut!"

T.E.: "Well, no, this is SLICE." (rubs blade of hand along palm in a slicing motion) "SLICE."

V.S.: "Sly!"


V.S.: "Slice!"

T.E.: "Slice!"

V.S.: "Slice!"

T.E.: "And this?" (chops blade of hand into other palm) "This is CUT."

V.S.: "Cut!"

T.E.: "Good! Slice."

V.S.: "Slice!"

T.E.: "Cut."

V.S.: "Cut!"

T.E.: "Slice!"

Erin: "Teacher, look, slice!" (rubs blade of hand down crotch along zipper) "Slice go bye bye!"

T.E.: "No, don't slice that. Not in this culture."

+ + +

Teacher E.: "Erin, stop playing with her hair. She's not a toy. ... Even though her name is Barbie."

Monday, April 19, 2010

Seek the good, the beautiful...

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It is often claimed that, among the many cognitive flaws in ordinary human cognition, the confirmation bias is the most insidiously pro-religious. "You find what you're looking for" is a pithy way of debunking religious argumentation, since, presumably, a believer sets out with a notion of a good God and, lo and behold, finds evidence for Him... despite the actual evidence. Leaving aside the fact that this argument cuts both ways (viz., cognitive dissonance can be as falsely illuminating as it can be blinding), I would like to suggest that God, as the Good One, the very ground of all that Is, is found in a way akin to how we find beauty in our daily lives. As such, the confirmation-bias argument does not cut as much ice against theism as it might seem prima facie.

The older we get, the easier it is to find the world boring, which is largely why the older we get, the more boring we ourselves become. We've seen a thousand roses a thousand times, so there is no thrilling novelty in the next one we see. Likewise, especially with the expansion of "data absoprtion" via the Internet in our day, we have seen nearly everything, so nothing thrills us with its novelty. We suffer from epistemological gout. The world is so well known by us now that it is actually a very boring place for many people. This accounts, for instance, for the numerous cases of "Avatar blues" that befell viewers after seeing Avatar--and seeing how poorly our own all-too-mundane world compared to the primal beauty of the film. If we do not keep our eyes open, we will progressively lose sight of how beautiful the world really is. As Platonic thought has long held, Being is a (convertible) form of Beauty, both of which are (convertible) forms of Good. In a sense, all that Christianity adds to this worldview (aside from a rare respect for manual labor and a more 'terrestrial' anthropology) is a name for the Good ("God") and a face for the Beautiful (Christ manifest in the Eucharist).

The more a person seeks beauty in the world, the more she finds it. Why be ashamed to admit it? She must develop an "eye for beauty," as a wine taster and art critic must learn how to taste and how to see in ways the normal eye cannot appreciate. Here is a clear case of confirmation bias--I set out to find beauty and I find it!--yet I doubt this proves the unreality of beauty. If beauty is not falsified by aesthetic taste, why is God falsified by metaphysical wonder? "Objectively," nothing is beautiful, since objects do not behold anything. The 'objective' argument against theism is even less compelling, since God is not an 'object' in a world of differently sized objects. Rather, He is the very basis for there beings Objects, that is, entities subsistently beheld by a Subject. In any case, who says we live in a "purely objective" world? It is precisely by being committed to the value and enduring existence of beauty that the "metaphysical aesthete" discovers progressively more and stronger 'evidence' for the existence of beauty. So it is with God.

Let us be blunt, and biblical: He is seen by those who wish to see Him; He is present to those who admit and desire His presence. By contrast, He is as inscrutable and as boring to the secular eye as a Rembrandt painting might be to an infant. To argue against beauty on the grounds that those who see it "only see it because they choose to see it," is not to argue against beauty: it is rather to admit oneself cannot see the beautiful. Likewise, to argue against theism on the grounds that believers "find God because they want to," is not to argue against theism; it is simply to admit one's own lack of faith, one's poor vision in the world we inhabit.

Risky bidness...

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The Fortune Cookie 500
Why business execs love to quote Chinese proverbs.
By Daniel Gross
Posted at Wednesday, July 5, 2006, at 3:59 PM ET

Okay, this story is nearly four years old, but still worth a look. For a Sinophile, at least.

Type A types are invoking Chinese proverbs far beyond the rarefied air of Aspen. It's hard to get through any mass gathering these days—an annual meeting, a corporate offsite, a nursery-school graduation—without being exposed to some timeless wisdom from the Middle Kingdom, such as: "As the Chinese blessing/curse goes, 'May you live in interesting times.' " Many a conference call or CNBC interview begins—especially when the company has screwed up royally—with a variant on the chestnut that "in Chinese, the character for crisis is the same as the character for opportunity." ...

Today, many executives quote Sun Tzu and Lao Tzu for the same reason they started exchanging their bespoke suits for business-casual khakis: They have to show that they're with it. China represents the future and is the locus of immense growth. Casually tossing Chinese proverbs into conversation shows that you're down with the latest trends, even if you haven't (yet) relocated your manufacturing capacity to Shenzhen. ...

Of course, Westerners frequently get it wrong when they try to translate Chinese homilies for their audiences. (Unlike most of our manufactured products, the "interesting times" proverb may not be of Chinese origin.) And as David Li, a Harvard-trained economist who teaches at Beijing's Tsinghua University, told me, it's more accurate to say that the Chinese word for crisis is actually two characters, and opportunity is one of them. (University of Pennsylvania Chinese expert Victor Mair rubbishes the whole idea here.)

I cited Dr. Mair in my recent post about learning Chinese. Here are some excerpts from his essay debunking the crisis/opportunity notion. (Note that, as a rule, I avoid using the word "meme" as strenuously as I can.)

There is a widespread public misperception, particularly among the New Age sector, that the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of elements that signify “danger” and “opportunity.” I first encountered this curious specimen of alleged oriental wisdom about ten years ago at an altitude of 35,000 feet sitting next to an American executive. He was intently studying a bound volume that had adopted this notorious formulation as the basic premise of its method for making increased profits even when the market is falling. ...

The explication of the Chinese word for crisis as made up of two components signifying danger and opportunity is due partly to wishful thinking, but mainly to a fundamental misunderstanding about how terms are formed in Mandarin and other Sinitic languages. ...

Among the most egregious of the radical errors in this statement is the use of the exotic term “Ideogram” to refer to Chinese characters. Linguists and writing theorists avoid “ideogram” as a descriptive referent for hanzi (Mandarin) / kanji (Japanese) / hanja (Korean) because only an exceedingly small proportion of them actually convey ideas directly through their shapes. (For similar reasons, the same caveat holds for another frequently encountered label, pictogram.) It is far better to refer to the hanzi / kanji / hanja as logographs, sinographs, hanograms, tetragraphs (from their square shapes [i.e., as fangkuaizi]), morphosyllabographs, etc., or — since most of those renditions may strike the average reader as unduly arcane or clunky — simply as characters. ...

The jī of wēijī, in fact, means something like “incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes).” Thus, a wēijī is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry. A wēijī indicates a perilous situation when one should be especially wary. It is not a juncture when one goes looking for advantages and benefits. ...

To be specific in the matter under investigation, jī added to huì (“occasion”) creates the Mandarin word for “opportunity” (jīhuì), but by itself jī does not mean “opportunity.”...

Perhaps it would be worthwhile to offer [an] example from English that is closer to our Chinese word wēijī (“crisis”). Let’s take the –ity component of “opportunity,” “calamity” (“calamity” has a complicated etymology; see the Oxford English Dictionary, Barnhart, etc.), “felicity,” “cordiality,” “hostility,” and so forth. This –ity is a suffix that is used to form abstract nouns expressing state, quality, or condition. The words that it helps to form have a vast range of meanings, some of which are completely contradictory. Similarly the –jī of wēijī by itself does not mean the same thing as wēijī (“crisis”), jīhuì (“opportunity”), and so forth. The signification of jī changes according to the environment in which it occurs.

The nature of this troublesome word will be much better understood if it is pointed out that, in Mandarin morphology, morphemes are divided into “bound” and “free” types. “Bound” morphemes can only occur in combination with other morphemes, whereas “free” morphemes can occur individually.

It just so happens that, in the real world of Mandarin word formation, wei and ji are both bound morphemes. They cannot occur independently. Just as the syllable/morphemes cri- and -sis that go together to make up the English word “crisis” cannot exist independently in an English sentence, so too wēi and jī cannot exist by themselves in a Mandarin sentence. They can only occur when combined with other word-forming elements, hence fēijī (“airplane”), jīhuì (“chance, opportunity”), wēixiǎn (“danger”), wēijī (“crisis”), and so forth. ...

My only memory of seeing wēijī deployed to say "the Chinese word for crisis is the same word for opportunity," comes from a foggy and deeply perplexed viewing of Naked Lunch. I have a hunch that is whence the notion got its greatest boost in pop-consciousness.


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某女找尋配偶, 上網搜尋:




女不服 再搜:
















Friday, April 16, 2010

Not a finger!

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This is pretty neat (even if it is orated by a computer).

Why the fourth finger for the wedding ring?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Dreams of iron and invisible rainbows...

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As I may have mentioned before, I don't often dream (as in, sigh, I almost never 'remember' the phenomenal features of neural activity during sleep), but I did want to record just a few recollections from the past few weeks.

Last night I had a dream of violence and anger. I was a surveyor, or maybe a pollster, making rounds to collect data about... well, something. Maybe even doing some recon for making a movie. Hazy. Anyway, I entered a large round-shaped restaurant, nealy all windows, around lunchtime. Despite how luminous and airy it was, the many struts of the building throbbed with a foreboding, iron heaviness. I made my way into the central kitchen/office, where the much of the staff--apparently the owner and some of his kids and friends--were eating and chatting happily. I began to make my inquiry but then felt an increasingly alarmed intuition. Something was not right here. I can't recall if it was the sense that this owner, a large man in a baby-blue two-button shortsleeve shirt, was ominous as a (sexual?) threat to his own children, or if I just previsaged he was an irascible figure to be reckoned with in my own life. As soon as I began speaking, he jeered at me, and led the others on to tease me for my task. I got irritated and told him he could at least be courteous, I wasn't asking for much. Rather than get angry, I pursed my lips and backed down. I told him I would come back to finish my task no matter what he did ("I'll be back"?). For I had been sent by a powerful agency (a movie studio?) and my cog-like role in their endeavor was bigger than him or me; his jeering would not stop me because not even I could stop myself from fulfilling the agency's mission. So I walked outside and headed back to the agency. Apparently, though, this stoic retreat galled the owner, who, I suppose, wanted to show off for his family and friends how macho he was. He followed me out, calling me to stop, to come back and finish it. I kept going. I was just stepping off of the large lawn in front of the restaurant when he finally shouted enough to get me to come back. I realized I should do something to vanquish this oaf and then get on with my task elsewhere, then return when he might be moe compliant. So I turned back and approached him on the lawn. He was smirking, anticipating the tussle to come. I warned him that I was stronger than he realized and he should not go through with this, as it would only embarrass him and slow everything down. Yet he persisted and I decided I might as well really show him up. So I raised my sleeves and opened my collar, approaching him in a stalking judo stance. He was very big, and obviously strong, but I felt a primal confidence in my ability and in my mandate in the field. We locked arms and I quickly brought him to the ground. I then pinned him facedown by locking his arm lengthwise against his neck and face, taking a few heel shots at his belly and rib cage to subdue him. After a few minutes he surrendered and I released him. He was angry but knew not to try attacking me again. He wiped grass from his hair and shirt and made a lot of threatening words about me coming back. I told him I had to come back, so hopefully he would cooperate.

Analysis? I don't always like to think my dreams--the ones I 'remember'--are products of that day's immediate sensations and experiences, since I believe this is too simplistic. After all, if dreams really do stir up our subconscious, who's to say dreams don't express old and obscure data that have nothing to do with the day's experiences? Basically, I think we should be trepidatious about 'interpreting' our dreams and leave a very broad range of contextual options open to their meaning as we reflect on them for a while. That's the only view of dreams that justifies treating them as significant insights into ourselves. For if dreams really are just the backwash from each day's sensory input, why should we be fascinated by them as signs about our larger lives?

Nonetheless, I grant that many details in my 'dremories' stem directly from the day's experiences. For instance, last night I was (wonder of wonders!) studying Chinese, making a few more note cards, and at one point I was reading an entry about three easily confused fo2 words. (This was in a fascinating Analytical Dictionary of Lexical Differences [my own translation for the Mandarin title, which I might add to this post when I get on my Macbook] which I came across not too long ago.) One of the uses of fo2 is in the phrase "to raise one's sleeves and go" []**, which is one of my favorite Chinese idioms, not only because it hearkens to a time when people wore long-sleeve robes, but also because it is so dramatic, sort of like snapping one's lapels or one's shirt collar and storming out in a huff. Presumably this phrase triggered my dreaming about rolling up my sleeves to fight the oaf. I was also listening to some De La Soul last night, and "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa Claus" from De La Soul is Dead always grabs me. It's a song about a sexually abusive father and his daughter, Millie. Clearly, this could have figured into my intuition about the oaf's malfeasance.

Another element which I think figured into the dream, is how distorted my sense of physical strength has become by teaching small children. No matter how many times you do it, there's still someting uncanny about 'being able to lift a person' or seeing their hands deflected so easily when being playful, or seeing how ineffectually they try to pry an object from just a few clenched fingers. What I mean is that, to the brain, it must be slightly incongruous to combine "attack" and "defend" impulses with such comically tiny sensory input. I remind myself I'm "not actually that strong" just because I can lift kids up or hold crayons from them. And yet... it also sometimes dawns on me just how strong I am that I can lift kid after kid over my head, and so on. Just yesterday, to be exact, I had swung one kid past me as she jumped up for a hug/attack and I was stunned to realize my stomach was like an iron board. I know it sounds silly and I'm not trying to boast--I well realize how vastly weaker I am than many truly strong people--but I think what appeals to me about gongfu is how it trains one in meekness, or "strength under wraps." So even though I exercise regularly and am stronger than people usually perceive, I enjoy the feeling of restraining my power with children. Maybe that is what surfaced in the dream: a chance to "flex" my strength for real with an opponent rather than just with my weights and ropes. (I guess I need to get back into judo!)

As for the dream's larger significance, I think it conveys something of my inner determination to overcome some obstacles I have faced in the past year and more. I have great confidence in my 'mandate' to overcome them and 'redeem the past' but I also realize how hostile and tiresome the terrain ahead is. It would take me more time than I have right now to list all the sources of inspiration I've catalogued within to inspire me to "Never Give Up" and the like. Suffice to say that in my "heart of hearts" I, apparently, have no other choice than to give everything I can to resolving and restoring what I value most, conflicted though it may be.


Another dream I had, weeks ago, was about me pulling into a gigantic parking lot at a restaurant at the foot of some small mountains in central Taiwan. It was a rustic teahouse-style restaurant, with a basement section for cooler, quieter eating, an open ground floor level with the grass prairie, and a second floor looking out at the creek cutting through the valley. I exited the car and inhaled the crisp air as I beheld the mountains. Then I made my way into the restaurant. I can't rememeber if I was with someone, whom I'll call Esther, or if she was already inside with her family. In any case, I met them at their table on the ground floor. It was about 11 AM and the sunlight was dully fluorescent due to the fog and tree cover. Very vital and serene. This Esther's brothers and parents were already perusing the menu when I joined them, and we exchanged warm greetings. I wasn't sure where Esther had come from, but all of us were very happy. Not a lot of talking, which is part of why things were so amicable. Acceptance. A peace without words. "That's what was missing all along," I said to myself (my dream-self to my sleeping-self?). "This is how it could have been. This is how it still could be. So simple. Why didn't I see it before?" While I was thinking all this to myself, Esther and her family had finished eating, so they got up and went out to ride their bikes in the mountains. I bid them farewell and was left to myself. I made my way outside and breathed deeply as I beheld the scenery again. "This is good and it should be." Alas, while it was a rainbow that had always glimmered there, I had never seen with my waking eyes. Or maybe once.

I have heard the big music
And I'll never be the same
Something so pure
Just called my name
I have drowned in the big sea
Now I find I'm still alive
And I'm comin' up for ever
Shadows all behind me
Ecstasy to come
I have
Climbed the big tree
Touched the big sky
I just stuck my hand up in the air
And everything came into colour
Like Jazz Manna
from sweet sweet chariots
I have seen the big mountain
And I swear I'm half way there
(You'll never get there, you'll never get there,
You'll never get there)
But I will
I will always climb the mountain
I have heard the big music
And I'll never be the same
Something so pure
Has called

Monday, April 12, 2010

Being Catholic...

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Paradoxically, one of the hardest things about being a Catholic Christian is facing the immense grace of God. It's hard in one respect to be Catholic because you never have the luxury of writing people off, condemning them entirely to their sins. You are always hamstrung in the urge to "write people off" by the insidious, untiring grace of God, which you know never completely writes off anyone. It's hard in another way to be Catholic because you never have the luxury of resigning yourself to your own sins. You can never completely "let yourself go" since you know the insidious, untiring grace of God is never finished with you, will never let you alone. We are created in the image of the Triune God, and therefore our being is to be-with, to co-exist. There are no pure individual persons and grace--the very presence of God-as-given--is the way this fundamental ontology is strengthened and illuminated in time. To the Catholic eye, there is always a glimmer of hope in every intolerable person we meet, and always an echo of redemption in every consuming situation in which we find ourselves. No one is ever stuck being "the perfect asshole" we want to type-cast them as, and we are never stuck being "just who we are," for the fragrant, unseen figure of Christ always lurks to conform us, and them, to His own scarred beauty. Tragicomically, grace is the space in which we write ourselves off, the rope by which we either climb up or hang ourselves.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

"C'est du chinois..."

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I came across a short article in Facebook and it caused the tiniest of stirs so I thought it might be of interest to the 'larger' audience here at FCA.

Top 1 Because the writing system is ridiculous

Top 2 Because the language doesn't have the common sense to use an alphabet

Top 3 Because even looking up a word in the dictionary is complicated

Top 4 Because there's classical Chinese (wenyanwen)

Top 5 Because there are too many romanization methods and they all suck

Top 6 Because tonal languages are weird

Top 7 Because there is culture difference

A reader on another friend's page quipped, "中文難學的第8個原因,因為他沒在中文國家長大 [The 8th reason he finds it hard to learn Chinese is he didn't grow up in a Chinese-speaking country]." Clever, but I think the matter runs deeper than that, as I explained to a friend who asked me about the article, thus:

Chinese is harder than many other languages only if the student chooses to be literate in it. Speaking most dialects of Chinese is as easy as learning... well, as easy as learning any other language by ear and mouth. But the fact is, it takes YEARS of CONSTANT study to be able to READ IN CHINESE, which is something I think no other language requires. I've been studying Japanese for nearly two months and I can already at least "say" what I see in a text. Give me another year of study and then a year in Japan and I guarantee I will be at a level in Japanese that it took me four years to reach in Chinese. Part of my 'advantage' with Japanese, of course, is that I can already 'understand' many Japanese characters (kanji) based on my knowledge of Chinese characters (漢字 Hanzi). BTW, I'm not bragging about my (projected) ability in Japanese, since after 4 years of Chinese, I still wasn't at a very high level of literacy. I've only gotten really competent in the past two years or so. Classical Chinese is, however, a nightmare, about which I will have more to say later.

I think I discovered the original source for most of the Facebook piece's ideas, which is an essay by David Moser (then at the University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies), notoriously titled "Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard". Here are some choice lines:

Most Chinese people will cheerfully acknowledge that their language is hard, maybe the hardest on earth. ... Those who undertake to study the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. ... The beauty of the characters is indisputable, but as the Chinese people began to realize the importance of universal literacy, it became clear that these ideograms were sort of like bound feet -- some fetishists may have liked the way they looked, but they weren't too practical for daily use. ...

John DeFrancis, in his book The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, reports that his Chinese colleagues estimate it takes seven to eight years for a Mandarin speaker to learn to read and write three thousand characters, whereas his French and Spanish colleagues estimate that students in their respective countries achieve comparable levels in half that time. ...

The problem of reading is often a touchy one for those in the China field. How many of us would dare stand up in front of a group of colleagues and read a randomly-selected passage out loud? Yet inferiority complexes or fear of losing face causes many teachers and students to become unwitting cooperators in a kind of conspiracy of silence wherein everyone pretends that after four years of Chinese the diligent student should be whizzing through anything from Confucius to Lu Xun, pausing only occasionally to look up some pesky low-frequency character (in their Chinese-Chinese dictionary, of course). Others, of course, are more honest about the difficulties. The other day one of my fellow graduate students, someone who has been studying Chinese for ten years or more, said to me "My research is really hampered by the fact that I still just can't read Chinese. It takes me hours to get through two or three pages, and I can't skim to save my life." This would be an astonishing admission for a tenth-year student of, say, French literature, yet it is a comment I hear all the time among my peers....

A teacher of mine once told me of a game he and a colleague would sometimes play: The contest involved pulling a book at random from the shelves of the Chinese section of the Asia Library and then seeing who could be the first to figure out what the book was about. ...

After about a year of studying French, I was able to read a lot. I went through the usual kinds of novels.... At the end of three years of learning Chinese, I hadn't yet read a single complete novel. I found it just too hard, impossibly slow, and unrewarding. Newspapers, too, were still too daunting. I couldn't read an article without looking up about every tenth character, and it was not uncommon for me to scan the front page of the People's Daily and not be able to completely decipher a single headline. ...

Chinese people I know who have studied English for a few years can usually write with a handwriting style that is almost indistinguishable from that of the average American. Very few Americans, on the other hand, ever learn to produce a natural calligraphic hand in Chinese that resembles anything but that of an awkward Chinese third-grader. If there were nothing else hard about Chinese, the task of learning to write characters alone would put it in the rogues' gallery of hard-to-learn languages. ...

If there is no obvious semantic clue in the radical, and no helpful phonetic component somewhere in the character, you're just sunk. And you're sunk whether your native language is Chinese or not; contrary to popular myth, Chinese people are not born with the ability to memorize arbitrary squiggles. In fact, one of the most gratifying experiences a foreign student of Chinese can have is to see a native speaker come up a complete blank when called upon to write the characters for some relatively common word. ...

This is such a gratifying experience, in fact, that I have actually kept a list of characters that I have observed Chinese people forget how to write. (A sick, obsessive activity, I know.) I have seen highly literate Chinese people forget how to write certain characters in common words like "tin can", "knee", "screwdriver", "snap" (as in "to snap one's fingers"), "elbow", "ginger", "cushion", "firecracker", and so on. And when I say "forget", I mean that they often cannot even put the first stroke down on the paper. Can you imagine a well-educated native English speaker totally forgetting how to write a word like "knee" or "tin can"? Or even a rarely-seen word like "scabbard" or "ragamuffin"? ...

I remember when I had been studying Chinese very hard for about three years, I had an interesting experience. One day I happened to find a Spanish-language newspaper sitting on a seat next to me. I picked it up out of curiosity. "Hmm," I thought to myself. "I've never studied Spanish in my life. I wonder how much of this I can understand." At random I picked a short article about an airplane crash and started to read. I found I could basically glean, with some guesswork, most of the information from the article. The crash took place near Los Angeles. 186 people were killed. There were no survivors. The plane crashed just one minute after take-off. There was nothing on the flight recorder to indicate a critical situation, and the tower was unaware of any emergency. The plane had just been serviced three days before and no mechanical problems had been found. And so on. After finishing the article I had a sudden discouraging realization: Having never studied a day of Spanish, I could read a Spanish newspaper more easily than I could a Chinese newspaper after more than three years of studying Chinese. ...

One of the most unreasonably difficult things about learning Chinese is that merely learning how to look up a word in the dictionary is about the equivalent of an entire semester of secretarial school. ...

In Chinese there are spaces between characters, but it takes quite a lot of knowledge of the language and often some genuine sleuth work to tell where word boundaries lie; thus it's often trial and error to look up a word. It would be as if English were written thus:


If you think that after three or four years of study you'll be breezing through Confucius and Mencius in the way third-year French students at a comparable level are reading Diderot and Voltaire, you're sadly mistaken. There are some westerners who can comfortably read classical Chinese, but most of them have a lot of gray hair or at least tenure. ... It's truly embarrassing to be out at a Chinese restaurant, and someone asks you to translate some characters on a wall hanging. "Hey, you speak Chinese. What does this scroll say?" You look up and see that the characters are written in wenyan, and in incomprehensible "grass-style" calligraphy to boot. It might as well be an EKG readout of a dying heart patient.

Whereas modern Mandarin is merely perversely hard, classical Chinese is deliberately impossible. Here's a secret that sinologists won't tell you: A passage in classical Chinese can be understood only if you already know what the passage says in the first place. This is because classical Chinese really consists of several centuries of esoteric anecdotes and in-jokes written in a kind of terse, miserly code for dissemination among a small, elite group of intellectually-inbred bookworms who already knew the whole literature backwards and forwards, anyway. An uninitiated westerner can no more be expected to understand such writing than Confucius himself, if transported to the present, could understand the entries in the "personal" section of the classified ads that say things like: "Hndsm. SWGM, 24, 160, sks BGM or WGM for gentle S&M, mod. bndg., some lthr., twosm or threesm ok, have own equip., wheels, 988-8752 lv. mssg. on ans. mach., no weirdos please." ...

But where the real difficulty comes in is when you start to really use Chinese to express yourself. You suddenly find yourself straitjacketed -- when you say the sentence with the intonation that feels natural, the tones come out all wrong. For example, if you wish say something like "Hey, that's my water glass you're drinking out of!", and you follow your intonational instincts -- that is, to put a distinct falling tone on the first character of the word for "my" -- you will have said a kind of gibberish that may or may not be understood. ...

Those who have tackled other difficult languages have their own litany of horror stories, I'm sure. But I still feel reasonably confident in asserting that, for an average American, Chinese is significantly harder to learn than any of the other thirty or so major world languages that are usually studied formally at the university level (though Japanese in many ways comes close). Not too interesting for linguists, maybe, but something to consider if you've decided to better yourself by learning a foreign language, and you're thinking "Gee, Chinese looks kinda neat." ...

How much harder is Chinese? Again, I'll use French as my canonical "easy language". This is a very rough and intuitive estimate, but I would say that it takes about three times as long to reach a level of comfortable fluency in speaking, reading, and writing Chinese as it takes to reach a comparable level in French. An average American could probably become reasonably fluent in two Romance languages in the time it would take them to reach the same level in Chinese. ...

Someone once said that learning Chinese is "a five-year lesson in humility". I used to think this meant that at the end of five years you will have mastered Chinese and learned humility along the way. However, now having studied Chinese for over six years, I have concluded that actually the phrase means that after five years your Chinese will still be abysmal, but at least you will have thoroughly learned humility.

There is still the awe-inspiring fact that Chinese people manage to learn their own language very well. Perhaps they are like the gradeschool kids that Baroque performance groups recruit to sing Bach cantatas. The story goes that someone in the audience, amazed at hearing such youthful cherubs flawlessly singing Bach's uncompromisingly difficult vocal music, asks the choir director, "But how are they able to perform such difficult music?"

"Shh -- not so loud!" says the director, "If you don't tell them it's difficult, they never know."

Suffice to say that much--very much--of what Moser describes resonates deeply with my own experience. I will never forget the time I asked a Taiwanese colleague how to write "sock" and how she couldn't remember... and how she asked her mother how to write it... and how her mother likewise could not begin to write it. Sock! Nor shall I forget the early despair I felt at flipping through a Bible or a dictionary and not even being able to find a page number quickly, since I still was not totally fluent in Chinese numbers. Nor should I ever forget the slow but real shock I felt one day, about three years ago, when I realized I had spent my first three years in Taiwan virtually completely illiterate on the streets. By then I could read nearly everything I passed on my scooter or on foot, but again, for three years I had been basically illiterate in the country in which I lived and worked as a teacher and as a part-time missionary. And the truth is, the vast majority of foreigners living here are just as profoundly illiterate, sometimes even after a couple decades.

Now, all those woes are mostly past me--these days I earn money on the side by making Chinese-to-English translations, and I'm learning Japanese with Chinese textbooks--but the fact is, there are days I wonder just how many Chineses there are in Chinese and if having learned however 'many' Chineses I've learned realistically equips me for what's around the corner. Most computers in Taiwan have as their default home page, so when I open IE or Mozilla, I have a brief glimpse at the headlines. Even now, I find I've only got about a 60% success rate of "cracking" the headline even just for "the main idea." I've been told this is because much of the Yahoo News comes out of Hong Kong, and therefore uses a different style of Chinese, but this 'reassurance' only underscores the problem: for all the Chinese I've learned, have I really learned the "right" Chinese? It's no less common a problem when I watch TV news over dinner or waiting in a clinic. I can watch a two/ or three-minute story, which of course has spoken interviews and graphic visual aids, and yet I might still have no idea what the story is really saying.

The good news is that I have accumulated so many characters at this point that, if I encounter an unknown word, I can, often but not always, make a good guess at both how to pronounce the word and what it might basically mean. But again, I'm just guessing enough to hope to be able to look it up more easily when I get a chance. If you've never studied Chinese, you might not grasp why Moser (and I and others) make so much of the "dictionary problem." In 1986 the Sinologist Victor Mair wrote an essay [PDF LINK] about the need for phonetically arranged Chinese dictionaries. "It is a source of continual regret and embarrassment," Mair confesses,

that, in general, my colleagues in Chinese studies consult their dictionaries far less frequently than do those in other fields of area studies. ...

Incredibly, many Chinese scholars with advanced degrees do not even know how to locate items in supposedly standard reference works or do so only with the greatest reluctance and deliberation. For those who do make the effort, the number of hours wasted in looking up words in Chinese dictionaries and other reference tools is absolutely staggering. ...

It is generally acknowledged that a passive command of about 5,500 characters is sufficient for reading the overwhelming majority of literary texts. ...

Even the most highly literate Chinese scholars can almost never recognize more than 10,000 characters and the person who can accurately produce as many as 5,000 is exceedingly rare. ...

For someone who has been actively involved in Chinese studies over a period of ten or fifteen years, the process of looking up a word (let us say t'ing-tuan)in his battery of Chinese dictionaries goes something like this. As he stares fixedly at the graph t'ing, he cannot be totally sure whether the radical is "ear", "ten", "eye" on its side or maybe "net", "one", "heart", or "jade". He knows that the graph basically means "hear" so by all rights it should be listed under "ear". But he has been burned too many times before. ... Although his insecurity is excusable, he feels a little bit guilty about not looking under "ear" and has an impulse to do so but his eyes begin to glaze over as he contemplates all of the residual strokes he would have to count. Supposing he were to miss one?

Mair goes on for several more lines recounting how he jumps from one lexicon to the next trying to find what he dimly recalls is a defunct legal term. The problem Mair mentions is that of "radicals." Radicals are the 214 components of all Chinese words which, loosely, express the "logical" type of word it is [LINK]. Some of the more famous and lucid radicals are the heart, hand, water, wood, mouth, and fire radicals, which, respectively, crop up in words having to do with intentions/feelings, change/action, moisture/fluidity/motion, wood/construction/tools, speech, and energy/cooking. Here are some examples:

意 yi4 - meaning or will
推 tui - push
流 liu2 - flow, current
森 sen - wooded (and of course 森林 senlin2 tree forest)
烧 燒 shao - burn
吗 嗎 ma - question particle

After enough time you simply learn how to spot the radical (look at the left, top, and bottom of the character, and occasionally the right), so I do find Mair's anecdote a bit over-the-top. All the same, some words break the radical rules and go by a rogue radical, so you might just have to consult an index listed according to total number of strokes. Moreover, sometimes the word has no apparent "logical" connection to its radical, so the radical is like a "false cognate" in terms of remembering it. Even once you pinpoint the radical, you must then find it based on the remaining strokes in the character. In 意 you must flip to the heart-radical section, about a third of the pages in, and then to the section of heart-words with 9 additional strokes (here due to the five strokes in 立 and the four strokes in 日 above 心). Then, of course, you must note if the character is spoken in a variant way (known as the loathsome phenomenon of "broken-sound words").

Anyway, eventually you just submit and get used to the, ahem, radical problem in Chinese. But another problem lurks. Maybe your dictionaries of choice don't have the word you need. Maybe it's too obscure, or a variant form. Admittedly, once you find a couple solid dictionaries, after years of sifting and practice, this is only a frequent problem at very high levels of study and in attempting to learn classical Chinese (which is why Mair, a professional Sinologist, encounters the problem so often). Chinese simply has too many words which appear too rarely to be both clear to most (even native) readers and easily located in most dictionaries. As far as I know, the regnant 214-radical classification system was invented by the Kangxi Dictionary [Wiki LINK], published in 1716. I have also read that, aside from being riddled with errors, and having never been revised and reissued in three centuries, two-thirds of the Kangxi Zidian are now defunct. So much for being a useful reference work.

The radical that happens to be highlighted in red is nuu3, the "female" radical. See how she curtsies?

As I mentioned above, I have recently taken up the gauntlet (again?) of trying to make sense of classical, or literary, Chinese (文言文 wenyanwen). Ever after just a few days, however, I must admit I find the task perhaps decisively discouraging. I honestly don't know if, for now anyway, I care enough about "the Chinese classics" in "the original Chinese" to really attain competence in classical Chinese. Nevertheless, I should mention a distinction between 古文 guwen and 文言文 wenyanwen. The former is "ancient Chinese," as found in The Book of Odes, Laozi's Daodejing, the Analects of Confucius, and so on. The latter refers more to the compact, densely allusive style of Chinese which developed from ancient Chinese and which was commonly used into the 20th century. I am committed--like a mental patient?--to learning Chinese for the rest of my life, so I realize my grasp of 文言文 wenyanwen will improve gradually the more Chinese I read generally. SO I am heartened to realize learning 文言文 wenyanwen is mostly a matter of attaining a higher level of stylistic competence, not that of trudging through a vast, and vastly arcane, underworld of ancient Chinese civilization as found in 古文 guwen. As for 古文 guwen, I'm not decided yet if I want to be able to read ancient Chinese well enough "on my own," or if reading explanations and annotations in Mandarin 'translation' will suffice. I also have to admit, despite my intensely autodidactic character, that 古文 guwen might be the one aspect of Chinese for which I absolutely require a teacher and regular courses.

Let me give you a taste of 古文 guwen and you might see why it is so daunting. At a used bookstore the other day, I was looking for books about ancient Chinese grammar, or just a basic guidebook to 文言文 wenyanwen. I found a historical grammar of Chinese, which is appealing in its own dry, laborious way, but I also came upon a few old sheets of printed paper inside another book. (This sort of clandestine break is why bibliophiles love used bookstores.) They were bound like a leaflet but were pages 9–18 from an unknown book. I found no hint of a title or author's name, but the chapter is titled "怎麼提高古文斷句能力 (How to Raise Your Ability to Parse Ancient Chinese Sentences)". The ability to parse––or literally 斷 'break'––古文 guwen is known as 古文斷句 (gu3wen2 duan4ju4) and I will refer to it as 斷句 duanju.

Our unknown author, whom I shall affectionately call Gao Wen Li, says, "斷句能力是閱讀古書的基本功 [The ability to parse sentences is fundamental in reading ancient texts]." The problem with 古文 guwen, Gao explains, is that it lacks punctuation or very clear signs of where one string of words begins and another begins (rather like ancient Latin notoriously has no spaces between words). He admits this is a common obstacle for young readers, but reminds us that the young already 斷句 duanju when they recite some of the most famous poems from their youngest schooling. For example, Li Bai's "Night Thoughts" (夜思 [LINK for more!]) begins 窗前明月光, and is parsed as follows: 窗前•明月光. Famously, it means, "Light seen before the window," and segues into Li Bai's nostalgia for his home. The point is that only by breaking it between 前 and 明 (which means it is read with a pause after 前 [which is, of course, cutely ironic if you understand Chinese]), can we make any real sense of the string of characters. So, Gao is saying, while 斷句 duanju is difficult, even children can do it.

A couple pages later, however, Gao admits there can be valid disagreements about 斷句 duanju, even among qualified readers. He cites a line from the Historical Records 史記: 項籍少時學書不成去學劍又不成. Gao then notes how the China Bookstore's edition of the Historical Records parses the sentence like so: 項籍少時•學書不成•去學劍•又不成, whereas the edition published by Beijing University parses it differently, thus: 項籍少時•學書不成•去;學劍•又不成. (I will not waste my time or yours with a 'serious' attempt to translate this, but I think the gist is that if little time is given to the study of books, the study of war will also suffer. Or maybe it means that if things are arranged poorly, one will not grow through academic study, and neither will martial training help one.) This comparison is followed by a string of questions, about how the words were used in ancient time and so forth. Gao then provides a longer citation, this time from 莊子 Zhuangzi, and a detailed analysis of how to parse it as he does, none of which I will provide here.

However, on page 17 Gao provides one final quotation, and a parsing analysis, which I will reproduce, for no other reason than that it vividly displays how tragicomically recondite 古文 guwen can be. In a chapter of 孟子 Mengzi, we read the following:


[Personal anecdote: It just took me nearly ten minutes to enter 孰 the first time, since I couldn't guess its proper phoneme (shu2, it turns out), couldn't decide which radical under which to find it, and couldn't pick it out from a long list of other 11-stroke characters at this good online dictionary. My sympathies go out to Mair, and his to me, in a fresh way. {I have asked a number of native speakers about 孰 and they are also consistently beguiled by or diffident about its radical. Cue petty sense of vindication!}]

Gao notes how within only 50 or so characters, 樂 is used 30 times. He then ever so kindly explains that, as nearly all students of Chinese know, this 樂 is a dreaded 破音字 "broken-sound word", read either as yue4 or le4, and means either music or happy, respectively. He then explains that this dialogue which Mengzi is having with the king, is about whether listening to music 樂 by oneself makes for a greater or lesser happiness 樂 than listening to it with others. Here is how the dialogue is parsed on a webpage I happened to find via Google:

曰 :「王 之 好 樂 甚 , 則 齊 其 庶 幾 乎 ! 今 之 樂 猶 古 之 樂 也 .」 曰 :「可 得 聞 與 ?」 曰 :「獨 樂 樂 , 與 人 樂 樂 , 孰 樂 ?」 曰 :「 不 若 與 人 .」 曰 :「與 少 樂 樂 , 與 眾 樂 樂 , 孰 樂 ?」 曰 :「不 若 與 眾 .」

This is still all too clever and arcane for the beginner, but a good parsing makes it much less rebarbative. Well, a little less rebarbative.

On the bright side, one thing motivating me to really "crack" 文言文 wenyanwen is that ancient Japanese (known as kanbun 漢文 or "Han/Chinese writing") just is 文言文 wenyanwen. So perhaps my progress into Japanese and my grudging descent into 古文 guwen will reinforce each other and bring me to a happy middle position... about 30 years from now. In the meanwhile, I have discovered a wonderful blog discussing one man's progress in learning 古文 guwen, "Nothing Undone," and do intend to keep up with it as a slow but steady way of absorbing 古文 guwen at my own pace. (Lest I forget, I should add that the Kangxi Zidian is written in 文言文 wenyanwen, so even its explanations of obscure words are themselves grammatically obtuse to modern readers.)

Speaking of Japanese, let me cite Moser again to clarify why I think Japanese is so much easier, in terms of literacy, than Chinese. In a footnote to his essay, Moser says,

I'm aware that much of what I've said above applies to Japanese as well, but it seems clear that the burden placed on a learner of Japanese is much lighter because (a) the number of Chinese characters used in Japanese is "only" about 2,000 -- fewer by a factor of two or three compared to the number needed by the average literate Chinese reader; and (b) the Japanese have phonetic syllabaries (the hiragana and katakana characters), which are nearly 100% phonetically reliable and are in many ways easier to master than chaotic English orthography is.

It took me a few weeks to master hiragana and katakana, and this means I can sound out all words in basic Japanese texts which provide furigana (i.e., hiragana or katakana above or beside the character, as in children's books and some ads). It also means I can actually read and write actual Japanese words and grammatical structures based on learning them by ear-and-mouth. I can certainly enjoy the same benefit of phonetic "cheats" in Chinese children's books and the like (here in Taiwan they use Zhuyin Fuhao, normally inserted horizontally in tiny script next to each character), but for the most part writing what I want to say in Zhuyin would quickly be a dead end, since Mandarin has too many homophones, as I shall show presently. It's an open secret that the rise of computers has led to major declines in the written ability of native Chinese speakers in this generation. Not only will high-school and university students in Taiwan commonly resort to simplified (PRC) characters when the traditional character is to ornate, but also students in both Taiwan and China will often just write notes at high speed in Pinyin or Zhuyin, perhaps even in English, since keeping up with a spoken lecture whilst writing characters is more trouble than most people want. As Moser notes, Chinese is not just "difficult for foreigners"; it's just difficult.

(This level of nagging difficulty holds for Chinese and Japanese typewriters as well, as this humorous how-to explains. [Wiki LINK to Chinese typewriter and LINK to Japanese typewriter.] Here's another quick expose of the Chinese typewriter at Wired and a lush post about Japanese typewriters.)

Let me show you an "artifact" that might capture the paradoxical love-hate relationship Sinophiles have with Chinese. The following essay-story was written by 趙元任 Zhao Yuan Ren (1892-1982), a language prodigy and Chinese-American sociolinguist. It is titled "The Chronicle of the Lion-Eating Poet named Shi [in the Stone Den]" and is written 施氏食獅史 [施氏食狮史] in Chinese (traditional and [simplified] characters). (Wiki LINK] Nothing about it is so terribly remarkable--except, I guess, the idea of a lion-eating poet in a cave--until you hear it read aloud or, in this venue, see its phonetic transcription (in Hanyu Pinyin): "Shī Shì shí shī shǐ". That's right: all the words in the title are pronounced as common fricatives of varying tones. And it doesn't stop there. Here is the whole of the tale in Hanyu Pinyin:

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

Here are the characters:


You can hear it read aloud at Youtube here or here. Below is a .gif of the tale, followed by the web author's own translation.

A poet by the name of Shih Shih living in a stone den was fond of lions. As he had taken an oath to eat ten lions, he went out to the market every day at ten o'clock in order to look for lions. It was at the time when all of a sudden ten lions came to the market and also Shih Shih went to the market at once realizing [sic] these ten lions. Relying on his (bow and) arrows, he caused these ten lions to pass away. Shih picked up the corpses of these ten lions, and as he went to the stone den, the stone chamber was damp. Shih had the stone den wiped by his servant. As the stone den was cleaned, it was the time [sic] that Shih began trying to eat the meal of these ten lions' corpses and he began to realize that these ten dead lions in fact were ten stone lions' corpses and he tried to get rid of this matter.

A perfectly sensible, albeit far-fetched, tale, but one that is incomprehensible in spoken Mandarin, and perhaps only just comprehensible in other dialects, like Cantonese. It is an elaborate tongue twister but also something more, for it is a window to the fact that you simply cannot hope to comprehend Chinese, nor even make substantial progress in (spoken) Mandarin, without a grasp of Chinese characters. Hence, if you seriously desire competence in Chinese, I suggest you begin by memorizing the 214 radicals and going from there. The initial myopic labor will only serve you well down the road. Zhao's tale is a vivid sign for how a student of Chinese can both love the byzantine richness of the language and yet also loathe the archaic inscrutability of its written dimensions. It has taken me nearly seven years of study to be able to read Zhao's tale in the original Chinese (since he employs a number of obscure words and also uses 文言文 wenyanwen), much less find it winsome, but I can't imagine having it explained to me, in a detailed manner, based only on a grasp of phonetic Mandarin.

Reading all this, you might wonder why I persist. I thought about it last night. At this point, Chinese is not a "challenge" as much as a hobby, and not a "hobby" as much as simply a habit. I don't really see how I can stop learning Chinese. It is a part of me, and knowing that gives me the patience to keep chipping away at it, perhaps even down to the hoary caverns of 古文 guwen and Sino-Tibetan etymology.