“Actually, the Xiguo jifa was a disappointing book, for it proved useless for the many eager Chinese readers. In essence, this book of Western Mnemonics used spatial imagination for classifying Chinese characters: how these could be broken down according to radicals, sounds, and meanings for easier comprehension. His methods made sense only for students unfamiliar with the non-phonetic nature of Chinese, who needed a visual aid for breaking down and classifying the complex shapes of Chinese characters. Ricci’s Chinese readers, who had learned their characters from a tender age, already recognized these characters; Ricci’s method was useless for them. Take for example Ricci’s explanation in chapter 2, ‘Applying the Method’:

To learn mnemonics, one has to place in sequence the visual images of things and events in specified places; therefore we call this visual mnemonics. Suppose you want to remember the four characters ‘wu’ (military), ‘yao’ (to want), ‘li’ (profit), and ‘hao’ (good), you have to imagine a room with four corners for storage, using the southeastern corner as the first site, the northeastern as the second, the northwestern as the third, and the southwestern as the fourth. You take the character ‘wu’ which looks like a warrior holding a spear ready for battle, and another man restraining him by the wrists, thus forming the image of ‘wu’, [ 武 ] and you place it in the southeastern corner. You take the character ‘yao’ [ 要 ] imagine it as looking like a Muslim girl of Central Asia, forming the character ‘yao’, and you place it in the northeastern corner. You take the character ‘li’, [ 利 ] imagine it to look like a peasant holding a sickle harvesting in the fields, forming the character ‘li’, and you place it in the northwestern corner. You take the character ‘hao’, [ 好 ] imagine it to look like a young girl, playing with a baby she is holding, forming the character ‘hao’, and you place it in the southwestern corner. Once you have placed the four characters in these four sites, if you want to remember them, recall the room and find them in their different corners, and you will recall their images and remember the characters.

This was only the most basic step. In chapters 4 and 5, Ricci introduced far more complicated and elaborate methods of spatial placement, to facilitate remembering whole sentences and paragraphs.

The trouble with Ricci’s method, as one Chinese student observed, was that ‘these precepts are the true rules of memory, but one already needs good memory in order to use them’. Moreover, Ricci’s linguistic excursions into the etymology of Chinese characters struck readers either as naive or absurd, making sense perhaps for foreign students of Chinese, but not to Chinese literati steeped in long tradition of historical phonetics and etymology. Xiguo jifa found little reception: only one edition was printed and few copies disseminated.”

(R. Po-chia Hsia, A Jesuit in the Forbidden City: Matteo Ricci 1552-1610 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 150-51)

Reklamer

Skampletter og ettermæle

april 18, 2013

Onsdag 10. april hadde Paul Joakim Sandøy, leder i Unge Høyre, et innlegg på trykk i Dagbladet. Under tittelen «Jeg skålte da Chavez døde,» tilbyr Sandøy noen betrktninger rundt markeringer av politikeres bortgang, samt en grovkornet helhetsvurdering av Chavez og Thatcher.

Til det første, markeringen av en politikers død, skal det godt gjøres å være uenig i det prinsippielle ståstedet til Sandøy. Det må være lov å vise sin avsky slik eksemplene i innlegget hans beskriver. Det er neppe mange som vil være uenig i det. Når Sandøy går over til å vurdere sin egen skål over Chavez’ død opp mot RU-lederens sang ved Thatchers, leverer han derimot en langt mindre overbevisende vurdering, til fordel for seg og sine.

Det sentrale her er etter Sandøys skjønn hvor lenge det har gått siden politikeren satt ved makten. Det er med andre ord hva deres bortgang rent praktisk vil føre med seg som står igjen som vurderingskriterie for om feiring er en berettiget respons. Det å feire Thatchers død er dermed, i en moralsk forstand, mindre riktig, fordi hun ikke lenger hadde politisk makt. Hennes senere senilitet holdes også frem som en formidlende omstendighet. Chavez bortgang, derimot, bærer kanskje bud om at «et folk som har blitt undertrykt og nektet grunnleggende menneskerettigheter gjennom flere tiår» nå går (høyreideologisk) lysere tider i møte. Det første viser idealisme, det andre skadefryd.

For en som i fullt alvor skriver at Thatcher «reddet den frie verden» gir sikkert denne kategoriseringen mening. For de som fremdeles venter på å reddes fra ettermælet av politikken Thatcher (blant andre) stod for virker den rent vilkårlig. Om det enn er lenge siden Thatcher hadde politisk innflytelse er hun et sterkt symbol, i positiv og negativ forstand, for mange. Hennes ideologiske bidrag lever i beste velgående, ikke bare i Storbritannia. Jeg verken skålte eller sang personlig, men ser ikke noe kategorisk annerledes i å gjøre det ved hennes bortgang enn Chavez’. Og ærlig talt tror jeg ikke på at Chavez-skålen ikke innebar skadefryd.

Avslutningsmessig tilbyr Sandøy en oppsummerende vurdering av de to lederne. Denne føyer seg inn i en trend Greenwald har peker på i en Guardian-kommentar: «… those who admire the deceased public figure (and their politics) aren’t silent at all. They are aggressively exploiting the emotions generated by the person’s death to create hagiography.» Sammenligningen mellom de to politikerne er riktignok ikke hovedpoenget i Sandøys innlegg, men den er verdt å ta tak i. Dette fordi den på mange måter er illustrativ for hvordan vi selektivt minnes ledere vi liker og misliker.

Vurderingen hans er som følger: «Chavez var en autoritær sosialist som undertrykte sin egen befolkning, mens Thatcher reddet den frie verden». I kommentarfeltet konfronteres Sandøy med Thatchers støtte til Pinochet og Suharto. Sistnevnte omtalte hun som «One of our very best and most valuable friends». Den langt mindre flatterende omtalen av «terroristen» Mandela nevnes også. Vi kan dessuten føre inn Thatcher-regjeringens bidrag, sammen med USA og Kina, til støtte for Røde Khmer og Pol Pot etter at Vietnam hadde inntatt Kambodsja. Om det skulle være noen tvil: Dette var etter at det var velkjent at Pol Pot hadde utryddet i underkant av en fjerdedel av Kambodsjas befolkning.

Til innvendingen om Pinochet, og omtalen av Mandela, innrømmer Sandøy at dette er «udiskutable skampletter». Han holder imidlertid på at beskrivelsen hans av Chavez og Thatcher er «hovedhistorien». Dette ville vært oppsiktsvekkende, om det ikke hadde vært så alt for velkjent. Mitt inntrykk er at litmustesten som oftest anvendes når avdøde ledere skal vurderes er deres liberaldemokratiske legitimitet. Kan denne bekreftes har den innvalgte lederen nærmest blankofullmakt til å støtte avskyeligheter i andre land, så lenge det ble gjort med et minstemål av spissfindighet. Det er først og fremst ettermælet av politikken ført på hjemmebane (nasjonal og regional) som står igjen. Dermed er det mulig for Sandøy å slå fast at Thatcher «reddet den frie verden», samtidig som han vet at hun støttet krefter som aktivt og brutalt motarbeidet alt denne nominelt står for.

Med fare for å vippe over i det tåpelige tillater jeg meg å låne og modifisere omelettanalogien («man må knuse noen egg for å lage en omelett»). Når det gjelder internasjonale storspillere som er demokratisk innvalgt i sine respektive land, gir det mer mening å snakke om to forskjellige eggkurver. Hvis vi følger begrepsbruken til Sandøy kan vi kalle den første kurven «den frie verden». Her skal man være forsiktig med eggknusingen, den vil med større sannsynlighet huskes. Med den andre kurven, «resten av verden», kan man enklere tillate seg klekking og steking på geopolitikkens alter. Det som kreves er en ideologisk tilsløring som virker overbevisende. For eksempel kan man gi omeletten navnet «oppdemming mot Sovjetunionen». Eller Kissingers favoritt: aktivt innsats for å frembringe en varig fredsstruktur.

Sandøy bør krediteres for å i det minste erkjenne at Thatcher hadde skampletter. Mange vil avfeie innvendingene mot henne med relativisering, og peke på venstresidens egen lefling med massemordere. Det er allikevel grunn til å spørre seg om hvor mye verdt «hovedhistorien» han presenterer egentlig er. I lys av hennes mindre flatterende bidrag fremstår den mer som noe hentet fra et klamt partikonsensus enn resultatet av en selvstendig analyse.

Ville og tamme gjess

april 14, 2013

Kom ved en småmorsom tilfeldighet til å søke opp Kirkegaard i dag. Var på utkikk etter en «huskeregel» for det kinesiske tegnet for gås (鹅 , består av byggestenene «jeg» (我) og «fugl» (鸟)) da jeg kom over en av parablene hans (gjennom BBC-serien Sea of Faith, som forøvrig anbefales). Midt i blinken!

Og for en parabel. Det kan ikke ha vært mange som var/er bedre enn Kirkegaard på det feltet… (Skulle gjerne sitert dansk utgave, men fant bare den engelske på nett):

«Anyone who knows even a little bit about bird-life knows that there is a kind of understanding between wild geese and tame geese, regardless of how different they are. When the flight of the wild geese is heard in the air and there are tame geese down on the ground, the tame geese are instantly aware of it and to a certain degree they understand what it means. This is why they also start up, beat their wings, cry out and fly along the ground a bit in awkward, confused disorder – and then it is over.

There was once a wild goose. In the autumn, about the time for migration, it became aware of some tame geese. It became enamored by them, thought it a shame to fly away from them, and hoped to win them over so that they would decide to go along with it on the flight. To that end it became involved with them in every possible way. It tried to entice them to rise a little higher and then again a little higher in their flight, that they might, if possible, accompany it in the flight, saved from the wretched, mediocre life of waddling around on the earth as respectable, tame geese.

At first, the tame geese thought it very entertaining and liked the wild goose. But soon they became very tired of it, drove it away with sharp words, censured it as a visionary fool devoid of experience and wisdom. Alas, unfortunately the wild goose had become so involved with the tame geese that they had gradually gained power over it, their opinion meant something to it –and gradually the wild goose became a tame goose.

In a certain sense there was something admirable about what the wild goose wanted. Nevertheless, it was a mistake, for – this is the law – a tame goose never becomes a wild goose, but a wild goose can certainly become a tame goose. If what the wild goose tried to do is to be commended in any way, then it must above all watch out for one thing – that it hold on to itself. As soon as it notices that the tame geese have any kind of power over it, then away, away in migratory flight»

Unmet expectations

april 4, 2013

I found myself humored when I read the conclusion of Gottschalk’s critique of the American «realist» (think Nixon and Kissinger) approach to China. No doubt with the benefit of hindsight, but it is hard to imagine a prediction wider off the mark. (As for the article more generally, she does make some valid points.)

«The Bush administration must also be prepared to contend with a united, articulate lobby of Chinese students and scholars whose cause enjoys enormous support among Americans. There are now 40,000 Chinese students in the United States and many of them do not wish to return home when their visas, which Washington extended for a year, expire. … Finally, as 1997 draws closer, the United States – and the world – may be faced with a mass emigration from Hong Kong and a collapse of Hong Kong’s economy on the eve of its return to the Chinese mainland»

(Marie Gottschalk, «The Failure of American Policy,» World Policy Journal 6, no. 4 (1989): 681-82)

Having, then, investigated the main formal aspects of Chinese verse which resist successful communication by the translator, let us now consider some features of its content which can prove equally refractory.

A notable one is the Chinese poet’s preference for impersonal statement. The Chinese verb can be, and often is, left uncommitted as to number and tense. When, in addition to this, the personal pronoun is omitted, the effect is a timeless, universal quality comparable to that of the statement made by a painting. Significantly, Keats had to use three or four different forms of the verb in describing the figures on the Grecian urn, even while he was stressing the timelessness of the scene. When the Chinese poet is describing anything his statements are invariable and automatically timeless.

Of course, the poet’s presence may often be inferred even when it is not explicit. Yet even so there is an objectiveness in the Chinese which cannot quite be paralleled in English. The following poem by the eleventh-century Song poet Kou Zhun demonstrates the translator’s dilemma:

 

Feng kuo qiang xi bo miao mang

Du ping wei lan si he chang

Xiao xiao yuan shu shu lin wai

Yi ban qui shan dai xi yang

Widely separated peaks, a few scattered masts, a great blank

of water;

All alone, leaning on vertiginously high-up ralings, far lost in

thought;

Forlorn, leafless trees in the distance beyond the sparse woods;

One half of the mountains wearing the colours of sunset.

 

This is not a finished translation but the intermediate draft from which a translation is made. When we come to make the final draft, what do we do with line 2? When did the leaning occur, and who is its subject? I? You? She?

In this particular case we know that the poem was one of four written by Kou Zhun on the wall of a riverside pavilion, each describing the view from the pavilion at a different season of the year. This poem is the one for autumn. So Kou Zhun’s presence in the scene can be assumed.

But this still does not entirely dispose of our problem. Is the verb “I am leaning”? “I have been leaning”? “I leaned (last autumn)”? “I often lean”? Or is it “One might lean”? Or “When you lean”?

In fact, it is impossible to say. It could be all or none of these. The Chinese poet does not really care, and to tell the truth would probably not understand the question. He is describing a picture which includes a little figure in a pavilion looking at the view. He is not interested in the history of identity of the little figure or the date of the painting, even if the little figure is himself and the time is now.

The problem of allusion, regarded by many Western students as the greatest bugbear of all in interpreting Chinese poetry – or indeed Chinese literature of any kind – is a product less of Chinese obscurantism than of our own cultural alienation. Our literature, even our daily speech, teems with allusion of every kind. “Look at Hercules!” said of a muscular man on the beach lifting heavy objects above his head is not a remark indicative of profound classical learning. It is, nevertheless, an allusion, and would mystify an Asiatic visitor who knew our language but nothing of what we call our cultural heritage. When we speak of universal themes, having in our mind psychologically interesting stories like the myth of Oedipus, we ought to remind ourselves that although we and our European cousins were reared on bible stories and the tales of Greece and Rome, a large part of the human race knows nothing of either.

(From «Chinese Poetry and the English Reader»)