New Project!

I’ve decided to put a little more time into translating and less into reading, which is what I’ve been doing most recently. So I will be slowly translating this book on Zen I picked up, called “Ch’an Talk” or “About Ch’an”, not sure how to best translate it at the moment, maybe after translating more of it the name will clear itself up.

Anyhow, here’s the first bit, I think I’ll try and do a minimum of a page a day.


Publisher’s Note

Ch’an is the largest school of Chinese Buddhism, and is unique in its human attitude, its system of values, its aesthetic appeal, and its method of thinking. For both courtly and common figures in ancient times, especially the literati class, it had a very far-ranging and profound influence, and formed an indissoluble bond with China’s ideological and cultural history. Researching Ch’an’s formation, development, and evolution, and investigating the characteristics of its every period, has become a major undertaking of the scholarly research world. This book is an introduction to early Ch’an Buddhism’s personages and events, and was written by the celebrated scholar Mr. Nan Huaijin. It is easy to understand, concise and to the point, and is suitable for those new to the subject. The author and the original publishing unit, the Taiwan Ancient Culture Enterprise Company, have authorized the revision and reprinting of the 1994 edition for research purposes.


Read More

Paint By Numbers

I’m preparing a short presentation on Chinese painting for my China Survey class, so here’s an excerpt from the textbook’s section on painting, which describes some of the features of Chinese painting in comparison to its Western counterpart.


Looking over the history of the Chinese art of painting, we can divide genres of traditional Chinese paintings in the following ways, among others: in subject matter, they can be classed into portraits, landscapes, or flower-and-bird paintings; in technique and method, they can be split into detailed brushwork paintings and freehand paintings. Detailed brushwork painting refers to paintings with neat and careful depictions, and with meticulous coloring. Freehand painting denotes the use of free, easy, and succinct brushwork, and in delineating an object’s figure, the emphasis is on expressing the artist’s creative feeling. If one were to compare traditional Chinese painting and traditional Western painting as a whole, Chinese traditional painting clearly possesses the following characteristics:

First, the prominence of lines. Traditional Chinese painting, from the very beginning, already relied on lines to depict form. Even afterwards, there were very few works that didn’t employ the use of lines; it could be said that traditional Chinese painting is basically a linear art. On the other hand, in traditional Western oil paintings and watercolors, the expression of form mainly relies on the light and shade of levels of colors, and there can even be a total absence of lines. Precisely because of this, Western painting particularly emphasizes the spreading and arrangement of color, while Chinese painting emphasizes the application of pen and ink–“Pen and Ink Technique”.

Second, the importance of likeness in spirit. During the Southern Dynasties period (420-589 CE), China’s first painting theorist, Xie He (谢赫), presented the “Six Principles of Painting”. Among these principles, the first required the expression of the image’s tone and vitality; the second required brushwork to have inherently strong, calligraphic strokes, the third principle, finally, is the precision of the subject being painted. That is to say, Xie He put “spiritual likeness” at the head, and “physical likeness” secondarily after that. Xie He’s artistic theory became the rule in Chinese painting. For instance, when painting a portrait, it’s not simply a matter of painting a person’s appearance. Rather, it is more important to portray the person’s expression and personality through their exterior, making the character more vivid and full of implication. But in traditional Western paintings, the changes in the light and color of the persons or scenery are what are pursued, along with the temporal and spatial effects of day and night, indoors and outdoors, etc. They possess a more realistic and three dimensional feeling.

Third, the integration of poetry, writing, and painting. In the West, though poetry and painting are sister arts, even if a painting itself might greatly possess poetic significance, that meaning is very rarely inscribed on the painting itself. The reason being that in the West there is no calligraphic art that can stand between poetry and painting as a harmonizing intermediary. China’s calligraphy itself possesses artistic beauty, so it is often used at add poetic accompaniment to a painting, linking poetry, writing, and painting. This creates an effect of “poetry in painting, and painting in poetry”, and gives the art more creative concept and emotional influence than a simple painting.

Although China and the West both practice the art of painting, in style and technique they are truly different. Through understanding the history of Chinese painting and the characteristics of Chinese and Western painting, it is possible to have a deeper recognition of Chinese painting as a variety of culture, and promote the improvement of one’s ability to appreciate art.


I’m just doing my presentation on landscape paintings, basically drawing on the textbook and supplementing that with what I learned in my Chinese Art History class back at school. It’s a powerpoint presentation, and I want to finish it off with some pictures by Zhang Hongtu (张宏图), who is probably my favorite painter from that class. His website is, which I actually can’t get to from here in Beijing, because it’s blocked.

Read More

Not Quite

Here is an excerpt from my Survey of China class’s textbook. We’re blazing through the economics chapter at this point.


Although the agriculture of the New China has made great advancements in the past fifty-odd years, it is still in a backwards state compared to the rest of the world. Aside from the relatively poor natural conditions and frequent droughts and floods, other main problems include: having a low level of mechanization, lacking widespread scientific and technological methods, having yet to break away from the state of being “at the mercy of the elements”, having a reliance on physical labor, and having a low rate of production. For example, America’s national territory covers an area about the same size as China’s, however the natural conditions and the modernization of the agricultural industry are much better than China’s. Their agricultural population is only 3% of the total population, and yet they sustain a 97% non-agricultural population. On average, every year each agricultural workforce produces over 7,000 kg of grain, and the U.S. is the world’s largest exporter of grain. The ratio of Japan’s farming population and city population is 1:10; the farming population’s 10% sustains the city populations 90%, and the yearly average of grain produced by the agricultural workforces is 2,850 kg. But as for China, in 2002 the ration of farming and city populations rose to 6.1:3.9, and the yearly average of grain produced by agricultural workforces is only 1000 kg. This indicates that the level of China’s agricultural development is still very low, and that there are heavy responsibilities to bear on a long road towards agricultural modernization.


So, translation-wise, I’m not sure how to translate …劳动力生产的… because those numbers up there (7,000 kg, 2,850 kg, etc.) are correct, but there is no way these countries produce that little grain a year. That 劳动力 must not mean labor in general, but a certain type of unit of labor. I don’t know what that would be, because obviously farming is done way differently in say, America and China.

I wouldn’t say I trust this book entirely, we’ve also done chapters on history, politics, and minorities, and there is a ton of stuff that is just not mentioned, or if mentioned definitely puts the Party spin on it. Some information escapes unscathed, like the first chapter we had on geographical features of China, and probably the above paragraph, which I include just because it’s interesting. But otherwise everything else we’ve learned can’t be described in its entirety for political reasons. So I really have no idea what the entirety is.

I bet Chinese people normally get better information; they’re not stupid and know how to find the truth if they’re looking for it, China isn’t Eastasia. This book is just a brief 180 page introduction to everything about China and it’s geared towards foreign students. So the information in this book probably isn’t even what Chinese people actually know or have access to. It’s like the distilled essence of the Party line that they want to feed to foreigners. Sometimes I really can’t stand reading it. If I have time maybe I’ll pick up a college level modern history text and see what that says.

Read More

New Old Things

I’m just doing an article for the sake of doing an article. It’s already been 10 days since my last entry. This paragraph’s from, and it’s about the Great Wall. (It’s not the entire article.)


Over 100 Kilometers of New Great Wall Discoveries
The survey of the Beijing section is half-finished.

Yesterday the fourth stage of the on-site inspection of the Beijing section of the Great Wall began in Matiwan village of the Yongning township in Yanqing County. Before this, the survey work on the Beijing section was already half completed, and during the first period the surveyors and city specialists in cultural relics discovered much new information about the Great Wall. For instance, the actual measurement of existent wall is greater than previous estimates, different structures of the Great Wall from different dynasties and multiple kiln sites were also discovered. None of the above are mentioned in documents and records about the Great Wall. This phase plans to complete on-site surveys of the Huairou, Pinggu, and Mentou Gully areas; the entire survey is estimated to conclude next year. At that time specific and accurate data about the Great Wall will be made clear for the first time.


It’s funny to think that, walking around China you will sometimes see a slew of workers doing something that would normally be done in a more mechanized way in the States. Like an army of gardeners weeding a park lawn by hand, or a team using a donkey-powered drill to bore into the ground. You don’t see that so much back home.

See, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a new article about how China has for the first time been able to put advanced survey satellites to use in gathering data about the Great Wall or some such. But an on-site survey that will make clear information available about the Great Wall is just going to be completed in 2008? To be fair, it probably requires specialists, rather than sheer manpower, but still, for some reason I feel like China would have done this way sooner.

Maybe China’s bigger than I think, and the Great Wall’s greater than it seems.

Read More

Don't Worry, It's Completely Normal

In an article from about the official use of the term “soft power” during the Congressional meeting and reports (soft power as in cultural influence, versus hard military/economic/technological power), there was this little blurb about media openness in the PRC. It’s good for a few chuckles.
<blockquote>In the news and media world, China has shown positive changes in its degree of openness and transparency, and has received the approval of international public opinion. During the 17th National Congress, there were foreign journalists who expressed to China News Agency reporters that they hoped China would be able to maintain this positive trend. They also believed that China did not need to be excessively sensitive to criticism in overseas news reports because this is completely normal for every rising superpower.</blockquote>
I feel like some of the stuff I read here would make for good fiction. Like a report I read in a recent Chinese edition of Popular Science about “creating a green Beijing” for the Olympics. From the data in the article it would seem that I’ve apparently been walking around the Garden of Eden and I didn’t even realize it.

Probably because the Great Firewall has blocked the ISP for the Tree of Knowledge.


And from the same site here’s a picture of Tian’anmen Square all dressed up for the occasion.

Banner Left says, “Congratulations to the Chinese Communist Party for Convening the 17th National Representative Congress”. My translation is a little Hallmark-y, I admit. Perhaps there’s a more formal way it’s normally translated, but hey, that’s what it says literally. They’re congratulating themselves for holding Congress, can’t argue with that.

Banner Right says, “Unswervingly Walk the Great Path of Socialism With Chinese Characteristics”.

I’m sorry, but I think that gigantic political slogan banners creep me out more than aliens used to. They’re so kitschy they make me feel slimy. On the other hand, I’ve been slowly turning my viewpoint around about China’s political development. I mean, the banner doesn’t say “Resolutely Walk the Great Path of Marxism-Leninism” as it might have decades ago. Or even “Steadfastly Walk the Great Path of Mao Thought”. I think of it this way, they’re now not trying to change their system to fit a rigid political philosophy, rather they’re slowly (damn slowly) redefining their political philosophy to fit the realities of their system as it interacts with the rest of the world.

I still wish they’d get rid of all the canned statements though, it just smacks of 1984 to me.

Read More

Never Send a Human to Do a Machine's Job.

I used the Google translator function for kicks yesterday, this is the little link that Google puts next to search results that aren’t English language websites, which automatically translates the page for you using whatever machine translation algorithm Google uses.

So yesterday there was a hit that had an excerpt from a novel, the first paragraph of which I translate as such:
It’s said that Lu Bu went from being a hired hand to being the boss, quickly recovering the status of his past. But not two days after these good times came about, Lu Bu felt an inexplicable agitation arise. Even though he was already in complete control of the Xuzhou company, he always felt as if there was something amiss. His mind inwardly strange, he said to Diao Chan, “How can a business and its owner not have the same affection as that between a man and his first wife?”

Also of note, Lu Bu and Diao Chan are, respectively, the names of a general and his wife from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the most famous novels in China. I think this story might have been placing the characters in a modern setting, I didn’t read any of it aside from what I’ve translated.

That being said, here’s the Google translation:
Wage earners from the house saying to the boss, quickly restored the scenery of the past. But no two days days, the house was a baffling irritable up. Although he has full control of the company in Xuzhou, but always feel that what wrong. His heart secretly strange, Chan said: “Is this the boss and between enterprises, but also pay attention to the former black fragmentation?”

I love reading this stuff. I bet you if someone would just bother to look they’d find a goldmine of little Shakespearean gems justs sitting there ready for use. “It was a baffling irritable up.” That’s my favorite line from that one.

An interesting feature of Google’s system is that when you mouse-over a sentence, a bubble pops up showing the text in the original translation, and you can offer a better translation. I think Google might be working with a statistical method of translation here. The last time I studied abroad in China I met a postgraduate from Harvard (or MIT? I can’t remember) who’s specialty was linguistics and machine translation. He was American, and was just in town for a conference being held at Beijing University. But he was telling me about an MT project he was working on, and the philosophy behind it.

You can think of language as having a set of rules, a syntax, that a speaker must conform to in order to make sense. The syntax itself is meaning neutral, it’s just the grammar rules, word classes, the relation between them, etc. The words, largely, carry the meaning. So there’s the idea that one can take an English sentence, tag all the parts of the sentence with their proper grammatical function and meaning, then strip the English pronunciations off, rearrange what remains into the appropriate syntax of say, Chinese, and then slap the Chinese pronunciations onto the corresponding semantic tags. And you’ve got a Chinese sentence!

In reality, there are a lot of fundamental problems with this method, and so people who work on machine translation have been developing other translation systems. What the postgrad told me was that he was working on a statistical translation model, which largely relies on a huge database of English-Chinese equivalent sentences/phrases. The input sentence is entered, and the database is searched for the corresponding data; if it doesn’t find an exact match it makes a guess about how the sentence should come out based on statistical similarities. So it wouldn’t be as streamlined as the aforementioned system, which would just need the syntax and a dictionary, but it would arguably be more accurate. Or maybe have a greater probability of being accurate.

I don’t know how far this method has been developed since then. It’s been 2 years, and a lot can happen in that short a time, especially in the world of computing. But perhaps Google is now using user input to help build up its own language database. And seeing how poor the above translation was, I wonder if there aren’t roving bands of ‘translators-by-day, linguistic-e-saboteurs-by night’! I was tempted, but then I just let it be. What a folly honor is!

So it’s still Man-1:Machine-0. For now…

Read More