Tag Archive for books

Every bad movie is bad in its own way

AnnaKarenina2012PosterI try very hard (and think I largely succeed) in not being that kind of historian: you know, the one that can’t let historical “fact” go enough to enjoy what’s supposed to be entertainment. Yes, I look askance at random insertions of historical events in films or games – I haven’t (nor will I ever) played Bioshock Infinite, but my eyebrow arched when I came across references to its treatment of the “Boxer Rebellion.” If nothing else, it seemed that no one had read Joe Esherick on the Boxer Uprising (though perhaps someone on the team had, at some point – who knows). In any case, other than a slightly irritated tweet that seeing references to the “Boxer Rebellion” makes me twitchy – which it does – I don’t have much to say about even wild liberties taken with historical events. I always nurture some sort of hope that coming across scattered references will encourage at least a portion of the audience to go searching for more. After all, one of my colleagues – a wonderfully talented scholar – once admitted that his interest in China was partially ignited by playing a Romance of the Three Kingdoms themed game on SNES. Maybe one of the great China scholars of generations to come will find themselves going down the rabbit hole of late Qing history courtesy a game that largely disappointed the game criticism blogosphere? Unlikely, but stranger things have happened.

There are some things I am less sanguine about, however, and that includes my favorite literature. Often, seeing novels translated to the big screen is a depressing experience – how can you compress the complexities in many great works down to two hours and change? Frequently, you can’t. Rarely, I like things better on the big screen than in written form, like The Last of the Mohicans (I would much rather be forced to watch the film on loop for an eternity than have to read James Fenimore Cooper’s snoozefest one more time, great American literature or no – the Deerslayer, I might waffle on. Mohicans, certainly not). But I usually avoid cinematic versions of my favorite works, though curiosity occasionally gets the better of me.

My touchstone novel (or one of them), one I come back to over and over again, is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. One of the first moments of serious outrage about the downfall of American culture, as viewed through popular culture, I remember having is when it showed up on Oprah’s book club. “Christ almighty,” I ranted to my mother, “it’s Tolstoy. TOLSTOY! One of the great novels of the nineteenth century! Do people really need OPRAH and a sexed up cover to tell them to read the damn book?” (probably so, is the answer). I’ve been reading it since I was 12 or 13, and I come back to it almost every year. And even when I put off the annual reading, at the very least, my very battered copy has accompanied me all over the world. That Penguin translation – inherited from my mum – is better traveled than most people. It’s an embarrassing record of nearly two decades of reading – coming face to face with what my 15 year old self thought was important enough to highlight can be positively humiliating – but an important book. I’ve read it in English and French, and I think I have a copy floating around in Chinese. I had a vague idea as an undergraduate that I might like to study Russian history, since that would mean having to learn Russian, and that would mean being able to read Tolstoy (and Pushkin and and) in their originals. Maybe I will get around to learning Russian someday, if only to commune with Anna Karenina in the original, and Sophia Tolstoy’s diaries besides.

It’s a big book. It’s a daunting book. Not only is it long (it is Tolstoy, after all), you have two relatively separate plots that come together here and there. Despite these things (or perhaps because of them), it has also proved positively irresistible for film directors. I try not to watch the cinematic versions. I have a 1967 Russian version flittering around that I’m scared to watch, although it’s been in my possession since 2006, and while I actually rather liked the 1997 version starring Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean, I first watched it under duress. I’d been studiously avoiding the 2012 film with Keira Knightley and Aaron Johnson. The initial reason for my reluctance was perhaps extremely superficial, but as it turned out, I wasn’t entirely wrong.

This is what is on the cover of my copy of Anna Karenina, the Penguin edition translated by Rosemary Edmonds:


Ivan Kramskoi’s Portrait of an Unknown Woman (1883). It’s a beautiful painting (and one with an interesting history), one that supposedly ‘inspired’ Tolstoy’s descriptions of Anna, though that’s clearly impossible based on timing. And yet, perhaps because it’s emblazoned on my trusty copy, when I imagine Anna Karenina, fictional character, I imagine something close to this unknown woman with her blue silk-edged muff.

Here is Tolstoy’s description of Anna at the important ball, one of those scenes that I come back to again and again when I think of my imaginary Anna:

Flushed, Kitty lifted her train off Krivin’s knees and, slightly giddy, looked round in search of Anna. Anna was standing in the middle of a group of ladies and gentlemen all talking together. She was not wearing lilac, the colour which Kitty was so sure she ought to have worn, but a low-necked black velvet gown which displayed her full shoulders and bosom, that seemed carved out of old ivory, and her rounded arms with their delicate tiny wrists. Her dress was richly trimmed with Venetian lace. In her black hair, which was all her own, she wore a little wreath of pansies, and there were more pansies on the black ribbon winding through the white lace at her waist. Except for the wilful little curls that always escaped at her temples and on the nape of her neck, adding to her beauty, there was nothing remarkable about her coiffure. She wore a string of pearls round her firmly-modelled neck. (93)

Balanchine & FarrellThat description – of a beautiful, well-shaped woman who is clearly not waifish (I think here of Suzanne Farrell, and Arlene Croce’s comments about her 1960s, pre-Béjart shape and the “plush” and “plump quality” of her movement  – for all the ranting about Balanchine’s encouragement of the anorexic dancer form, none of his great ballerinas could be remotely described as bony sticks. The young Farrell is tall and long and slender, but also round in many respects) – is one reason I managed to stay away from Joe Wright’s Anna. There was just such a fundamental disconnect between the Anna in my head and Keira Knightley that I doubted could be overcome.

I hadn’t thought of the movie in ages, but one of the nice things about being back in an academic fold again is having all sorts of interesting people to talk to, including – for the first time ever in my academic career! – having people (well, one person, at least) who really have studied Russian history (formally, and they do in fact teach it – unlike my amateur interest/bathtime reading combined with the purely practical brushing up against Lenin and Stalin one must do when one studies post-1949 Chinese history) to answer all my pressing questions about late imperial Russian history (e.g., ‘When WAS the point of no return for the Romanov dynasty?’ One answer, in case you were dying to know like I was, is 1905). Anyways, we had a nice chat about Tolstoy & his wife, and Anna Karenina; I admitted I actually liked the 1997 version, but expressed skepticism on the more recent Western remake. My fellow historian hadn’t seen it.

As it happened, my mum was in town recently & in the course of sipping our wine & talking history & attempting to figure out what to do with the evening, we decided to take a chance on the most recent cinematic version of Tolstoy’s epic. And it was true: I found Keira Knightley’s mere form so antithetical to what I have imagined Anna Karenina to be like for over half my life that I never could comfortably slip into the film. It is admittedly a pretty film, and a stylized one – and Knightley’s physical presence is a nice shorthand for the bigger stylistic problems of the film, its conceits. It’s a weirdly stripped down and ahistorical portrayal of a particular period. And while it’s lush, it’s lush in a way that never quite gels.

Maybe I expect period films to be too period. But the latter half of 19th century Russia (at least among the aristocracy) seems so luxurious – so plush, like a late ’60s Farrell arabesque! - it seems a shame to dismantle it and attempt to build it back up again. The novel is so rich that it seems silly to layer on a conceit like “this is all taking place on a stage!” Yes, yes, we get it: the artificiality of society! It’s practically as if late imperial Russian society were proceeding according to a rigid set of conventions that they’re performing – like a play! (Being inspired by Orlando Figes is one thing, turning literal the idea of ‘acting’ is another: really? Did we have to be so literal?) There are clever bits here and there, but when it comes down to it, Tolstoy doesn’t need clever bits. There were striking bits of imagery – as when Anna is in the nursery of Stiva & Dolly’s house, and is seated in the children’s elegant playhouse – but flashes here and there aren’t enough. It’s a film, not a painting.

And then there are the arms. It sounds positively ridiculous – among so many other problems, décolletage and the roundness of arms are going to leap out? But when I think of the great many descriptions tucked into the novel, that description of Anna at the ball – looking even more glamorous than naïve Kitty could’ve dreamed – with her rounded arms, tiny wrists, and ‘firmly-modelled’ neck (here is where I would like to know what the Russian says, and implies: not that I distrust Edmonds, but I always wonder what I’m missing) – it’s that bit of prose I come back to (not the epigraph, and not the famous first line). Whatever the Russian says exactly, we are not dealing with a fragile, willowy beauty.

Even ignoring the fact that Wright has Anna in dress that ‘full shoulders and bosom’ would come falling out of, the horrors, and Knightley’s collarbones could cut a steak – she’s beautiful, to be sure, but Anna Karenina? This becomes more obvious when everything is in motion; she just can’t quite pull off the ever-so-slight bloom off the roseness needed; her Vronsky doesn’t help in these matters, seeming like an escapee from the Corps des Pages, not an officer. They don’t seem to inhabit the roles, instead just putting on the (somewhat off kilter and nowhere near as effective as sumptuous period costumes) clothing. The Levin and Kitty thread (lifted from Tolstoy & Sophia) – often my favorite parts of the novel – show up in random sequences here and there. The contrast is never expounded upon, and while Levin may look delightful rhythmically cutting wheat with his peasants, it’s an excuse to show rippling golden wheat – not actually develop anything.

Perhaps this is nitpicking over costuming and decisions about what part of an admittedly lengthy book a director chooses to trim. On the other hand: I think the arms are my convenient scapegoat for the fact that some versions of Anna Karenina are believable, and some are not. I suspect that even if Sophie Marceau’s arms had been a little less round, her shoulders and décolletage a little less full, she still would’ve been believable as Anna in a way Knightley just isn’t. Sean Bean is more convincing as the dashing Vronsky; the more current version looks as though he’s playing dress up out of a not terribly good costume closet (the women’s clothing – jarring as it is if you’re expecting some semblance of 19th century clothing – is at least luscious in fabric selection; the men get saddled with uniforms that look like they ran out of money before finishing them properly). She gave up everything for him? Really?

There are bones of the story that must be gotten right for everything else to work. Even seemingly minor details keep undercutting the (dare I say) authenticity of the whole project. Vronsky’s mount for the disastrous steeplechase is described in the novel as a dark bay English thoroughbred, ‘not entirely free from reproach’ but generally lovely to look upon (like Anna, then: Tolstoy never describes her as an overwhelming beauty, and she, too, would not be entirely free from reproach – but the general effect is so lovely, one hardly notices the faults). That she has been imagined in the film as a rather heavy, Iberian-looking grey horse would perhaps be forgivable if the interlude rang true (though really, how hard it is to find a bay horse); but the episode is never developed, beyond Anna’s reaction to the fall. Isn’t it more powerful if we see the parallels between the relationship that is about to overtake Vronsky and Anna and this lovely, spirited bay mare who meets a bad end? So too with the Levin-Kitty plot, left mostly untouched except for mucking up the proposal scene and random flashes here and there: doesn’t it make the titular woman’s story that much more powerful?

AK ball 97AK ball 2012

But perhaps my indignant response to some adaptations of Tolstoy’s wonderful novel explains my more tolerant attitude towards historical detritus sprinkled here and there. A film I love, though it’s certainly not a good film, is Le Pacte des loups (2001), which despite being a silly romp in many ways does strike some chords regarding 18th century French history. The story is preposterous, but it can feel spot on even while you’re rolling your eyes about yet another martial arts sequence. No one can recreate a period in its entirety, not even the most conscientious and obsessive historian – details are bound to be lost. We could say the same thing about recreating a novel and moving it to a new medium; what matters is not so much if every detail is correct, but if it rings true. (This isn’t to say that historians should play fast and loose with details – just that, when you’re writing a history of whatever it is you’re writing a history about, you simply can’t write everything) If I, in writing my history, haven’t managed to evoke anything about the period, if it rings false – I haven’t really done a good job of things. It may be solid history, but it’s missing something essential (of course, not all historians do work on topics or periods or themes that lend themselves to being “evocative,” and that’s fine – it’s just not the sort of history I happen to do). Perhaps this is where the most recent version of Anna Karenina fell down for me: the bones were wrong, and the silks were wrong, too.

One of the things I love most about the stories I study is that they have lived many, many lives; there are few sacred cows in the Chinese operatic tradition, and there are many examples of tinkering and adding and subtracting in the literary canon. I like it when my thoroughly Marxist intellectuals declare themselves – in highly literary Chinese – to be heirs of a great tradition, which means changing and playing and not letting it just die. It’s a testament to the resiliency of culture, and how even very old things can be reinvented over and over to remain relevant to different audiences, in different periods, in different places. I’m not adverse to beloved characters putting on new clothes, as it were – it’s fun to see, and fascinating to track. But it needs to ring true. Does Tolstoy’s novel really need flashy camera work and theatrical conceits to be made relevant? Did it really need a sexed up cover? Maybe it did – but I would like to think, if traipsing through a literary and intellectual history of socialist China has taught me anything, that literary works are remarkably resilient creatures, and many themes and stories (even old, old ones – much older than the late 19th century) don’t need much tinkering to make them resonate with the present, whenever that is. Li Huiniang wears many different clothes, but as long as her bones – the barest, stripped down essence of that Song dynasty concubine – remain solid, the adaptations work. But there are limits.

I’ve often joked – though not really joking, for if you look at my work and what I really enjoy doing and teaching, it’s really the truth – that I would’ve been happy as a clam in an EALC department as opposed to history (if we could magically subtract the considerable language chops I would’ve had to develop simply to pass my quals). I always point to the fact that Mao makes the rare appearance in my dissertation (this, despite the fact that I am a “PRC historian”), as I am much more interested in meditating on my beloved intellectuals and their literary output. But perhaps my reaction to Anna Karenina (almost all of them) illustrates that as much, if not more: I can tolerate an amazing amount of “play” with historical events, but keep your hands off my well-loved literary figures unless you’re prepared to do them justice.

Recharging the batteries

How I clean up my laptop desktop

So I’ve had the occasion – thanks to a visit from family – to completely set aside work for about two and a half weeks & just relax.  One thing I’ve found since starting grad school, lo those many years ago, is that “relaxation” is sort of a misnomer for what’s going on when you’re not working.  I tend to be tightly wound and neurotic (several doctors at the clinic on campus have noted with some wonder how tight my shoulder muscles are!), and saddled with a Type A personality with a streak of laziness (a Type A-, perhaps?) – which compounds the neuroses.  In a conversation with an undergraduate contemplating grad school, I opined that separation and compartmentalization can be hard to achieve; work comes home with you, never stays where it’s supposed to, and you can never quite turn off the nagging voice in the back of your head telling you to start working and stop watching TLC’s Toddlers & Tiaras marathon.

In any case, I always have a very long to-do list & this has only gotten worse since I’ve been set loose with only a vaguely defined agenda: “research dissertation” is quite different than, say, “write historiography paper that’s due in two weeks” or “research X topic for the next 10 weeks while updating seminar on progress weekly.”  I will be trekking up to Beijing at the beginning of April for a two week business-pleasure trip: the pleasure part is seeing good friends I haven’t seen in months and months (or longer), the business part being seeing one of my advisors.  I am actually quite relieved at the prospect of being able to have a talk – and having a very real, very definite deadline coming up soon has definitely helped my thinking on what work I have gotten done and where I hope to go.

But I haven’t been thinking about that for the past two weeks, no.  I’ve been mellowing out in a happy cocoon of family and pleasure reading.  One thing I have been taking a lot more time for since crossing the qualifying hump is reading for me, not for my research.  My first three years of grad school were stuffed full of a lot of books (of course), but precious few were for my own pleasure.  Those that were could generally be tied in some way, shape, or form back to research or teaching (I had a six month spate of using late Meiji and Taisho era Japanese fiction as my “bath time fluff” – one never knows when one might be called upon to teach a course and need those kinds of materials!  I like to be prepared for most reasonable eventualities).  For once, I haven’t had the overwhelming guilt of “But I should be doing something else!!!”; I’m hoping that this lengthy pause to regroup and rest up will mean better,  more productive weeks ahead – I really needed a break, and I’m finally getting to the point of being able to take one with only a little guilt.

Last summer, I bought a Kindle on a half asleep, 7 AM whim. It actually turned out to be an excellent purchase – I don’t have to worry about access to English language books in China & I don’t have to worry about storage anywhere.  It’s actually made me more inclined towards pleasure reading, since I don’t have to go through the checklist of: Do I actually want to own a physical copy of this book?  Do I need a physical copy?  And finally, would I be embarrassed to have this sharing shelf space with the rest of my books (an important question, to be sure)?  OK, the last bit is an exaggeration – but as I find myself acquiring ever more (academic, research-related) books, space is at a premium & my “light reading” is the first to get pushed out in favor of Serious Secondary Sources.

Looking over what I’ve read in the past few weeks, there’s nothing to be ashamed of, particularly – it’s just not “serious” (as in, having a direct relationship to my research or field of study).  A lot of it is still historical & the vast majority is non-fiction – but I always find it interesting to compare with friends what we consider “fluff,” since it tends to vary wildly.  I have just moved on from a six month sojourn with Tudor history (mostly pretty serious history books; but again, it’s not my field & I can just turn off and enjoy in a way I can’t when I read Chinese history books), where I read good stuff, bad stuff, and in between stuff (and still have a few volumes I need to finish off for good measure).  I’ve been tending towards the slightly more eclectic of late, though still sticking to some favored genres.  Anyways, a couple of highlights:

George Catlin, Sioux Indians hunting buffalo, 1835

Two books on the Battle of the Little Bighorn (here is where e-books drive me crazy: what I really wanted was Evan S. Connell’s seminal – utterly wonderful – Son of the Morning Star, which of course was not available).  First up was A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn – the Last Great Battle of the American West by James Donovan (2009), then Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn (2010).  I read these in quick succession, which was good for comparative purposes.  The Little Bighorn, like the Civil War, has a terribly devoted fanbase and has basically been done to death – which isn’t to say there isn’t anything “new” to say, just that an awful lot of books seem to crib unabashedly off forerunners (you can feel Connell’s influence on both newer volumes – Son of the Morning Star has aged exquisitely).  Still, it’s one of those subjects I like to come back to, as my mother likes to claim that a trip as a 4 year old to Crow Fair – including a sidetrip to march around the battlefield – was a formative event for me as a youngster.  She’s possibly right; I do know that when I read accounts, I find myself wanting to go back (it’s on the list for next year or the year after, I hope).  In any case, while neither book was particularly enlightening, they were solid introductions and reasonably researched popular histories (Philbrick was in desperate need of a better editor).  I’m still hoping Connell’s magnificent narrative will show up in digital format sooner rather than later ….

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Cleopatra and Caesar

I read two biographies, drawn from wildly different perspectives: Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life (2010) and Lover of Unreason: Assia Wevill, Sylvia Plath’s Rival and Ted Hughes’ Doomed Love by Yehuda Korean & Eilat Negev (2008).  Not simply divided by time & subject matter, the books were on opposite ends of the spectrum, quality-wise.  Schiff’s take on Cleopatra was surprisingly good – considering the dearth of sources we have, and the fact that Schiff is not a classicist, really good.  I came across it on the hunt for Robert Graves’ I, Claudius (also not available in digital format – sigh), and while it wasn’t exactly what I was hoping to sink into, it was a nice diversion for an afternoon.  The author also spent a fair amount of time considering how history has come to be, at least insofar as it reflects on the telling of Cleopatra’s life.  Parts of it felt like coming home & I’ve already downloaded a copy of Caesar’s De Bello Gallico to flit through for fun at a later date, since I’ve been feeling renewed interest in at least sort of returning to well-loved Latin tomes of yesteryear.  I got the impression from Amazon many people were expecting a much “beachier” read – it wasn’t taxing, but I did find it quite satisfying and well written.  It wasn’t mindless fluff to be wandered through without thinking, though I guess the cover image deceived a number of people.

The biography of Assia Wevill, on the other hand, was one of the less satisfying books I’ve read recently – actually, it was just plain bad. I imagine some of the difficulty came from the fact that no one in the story comes off as very likable – Wevill is constantly in odd triangular relationships with a husband and a lover, Plath is, well, Plath & prone to depression and rages, and Hughes comes off as an insensitive jerk, albeit a very talented one.  But the authors didn’t seem clear on how they wanted to package Wevill – thus the narrative came off as confused, and red herrings were tossed into the text with little explanation (does a later feminist poet’s view that Hughes “murdered” Wevill really matter when thinking of what led to the event?  Would it not be better to put that into the, say, section reflecting on her legacy or lack thereof?).  It’s a bit unfortunate, because Wevill comes up only tangentially in biographies of Plath, or of Hughes, or of Plath & Hughes, so the promise of a biography centered on “the other woman” was intriguing.  In the end, though, the only one I felt sorry for was the young daughter of Wevill & Hughes, Shura, who wound up dead on the floor of the kitchen alongside her mother.

I read some other assorted things – a book on the Donner party, two books on Anabaptists in the US – which were consumed in much the same way I consume TV: they just sort of were.  However, I’m currently trotting through a very fun history book that involves one of my very favorite genres of non-fiction – namely, high-altitude climbing tales.  Now, I am not a climber.  I will never be a climber; I will certainly never be a high-altitude climber.  I’m not even sure when I developed a taste for climbing literature. I do remember being totally fascinated when they found George Mallory’s beautifully preserved body on Everest a few years back, and I read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air a few years after it came out.  Other than my inborn hillbilly love of mountains – and the Himalaya and other high ranges are certainly impressive ones – there’s really no rhyme or reason for my affection for non-fiction stories centered on climbing this or that crazily high point.  Maybe it’s simply that it’s so out of the realm of possibility for my life – I can’t even fathom wanting to do something like climbing Everest or K2 – that it goes from non-fiction to high fantasy.  There is something otherworldly about the high mountain scenes captured by talented photographers.

In any case, while I’ll usually read (guiltily, in the bath, ravenously) memoirs and accounts of varying quality as my most favored of fluff reading, Amazon – for once – had a good suggestion for me in Maurice Isserman & Stewart Weaver’s Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes (2010).  It is possibly telling that my favorite book of the past few months was published by a university press.  In any case, unlike most climbing literature which (at least these days) takes the form of memoir or disaster narrative, this is a delightful, juicy history that puts climbing in the Himalaya into context & situates it in larger forces.  It’s really fun and really interesting – and quite a change from my usual guilty pleasure climbing reading. The authors have less interest in obsessively documenting the details of specific expeditions (probably wise, since a great many books exist with only the subject of this or that expedition); rather, they sketch the outlines of what happened while devoting the bulk of their efforts to detailing why this all matters in a bigger picture.  I’m finding it engrossing, but good enough that I’m trying to spin out the reading experience as long as possible – thus only reading in chunks here or there.  Luckily, it’s a pretty “weighty” tome (or would be, if I had a paper copy), so there’s plenty of pages left to be spun out.

I suspect it’s the sort of thing that would bore anyone looking for a quick, light, inspirational (or cautionary) tale to tears, but it’s the sort of “fluff” I love best: serious history that has no bearing on the stuff that I do.  Or at least, if I don’t take notes, I don’t feel bad.  Which doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t read the footnotes!  I’m looking forward to getting back to my realm of expertise, but a few weeks of diversion has been restful & good for me – I’m feeling more energized than ever to delve back into Meng Chengshun, Meng Chao, opera, and various other projects.

Vittorio Sella, Camp Below the West Face of K2, Karakoram, June, 1909

Smashed jars & dictionaries

Being a Chinese historian – or, I should probably say, learning to be a Chinese historian – can be great fun, and also really frustrating, and fun and frustrating all at once.  Like most things in life, I guess, but I’m occasionally confronted with obstacles that make me wish I’d taken my mother’s initial advice and gone into some other field like … 17th century French history.  French: such a sensible language.

I’ve been translating a play.  This is the first time I’ve ever translated a whole play from Chinese to English, and also the first time I have really taken a foray into Ming dynasty literature.  I’ve read a fair amount of poetry, but even long ci – lyric poems – are reasonably manageable. It’s been quite the experience thus far, and as I have recently decided to go to Beijing in April – after a month of March that is going to be crammed with family visiting and other things drawing my attention away from work – I’ve redoubled my efforts.  Partially because I just want to get this sucker done, partially because one of my friends I am terribly excited to see in Beijing also happens to be quite an amazing talent when it comes to the Chinese language – so I’m hoping to lean on her brilliance a bit, and go over the rough spots and smooth things out, as we catch up over a bottle of wine.  But of course, I want to have the best and most complete work I can possibly manage done so we’ll just have to tweak things here and there.

Though the non-aria (non-poetry) bits are actually quite clear and understandable, some of the arias have proved significantly more difficult.  The standout section (at least in terms of ‘I … what?’ reactions it garners) follows approximately this pattern:

  • Complain about how unjust and pointless your life is at the moment for 2 lines
  • Talk about the substance of your life in ephemeral terms for 2 lines
  • Mention the beauty of the scenery for 1 line
  • Sum up with a line about a smashed (pickle?) jar before moving into another aria that mopes for 8 more lines.

Yes, a smashed jar that appears to have something to do with sour somethings (potentially pickles).  A jar in the middle of an aria that is otherwise concerned with a mopey wannabe scholar official. I exhausted the dictionaries I had at my disposal at the moment – wishing I had my trusty Far Eastern, but alas, it is in a box in storage in San Diego – to no avail.  Googling the phrase was unhelpful, kicking back only Japanese websites having to do with food.  So as a temporary measure of last resort, I brought the play and my early, rough translation to a Chinese friend of mine, who is generally a font of information – he can usually instantly correct the areas I’m having trouble with and immediately knows the ‘answer’ to the meaning behind the phrase.

“What in heaven’s name is this talking about?”  I was expecting an answer that would make me feel silly for not immediately seeing it, as most of these are (“Oh, the jar refers to the Duke of Zhou’s issue with his nephew that’s quoted in the …” et cetera).  But instead of having a quick response, he looked.  He read the lines leading up to it (which I’d translated just fine). And looked again.  He read the lines below it (which I’d also translated just fine). And looked again.  He had been kind enough to drag out his big, most frequently used dictionary to Starbucks, so we consulted it.  We paged through.  We looked up characters that it perhaps could be (one of the frustrations of older drama is a somewhat “inconsistent” use of characters – frequently, homophones will be used interchangeably, which makes for great fun if you’re not paying close attention).  We flipped things around.  Nothing.  Clearly, more serious linguistic artillery was needed.

So I queried a few people on good dictionaries to have in your collection, particularly when dealing with texts of this nature & was told to pick up the Peiwen yunfu 佩文韵府, a dictionary originally compiled in the early 18th century at the behest of the Kangxi emperor.  It’s a rhyming dictionary.  It’s hard to use, they said, but very useful.  So I tracked down a copy, and it arrived – all four volumes, an early 1980s edition.  Now, I consider myself a pretty well-read person, and I’ve dealt with fearsome looking dictionaries in a couple of languages.  At the same time, one of the fun things about being a Chinese historian is getting to build up an interesting collection of dictionaries – some are really more like encyclopedias than “dictionaries,” but still.  So it’s a dictionary, how bad could it be?  They’re meant to be useful, usable reference works – those essential things we turn to when things like … the handy dictionary on the iPod isn’t cutting it.

I mean, that doesn’t look so bad, right?  Maybe a bit big, but dictionaries sometimes are – just look at the OED, after all.  My first inkling that we might have “issues” is when I discovered volume 4 (the one on top of the box) – the index volume – was in Four Corners, a system that I don’t understand, and neither do most of my friends who are in their 20s.  Luckily there is a small section for stroke order, so all was not lost (there’s also a handy Wikipedia page that lists a number of characters and how to find them in Four Corners, so I’ve got that bookmarked).

However, I flipped it open, curious to see what it looked like.  Oh no.

Not only is it somewhat more difficult for me to find things in the dictionary to start with (due to a limited – at least by some standards – index), the dictionary itself is in tiny print.

But not just that, oh no.  No, that would be too easy.

It’s in traditional characters – which I usually prefer – but simplified characters really show their strength when you’re dealing with tiny crammed text that isn’t of the highest quality, print wise.  It’s unpunctuated, of course – thankfully, it’s mostly a big list of various examples culled from the classics, and the titles (or indication of whose poetry the example came from) are helpfully, if faintly, circled.  If this is an indispensable tool of the antique translation trade, I thought to myself, I am very glad to be a modern historian, even more glad that I primarily deal with the PRC, and practically ecstatic that I research videogames, as well.

I flipped back and forth between volumes.  I looked at the index and found a few characters – a few phrases, even – I was on the hunt for.  I found them in the Four Corners part of the index, and looked up their page numbers.  I went back to the dictionary volumes.  I looked again.  I put my nose nearly on the page so I could parse the characters.  I could even understand the text.  But what, exactly, I was supposed to do with it eluded me.

So I’m now in possession of a dictionary (a pretty expensive one) that I know will be very useful – when and if I figure out how to use it.  To that end, I’m lugging a volume out to coffee tomorrow so a friend can hopefully shed some light on what in the world I’m supposed to do with it.  Yes, we historians can be awfully wild at times – who needs a life when you’ve got a Qing dynasty dictionary to get acquainted with?

Maybe we’ll finally solve the mystery of the smashed jar that may or may not have anything to do with pickles.  I’ve exhausted the combinations I can think of, and I can’t find a trace of the phrase anywhere – but then, I don’t know how to use the dictionary. It is possible, I suppose, that it will be missing from the Peiwen – and we’ll have to go consult some even more terrifying dictionary (I can only imagine).  In the meantime, I’ll simply keep my fingers crossed that this is a little bump in what will prove to be a long and fruitful relationship between me and a dictionary that was first compiled 300 years ago.

(I suspect somewhere, the spirit of a certain emperor is probably having quite a good laugh at my expense)

On the joys of book shopping

With my first big batch of primary sources, Xiju bao 戏剧报 (1955-1959)

Or I should say, on the joys of kongfz.com.

One of the delightful things about living in China is the shopping (despite inflation worries, there are still a lot of goodies to be had on the cheap).  For a bibliophile like myself, who likes to own every bit of material related to my research that I can get my hands on, book shopping in China is an unparalleled paradise.  I was introduced to the wonders of the incredible Chinese book site kongfz.com in 2009 by a classmate, who kindly offered to pick up some purchases for me when she returned home to Guilin.  My spoils from that first foray included a 1960s practice edition of Li Huiniang used by the Northern Kun Opera Troupe (Beifang kunqu tuan 北方昆曲团) in the first performance of the opera  – mimeographed, torn cover, printed on appallingly bad paper (that I now realize is pretty standard issue for mimeographed anything from 1950s and 1960s China), and with old school brads holding the whole thing together (and putting nice rust stains on the cover).  I think I paid a whopping 20RMB for it (a little less than $3 USD).  I was hooked – it was like the Chinese Alibris, but cheaper!

Although I had said I’d be in a buying frenzy as soon as my feet hit Shanghainese earth, it actually took me a couple of months before I remembered the wonderful treasure trove I had been introduced to.  While I mentioned the site to a number of friends, general skittishness about dealing with the Chinese banking system and other pressing concerns put book shopping on the back burner until this month.

When I finally started poking through the offerings from book stores all over China, I had a hard time reining myself in.   Everything was fair game – old journals?  Check.  Old practice editions used by Chinese opera troupes in the 1950s and 1960s, like that very first one I had bought? Absolutely.  Picture book editions (lianhuanhua 连环画) of classic plays? Well, I have been looking to start a book collection of some type for a while ….  Even less thrilling finds were still exciting.  Secondary sources I’d found useful for 8RMB including shipping (that’s about $1 USD), books I didn’t even know existed (the collected poems of a 17th century woman poet I adore).

Packages arrive every day – usually little ones, but sometimes big ones.  Today, a set of the important drama magazine Xiju bao 戏剧报 arrived, marking the first part of my acquisition of all issues from 1955 to 1966 (which will later be rounded out with late 1970s and early 1980s issues).  Despite the availability of the magazine in libraries (both here and back in the US) and online, I find there is something so useful about flipping through hard copies of journals and newspapers.  Our databases make it easy to find every occurrence of a search term with a few keystrokes.  But it’s so hard to replicate the experience of simply paging through a source and seeing what leaps out when one is dealing in links and PDFs, and I’m thrilled to have my very own copies now.

A lot has changed since my advisors were doing their dissertation research.  The fact that we now have access to libraries and archives in the PRC is something that was only a pipe dream for a few decades.  Fantastic online databases mean we can access journals, books, and newspapers from the late Qing on (and, in some cases, things much older than that).  But I can’t help thinking that one of the coolest things, and certainly quite different, is the fact that I can hop online, type in a few search terms, and get kicked back a list of potential sources – sources that I can buy with my trusty USB key card from ICBC, and that will arrive at my house in a few days, carried by my harried post person (who still screams out my Chinese name at the top of her lungs upon arriving).  In the past few days, things have shown up on my doorstep that I didn’t even know existed before I found them on the world’s best second hand book website.

I always sit down with my new-to-me books, look through their sometimes crisp, often battered pages, and write my name and date of acquisition on the inside cover.  It’s an insipid ritual, but there is something that is so wonderful about handling these bits of history (even if I, as a PRC historian, only handle things that are at most 60 years old).  I’ve always liked the Japanese historian E.H. Norman’s description of the pleasures of the historian (as related by John Dower in Origins of the Modern Japanese State: Selected Writings of E.H. Norman):

On the most simple and intimate level, he spoke (in “History: Its Uses and Pleasure”) of “the magical pleasure that the reading of history can give” – the realization that there is no last word on any given subject; the recognition that when written by the greats, history has the pathos of a Greek tragedy; the dimensions of irony, mystery and poetry; and this: “that peculiar pleasure of reading in the calm of one’s study of turbulent events, of great triumphs and failures or simply of the everyday life of people in bygone ages. To cast one’s mind into the past and to have described vividly for one the passions and ambitions, the hopes and disappointments not only of great men, but of people like ourselves, is to feel an intimation of man’s immortal spirit. (5)

… and can’t help thinking that it’s all the more delightful when kicked back with an aged book that has somehow survived long enough to fall into my hands – here, now, in 2011.

[A revised version of this post appeared on The China Beat on 22 February, 2011.  It includes more in-depth nitty-gritty on how to shop with Kongfz.com (and illustrates the wide variety of materials you can get for a wide variety of prices!)]