Wednesday, December 17, 2014

On Ezra Pound’s Translation of Ancient Chinese Poetry

Can one translate poetry without knowing the source language?  Certainly that was what Ezra Pound did.  In his volume Cathay (1915), Pound translates a total of 19 pieces of ancient Chinese poetry, spanning a period from the 11th Century B.C. to 4th Century A.D.  But of course he couldn’t have done it without help from someone who had knowledge of the Chinese language, in this case Ernest Fenollosa, an American orientalist. The unusual situation, however, was that Pound was approached by Fenollosa’s wife after the man’s death.  At the time, in the 1910s-20s, English information about Chinese poetry must have been scarce, thus Pound’s only basis for the translation was Fenollosa’s meticulous unpublished notes. In addition to providing a word-by-word mapping between Japanese and English, the notes also include line-by-line draft translation into English.
Given Pound’s lack of knowledge of Chinese at the time, it is probably not a big surprise that Cathay contains quite a few citation errors. For example, the first poem in the collection, “Son of the Bowman of Shu,” is cited by Pound as from Kustugen (the Japanese name for Qu Yuan) in the 4th Century B.C., however it in fact is an anonymous work collected in Shijing (also known as Book of Songs), the earliest known volume of Chinese poetry.   Another example is the third poem, the famous “River Song.” Though correctly cited as from Li Bai (whom the Japanese called “Rihaku”), one of the most acclaimed poets in the Tang Dynasty, Pound had mistaken two poems as one.  The first 22 lines of “The River Song” correspond to a poem titled “江上吟” (“Humming on the River”), while the rest, starting from “The east wind brings the green color…”, correspond to a different poem by Li Bai titled “侍从宜春苑奉诏赋龙池柳色初青听新莺百嗽歌”, meaning literally “Following orders to write about listening to new birds singing in early spring, while serving the Emperor in Yichun Park.” Two completely different occasions in distinct settings.  It is curious that Pound would regard their contents as fitting perfectly in a single poem. There are a few other minor errors that I will skip here.
If the above errors are merely technical, wherever Fenollosa had missed the original Chinese meaning (though such occasions were few), the same problem also transferred into Pound’s “translation.”  Take “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” as an example. In Li Bai's original poem, "长干行," there is this famous line that has since become a timeless allusion known as "bamboo horse and green plums":  
郎骑竹马来,绕床弄青梅。
Which Pound translated as (underlines are mine):
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.

Here, the word “” usually means “bed,” but in ancient Chinese it also means the fence of a backyard well. The latter mining happens to be what Li Bai is referring to in this poem. Such language nuance can present difficulties for even a native speaker, not to mention a foreigner. Curiously, In Fenollosa’s notes the word is translated as “seat” instead of the usual meaning “bed.” He might not have known the other, less-common meaning of the word, and felt that “bed” wouldn’t have made sense: the first part of the line obviously refers to an outdoor setting.  Either “you walked about my seat” or “you walked about my bed” wouldn’t read right, but apparently Fenollosa went for the less nonsensical.  Pound might or might not have noticed this inconsistency, but there was not much he could do about it, being unable to read the original text. In any case, a glitch like this could probably be explained away by “poetic license.” So the error is kept.  In the same line, “blue plums” should actually be “green plums,” indicating the fruits are unripe, a metaphor for the young girl and boy.  This metaphor is completely lost in the translation.  
Another interesting thing to note is that the original poem alludes to an allegory known as “Holding-pillar faith,” which originates from a book by ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi. The allegory goes like this:  a man is waiting for his female date under a bridge. Before the woman arrives, however, the river water unexpectedly rises. To be faithful to his promise, the man doesn’t leave; he holds onto a pillar of the bridge until he drowns.  The moral of this allegory is one can place love above his own life. Li Bai's lines that allude to this

十五始展眉,愿同尘与灰。
常存抱柱信,岂上望夫台。

were translated by Pound as

At fifteen I stopped scowling, 
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours 
Forever and forever and forever. 
Why should I climb the look out? 

In Fenollosa's notes, he had written a draft translation “I always had in me the faith of holding to pillars / And why should I think of climbing the husband looking out terrace.”  This is quite accurate literally; however it is unclear whether he was aware of the allusion. In any case he did not explain it. At this point Pound, who had faithfully followed Fenollosa’s translation so far, took the liberty to exclude that line completely, probably because he couldn’t make sense of it.  In its place he put “Forever and forever and forever.” The meaning of “forever” was indeed implied by Li Bai in his poem, but the great Chinese poet would never have said it so tritely; that would not be his poetic style. 
This example is one of a few places where Pound's translation departs from Fenollosa’s notes.  Reading the two men’s translations side by side for this poem, one can see that Pound  copied Fenollosa’s complete lines more often than not. T.S. Eliot said in a 1928 essay that “There is as much as to say that Chinese poetry, as we know it today, is something invented by Ezra Pound.”  It seems to me in that statement Ernest Fenollosa’s name should have at least been in line with, if not replacing, Ezra Pound’s.
Interestingly, Pound’s translation of the Chinese poetry – or should I say Fenollosa’s translation instead? – especially of the longer poems, often reads more fluid than what I’ve seen from ethnic Chinese translators.  Let’s compare two different translations of the first poem included in Cathay
---------------------------------------
The Chinese original:
采薇

采薇采薇 薇亦作止
曰归曰归 岁亦莫止
靡室靡家 玁狁之故
不遑启居 玁狁之故

采薇采薇 薇亦柔止
曰归曰归 心亦忧止
忧心烈烈 载饥载渴
我戍未定 靡使归聘

采薇采薇 薇亦刚止
曰归曰归 岁亦阳止
王事靡盬 不遑启处
忧心孔疚 我行不来

彼尔维何 维常之华
彼路斯何 君子之车
戎车既驾 四牡业业
岂敢定居 一月三捷

驾彼四牡 四牡骙骙
君子所依 小人所腓
四牡翼翼 象弭鱼服
岂不日戒 玁狁孔棘

昔我往矣 杨柳依依
今我来思 雨雪霏霏
行道迟迟 载渴载饥
我心伤悲 莫知我哀
---------------------------------
Ezra Pound's translation:
SONG OF THE BOWMAN OF SHU

Here we are, picking the first fern-shoots 
And saying: When shall we get back to our country? 
Here we are because we have the Ken-nin for our foemen, 
We have no comfort because of these Mongols. 

We grub the soft fern-shoots, 
When anyone says "Return," the others are full of sorrow. 
Sorrowful minds, sorrow is strong, we are hungry and thirsty. 
Our defense is not yet made sure, no one can let his friend return. 

We grub the old fern-stalks. 
We say: Will we be let to go back in October? 
There is no ease in royal affairs, we have no comfort. 
Our sorrow is bitter, but we would not return to our country. 

What flower has come into blossom? 
Whose chariot? The General's. 
Horses, his horses even, are tired. They were strong. 
We have no rest, three battles a month.

By heaven, his horses are tired. 
The generals are on them, the soldiers are by them. 
The horses are well trained, the generals have ivory arrows and quivers ornamented with   fish-skin. 
The enemy is swift, we must be careful. 

When we set out, the willows were drooping with spring, 
We come back in the snow, 
We go slowly, we are hungry and thirsty,
Our mind is full of sorrow, who will know of our grief?
--------------------------------

A translation by Yang Yixian and Dai Naidie, from A Choice Selection of Ancient PoemsChinese—English, published by Foreign Language Press in China:

We Gather Vetch

We gather vetch, gather vetch,
While the young shoots are springing;
Oh, to go back, go back;
But the year is ending.
We have no house, no home,
Because of the Huns.
We cannot sit or take rest,
Because of the Huns.

We gather vetch, gather vetch,
While the shoots are tender;
Oh, to go back, go back;
Our hearts are sad.
Our sad hearts burn,
And we hunger and thirst;
But our garrison duty drags on,
And no messenger goes to take news home.

We gather vetch, gather vetch,
But the shoots are tough;
Oh, to go back, go back;
The tenth month is here again,
But the king’s business is unending;
We cannot sit or take rest;
Our sad hearts are racked with pain,
And no one comes to comfort us on our march.

What splendid blossom is that?
It is the blossom of the cherry tree.
What great chariot is that?
It is the chariot of a nobleman.
His war-chariot stands ready yoked
With four proud stallions;
How can we settle in one place?
We march to three different posts in a month.
           
The four stallions are yoked
To make a sturdy team;
The nobleman rides in the chariot,
We take cover behind;
Four stately stallions,
Ivory bow-ends and a fish-skin quiver;
Every day we must be on our guard,
We are hard-pressed by the Huns.

When we left home
The willows were softly swaying;
Now as we turn back
Snowflakes fly.
Our road is a long one
And we thirst and hunger,
Our hearts are filled with sorrow;
But who knows our misery?
--------------------
The translators were/are all literary experts in their own native language.  However, when it comes to translation, neither party appears to have sufficient knowledge of the nuance of the other language.  Though both translations are fairly accurate in meaning, they read quite differently as poetry.
This Chinese poem, "采薇," from the 11th Century B.C., laments soldiers’ homesickness as they guard their kingdom’s border against nomad invaders from spring to winter. Its meaning is straightforward and there are no allusions, but like other poems in Shijing, this one maintains a singing/chanting rhythm throughout, in which a refrain occurs often, not only between stanzas but also within a line.    
The Chinese translators certainly understood the form and meaning of this poem better than Pound, and their translation attempts to render the folk song quality with the refrain pattern.  However their English is not nuanced enough to match their Chinese level of artistic quality.  For example, admittedly nitpicking: using “to go back” without context is a common Chinglish way of expressing “returning home.” It is rather unclear here and could lead to basic misunderstanding of the literal meaning. In comparison, Pound’s translation has lost the original poem’s style and folk-song quality, but reads much more fluid and natural (and "get back to our country" quite clear).  This is to say, each translation has its own strengths and weaknesses. This also implies that, it is possible to keep the strength of each and avoiding many of the weaknesses by combining the two.
Consider a modified version that blends the above two translations and fixes their errors. For the sake of the sounds, I'm adopting the word "vetch" for , since there are so many interpretations for what this wild vegetable actually is/was – spinach, wild peas, fern shoots, vetch, etc., you name it – and I have no way to tell which is most accurate. For similar reasons, I'm keeping "Xianyun" from the original poem for the name of the "foemen" tribe.

Picking vetch, picking vetch, the first shoots are springing
Saying “Return,” saying “Return,” the year is already ending
No family, no home, because of Xianyun the foemen
No rest, no comfort, because of Xianyun the foemen

Picking vetch, picking vetch, the shoots are soft and fresh
Saying “Return,” saying “Return,” our hearts are full of sorrow
Sorrowful minds, sorrow is burning us, so is hunger, so is thirst
Our defense is not yet certain, no one can be sent home

Picking vetch, picking vetch, the shoots are getting tough
Saying “Return,” saying “Return,” it is October already
No ease in the king’s affairs, no break for us
Our hearts pain with sorrow, we still can’t go home 

What fabulous blossom is that?  It is the cherry tree’s
Whose great chariot is that? It is the general’s
The war-chariot is yoked, the four horses are tall
No one dares rest, three battles a month

Four horses are driving the chariot, four strong horses
The higher men are on them, the lower men are by them 
The horses are well trained, bows of ivory, quivers ornamented with fish-skin 
No one dares relax, the enemy is swift 

When we set out, the willows were drooping with spring 
When we come back, snowflakes fly everywhere
We go slowly, we are hungry and thirsty
Our mind is full of sorrow, who will know our misery?

If my modified version above is indeed an improvement in the translation, then a case can be made that better literary translation would be a cooperative project between two translators, one a native speaker and expert of the source language, and the other the target language.  Only in this way, can the nuances in both languages could be captured and presented in the translation.  This, of course, is mainly for the benefit of readers and the quality of the translated literature.  I do understand that not every translator would be willing to share his or her work or cooperate with another translator.
            

Monday, February 10, 2014

What Foreigners Do in China

(Also published on LARB's China Blog)

In the remote mountains of Yunnan Province, China, a middle-aged European ecologist gave up his high-level international program manager job and made his home with a local woman. Together, they set forth to reestablish the rainforests destroyed by rubber tree plantations, cultivated a garden — a seed bank — that “was home to more species than all of Germany,” reintroduced indigenous plant species to China, and homeschooled two bright young children with knowledge, poise and manners belying their age. In 2010, the extraordinary life of the ecologist, along with the draft of an unconventional paper that could “be of enormous value to mankind,” was cut short by a heart attack.

This story about Josef Margraf, written by journalist Jonathan Watts, is not a news report or profile but rather an essay, moving for both Watts’ own introspection and his sketch of Margraf’s life. I read it in the anthology Unsavory Elements —Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China, in which editor Tom Carter has assembled 28 short contributions by a variety of expat writers. I had opened the book with the intention of browsing through it quickly. Though I was curious about how expats live in China, and why there are so many of them now, as a Chinese writer with a certain cynicism, I did not expect to find anything truly surprising. But surprised I was, and my own stereotypical presumptions stand corrected.

In 1971, when I was a middle school student in the city of Chongqing, recruiters dressed in military uniforms from the faraway Yunnan Production and Construction Corps — a more attractive name, I suppose, than “rubber plantations” to teenagers at the time — arrived at my campus and called on students to join them “guarding the frontier and cultivating the borderland.” Many of us, me included, applied with youthful enthusiasm, and almost everyone I knew who applied got their wish. I was spared because I was under-aged and also because some insightful adults, who viewed higher education as more important than planting rubber trees, stood in my way. In all, about 100,000 middle school students were collected from the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Chengdu, and Kunming and sent to labor in Yunnan’s rubber plantations. The collective name for those young people was “Zhiqing,” or “Educated Youth.” Seven years of hardship and many tragic stories later, in the winter of 1978-79, those Zhiqing launched a spontaneous mass rally that has since been termed the “big return-to-city storm,” which eventually did bring them home. By then I, as one of the lucky few, had entered my second year in university, but my middle school friends who went to Yunnan missed their chance not only for university, but even for a high school education.

I had thought that the wasted youth of my 100,000 contemporaries qualified as the biggest damage caused by the rubber plantations, and that an end had been put to the practice in early 1979. Not until reading Watts’ chapter did I realize with a shock that the rubber plantations have been expanding during China’s recent economic boom and have gone on to become one of “China’s greatest ecological disasters.” The invasive species eats away at the region’s fertility and diversity, changes weather conditions and rainfall, and threatens to wipe out China’s only tropical rainforest. Many friends from my youth, through their goodwill and hard work, had unknowingly contributed to the disaster while also bringing short-term benefits to China’s industries.

In his essay titled “Invasive Species,” Watts also points out that, ironically, it was Europeans who brought rubber trees and monocultural practices to China more than a century ago. As a European himself, Josef Margraf’s effort thus could be viewed as “looking to the future by making up for the past wrongs.” “I think Josef has achieved more than any foreigner I had met,” says Watts, who also wonders loudly, “weren’t we too part of a kind of invasive species?”

Nowadays, there are over one million foreigners living in China, “many of whom are in effect economic refugees,” says Tom Carter in his introduction. The exponential growth of foreign residents compared to the late 1980s, when I first met my American husband in Chengdu, alone illustrates the now tried and true cliché “look how much China has changed!” Chinese readers of my generation, however, might also find in the book more than a few things that are unchanged, sometimes in unexpected corners. Dominic Stevenson, who fits more into the category of adventurer than economic refugee, left a comfortable life in Bangkok for China, but ended up spending two years in a Shanghai prison for being a hash smuggler along the ancient Silk Road. Stevenson’s essay, titled “Thinking Reports,” provides a rare glance at life as a foreign prisoner. A bizarrely familiar scene described in the chapter is probably unfamiliar to today’s young generation of Chinese: Stevenson and his cellmates are required to write “thought reports,” a maddening practice prevalent in the Cultural Revolution years that had “reformed” more than a few otherwise noble men into despicable informants betraying their friends. The suspense of Stevenson’s story is thus how he, a liberal-minded foreigner, will react to such a request. I can only hope the practice of “thought reporting” preserved in a prison is not going to reappear in Chinese society at large, a dreadful outlook no longer unthinkable under Xi Jinping’s rule.

But I might be too pessimistic. Simon Winchester takes my emotional ride with the expat experiences to a high point in his epilogue, where he is stuck in the void of western China’s desert alone with his dead car, toying with the prospect of perishing. “Except.” Following this emphatic pause is a cellphone signal, and his rescue because of it. “The Chinese build their infrastructure well these days, and one of the first things they have created in making their new nationwide transportation system — long before finishing the roads — is a cell phone network.” I might not agree with the author’s conclusion that China has become so successful today “precisely because it [is] not a casually planned society any more,” but that does not stop me from being in a celebratory mood when reading about a man’s life saved by China’s modern telecommunication infrastructure. This despite my own support for a neighborhood protest against the building of another cellular tower in our Boston suburb.

While my contradictory attitude might be explained away by the Chinese adage This is one time, that was another, Graham Earnshaw’s chapter “Playing in the Gray” tells a story eerily reminiscent of an earlier time. In 1872, a British businessman named Ernest Major launched one of the first and most prominent Chinese newspapers, Shen Pao, in Shanghai, which went on to lay the foundation for modern Chinese newspapers and continued publication for 77 years, until the Communists took over Shanghai in May 1949. Half a century later, in 1998, Earnshaw, again a Briton, again in Shanghai, founded “the first independent weekly English-language newspaper to be produced in Shanghai since the communist takeover in 1949.” “Sure, it was illegal. It had no publication license, its content was not reviewed by the Propaganda Bureau ahead of publication, and we had no right to print or distribute. But we did it anyway.” This fascinating experience led Earnshaw to believe China is a place where “nothing is allowed but everything is possible.”

Perhaps that is one of the major attractions of the Middle Kingdom. In an interview with Business Insider, Tom Carter was asked, “Do you think that the influence of foreigners on China is a good thing?” and he answered, “All things considered, I think China is more of an influence on the expats who live here than we are on it…” Circling back to the story about Josef Margraf, the influences work both ways, and every person has a different story to tell. I ended up reading through Unsavory Elements page by page, story by story, on the train to work in the morning and, when I was lucky enough to find a seat, on the way home in the evening as well. It is an uneven book, as might be expected of any anthology. There are a few stories that come across as condescending, sentimental, or dull. But the majority of them are captivating and, as a whole, the book is unexpectedly wide-ranging, thought-provoking, and entertaining.

Monday, November 4, 2013

"Better to Let Half of the People Die," said Mao?

http://www.amazon.com/Tombstone-Great-Chinese-Famine-1958-1962/dp/0374277931
Nearly two years ago, when I translated Yang Jisheng's response to Dikötter's strange comments on Tombstone, I said I was intensely interested to find out whether Mao really said "It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill," and if he did, in what context.  I received a couple of clues, but none provided the complete context, and I have been left wondering since. I even sent an email to Yang Jisheng asking if he knew about this Mao quote, but did not hear back – perhaps the email address I got from a journalist friend was no longer valid.

Amazingly, last week the answer came to me by accident, as I was reading a scholarly article written by Anthony Garnaut, a historian at Oxford, published in the journal China Information. 

In his article, "Hard facts and half-truths: The new archival history of China's Great Famine," Garnaut finds out that the Mao quote in question is not from a speech Mao delivered on March 25, 1959 as Dikötter claims, but it represents an impromptu response Mao made to Bo Yibo's report on the implementation of the industrial plan in the days that followed. "The comment is preceded by several remarks by Mao about Party oversight of the industrial sector, none of which touch upon agriculture or rural welfare." Mao was weighing in on how many projects should be undertaken to accomplish the plan set forth in Bo's report. Mao says:

If we want to fulfill the plan, then we need to greatly reduce the number of projects. We need to be resolute in further cutting the 1,078 major projects down to 500. (要完成计划,就要大減项目。1078个项目中还应該堅決地再多削減,削到500个。)

To distribute resources evenly is a way to sabotage the Great Leap Forward. (平均使用力量是破坏大跃进的办法。)

If all are unable to eat their fill, then all will die. It is better for half to die, so that half of the people can eat their fill. (大家吃不飽,大家死,不如死一半,給一半人吃飽。)

"The ‘people’ whom Mao was willing to let die of starvation turn out to be not people at all," Garnaut concludes, "but large-scale industrial projects."

I'm glad this fact is clarified, not because it mitigates Mao's guilt (it doesn't), but it supports the conclusion I reached in my LARB review of the two books by Yang and Dikötter respectively, that "the catastrophe was not a deliberate act of mass murder like the Holocaust, as Dikötter suggests. Rather, it was the result of policy failures from a governance system based on the control of ideology and information." This distinction is important if there are any lessons to be learned for today's leaders.

Another China scholar once wrote me – after reading my LARB review – that Mao's
monstrous moral failing was not in the motivation of starting the Great Leap Forward which turned out to be disastrous, but in his attitude toward criticism of his policies in the aftermath. I couldn't agree more with this assessment.

A question remains:  did Dikötter know what Mao meant but intentionally misinterpret it for wanting a smoking gun, or was his Chinese not good enough for him to know what he was doing?

By the way, Garnaut's article also analyzes Dikötter's repeated assaults on Yang Jisheng and his unacknowledged use of Yang's research results. I must say that, to date I still don't quite understand Dikötter's motivation in turning around on someone who had helped him generously with his research.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Reviews of Unsavory Elements

I have gotten good feedback on compiling reviews for a book (example: "Reviews of Deng Xiaoping in Review").  So here is another one - today for Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China. Some of these reviews (as well as the comments they triggered) are surely interesting to read.

I also plan to write a review myself, and I can tell you beforehand that I honestly enjoyed reading most of the book. But since translation issues will be beyond the scope of my review, here I'd like to briefly discuss the translation of two Chinese phrases, which I happened to encounter in two of my favorite stories in the book. 

"思想汇报" -- in the book it's translated as "thinking reports,"  but "thought reports" might be more accurate, and read better.

"哪里哪里" -- as a modest response to praises, this is humorously translated as "Where? where?" in the book.  If you have read my posts on translation before, you would know I'm often in favor of literal translation, but here I agree with one of the book reviewers below that "Nah, nah" would be a better rendition. Note also that the question marks don't exist in the original Chinese phrase. As a bilingual reader I enjoyed and appreciate the writer's humor, but for English readers who don't know Chinese the confusion caused by  "Where? where?" might trump the humorous effect.

Now, here is my compilation of reviews as well as interviews with Tom Carter the editor, in reverse chronological order of their publication dates --

(Updated 11/5)

TheAtlantic.com, Nov. 5, 2013
http://www.theatlantic.com/china/archive/2013/11/unsavory-elements-on-foreign-lives-in-contemporary-china/281144/

LA Review of Books, Sept. 25, 2013
http://tumblr.lareviewofbooks.org/post/62262869667/foreign-elements-a-q-a-with-photographer

The Peking Duck, Sept. 13, 2013
http://www.pekingduck.org/2013/09/unsavory-elements-edited-by-tom-carter-2/

Caixin Online, Aug. 24, 2013
http://english.caixin.com/2013-08-24/100573568.html

Asian Review of Books, Aug. 17, 2013
http://www.asianreviewofbooks.com/new/?ID=1545

Business Insider, Aug. 2, 2013
http://www.businessinsider.com/unsavory-elements-by-tom-carter-2013-8

TheNanfang.com, July 22, 2013
http://www.thenanfang.com/blog/unsavory-elements-and-the-changing-nature-of-being-an-expat-in-china/

That's,  June 17, 2013
http://www.thatsmags.com/beijing/articles/15499

Chengdu Living, June 1, 2013
http://www.chengduliving.com/unsavory-elements-in-chengdu/

The Beijing Cream, May 21, 2013
http://beijingcream.com/2013/05/unsavory-elements-the-good-the-bad-and-the-boring-foreigners-of-china/

Beijing Bookworm: "A Q&A with Tom Carter," May 21, 2013
http://beijingbookworm.com/between-the-stacks/unsavory-elements-a-qa-with-tom-carter/

Time Out Shanghai, May 10, 2013
http://www.timeoutshanghai.com/features/Books__Film-Book_reviews/11883/Unsavory-Elements.html

The Beijinger, May 9, 2013
http://www.thebeijinger.com/blog/2013/05/09/book-review-unsavory-elements-stories-foreigners-loose-china

Shanghaiist, May 8, 2013
http://shanghaiist.com/2013/05/08/review_unsavory_elements_earnshaw_books_tom_carter.php

 

Monday, April 15, 2013

The New American Mother

(A personal essay about my early days in America)


In pain, you know only your native language.

The fetal monitor beside me showed a running curve, no pause between contractions. I was screaming in Chinese, my American husband told me later, but the language of pain did not need translation: the midwife hurried over to offer a painkiller. I refused; I did not want to risk my baby to any drug, no matter how safe they said it was.

When the baby finally emerged, wet and squalling, the midwife encouraged my husband to cut her umbilical cord. He did it with shaking hands while, with one glance at the new life I had created, I fell into the deep sleep of exhaustion. Hours later I opened my eyes to find myself still on the delivery bed; Bob sat to the side watching me, and our tiny new baby cradled in his big arms. I wanted to see whom the baby looked like, her American father or Chinese mother, but her closed eyes and the little reddened face gave no clue. Only her rhythmic hiccups expounded the commonness among humans.

Early the next morning, a nurse came to my hospital bed asking if I had urinated. "I did a lot," I told her, trying to be complete, but my Southern Chinese tongue, which did not distinguish "l" from "n," twisted the sound of "lot" to "not." "You did, or you did not?" The nurse asked again, her face twisted in confusion. I repeated the answer. She repeated the question. Several repetitions later, the frustrated nurse left without a sure answer. I only hoped that information was not important.

*

Giving birth was not the only hard thing for me in the new land.

Bob and I were married in China, and I had come to America with him for only a few months. Shortly after my arrival, one afternoon a delivery truck brought to our door a new refrigerator Bob had just purchased. The driver, a big muscular man in a white T-shirt, demanded a $30 delivery fee. I wanted to tell him my husband had paid the fee at the store, besides I did not have the cash at hand. However I could not form a proper English sentence. I made repeated "Ah, ah" sounds, like a mute person trying to talk, and they infuriated the man. He shouted, flailing his arms, "You don't wanna pay? Heh? Heh?" I understood his Boston-accented English, but I could not make him understand me. I feared he was not trusting of my Chinese face. Our landlord, an American man at his fifties, ran downstairs and said, "Easy, easy. She's new here, she doesn't speak English. It’s only 30 bucks." He took out money from his own pocket and handed to the driver, who climbed up the truck with our landlord's money, and uttered some incomprehensible apologetic words.

*

Before our baby's birth, Bob persuaded me to attend an exercise class for expectant mothers. The first time the exercise instructor said "hold," I did not know what to do. I looked around to see what others did, but found no apparent movements. The instructor smiled at my puzzlement, "Like you were going to pee, but not," she explained. A slight laughter ensued from my classmates, all American women.

When I returned to the class for postpartum exercise, the secretary asked for my baby's picture and my comments on the experience of giving birth for the first time. The wall facing her desk was full of pictures of cute infants, all looked the same with closed-eyes, and their mothers' exhilarating notes. I told her, "It was painful." The smile disappeared from the middle-aged woman's face. After a moment she said, "Well, I'm not going to write that down."

A fellow mother beside me said, "You'll forget the pain, believe me. Then you'll want another baby!"

*

I went to Boston University's summer English school when my baby was three months old. I couldn't wait. I pumped my own milk (a very difficult and painful affair) each evening, and stored it in the new fridge. I nursed my baby in the morning, pushed her stroller with my pumped milk to the babysitter, and rode an hour on my bicycle from Belmont to BU. The bike ride was an idea of one arrow for two eagles: to save the subway fair and to lose the weight from my pregnancy. I bought the bike from a yard sale, and it cost only $15.

My class contained mostly young Japanese women, a decade younger than me perhaps. On the first day's introduction, I thought it funny that we had two Miki's. The second time I heard the name Miki, I chuckled, "Ah, Miki too!"

"My name is Miki! No Miki one, no Miki two!" the young woman yelled at me in an unexpected anger. "I said 'too,'" I tried to explain, "t-o-o," but it only made her angrier. What created me an unintended enemy the first day, my bad pronunciation, or the universality of lack-of-understanding, I was not sure.

Not a good start.

*

Katherine, the thirty-something teacher, chewed gum and gave us an assignment to make sentences from our new vocabulary. I was stuck at the word "ample." My baby did not take the pumped milk yesterday, the babysitter had told me. Should I quit the English school and stay home with her? Was she sick? I should check the color of her poop more carefully tonight.

I wrote: "A baby has ample poop."

Katherine read my sentence to the class and said it was wrong, but I did not understand why.

After class, the other Miki, the friendly one, asked me what "poop" meant. "The thing you do in bathroom," I told her. Her cheeks flushed, but she was persistent: "Which one? Big one or little one?"

The evening I asked my American husband what was wrong with my sentence. He laughed and laughed. "It's so cute! It's so cute!" He cooed to the baby, "Let's check your ample poop." He made me laugh too, but I suspected his love had handicapped his ability to teach me proper English. He enjoyed my Chinglish too much.

*

My baby cried the whole night and I did not finish my English homework. In the morning, during my hour-long bike ride to BU, it showered. I looked like a drenched chicken when I showed up at the classroom door and I was late. "Don't come in yet," Katherine frowned at me, then she turned to ask the other women students, "Who has extra clothes?"

The friendly Miki took me to her dorm in BU and made me change to her dry clothes. The shirt and the pants were a bit too short for me, but her generosity was not. We returned to the classroom twenty minutes later, and Katherine's expression softened.

Katherine paired off the students to check each other's homework, and she assigned the unfriendly Miki to me. I hesitated before saying, "I'm sorry, I did not get the time to do my homework." Miki wasted no time looking for more explanation. She shouted, in a victorious voice, to the teacher across the classroom, "She did not do the homework! She did not do the homework!" Katherine's face dropped. The entire class went quiet, and 12 pairs of eyes stared at me. I had not known this was such a big crime.

I told Katherine, and the class, about my crying baby, and my words sounded like a bad excuse. The quiet stares continued. None of the young students were married. I wasn't sure about Katherine's marital status, but I knew she was not a mother. The other day, during the lunch break, when I was looking for a store to buy a more effective milk pump, she had directed me to a bicycle shop.

Now she said, "Perhaps you should just stay home and be a good mother." Then she ordered me to leave.

I rode my bike home, crying all the way. I had always been a top student in China, from elementary to graduate school, and now I was kicked out of a class for a stupid piece of English homework.

The afternoon, Bob took off from work and drove to BU's administration office. The administrator responded to his protest by telling him that Katherine was an ambitious teacher, one of their best, and her aggressive approach was quite understandable.

I told Bob I was quitting the English school.

*

That weekend, in a Chinese friend's party, my baby sat on the floor playing with her rosy bear. She was four months old. Suddenly I heard a sound, a sound so clear, so melodious, like a pearl falling into a silver plate. It took me a moment to realize it was laughter, my baby's first laughter. I held her up, laughing too, turning around to meet Bob's equally amused eyes. The room was full of noises from the host and the guests, and no one else had noticed the most amazing, most rewarding sound in the world.

I rode my bike to BU again on Monday, my baby's first laughter following me all the way like sunshine. It made me realize that my English vocabulary would grow with her. One day—I promised myself—I would get revenge on Katherine with my first published story written in English.

(First published in MotherVerse, 2006)

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Reading: Harper's on Bo Xilai

For much of 2012, the year of China's political earthquake, I waited to read Harper's analysis of the Bo Xilai saga, but never got the chance. As a long-time subscriber, I'm glad to see a report this year, even if it's a bit late.  In her informative article "The Unraveling of Bo Xilai – China loses a populist star," Lauren Hilgers provides balanced coverage of the divided public opinions on Bo, and convincingly shows how information unavailability helped to veil the fact that a Chinese politician who once appeared to be the most accessible "had been no more candid than any other Party secretary."  

I completely agree with Hilgers that officialdom opacity is a big problem in China and, as I've discussed before, different social classes have different level of access to information. But her article sparked more thoughts. Suppose all the social classes received the same amount of information about Bo Xilai, would their positions toward him converge?   I doubt it.

Chongqing, where Bo Xilai last ruled, is my hometown and I visit it often. There has been a heavy divide between the locals even when confronted with the same promulgated information.  Intellectuals I spoke to disliked Bo's behavior and policies long before his downfall; this is consistent with Hilgers' report.  Many low-income, less-educated people, on the other hand, continue to advocate Bo even after his dark side has been exposed and the initial stage of disbelief has passed. What's interesting – and also alarming – is the latter's reasoning. So what if Bo was corrupt? They say, Which official in China is not?  But the others are corrupt AND incompetent, while Bo was capable of getting something done. So what if Bo's "Chongqing model" was causing local government bankruptcy?  Certainly it is a lot better to spend the money on local construction than let it fall into the pockets of corrupt officials. And, so what if Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun carried out cruel torture, unjust executions, and massive imprisonments of private businessmen and political dissenters during their "anti-mafia" campaign?  Since ancient times, "killing the rich to benefit the poor" has been justified.

So, the most urgent and fundamental problem as seen by the two groups of people is different. To those with low-income, it is the wealth gap.  To liberal intellectuals, it is the rule of law. Both are legitimate concerns, and both should be addressed.  Bo, however, for his own self-serving agenda chose to play the game of favoring one and trampling the other. While it is clear that he placed himself above the law during his rule in Chongqing, there is no evidence that his populist policies (the so-called "Chongqing model") actually reduced the wealth gap; further, the face engineering that pleased his supporters is unsustainable, as it was implemented with heavy borrowing that has put Chongqing's finances into dire straits. In fact, what the current division in public opinion reflects is that the Bo incident has become an anchor from which both sides can vent their discontent.

Hilgers also touches on a very interesting phenomenon: "[T]here were two groups who disliked Bo Xilai: Party leaders and liberal intellectuals."  I wish the author had explored this coincidence a bit further. When groups we think of as critical of Chinese authority find themselves on the same side of some issue, this is worth analyzing and understanding. But I realize it is also beyond the scope of Hilgers’ article.

Friday, February 22, 2013

"Skylark": a Translated Story

Cover Image(Note:  This is a short story I translated for Pathlight issue No. 1, 2012, posted here with permission. I had not heard about author Jin Renshun before I got the assignment. Her writing is both beautiful and subtle, and I truly enjoyed translating the piece. I tried to be faithful to her original style and hope I've succeeded somewhat. – Xujun)

Jin Renshun:   Born in 1970 of Korean extraction, and now living in Changchun, Jin Renshun has published the novel Spring Fragrance, the short story collections Cold Front of Love, Moonlight Oh Moonlight, One Another, and The Glass Café, and the essay collections Like a Dream in Broad Daylight and Poisonous Beauties. Her work has been translated into Japanese, English. German and Korean. In 2010 she attended the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.

Skylark


Each day at dusk, from six to eight, the third table by the window was reserved for Kang Joon-Hyuk. Occasionally he brought friends – perhaps employees – with him, but mostly he came alone, magazine in hand, to read a few pages before the dishes were served. He and Chun Feng spoke every day, but nothing beyond her asking what he’d like and his ordering of dishes, followed by a few pleasantries of the “Thanks,” “You are welcome” sort.

One day Chun Feng forgot to put the “Reserved” sign on the table. By the time she realized her mistake, the table was occupied by two middle-aged women who chatted nonstop from the second they walked in. They ignored Chun Feng’s apologies and requests.

“This is where we’re sitting,” they said. “We’re not going anywhere.”

While another waitress handled their order, Chun Feng went outside to wait for Kang Joon-Hyuk.

“I’m really sorry,” she bowed to him, tears spilling forth. “It’s all my fault.”

“Did I cause you any trouble?” he said. “You stood in the wind for so long, for such a little thing! It’s me who should apologize.”

(Read the complete story here)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Last "Red Guard"?

In my previous post, I distinguished two generations of Red Guards.  The first generation,  a disarray of factions who engaged in a great deal of violence from the summer of 1966 to 1968, were disbanded by the end of 1968 after the "Down to the Countryside" movement began on a large scale. This fact is pretty much clear.  The nuance I was trying to spell out is about the second generation, which came into being when middle schools resumed classes in the fall of 1969 after a three-year hiatus.  This time, the name "Red Guard" was borrowed by authorities for the official student organizations that, at first, served as a temporary substitute of the Communist Youth League which remained dormant then.

Apparently, what requires further clarification is exactly when the second generation "Red Guard" organizations began to disappear and when they eventually ceased to exist nationwide. From my memory, after I entered high school in the fall of 1971, the Communist Youth League revived, and we had no more "Red Guard" activities.  Last week in Chongqing, I asked a few old schoolmates, and they remembered it the same as I did.

However, the evening before I left Chongqing, I had dinner with some friends, and a couple of younger men told me that they had entered middle school and become "Red Guards" in 1975 (at the time, I was in the countryside receiving "reeducation" as a "zhi-qing").  I was surprised and subsequently searched baidu.com. I found two pieces of information that I wasn't previously aware of (or had forgotten about):

  • In 1975, Wang Hongwen (a member of the "Gang of Four") had proposed merging the Youth League and "Red Guard" organizations in secondary schools, though the merger was never realized.
  • The Communist Party and Youth League formally revoked "Red Guard" organizations on August 19, 1978.
So, theoretically, the second generation "Red Guards" could have existed through August 1978.  On the other hand, I have found no citations suggesting their activities lasted beyond 1976, the year the Cultural Revolution ended.

In my discussion with the younger friends in Chongqing early this week, they believed that, by 1975, the "Red Guard" organizations were no longer mandatory for all schools. Thus, different schools might have done things differently, and differences might also have existed between high schools and middle schools.  This again reminds me the danger of generalization from one's own experience, something I try to be vigilant for but still sometimes let down my guard. Also, while I do not remember any Red Guard activities when I was in high school, it is possible that my memory serves me wrong.

As such I would like to invite my Chinese readers to help the fact-checking process:  if you were a secondary school student in China between 1971 and 1978, could you please let me know when was the last time you were aware of "Red Guard" activities in your school?  If you don't like to leave comments, you can email me.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Fact Checking on Fu Ping's Controversial "Red Guard" Photo

(posted from Chongqing via a proxy)

First, full disclosure:  I have not read Fu Ping's memoir, Bend, Not Break. The book, advertised as a "rags to riches" story, is not the kind that interests me, thus was not on my reading list. I had glanced at a few criticisms online in January, but did not read them carefully because I was busy writing.  In early February, before I left Boston, a friend got very angry at Fu after reading some articles about her book from a US-based Chinese website, and talked to me about it. She urged me to read those articles, but I did not get the time.  After I arrived in Chongqing to spend the Spring Festival with my parents, another cyber friend wrote and invited me to add an independent voice to the discussion.  But my father, who's 87, was hospitalized on Chinese New Year's eve, and caring for him took priority.

As my father's condition was improving, I checked out a few articles two days ago.   Among them, I found a Guardian report informative and balanced.  Sounds like Fu will have quite a number of things to explain to her readers.

To be fair, however,  I have to say Fu was not wrong in the following quote:
A photograph supplied to media by Fu shows her posing with a little red book, Mao badge and armband. Michel Bonnin of Tsinghua University and Prof Yin Hongbiao of Beijing University said it showed she was not disgraced as a "black element" at the time, as she claimed; Fu said it was common for children to be pictured pledging allegiance to Mao, "whether 'black' or 'red'".
As a child of "Capitalist Roader" parents, I wore a Mao badge and held the "little red book" during the Cultural Revolution. Every kid I knew did that, regardless of their family background.

In another photo that caused outrage, Fu and other students wear armbands before a Red Guard flag. I don't know when that photo was taken, but if Fu was born in 1958, she could only be 8 to 10 from 1966 to 1968, when the violent Red Guard movement was ongoing, and she herself would be too young to be one of them. If the photo was taken after she entered middle school, then it would be no earlier than 1969, which was the year middle schools resumed classes. By that time, the Red Guard factions involved in the early years of the CR no longer existed, and their members either had gone to the countryside, were in factories or had joined the army. 

After middle schools reopened in 1969, however, another kind of "Red Guard" came into being, this time organized by school authorities. Because the Communist Youth League was still paralyzed at the time, the authorities needed another official student organization as a substitute, so the name "Red Guard" was borrowed. But this "Red Guard" is not that Red Guard; the two generations were completely different in nature despite the common name. I was one of those who entered middle school in 1969; almost all kids in my class were members of the new generation, official "Red Guard" organization, except one or two mischievous boys. I don't know about other schools, but we didn't have armbands.

After high schools reopened in the fall of 1971, the Communist Youth League resumed activities and the official "Red Guard" organization began to exit the stages of history. It is unclear when the aforementioned photo was taken.  I checked with a friend who has a digital copy of Fu's book and learned that the photo is undated. If it was taken in the late 1970s, then the armbands and the flag in it could have been some sort of props for performances.

So the question is: when was the photo taken?

I have a few more things to discuss but I'm running out of time right now. If you can read Chinese, please check out my post on Sina blog.

(Updated on 2/19)