2016-02-05

Without a single exception

Henry Yiheng Zhao, "Why Jin's (金庸) Martial Arts Novels Are Adored Only by the Chinese":

For more than half a century since their publication from mid-1950s to the early 1970s, Jin's fourteen martial arts novels have been enjoying sustained popularity among Chinese readers wherever they are and of whichever age, class, or social group and it was estimated in 2004 that Jin's novels sold 300 million copies around the world [...] What deserves scholarly attention is the fact that the translations of those novels into Western languages have failed, without a single exception. Up to the present day, only three out of Jin's texts have been translated to English: Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain (Trans. Olivia Mok, 1996), The Book and the Sword (Trans. Graham Earnshaw, 2001), and The Deer and the Cauldron (Trans. John Minford, 1997-2002). The problem with regard to the lack of the translation of Jin's novels does not rest on language or narrative style because their style could be domesticated in the target language and culture. Further, Jin's novels are read also by diaspora Chinese who cannot read Chinese fluently, but who share the same aesthetic and ethical expectations as native Mainland Chinese. [...] At the same time [...] martial arts enjoys popular appeal because of actors such as Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Jacky Chan, and the like. Films in particular made Kungfu popular, for example by The Matrix Trilogy or by Hidden Dragon Crouching Tiger. [...] The only conclusion I can draw from this situation is that there must be a unique Chinese mentality and structure of cultural references in Jin's novels which appeal to Chinese readers only.

To spoil the ending, Zhao argues that Jin's novels are popular because they are so temperate in ethical outlook. He doesn't however directly address the question of why this shouldn't be popular outside China (except I suppose implicitly, in an argument of the form "China's culture is like this, therefore other cultures are not," but I don't find that especially satisfying).

I've never read any of Jin's work, but to judge from the descriptions in this paper the real problem might be much more concrete: his novels assume knowledge of Chinese history (both recent and older) that non-Chinese readers do not as a rule have. A good translation for popular consumption will, of course, find some way to explain these things, but it's obviously not the same as having carried the stories around in your head since your formative years, and the emotional resonance and general interest will inevitably suffer.

2016-02-01

Spectacular accumulation

Morgan Pitelka, author of the new book Spectacular Accumulation: Material Culture, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Samurai Sociability, has created an eponymous site to help promote it. What makes this noteworthy is that the site is much better than similar efforts I have seen, especially the blog, "1616", which strikes a fine balance between brevity and depth (and is, as far as I can tell, original material rather than just excerpts from the book).

For example: "The geography of Ieyasu's career":

What is striking is the extent to which this territory of the Tôkaidô—and indeed, as the term would come to signify the highway connecting Edo and Kyoto/Osaka rather than the old administrative unit, that roadway as well—demarcated and mapped Ieyasu's activities. He only ventured out of its confines on two occasions (once to Kyushu in the south and once to Mutsu Province in the north), and never for any significant period of time. Ieyasu and his peers traveled back and forth along this east-west passage, from Okazaki to Hamamatsu, from Sunpu to Kyoto, and from Edo to Osaka, inscribing a history of war, diplomacy, chance, and ritual into the collective memories of its people and locales. Early modern tourists traversing the highway long after Ieyasu’s death could stop in Sunpu or Okazaki, and encounter pacified and in some cases commodified versions of the Tokugawa founder through the genealogy of famous places (meisho).

This geography is key to understanding the rapid shifts in the political fortunes of Ieyasu and his contemporaries. Nobunaga was assassinated in part because he allowed himself to be isolated in Kyoto, with his major generals scattered in campaigns too far from the capital to protect him. [...]

2016-01-26

100 scenes

I'm back! Properly! Sorry for the delay, I was going into business for myself. Hopefully this marks a return to regular posting. Here's what I have for you today: 100 Life Scenes in Classical Painting, a site created by picture scroll (emaki 絵巻) specialist X. Jie Yang 楊暁捷. To quote the site's introduction (in full):

Classical Japanese documents include a large number of visual materials such as picture scrolls. These treasured materials are abundant with rich information about these ancient periods in which recorded media was extremely limited. Here I have chosen vivid life scenes from those classical documents. All of the scenes are from titles which have been digitized and are publicly available online. Each scene has been retouched in a sketch style, and links to the original sources have been included.

Example: "Repairing, roof".

My kneejerk reaction was of course to frown at the "retouch[ing] in a sketch style" as unnecessary interference with the material, but it does lend a certain visual consistency to the site, and of course there's always the "links to the original sources" for those who prefer their art more beat-up and motheaten.

Yang's homepage also links to other interesting material, like his picture scroll blog Emaki zanmai 絵巻三昧 ("Absorbed in picture scrolls") and the journal article Emaki no bunpo josetsu 絵巻の文法序説 ("A Grammar of Medieval Picture Scrolls") (both in Japanese).

2016-01-04

Proto-Korean-Japanese

Happy new year, everyone! Remember in that "Altaica" languagehat thread back in April when I mentioned that one of James Unger's students, Alex Ratte, was allegedly preparing some sock-offknocking new arguments for a genetic relationship between Japanese and Korean? It turns out that one Alexander T. Francis-Ratte posted several papers along these lines to academia.edu in 2015. Here are a few words about a couple.

"Importation or inheritance? Thoughts on the Japanese lexicon" is a short paper about the "bifurcation of Korean-Japanese lexical matches." The argument is that some "lexical matches" can be organized into regular groups that make them look like cognates, while others exhibit no such regularity and so look more like loanwords. This, AFR argues, is inconsistent with an Alexander Vovinesque hypothesis of "extensive borrowing," and in any case, how was this mass borrowing supposed to have taken place when, "as Unger (2009: 16) points out, there is 'no compelling historical evidence that Korean and Japanese stood on equal sociolinguistic footing for a sustained period of time'"?

I suppose the obvious weakness here is the lack of even a semi-objective heuristic for sorting words into "cognate" and "loanword" piles. It isn't obvious on the face of it why the non-corresponding segments in OJ poye "howls" 〜 MK pullu "calls out" are qualitatively less problematic than the ones in OJ kusiro "bracelet" 〜 MK kwusul "jewel," for example. I think that AFR's argument against mass borrowing on practical grounds is more convincing.

Much longer and meatier is "Morpho-lexical Evidence for Proto-Korean-Japanese". Here AFR makes two specific proposals:

a functional element *(w)o- that reveals striking correspondences in Japanese and Korean noun-modifying structures, and a verb *pә- that shows that identical verb-compounding structures exist in both languages.

This one really deserves a more expert treatment than I can offer, but I was not overwhelmed. It's strange, for example, that AFR argues for his "verb *pә-" without addressing Whitman and Frellesvig's more recent (2014) paper about /e/ 得 as OJ lower bigrade formant ("The Historical Source of the Bigrade Transitivity Alternations in Japanese"). This contains a more sophisticated analysis of /e/ than the simple "transitivity flipper," and offers some support for AFR's theory in analyzing bigrade intransitives as the result of "suppressing the nonagentive experiencer/goal in secondary predicate + -e-". Sounds very compatible with a hypothetical verb meaning "watch things (inexorably) happen."

On the other hand, F+W 2014 also observes that:

[c]omparative Ryūkyūan evidence indicates that this pattern may not be reconstructible to proto-Japanese. For example, while transitive yak- 'burn (tr.)' and tak- 'burn/cook (tr.)' have corresponding verbs in Yonaguni (Ikema 2003) and prewar Yaeyama (Miyara 1930), their bigrade intransitive counterparts appear to be unattested

... which would obviously be a problem for an argument based on reconstructing this pattern for proto-Korean-Japanese (let alone proto-Japanese!).

Anyway, these papers are definitely worth reading for those craving new linguistic arguments in the are-Japan-and-Korean-related wars. (Also of possible interest: Vovin's "Out of Southern China?", which proposes some "lexical parallels between Japonic and Tai-K(r)adai" and even a few between Old Japanese and the language of Chu 楚.)

2015-12-14

Matsi nu miduri

I just realized that the Okinawa Prefectural Library has put all kinds of amazing material online in their "digital library of valuable materials" (貴重資料デジタル文庫). This is a big deal because it's difficult and/or expensive to buy even a basic modern printed edition of most of this stuff. You want to read the Chūzan seikan 中山世鑑? What force on earth will keep you from doing so? (Oh, right, capitalism.)

Or here's the Kokin Ryūka shū ("Collection of Ryūka old and new"), in glorious printlike hentaigana. Poem #1 is by Shō Kō 尚灝:

年やたちかわてはつはるのそらににわかつき出たるまつのみとり
Tushi ya tachikawati/ hatsiharu nu sura ni/ niwaka tsichiditaru/ matsi nu miduri
The New Year is here, and into the early spring sky thrusts the green of the pine

(Transcription based on and translation heavily indebted to Shimizu Akira's Ryūka Taisei 琉歌大成 (1994, Okinawa Times), p729.)

2015-12-07

The Yanagita Kunio Guide to the Japanese Folk Tale

Find of the day: Fanny Hagin Mayer's translation of the Yanagita Kunio Guide to the Japanese Folk Tale.

65. "If Anyone Sees You, Turn into a Frog"

There was a somewhat foolish novice at a certain temple. Once when he received a coin with a hole in it for going on an errand, he strung it onto a piece of straw and buried it in a corner of the yard. While he buried it, he said over and over, "If I dig you up, be a coin. If somebody else digs you up, turn into a frog." Whenever he received a coin after that for an errand, he always buried it with the same admonition. The old priest noticed this. He dug up all the coins one day and put a frog into the hole instead. When the boy came as usual to bury a coin, he discovered the coins were gone and a frog came jumping out. He cried, "Wait wait, I'm not somebody else! I'm me, I'm me! If you jump like that, the string will break." He ran after the frog as the old priest held his sides laughing.