There Is a Big Problem with How We Talk about Othello

content note: murder, specifically murder related to sexual jealousy

This summer, I saw a performance of Othello. It was the first time I had seen or read the play in over ten years. And I was a bit shocked, because even though I knew the story of the play perfectly well, when I had seen or read the play before, I had never consciously thought about the fact that Othello thinks it is okay to kill his own wife because of infidelity. And everyone else in the play, except Emilia, seems to agree with him. The characters treats the murder of Desdemona as a tragedy because she was chaste, if she really had been engaging in an extra-marital affair, they would have been fine with Othello murdering her.

Othello’s final line came across as especially creepy, the one where he describes himself as being “one that loved not wisely, but too well.” Wanting to kill one’s wife because of jealousy counts as ‘loving too well’? Really? And if that is not what Othello means, then what does he mean? (note: I hope that people who consider killing their own wives because of jealousy to be an expression ‘love’ will never, ever love me)

In an English class in high school, we studied Othello. We analyzed the play extensively, from various different angles. We had in depth discussions of Othello’s feelings. Yet amid all of that analysis and discussion, I don’t recall anyone asking the question ‘if Desdemona was really having an affair with Cassio, would it be okay for Othello to kill her? Is the problem that Iago tricked Othello into thinking she was unchaste, or is the problem that Othello wanted to kill Desdemona ~at all~?’ And in retrospect, I am shocked that I have no memory of any discussion like that happening in my high school English class. If my memory is accurate, and we did not talk about that, then what does that imply about our values?

The most memorable part of studying Othello in that high school English class was hearing the teacher describe her Real Life Soap Opera. She shared with us the story of how a woman had an affair with one of her brothers, causing him to divorce his wife, then she had an affair with another one of her brothers, causing him to also divorce his wife, and then this woman had an affair with my teacher’s husband, which ruined their marriage, leading my teacher to legally separate from her husband and stop cohabiting with him. In addition to doing everything short of divorce to break up with her husband, my teacher played some mean-spirited pranks on the woman who had the extra marital affairs with her brothers and husband. My teacher was very proud of her pranking skills, and that she made the woman break down in tears. I got the impression that our English teacher really sympathized with Othello.

Legal separation and ending cohabitation are ethical and reasonable responses to infidelity. Mean-spirited pranks are not necessarily ethical or reasonable, but at least my English teacher (as far as I know) never threatened that woman with violence.

When Othello came to the conclusion that Desdemona was unfaithful, why did he immediately decide to murder her? Why not divorce, or legal separation? Or even mean-spirited pranks?

Maybe you’re thinking that we do not discuss whether it would have been okay for Othello to kill Desdemona even if she had been unfaithful because the answer is obviously ‘no, of course it would not be okay’. Sadly, I can tell you that it was NOT obvious to all of my high school classmates.

This is a true story. I don’t want to reveal these people’s real names, so I am going to use the following names: Sara’s Classmate, Girlfriend, Friend, and Victim. Sara’s Classmate became convinced that his Girlfriend had some kind of sexual flirting with Victim. Therefore, with the help of Friend, he kidnapped Victim. Sara’s Classmate said that he wanted to kill Victim, and had a loaded gun. Though Friend was willing to participate in the kidnapping, Friend did not want to be an accomplice to murder, so he came up with a scheme to deceive Sara’s Classmate into thinking that Victim is already dead. I would like to think that my classmate would have come to his senses in time, and not actually carry out his murder threat, but I think it is very possible that, without Friend’s deception, Sara’s Classmate would have killed Victim.

The obvious parallels between this true story and Othello are Sara’s Classmate = Othello, Girlfriend = Desdemona, Friend = Iago, and Victim = Cassio. However, whereas Iago deceived Othello so that Desdemona and Cassio would die, Friend deceived Sara’s Classmate in order to save Victim’s life.

Though my classmate and I were not in the same English class, I know he also studied Othello in his English class because all of the 10th grade English classes at my high school studied Othello. I suppose it’s possible that in his English class they discussed whether or not it would have been okay for Othello to kill Desdemona if she had been unfaithful, but … I doubt it.

We were classmates in theater class, and I definitely know that he studied Othello in our theater class because he performed a monologue from the play. Specifically, this monologue:

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,—
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!—
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me: but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have pluck’d the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again.
It must needs wither: I’ll smell it on the tree.
[Kissing her]
Ah balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword! One more, one more.
Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee,
And love thee after. One more, and this the last:
So sweet was ne’er so fatal. I must weep,
But they are cruel tears: this sorrow’s heavenly;
It strikes where it doth love. She wakes.

Yes, it’s the monologue shortly before Othello kills Desdemona. When I was in that theater class, and saw my classmate perform this monologue multiple times, I had no idea that in a few years he was going to try to do something like this in real life. In retrospect, it is hard to believe that it is a coincidence that he chose this monologue, and then later attempted to murder someone because of jealousy.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Othello inspired him to perform kidnapping and attempted murder – if anything, I think the reverse is more likely, that he chose this monologue because he already had fantasies of doing something like this in real life. However, in English class, and even in theater class, there were opportunities to discuss whether Othello’s conduct would have been okay even if Desdemona were guilty, and those discussions, as far as I know, did not happen. And maybe, if that discussion did happen, my classmate may not have tried to imitate Othello.

The last time I had seen or read Othello was before my former classmate committed his crimes. This year, when I watched the play on stage, I was thinking of my former classmate quite a bit.

And my former classmate is not an isolated anomaly. At least one third of all women murdered in the United States are murdered by a male initmate partner, and that is not counting people like Cassio or Victim, who were suspected of being the women’s lovers, or attempted murders which did not result in death. I could not find statistics indicating how many of those murders were related to sexual jealousy, but I suspect it is a high percentage.

I am not opposed to reading or studying or performing Othello. On the contrary, I think it can be useful for provoking discussion. But, in my observation, the discussion of whether murder due to jealousy is ever justified usually does not happen. I certainly noticed no traces of that discussion around the production of the play I saw this summer.

Compare that to The Merchant of Venice. I studied the play in a college class, and my college class did not ignore the anti-semitism. On the contrary, the anti-semitism was one of the most discussed aspects of the play. And whenever there is a production or adaptation of The Merchant of Venice in the contemporary United States, the way the anti-semitism is addressed tends to be the focal point of the producer’s, the performers’, and the audience’s attention. I disagree with some of the common ways the anti-semitism is addressed, but at least it IS acknowledged and addressed, people aren’t silent about it. To a lesser extent, this is also true of the way readers, directors, actors, audiences, etc. treat the misogyny in Taming of the Shrew.

I do not think the play Othello itself is dangerous. I think ignoring the way the play tacitly supports murdering unfaithful wives (conditional on the wives being truly unfaithful, unlike Desdemona) is dangerous.


Some Thoughts on Legends of the Condor Heroes: A Hero Born

The book cover of Legends of the Condor Heroes: A Hero Born

I did in fact get around to reading the new English translation of Jin Yong’s extremely famous novel Shè​ Diāo​ Yīng​xióng​ Zhuàn. It is the first novel I ever read in Chinese, and that would be reason enough for it to be a very special book to me.

In particular, I strongly associate this book with downtown Taoyuan after dark. Since I had never read a novel in Chinese before, and my Chinese was much worse back then than it is now, I had to focus hard to read this book. However, I had trouble focusing when I was in my tào​fáng​ (studio apartment) because I was easily distracted, especially by my computer. Thus, I had to physically separate myself from my tào​fáng​ (especially my computer) to pay more attention to reading. Over time, I figured out where the best places for me to read books in downtown Taoyuan were, but at this point I was still exploring and figuring it out, so I ended up going to various places to see whether or not they were conductive to reading. If you are not familiar with downtown Taoyuan, you may watch this video and try to imagine finding a place to read a book so that you can find out what happens to characters (hint: those shopping malls have food courts, and food courts have quiet corners). And after I finished my reading session, I would walk in the streets of Taoyuan again to return to my tào​fáng​, thinking about what I had just read. I finally figured out that the best place to read was in the parks or park-like areas, but only in daylight hours, and that evening hours were better spent on the computer, so I did not read so much of other novels in the evening. This is how I came to associate this novel with wandering around downtown Taoyuan, especially in the evening.

By the way, I associate the second book in the trilogy with Taipei because I read some key scenes while I was in Taipei, and the third book in the trilogy with Kaohsiung, because I was reading it during my very first trip to Kaohsiung, and I recall looking into the streets and alleys of Kaohsiung when I needed a break after reading some very emotional scenes.

Ahem, this does not have anything to do with the English translation, my mind is clearly wandering. It did give me a warm feeling when I discovered that the translator, Anna Holmwood, first came to know the Condor Trilogy books in Taipei. Taipei is close to Taoyuan, and I bought my (Chinese language) copy of Shè​ Diāo​ Yīng​xióng​ Zhuàn in Taipei.

I thought it might be weird to read this book in English instead of Chinese, but I got used to everything being in English very fast.

I’ve mentioned this translation before in this post. I still think it was a mistake to translate personal names into English, and at first I would mentally groan at names such as ‘Skyfury Guo’. However, I became adept at translating the characters’ names back into Chinese (his name is Guō Xiàotiān, thank you) so the weird English names stopped grating on me.

The translator says in the notes that she made Huang Rong’s name ‘Lotus’ because “at this point in the story we the readers are let in on a secret that Guo Jing is not party to. As soon as we see her name written down, we known at once that this “beggar boy” is, in fact, a girl – the cahracter for “lotus”, “rong” 蓉 is far too girly to be used for a boy’s name.” I think this is a bad reason. When I first read Shè​ Diāo​ Yīng​xióng​ Zhuàn, because my Chinese skill level was barely good enough to read this book, I had no idea that 蓉 is a girly name, but I still figured out that Huang Rong is probably a girl because of the other hints (and if even a reader who is struggling to understand Chinese can figure out that Huang Rong is a girl, that indicates that Guo Jing is really, really bad at picking up clues). Furthermore, I don’t think ‘Lotus’ is necessarily a girly name in English, and I would especially not assume that ‘Lotus’ is a female name if I knew little of Chinese culture – how would I know that Chinese culture associates flowers with femininity? I can think of various other ways the translator could have handled this particular passage while keeping the name Huang Rong (or Wong Yung, if the translator had chosen to use Cantonese names).

Anyway, enough of that. Aside from the issue with the characters names, I was generally pleased with this translation. It is very good, or at least better than any translation I could produce. It does not convey all nuances of the original, probably because that is impossible, and I do not blame the translator. In particular, Holmwood’s prose is not nearly as good as Jin Yong’s prose, but there are very few people who can write prose as well as Jin Yong.

I do not think I will read further volumes of this English translation, but that is only because I can continue (re-)reading in Chinese instead, which is better.

But most of all – it is a pleasure to read this novel again, whatever the language. There were details I had never noticed before (though that is partially because this translation is based on the third edition, which I have not read before), and some of those details were delightful as someone returning to this story once again. For example, I never noticed before that Qu San’s daughter appears in the first chapter. She seems like a throwaway character, and most first-time readers probably won’t pay much attention to her, but ~I~ know what she does later in the story, heh heh. She is definitely a Chekhov’s Gunman (and a Chekhov’s Boomerang).

Reading this again leads me to feel that most of the fiction I read these days is trash of lower quality. I honestly think the novels of Jin Yong are more likely to be widely read classics 500 years in the future than any English language novels from the 20th century – yes, ANY of them. When I was reading the novel, I generally was not thinking ‘so this is the novel in English’ because I was swept up in the story all over again.

I’m not going to say ‘EVERYBODY, READ THIS NOVEL ALREADY!!!’ because some people aren’t interested in reading novels, and some people have specific issues (for example, someone who wants to avoid reading fiction with lots of violence will not want to read this book). However, if you generally like reading novels, and you do not have a particular reason to stay away from this novel, I highly recommend you take advantage of this English translation and read it (if you can read Chinese you’ve already read it of course, right, RIGHT?) After all, it is a novel which has been read by hundreds of millions, perhaps even a billion people. Aren’t you curious why this novel is so popular? (Caveat: this is only the first fourth of the novel, and does not showcase the novel at its best – it gets better deeper into the story. If I had read only this part of the novel, and not the full thing, I don’t know that the story would have left much of an impression on me).

Unfortunately, this English translation is not currently available through USA book distributors. That means that people in the USA have to get it by a) buying from Amazon or b) buying from the UK (and paying international shipping) or c) buying from one of the very few bookstores in the USA which deals with UK book distributors (and paying domestic shipping). I went with option (c) (via the website Abebooks) because I try to avoid buying books from Amazon, but I have to admit that for readers in the USA, Amazon is by far the most practical option. It is also possible to suggest that libraries in the USA pick up this title, though since it is not available through USA book distributors, libraries in the USA may be reluctant to acquire it.

What Parts of Taipei Would I Put in a Story?

After writing the previous post, I started wondering what parts of Taipei I would put in a fictional story. First of all, it would depend on what the story required. But beyond whatever the story demanded, what would I show in a story to make it feel like it was in Taipei?

This has everything to do with my personal experience of Taipei, and is by no means a universal perspective. That said, if I were to write a fictional story set in Taipei, these are things which would be very likely to appear.

1) Taipei Main Station. As far as I’m concerned, this is the center of Taipei. As soon as I arrived in Taiwan and escaped from immigration/customs, the very first thing I did was board a bus going to Taipei Main Station. When I lived in Taipei for a few months, I lived in a place which was just a few minutes walk from the train station. I spent a lot, a lot, a lot of time walking around the train station and all of the underground arcades which connect to the station. And when I was living in Taoyuan (which was most of the time I lived in Taiwan) Taipei Main Station was my link between Taoyuan and almost anywhere in Taipei (except on the rare occasion I went to Songshan station instead).

2) Japanese-Colonial Architecture. That building I lived in during the brief time I lived in Taipei was clearly built during Japanese rule. Most of the buildings with the most interesting architecture in Taipei were also built during the era of Japanese rule. I would probably want to incorporate these buildings into a fictional story.

3) The rivers. Since I had never lived in a river city before, I was impressed with all of the rivers in Taipei, and I think that would come through in a story.

4) The Legislative Yuan. I grew up over a thousand miles away from the capital of my country, which I have never visited (in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been within 500 miles of Washington D.C.) Thus I’m used to thinking of the national government as being in a Really Far Away Place. So it was a bit of a shock when I realized that the Legislative Yuan, which is Taiwan’s equivalent of Congress, was less than a twenty-minute walk away from where I lived in Taipei. It was the kind of place where I could pass by while going about my day-to-day life! (I cannot imagine casually walking past Congress during my everyday routine). Even when I lived in Taoyuan, I sometimes had to visit the National Police Agency, which is right next to the Legislative Yuan. And I saw a bit of the Sunflower Protests, when the Legislative Yuan was shut down because the protesters literally did not let people enter the building.

5) Finding Things. I sometimes wanted/needed things which I could not find in Taoyuan, so I would look for them in Taipei. For example, I could not get women’s dress shoes which fit my feet in Taoyuan – I had to go to a store in Taipei which specializes in shoes for women with big feet. There was also something which I looked for in Japan for over a month, and not only could I not find it in any stores in Japan, not even in Fukuoka or Osaka (I did not go to Tokyo), the Japanese people I talked to had no clue where I could find that item. When I went back to Taipei for a visit (before I went back to Japan for more travel) I was able to find that item very quickly (probably because I am a lot more savvy about Taipei than any Japanese city) (I also have a pretty good idea of where I could find that item for sale in San Francisco the next time I need a replacement). Thus, to a large extent, I think of Taipei as the Place Where I Get Things I Cannot Get Elsewhere.

6) The street address system. Shortly before I moved to Taiwan, a Taiwanese-American neighbor tried to explain the street address system, and I totally did not understand it. It was only after I was in Taipei for about a week that it finally clicked. And once I understood it, I thought it was totally cool that Taiwan has a different street addressing system than the United States (and unlike the Japanese street addressing system, the Taiwanese street addressing system actually is consistent and logical). Taoyuan has a simpler street layout than Taipei, so Taipei is definitely a better place to appreciate the Taiwanese street address system.

7) Maokong. Yes, this is a touristy part of Taipei, but it is one of my favorite touristy parts of Taipei, one I returned to again and again, and it is one which draws more local tourists than international tourists. And some of the best tea in the world is grown there, right there within Taipei city limits. Isn’t that cool?

8) The neighborhood with all the used bookstores. There is an area near National Taiwan University which has a lot of used bookstores. I have many happy memories of walking through this area, going from used bookstore to used bookstore, looking for gems (mostly wuxia novels). This area also had a lot of posters which gave me a clue about what was going on with Taipei’s cultural/intellectual life, even though, as a resident of Taoyuan who had to live by train schedules, I was not able to take full advantage of it.

9) Songshan Airport. Most airports are on the outskirts of cities, or way outside the city. Not Songshan. It is not in the center of the Taipei basin, but it is surprisingly close. I generally do not care for air travel, but one of the exceptions is flying in or out of Songshan airport. You can really see how Taipei is a dense built-up metropolis in a bowl, with a ring of green mountains serving as the lip of the bowl. As the aircraft approaches Taipei, all of the buildings become closer and closer, and more and more landmarks become identifiable. And then the aircraft plunges straight down into the heart of the city with two million residents (yep, Taipei has a bigger population than any city in the United States except New York and Los Angeles). (I suspect that San Jose airport may be similar since it is close to downtown San Jose, but since I have never flown into/out of San Jose, I’m not sure). You can see what it looks like in this video.

So there you have it. I probably will never write a fictional story set in Taipei, but this gives you all an idea of which impressions of Taipei have stayed with me all of these years.

The Visitor Perspective vs. the Residential Perspective

The book cover of Want

I read two novels back to back, Want by Cindy Pon and Ann Mary, Contraception, and the Pope of Rome by Nancy Taforo-Murphy. Both of these novels are centered in a particular city – Want is centered on Taipei, and Ann Mary, Contraception, and the Pope of Rome (which from now on I will abbreviate as ‘AMCatPoR’) is centered on San Francisco. Reading these two novels one after another – and my familiarity with these two cities – made it apparent that these books are not only about two different cities, but they are presenting those cities from very different perspectives.

I have an odd relationship with Taipei. I lived in Taipei for a few months, and I worked in Taipei for years (my job in Taiwan was split between Taoyuan, Taipei, and Hsinchu), not to mention all the times I went to Taipei to run errands/meet with people/make a transit connection. On the one hand, I got to know Taipei very well because I commuted there so often, but it never became ‘home’ to me the way that Taoyuan did.

In any case, I definitely noticed that Want focused very much on the touristy parts of Taipei and ignored anywhere which was not touristy. For example, they go to the touristy Shilin Night Market, but not the more-popular-with-locals Shida Night Market (confession: I went to the Shilin Night Market more often than the Shida Night Market, but that was only because I went to the Shilin District often – everyone I knew who lived in Taipei preferred the Shida Night Market). I was almost expecting them to go to the National Palace Museum at some point. They go to Snake Alley, which is a place you pretty much only go to if you are a tourist or you are with a tourist. They go to Yangmingshan, the most touristy mountain in Taipei, rather than one of the many other mountains around the Taipei Basin.

Meanwhile, there are many features of Taipei which I found prominent, but the novel ignores. I was amazed by all the rivers in Taipei because I had never lived in a city with a river before, let alone FOUR rivers (yep, there are four rivers in Taipei – the Dahan river, the Keelung River, the Xindian river, and the Tamsui river). Yet the novel hardly ever mentions the rivers at all, not even to say something along the lines of ‘the rivers were such toxic polluted messes that they all had been buried in tunnels to prevent their corrosive chemicals from destroying the buildings whenever there a flood’ (yeah, this is a dystopia novel).

I know that Cindy Pon was born in Taipei. I don’t know how much time she has spent in Taipei, but the novel read like it had been written by someone who had visited Taipei, but never immersed themselves in the city.

(I was also wondering the whole time what was going on in other parts of Taiwan. I understand why the writer wanted to keep the action focused on Taipei, but the way they never, ever mentioned anywhere else in Taiwan, not even places like Tamsui or Kaohsiung, was weird. People who live in Taipei often do reference other parts of Taiwan in everyday conversation. On the other hand, people who do not live in Taiwan often do not know about any city/town other than Taipei itself, so the complete lack of recognition any part of Taiwan ex-Taipei contributed to the feeling that this was a shallow outside perspective).

Book cover of Ann Mary, Contraception, and the Pope of Rome

By contrast, AMCatPoR offers ample description of San Francisco, yet barely mentions any touristy areas, and on the rare occasion it mentions a touristy place, it does so in the same context that a local resident would think about the touristy place. In particular, AMCatPoR focuses on the Sunset District. I grew up on the outskirts of the Sunset, and I can tell you that this novel offers a very accurate picture (even though I grew up in a different part of the Sunset than where the novel takes place). I cannot judge if it presents 1940s Irish-American Catholic culture accurately, but it obvious that it was written by someone who knows the Sunset very well.

There is also the matter of audience. Want is written in English, and most people in Taipei do not read novels in English, thus the people of Taipei are not its target audience. AMCatPoR, based on the reviews I’ve found, is mostly read by people who are long-term residents of San Francisco, and I suspect it is to a large extent aimed at San Franciscans. That may be another reason that Want (in spite of having protagonists who spent their whole lives in Taipei) reads like a tourist guide, whereas AMCatPoR reads like a native San Franciscan engaging in nostalgia.

Mind you, I’m not saying that writing about a city from a visitor’s perspective is bad. For example, if I am a traveller, I want my guidebooks to be written from a visitor’s perspective. And in fiction, if the protagonist is a visitor to the city, then a visitor’s perspective is probably appropriate.

I am very used to media presenting San Francisco from a visitor, rather than a residential, perspective, which is why I am so sensitive to whether a writer is writing about San Francisco from the perspective of a visitor or the perspective of a resident. This is the first time I’ve seen Taipei in a fictional presented from a visitor’s perspective, which might be why it was a bit jarring.

I’m not sure if I would have picked up on this if these novels were set in cities I do not know well. I wonder if it possible to write about a city from a resident’s perspective without ever having been a resident. I think it is, but would require good research, and most of all, to mentally put oneself in a resident’s shoes (i.e. ask oneself whether a resident of Taipei would ever want to go to Snake Alley, or whether a resident of San Francisco would ever want to go to Fisherman’s Wharf).

The Meaning of ‘Hóng​chén​’ (and How It Relates to ‘Siusa’)

While I was working on this post, I found four different Mandarin songs which use both the words xiāosǎ​ (siusa) and the word hóng​chén​. I found that odd since I had never associated those two words before, but finding four different songs which use BOTH of these words is a strong hint that native Chinese speakers tend to use both of these words in the same context.

The literal meaning of hóng​chén​ is ‘red dust’, but that’s like saying that the word ‘understand’ means ‘to stand under something’. Accoding to the c-dict dictionary, the definition of hóng​chén​ is “the world of mortals (Buddhism) / human society / worldly affairs”. This is a better dictionary definition than I have been able to find for the word ‘xiāosǎ​/siusa’.

Even though that definition works, I think it still helps to have an example. Thus I present the Jay Chou song “Hóng​chén​ Kè​zhàn​” a.k.a. “Worldly Tavern”, where the word hóng​chén​ is right there in the title. If you look at the lyrics, you notice that the word ‘xiāosǎ/siusa’ (or rather ‘xiao1 sa3’) also appears.

Another example is the song “Xiāo​sǎ​ Zǒu​ Yī​ Huí​” which is known in English as “Live a Dashing Life”. It is the theme song of a TV show I’ve never heard of. I’m going to translate the part of the lyrics which contains both the words hóng​chén​ and xiāosǎ​:

hóng​chén​ ā​ gǔn​gǔn​ chī​chī​ ā qíng ​shēn​
Ah! The world is in chaos! Ah! Foolish passion!

jù​sàn​ zhōng​ yǒu​shí​
So many reunions and separations.

liú​ yī​ bàn​ qīng​xǐng​ liú​ yī​ bàn​ zuì​
Half-sober and half-drunk

zhì​shǎo​ mèng​ lǐ​ yǒu​ nǐ​ zhuī​suí​
At least you are in my dreams.

wǒ​ ná​ qīng​chūn​ dǔ​ míng​tiān​
I use my youth to gamble for tomorrow,

nǐ​ yòng​ zhēn​qíng​ huàn​ cǐ​ shēng​
You trade truth for life,

suì​yuè​ bù ​zhī​ rén​jiān​ duō​shao​ de​ yōu​shāng​
Who knows how many troubles time will bring?

hé​bù​ xiāo​sǎ​ zǒu​ yī​ huí​
Why not live a siusa life?

I could not find a full English translation of the song on Youtube, but I at least found the song with pinyin transcription so you can try to follow along with some understanding of the lyrics.

Another example is from the song “Dāng” (which VERY ROUGHLY means “when” in Mandarin) which is the theme song for the first season of My Fair Princess. In the post I wrote about ‘siusa’ I linked to a terrible translation of the song into English, this time I will try to translate the portion of the lyrics which contains the words hóng​chén​ and xiāosǎ​:

ràng​ wǒ​men​ hóng​chén​ zuò​bàn,​ huó​ de xiāoxiāo​sǎ​​sǎ​
Let us participate in the world, and live a siusa life,

[note: Chinese sometimes reduplicates words for emphasis, or at least to improve the rhythm of song lyrics; ‘xiāoxiāo​sǎ​​sǎ​’ is a reduplication of ‘xiāo​sǎ​’]

cè​mǎ​ bēn​téng​, gòng​yòng​ rén​shì​ fán​huá​
Urge the horses to gallop, share humanity’s prosperity

duì​ jiǔ​ dāng​ gē,​ chàng​ chū​ xīn​ zhōng​ xǐ​yuè​
Enjoy life while we can, sing the joy in our hearts

hōng​hōng​liè​liè​ bǎ​wò​ qīng​chūn​ nián​huá​
Vigorously make use of our youth!

(okay, I’m no great translator myself, though I think I did a better job than this translation).

(if you noticed both of these songs also use the word ‘qīng​chūn​’ and deduced what that word means based on my translations, you have earned bonus points!)

This still leaves the question of why these two words are used in the same song lyrics so often. After pondering it, I think I’ve made the connection.

People who are siusa also tend to be ‘worldly’. They tend to be a lot more interested in ‘the mortal world’ than any kind of afterlife world because they are alive now, they can worry about the whatever afterlife there is after the are dead. And this might be part of why Sinophone cultures appreciate siusa personalities more than Anglophone cultures – Anglophone cultures are heavily influenced by Christianity, and most sects of Christianity strongly encourage people to care a lot about the afterlife. And siusa people are also genuinely interested in what this world has to offer.

It is of course entirely possible to be siusa in a world that it at peace and full of unicorns and rainbows. However, I tend to see the word used most often in contexts where society is in turmoil and bad shit is happening everywhere, or at least the siusa person comes from a bad situation (think Sirius Black). A siusa person may care deeply about the world’s problems and be grieved by the loss of the good – yet in spite of all of the bad shit going down, still be able to stay true to themself, and possibly pursue happiness.

One of Jin Yong’s most siusa protagonists is Linghu Chong, from the novel The Smiling Proud Wanderer, in my opinion (I really must stress that it is my opinion, since as I discovered when I was doing online research about the concept of ‘siusa’, native Chinese speakers have some spirited debates about which Jin Yong characters are the most siusa – for example, this essay (in Chinese) declares that Yang Guo is the most siusa Jin Yong protagonist, and that Linghu Chong was only siusa on the outside, not on the inside – for what it’s worth, I think Yang Guo is also very siusa). The Smiling Proud Wanderer could be described as an wuxia-style dystopia tale. Yet even though Linghu Chong lives among a set of oppressive martial arts sects which suppress freedom and kill innocent people in their quest for power, not to mention all of the physical punishment (he spends about half the story gravely injured in some way) he still manages to be a relatively easygoing and upbeat guy with a sense of (not always black) humor. And he stays true to his values, not unlike Sirius Black. Even when Linghu Chong is in prison and suffering from a potentially fatal injury, he is still free in his heart, and pursues what pleasure he can (for example, he tricks the guard into delivering wine and tasty food) (also, Sirius Black manages to stay true to himself even in Azkaban).

It is very fitting that the name of the theme song of the 1996 (Cantonese language) TV adaptation of The Smiling Proud Wanderer is “Wut dak Siusa” which means “Live a Siusa Life”. You may listen to it here. It’s not a particularly good song – but the lyrics can help one understand what ‘siusa’ means, so I will try to translate them (since this is a Cantonese -> Mandarin -> English translation it’s going to be flawed, but I think my translation conveys the main ideas even if I am messing up some of the nuances):

chunglai mou kwagau je yatsaang jeoigan ngo sam leoi mei mung
I have never been ashamed of spending my entire life pursuing my heart’s dream
cheonggei yu jindau jung bat se jung bat hei bat gun jung pokhung
In this long time of struggle, I’ve never given up, not caring that my efforts are always in vain,
jiksai fungyu pok dat hungyung, jeongun tinyi yamyi joklung
Even when storms surge, despite Heaven’s arbitrary games,
yatsaang jekgun jeoijung sam noi yau mung
My whole life is nothing more than following the dream in my heart.

seoi yan nang hontau je yatsaang ho baaityut sam leoi yukau
Whoever can look beyond and shake off their own greed,
seoi yan nang hontau liu daksat seoi dakdou jung bat ho winggau
Whoever can look beyond success and failure, knowing that success cannot last forever,
paauhoi jangdau waanhei yijau,
Will pull back from their quarrels and turn the other cheek,
bat hin bat gwaa si jeoi jiyau
Those who are the least worried are the most free,
siusiusasa dik jau batman yihau
Behaving in a siusa way, letting go of the future.

minglei yat sik gaan yaaheoi siusai
Fame and fortune can vanish in an instant,
kyunlik bat hoyi yam nei jyujoi
Power will not turn you into a master,
seoi yan nang jinsing liu sam mo chiucheot yi’ngoi
Whoever can overcome their inner demons will exceed expectations,
seoi joudou yatsaang mut yau so kau
Whoever lives without making demands,
mo yuk fong hoyi wut dak siusa
Without greed, can live a siusa life,
ngousi joi juksai soeng
Look down on the material world,
wut dak jingchoi
And have a splendid life.

If you know anything about the history of China, or of the Chinese-speaking communities in Southeast Asia, in the 20th century, or the 19th century, then you know that a ton of awful shit went down. The Chinese imperial system of government, which existed in some form for about two thousand years, ceased to exist in 1911. And lots of society-wide terrible things kept happening for decades, both in China and the other Asian countries with large Chinese populations. According to some theories of history, this was nothing less than the collapse of a civilization (though if the biosphere continues to be capable of supporting human civilization, I have no doubt that Sinophone people will be able to establish a new Sinophone civilization).

This is just speculation on my part – but maybe the fact that the Sinophone world has so recently experienced such powerful negative shocks may be why Sinophone cultures value someone who can rise above the societal collapse all around them, stay true to their values, and pursue happiness anyway?

What is the Mandarin word for ‘Mandarin’? (a rant about Chinese language politics)

What is the English word for the English language? It is ‘English’ of course. And this is so in all of the Anglophone countries. That is simple.

English also has a single word for the language ‘Mandarin’. If I’m talking in English, and I want to refer to the Mandarin language, I can just say ‘Mandarin’ without thinking too hard about it.

Ah, if only it were so simple when I’m actually talking in Mandarin.

You see, there are many names for the Mandarin language in the Mandarin language. I could just pick my favorite name, and use it all the time – except different names for Mandarin have different connotations, particularly political connotations. And there is no name which is completely politically neutral, so if I want to refer to Mandarin in Mandarin, I have to take some kind of political position.

My position is usually ‘I don’t want to argue with you about language politics’. Thus, if possible, I will try to figure out what the other speaker’s preferred name for ‘Mandarin’ is and just mirror them. However, if I cannot do that, or if I’m not thinking too hard, my default is to use the name ‘Zhōng​wén’ which is far from ideal, but closer to being politically neutral than any other term. Even if it’s not the other speaker’s preferred term, I am unlikely to offend anybody by referring to Mandarin as ‘Zhōng​wén’.

‘Zhōng​wén’ roughly means ‘middle language’ as in ‘language of the middle country’ i.e. the language of China. But wait, not all forms of Chinese are Mandarin. Whatever, I’m probably trying to carry out a conversation about something other than Chinese language politics, and don’t want to get into a digression, and even if Chinese is not just Mandarin, Mandarin is definitely Chinese.

Where did the English name ‘Mandarin’ come from? The British called the government officials of the Qing Empire ‘mandarins’ and the language which those officials spoke also became known as ‘Mandarin’. In other words, ‘Mandarin’ is a translation of the Mandarin term ‘Guān​huà​’ which means ‘bureaucratese / officials’ language / Mandarin’. However, this is a very old-fashioned term which nobody uses in everyday conversation anymore unless they are being ironic or quirky. And I can’t be quirky, because if I drop words like ‘Guān​huà​’ into conversation, people won’t think that I am being quirky, or expressing an opinion on language politics, they will just think I am bad at speaking Mandarin.

Another name for Mandarin is ‘Pǔ​tōng​huà​’ which means ‘common language’ in Mandarin. Sounds like it would be a pretty neutral term, right? Wrong. First of all, it is a term which is strongly associated with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). If I hear someone referring to ‘Pǔ​tōng​huà​’ I guess that they are either from the PRC, or they learned Mandarin in the PRC. It also implies at least tacit support for the PRC’s language policies, which is to get people to speak Mandarin more and use other languages less (not that this policy is universally successful).

And then there is ‘Guó​yǔ​’ which means ‘national language’ in Mandarin. Now this is a more overtly political term. It is associated with the Nationalist Party (KMT) which, ummm, without getting into a political history of China and Taiwan, let us just say that anything which is associated with the KMT is going to be politically loaded. The KMT, like the Communist Party which runs the PRC, is very much into getting everybody to use Mandarin and abandon other languages, and they have historically been willing to use government powers to coerce people to abandon other languages and use Mandarin. In Taiwan, there are still many people who grew up when the KMT controlled the media and the schools, so they are used to saying the word ‘Guó​yǔ​’ even if they are entirely sympathetic to the KMT. I have also heard some Hong Kongers use the term ‘Guó​yǔ​’ and I don’t know why they use that term.

And there is the term ‘Huá​yǔ​’ which means ‘language of the Hua’ in Mandarin. ‘Huá​’ roughly means ‘Chinese’ but in an ethnic sense, not a national sense (yes, I know there is more nuance to it than that, don’t shoot me, I’m not delving into what ‘Huá​’ really means because I’m trying to avoid that digression). It is the name for Mandarin favored by Singaporeans. I don’t know nearly as much about Singaporean politics as Taiwanese politics, but I do know a little. Singapore presents itself as a multi-ethnic state, not just a state for ‘Huá​’ people, so the powers that control Singapore don’t want to refer to Mandarin as a ‘common’ or ‘national’ language. However, most of the ‘Huá​’ people in Singapore historically spoke Hokkien, Cantonese, or Teochew – not Mandarin. For some reason, the powers that be in Singapore don’t like this, so they encourage all ‘Huá​’ people to speak Mandarin instead of Hokkien/Cantonese/Teochew, My guess is they refer to Mandarin as ‘Huá​yǔ​’ because it is considered the appropriate language for all ‘Huá​’ people (but not Malay people, or Tamil people, or various other ethnic groups in Singapore).

And then there is ‘Běi​jīng​huà​’ which is Mandarin for ‘language of Beijing’. Instead of presenting Mandarin as the universal language of the Chinese nation, or the Chinese ethnic group, it presents Mandarin as a language spoken by people from a particular region, which is not necessarily better than the language of any other region. As you can imagine, this is a term for Mandarin favored by people who want to promote Chinese languages ~other~ than Mandarin, such as Cantonese or Hokkien. If someone uses the term ‘Běi​jīng​huà​’ in Taiwan, the connotation is ‘Mandarin is a foreign language brought to Taiwan by outsiders after World War II, the real language of Taiwan is Hokkien (and maybe also Hakka), because people in Taiwan spoke Hokkien (and Hakka) long before World War II’.

As I said before, my position is usually ‘I don’t want to argue with you about Chinese language politics’. I am willing to use ANY term for Mandarin, whatever the political connotations, if it will make the people I’m speaking to feel more comfortable. Thus, every term I have listed in this blog post (except ‘Guān​huà​’) has come out of my mouth in casual conversation, depending on who I am talking to.

I wish I did not have to think so hard whenever I want to refer to Mandarin when I am speaking Mandarin, but I also know that there is not going to be a consensus on the word for Mandarin in Mandarin in my lifetime unless one political party takes over all Mandarin-speaking communities in the world and cracks down so hard on everyone who disagrees with that political party’s particular language policies that nobody dares use any other word to refer to the Mandarin language, and I don’t want that to happen. So from that perspective, I accept the diversity of Mandarin names for the Mandarin language.

Living without Air Travel

At the end of my long hike in Southern California, I was trying to work out a way to get to a place which had Greyhound and/or Amtrak service so I could get home. I had assumed this would involve going to the City of San Diego (I was wrong; I ended up in Oceanside instead, which was fine). There was a woman who was helping me try to get a ride. Even though I ~never~ said that I wanted to go to San Diego Airport, when she was making phone calls, she said multiple times that I needed to get to ‘San Diego Aiport’ and I had to keep correcting her. It was only after she heard me have a conversation with someone else about how I do not do air travel that she finally understood that I was not going to the airport.

What impressed me was that a) she assumed that I was going to the airport and b) it was so hard to correct her. It was as if she could not imagine any other way I could get from San Diego to San Francisco without a car (even though the bus/train connections between San Diego and San Francisco are remarkably good by the standards of the western North America).

And it was not just her. There were so many people during my hike who assumed I was going to travel from San Diego to San Francisco by air, and it was remarkably difficult to correct this assumption. And last year, when I hiked into Canada, a lot of people were astonished that I was not going to ‘fly out of Vancouver’. Last year, I explained that I was not going to fly out of Vancouver because it was illegal (which was true – I could not have legally boarded any flight in Canada), but even if it had been legal, I would not have flown.

Let me explain why I no longer go in airplanes.

When I returned to North America in late 2014 (by airplane), I made a vow: I would never use air travel again for non-urgent reasons. An example of a possible urgent situation where I would consider air travel is: my uncle is in the hospital, he’s over a thousand miles away, and somebody needs to care for him. What would not count as an urgent situation: visiting friends or family when they are not in crisis (do weddings or funerals count as urgent? I’ll decide that on a case-by-case basis, but in most cases, the answer is going to be ‘no’).

At first, I did it partially because of environmental reasons (though I have since discovered that comparing the environmental impact of airplanes vs. other modes of transit is complicated and in some situations substituting a flight with a train ride does not make much difference, but that’s a topic for another post). However, I also do not like travelling in airplanes anyway, whereas I love trains. I do not love buses, but I would rather spend a lot of time in buses than a lot of time in airplanes.

Sometimes people ask if I will ever return to East Asia. I sometimes answer ‘maybe’ but a more honest answer is ‘probably not’. I doubt I will ever have an urgent reason to go back to East Asia, and I also do not think I will ever want to go badly enough to undertake a trans-Pacific boat voyage.

A lot of people over the years have told me that New Zealand is awesome, and that I would love New Zealand. I believe that New Zealand is awesome, and I think I probably would love to travel there – but I cannot imagine it being worth an extra-long trans-Pacific boat voyage. When I tell people I’m not considering New Zealand because of the long flight, most of them assume it’s the expense, and nod their heads. A few people then say ‘but it’s only [x] number of hours’, and even when I tell them that I don’t like long flights, they still insist the flight is not a big deal. I’ve never tried to explain that I’ve given up on non-urgent air travel.

I have discovered that, aside from the fact that being stuck in train stations/trains is way better than being stuck in airports/airplanes, that there is another, subtler benefit to cutting air travel out of my life.

I have much more appreciation of just how big North America is. And I experience more of what is in between my starting and ending points are when I go by bus or train than when I fly. I have a much better sense of all of the places between Chicago and San Francisco because I went by train than I would have if I had flown from Chicago to San Francisco (I got to go through the Rocky Mountains in winter!) Heck, I got to know the coach car attendant (we were both on the same train for three days) way better than I’ve gotten to know any flight attendant (on Amtrak, conductors and engineers take shifts, and are allowed to get off the train when their shift ends, so the conductor will keep on changing every 8 hours or so, but the attendants are required to stay on the train from start to finish, even if it takes 3 days).

And because I am basically charging myself an inconvenience penalty for travel, I savor the travel more. Instead of dreaming about visiting distant countries, I am getting to know the United States (and North America) way better than I ever did before I gave up air travel. And I am discovering more wonderful places right here in California which I may not have otherwise considered visiting.

It does not bother me that some people prefer air travel. What does bother me is how so many North Americans find it so difficult to conceive of someone covering long distances in North America without an airplane or car. It’s that assumption that I am going to the airport and ‘fly out’ or whatever. I am surprised by how prevalent this attitude is even among long-distance hikers, who know something about slow travel (though there are also a lot of long-distance hikers who are totally into trains – I have also been surprised by how many long-distance hikers I’ve met on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight line).

My goal for this post is not to convince anybody to give up air travel. My goal for this post is to help people grasp the concept of travelling a lot without airplanes (or cars) in the 21st century.