Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
For different reasons — or are they so different? — three medieval Chinese poems have been on my mind.
(All translations, such as they are, are mine.)
A couple of months ago, reflecting on the present predicament of the United States, my father sent me this poem that I had learned in school, written in the tenth century by a deposed king now living under house arrest by the man who conquered his country:
I wrote about Jin Yong or Louis Cha earlier this year when the first installment of an English translation of one of his novels was published. Two weeks ago, Louis Cha died in Hong Kong at the age of 94.
As one commentator put it, the cultural cachet of Cha’s works in Asia is comparable to the combined impact of Star Wars and Harry Potter. His books sold perhaps 300 million copies worldwide during his lifetime, and that’s not counting the millions of bootleg copies that must have circulated during the same years — after all, his books were banned in Mainland China until 1984. Anywhere in the world where there are readers of the Chinese language, there are fans of Jin Yong, including just about everyone in my family.
And yet, his New York Times obituary is perfunctory. And the South China Morning Post, the paper of record of Hong Kong, carried an op-ed by one of his English translators on why he’s never been popular in the West.
As a would-be writer, I am often filled with self-loathing. It’s okay; it’s an occupational hazard. But today, a very specific failure weighs on me, the failure so far to keep a promise.
Three years ago, I traveled through Xinjiang, China’s massive northwestern “autonomous region” (of course it’s not actually autonomous) that is the historical homeland of the Uyghur minority, a Muslim Turkic population that prefers to call the area “East Turkestan.”
I traveled there to research the book I was trying to write. While there, in the old center of traditional Uyghur life, Kashgar, a kindly man whom I call “Yusup” in the manuscript asked me to make him a promise. “Tell our story,” he said. “Write about us. Let the outside world know what is happening in Xinjiang.”
And so far, as I have failed as yet to publish the book, I have failed to keep my promise.
Both the Washington Post and Rotten Tomatoes decided to remind me this week that it’s the tenth anniversary of one of the most influential films of our age, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
Before those of you who are sick of superhero movies (or have always been too snobbish to enjoy them) start rolling your eyes, let me quote Roger Ebert (as the Post also does) in pointing out that The Dark Knight is a film that transcends its comic book origins to become “an engrossing tragedy.”
And I am hardly the first person to read into the film something beyond the surface of its plot and action sequences. At the time of its release in 2008, many saw it as something of a metaphor for America in the age of the Iraq War and the War on Terror. Gotham might be a stand-in for Baghdad, and Batman a stand-in for the U.S. military, his very presence by the its violent and extreme nature inviting escalation and challenge. In the end, Batman wins a pyrrhic victory through mass surveillance like the NSA. At the more obscure end of commentary,
the good folks over at Overthinking It (hey Mark) presented an interesting essay interpreting the film through the philosophy of Schopenhauer: Gotham as Will and Representation.
Yesterday, July 1, marked for me three years on the road.
Three years. That’s as long as Jesus spent preaching.
It so happens that I was reading Bruce Chatwin’s strange 1987 masterpiece of travel writing, The Songlines. The book begins and ends with Chatwin’s investigations in Australia into the Aboriginal practice of “the walkabout,” in which one would go walk and sing along paths or “songlines” that totemic ancestors once followed, sometimes for months at a stretch or even years. But halfway in, the book turns ruminative and begins to reflect on the meaning of travel itself and what it says about human nature. “Our nature lies in movement,” Chatwin quotes Pascal’s Pensées, “complete calm is death.”
John Polidori has been on my mind.
No doubt this is in part because I happen to be back in Romania, the country that originated the vampire myth. As I type this, I’m sitting only a stone’s throw away from the statue of Vlad Tepes “the Impaler,” the 15th century prince of Wallachia and real-life Dracula with his fabulous mustache, that stands at the center of Bucharest’s old town.
It probably also has to do with my learning just the other day that someone decided to make a movie about Mary Shelley and how she wrote Frankenstein. Apparently the film is not much good. But Polidori was there, present at the creation, when she first conceived of Frankenstein. Or put another way, she was there, present at the creation, when he first conceived of his parallel invention.
In my attempt to read in both of my primary languages simultaneously, I recently read the short story collection Taipei People by the Taiwanese novelist Pai Hsien-yung, or Bai Xianyong in Pinyin transliteration. I’d grown up hearing about the book but somehow never got around to reading it until now.
The standard English translation of the book’s title is arguably not the best. I might have translated it as “Taipei’ers,” but for the unfortunate awkwardness of the apostrophe and cluster of vowels. Bai titled his book thus in clear allusion to Jame Joyce’s Dubliners, out of which the story “The Dead” remains the apparent gold standard for what the ideal short story looks like, at least according to the American academia.
And that is one reason that Bai Xianyong remains an interesting writer. Taipei People, written in the 1960s, is an exercise in applying Western modernism to classical Chinese literature, or in fusing the two, a point that Bai underscored by alluding to Joyce.
I can’t remember why I ever tried to do this. But one evening in college I started explaining the plot of one of Jin Yong’s novels to my roommate Michael. Three hours later, I was finally finished, but I’m pretty sure Michael was just confused.
Jin Yong is the pen name of Louis Cha, O.B.E., a Hong Kong writer now in his 94th year, and the most popular Chinese-language fiction writer of all time, with over 300 million copies sold and many more millions of copies pirated. Most Chinese readers have read at least some of his works and certainly watched TV or film adaptations of them. I read all of his books growing up, some of them multiple times. And yet most non-Chinese readers have never heard of him.
This past week, almost heroically, a British publisher has brought out the first volume of the first English translation of one of his novels, Legends of the Condor Heroes. And they’re tagging Jin Yong as “the Chinese Tolkien.”
So Disney is filming a live-action remake of the 1998 animated Mulan, actually casting an Asian woman in the role of an Asian woman (because you never know with Hollywood).
This news prompts me to revisit the ancient source of the story of Mulan. Certain aspects of the source material now seem surprising in light of departures made in the Disney version, and I don’t just mean the little dragon Mushu that works as a cartoon character but in fact does not exist in the original.
The 1998 film sets the action during the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), and the invading enemies are said to be the Huns. The Han Dynasty did fight protracted wars against the Huns. But these battles took place centuries before the figure of Mulan first appeared in Chinese literature.
Facts are stranger than fiction.
The last couple of weeks I was in “California,” or rather “the Californias,” moving from the Mexican state of Baja California (Lower California) to the modern U.S. state of California. Originally the name applied to both of these as well as Baja California Sur (South Lower California) and parts of Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming.
Spanish conquistadors affixed the name to this vast territory in the early 16th century, when they knew hardly anything about it. In fact they thought it was an island and drew early maps accordingly.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."