January 30, 2009

Readings from Chinese Writers

The second Chinese book that I've read this year was Readings from Chinese Writers, volume 1 (1919-1949). It is a collection of texts including short stories and excerpts from novels and plays. Following each text is a list of vocabulary, with a brief gloss in English and French. These are some of the most well-known pieces of literature from the 1919-1949 period, including "The New Year's Sacrifice" by Lu Xun, "Spring Silkworms" by Mao Dun, an excerpt from Family by Ba Jin, and an excerpt form Camel Xiangzi by Lao She. I had already read these texts in English, but it has taken me years to get around to reading this volume, which I bought long ago in America. You can still buy this book online, but I don't think you will find it at any bookstore in Taiwan.

This book was published in China. In Taiwan, I have only seen one volume of modern literature intended for foreign learners of Chinese. In Japan, on the other hand, this kind of book is common enough that I saw some books like this while browsing bookstores at the airport. I suppose there aren't too many people in Taiwan looking for a book of this type, but on the other hand, there are a lot of people studying Chinese in Taiwan, and I imagine that most of them would rather read some good modern Chinese literature rather than more of the usual textbook readings which earnestly and tediously explore Chinese culture. Furthermore, this type of book would not be very difficult to make. The book adds value by first offering some historical or cultural contexts for the texts, and by conveniently defining difficult vocabulary. A version of this book designed for Chinese learners in Taiwan might have some definitions in simple Chinese and some definitions in English, Japanese, and possibly Korean.

For a text intended for advanced learners, it is hard to guess which vocabulary the reader will need defined. Some words and phrases obviously need to be defined, such as rare idioms and words from dialects. For a lot of moderately difficult words, it's not easy to decide whether to include a definitions. So, it seems like this would make electronics texts a perfect solution, where readers can theoretically point to any word and get a definition. However, I still much prefer to read anything on paper and would prefer not to read anything longer than a short story in front of the computer.

In this period of literature, the writing attacks the "half-feudal, half-colonial society" of China. Most of the writers also wage war on subtlety. Ba Jin is the worst in this regard. Lu Xun had some nice words to say about Ba Jin, so I'm a little hesitant to criticize him, but Ba Jin's Family is the most melodramatic book I have ever read. The tears leak from every eye and the hearts of the righteous beat with indignation. Mao Dun's short story, Spring Silkworms, although not terribly subtle, is the best story in the collection. In details the process of raising silkworms and gives readers a look at the poverty of those living off credit and trying to keep up with the changing times. For me it brought back memories of waiting anxiously for silkworms eggs to hatch and of raising silkworms. In "peasant literature" there can be a lot of specialized vocabulary related to working (in this case the work of raising silkworms) as well as dialect used in dialog. The definitions are a great help in reading this.

A few of the English definitions leave you scratching your head, but they are generally a great convenience. The first story, The New Year's Sacrifice, for example, has 241 words defined. The excerpt from Family has 277 words defined, but it is actually much easier to read. If you are able to read "The New Year's Sacrifice," you will probably only need to check a small fraction of the vocabulary in Family.


January 20, 2009

First Chinese book of year: Virgo Doctors are Like This

Following up on my last post about reading more Chinese books this year, my first Chinese book for the year is a collection of essays about being a doctor, written by Dr. Ou Wenlin, whose pen name is Ou Yanglin (歐陽林)**. This is the 20th volume of his series of essay collections. In addition to being a doctor, he has managed to write 34 books.

The title of this book is "Virgo Doctors are Like This" (處女座的醫生是這樣的), and as the title hints, it a mostly light-hearted collection of essays. In one story, he tells how he was extorted by a gang member who was selling pens. The extorter says that he is selling a pen for NT$1000, and that if the doctor buys the pen, he would appreciate it so much that his many fellow gang members are sure to help him out when he is need. He never even mentions what happens if you don't buy the pen. In another story, Dr. Ou tells how he tried to go to a "folk song restaurant" (民歌餐廳). Strangely, his purpose in seeking the restaurant was to listen to pop songs from the eighties, so I think the title of "folk song restaurant" is not very fitting. He also describes how he became a hit with his clinic patients by giving out rub-on tattoos.

In a more serious series of essays, Dr. Ou recalls the SARS outbreak in Taiwan in 2003. He describes the atmosphere of fear and distrust. He recalls one patient, a grandfather, who came for a health check at the hospital despite having no symptoms because his son wouldn't let him see his grandchildren after the grandfather returned from a trip to China. He also describes how many people were quarantined, people who came into contact with someone else who came in contact with someone who was suspected of having SARS.

The book is only 215 pages, and like a lot of popular books in Taiwan, there is a low average word count per page, so it is a fast read. It is also easy reading for someone like me who is not a native reader of Chinese. This is the second or third book by Dr. Ou that I've read. Reading it, I get the strange feeling that I know Chinese. (A feeling that can be dispelled by reading something more challenging.)

The library I got this book from has 21 books by the doctor, of which ten are currently checked out, so they are evidently popular.

**Ouyang is a surname, so it looks like his name should be Ouyang Lin, but in the book people call him "Dr. Ou", so I guess the name is Ou Yanglin.


January 15, 2009

Reading goals for new year

2008 was a good year for reading for me. I read about 85 books. But that's nothing compared to fast readers. See this interview with Sarah Weinman who read 462 books last year. If that doesn't make you jealous, take a look at the comments, where a lot of other people say that they read the same way.

I've read a number of blog posts lately about setting reading goals for the new year. There's a good guide to reading groups and reading challenges here. Some of the reading challenges are one-year challenges while others are open-ended.

John Biesnecker posts his goal of reading 40 books in Chinese. While I'm not that ambitious, it does inspire me to try to read at least a few Chinese books this year. One obstacle to this plan is that it's not as easy to find suitable reading material in Chinese. If you're looking for a fool-proof list of English books, selecting Pulitzer-prize winners or National Book Award winners are all pretty safe. In fact, I'm considering the Pulitzer challenge.

For Chinese literature, a prestigious prize awarded in China is the Mao Dun prize for literature. There are over 30 recipients so far but critics say the award is overly motivated by ideology. A more international prize is the Newman Prize for Chinese Literature. It has only been issued once so far, by that yields a list of seven nominees. Another recently established award is the Man Asian Literary Prize. There have been two years of awards so far, which includes about eight works of fiction in Chinese. A couple of smaller awards are the Dangdai magazine yearly awards, which have been granted since 2004 and the Crown magazine yearly awards. If that's not enough for you, there's a whole list of awards here, but not I'm not sure which awards would make for the best reading.

Of course, picking a book to read in Chinese isn't as simple as just picking a title. I've got to pick books that are not too difficult. So, rather than choosing from a list, it would be smarter to browse the book store or to start by reading an anthology, and to find authors that are interesting and not too difficult. For simple books, it helps to reads books that are contemporary and local (from Taiwan). Books for young adults may also be simple. Perhaps even farther from the goal of great literature, there are comic books.

I haven't set a goal of how many books I plan to read, but expect to see some more posts about Chinese reading on this blog this year.


January 12, 2009

Chiao Tung University's English Play: 8 Women

Last week on Friday and Saturday, Chiao Tung University's English department performed their annual English play. This year's play was 8 Women, the English translation of the French murder mystery, 8 Femmes, which is both a movie and play. The tickets to the play were free and there were only two performances.

This is the second year in a row that I have seen the English play performed by the students. Both times I have been very impressed that an English department could put on a play of such high quality. The costumes, make-up and sets were as good as any that you would see in a professional production. English department students translated the play's dialog into Chinese, and it was then projected onto two screens during the performance.

The English pronunciation was as good as you could expect. In last year's performance, there were a few ringers who had probably started learning English at a young age. Last year, there was also the strange phenomenon of people who were supposed to be from the same town (Our Town) and even the same family, but had different accents. There were some students with English accents, some with American accents, and of course a lot of students with a common Taiwanese accent.

Although last year's play was more to my liking, I would grade this year's performance as an A, but for one problem. It was difficult to understand a lot of the dialog (just like last year). Better and more theatrical intonation would help, but I think it was mostly a technical problem. The performance hall seems to have a bit of an echo, there is a delay between the sound coming from the actors and the sound coming from the speakers, and the volume was set fairly low. I think the sound crew should have been able to solve this problem by turning up the volume and perhaps moving some speakers to different locations where the echo wasn't so strong. Maybe they didn't pay much attention to the sound because the audience could read the dialog (in Chinese).

Last month Tsing Hua University also performed an English play, but I missed that one. If you're interested in seeing one of these plays next year, look for flyers posted around the night market across from Tsing Hua University around December.

It might have been helpful if I had posted about the performance before it took place, but you can still see the website created for the play. It includes a blog. The actresses answer some questions, and you can find that the favorite line of one actress is "Combs never sleep!" and for another it is "I just know more how to arouse the desire." There are also pictures.

Incidentally, I suspect that the choice of the play was influenced by the lack of men in the English department. When the cast came on stage after the show, I only saw about three males. It seems that a lot of English departments are 70-90% female. For the play 8 women, only one male actor was needed, and his role did not have any lines.