Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Saturday, December 31, 2011

What is the Chinese Language?

How better to end the year than to contemplate differing visions of the Chinese language?

A friend sent me a link to an article in The Economist which may be read here. As it's a very brief article, I've copied it whole below. The questions raised will surely provoke many comments, so I'd recommend visiting the original to see how they develop.


What is the Chinese language?

Dec 13th 2011, 21:34 by R.L.G. | NEW YORK
I HAVE exercised Chinese commenters with a few posts that were seen as either simplistic or biased. So let me offer two competing visions of Chinese that help explain what the two sides disagree on. These are archetypes which few partisans may agree with every word of.  But they are the basic poles of thinking about Chinese, I think. I submit them for the good of commenters, who should debate them to shreds.

In brief, Chinese traditionalists believe

1) Chinese is one language with dialects.

2) Chinese is best written in the character-based hanzi system.

3) All Chinese read and share the same writing system, despite speaking in different ways.

Western linguists tend to respond

1) Chinese is not a language but a family; the "dialects" are not dialects but languages.

2) Hanzi-based writing is unnecessarily difficult; the characters do not represent "ideas" but "morphemes" (small and combinable units of meaning, like the morphemes of any language). Pinyin (the standard Roman system) could just as easily be used for Chinese. Puns, wordplay and etymology might be sacrificed, but ease of use would be enhanced.

3) Modern hanzi writing is basically Mandarin with the old characters in a form modified by the People's Republic. Everyone else (Cantonese speakers, say) must either write Mandarin or significantly alter the system to write their own "Chinese".

There are so many arguments packed into these two ideas that it's hard to start, much less finish, in a blog post. Since I'm (really) on holiday, I'll leave it to commenters to enlighten each other, and me on my return.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

China Resources Page

I just Stumbled onto Jordan's China Resource Page. There's all kinds of good stuff there. Please pay him a visit.

Below is an excerpt from an essay on the Five Elements. 

1. Introduction

Traditional Chinese thought about nature often involves a set of five xíng , named after natural entities (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water). The word xíng, which usually means "walking" or "moving," is sometimes translated "elements" when speaking of the five xíng, but many authors prefer translations like "forces," "natures," "phases," or "transformations" in order to capture the idea that the xíng are in dynamic interaction with each other, i.e., that they are in some sense "walking." Despite its misleadingly concrete implications, I still prefer the translation "elements," since it fits best with the basic terms always used for them: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. (It is hard for an English speaker to think of wood as a "phase.")

Underlying the utility (or, some would say, wackiness) of the concept are a number of additional assumptions:
  1. Each of the five elements has a wide number of correspondences with other parts of the natural world. Thus the element wood corresponds with the color blue, the direction east, and the flavor sour. In general, anything that can be subdivided into five categories, can be aligned to the five elements.
  2. Each of the five elements tends to strengthen, support, feed, give way to, or create one of the others. For example, wood/blue/east tends to support or strengthen fire/scarlet/south.
    (Mnemonic: Wood burns to create fire; fire creates ash/earth; it is from earth that we get metal; metal can be heated to produce liquid/water; water poured on a seedling allows it to grow into wood.)
  3. Each of the five elements also tends to weaken, undercut, or destroy one of the others. Thus wood/blue/east tends to weaken earth/yellow/center.
    (Mnenomic: Wood can grow through earth; fire can melt metal, earth can absorb water, metal tools can cut through wood, water can put out a fire.)
  4. A deficiency or an excess of any element tends to exert unnatural strengthening or weaking influence on other elements, potentially causing illness or distress.
  5. Illness and misfortune can be corrected by restoring the element that is too strong or weak. One way to do this is to supplement those elements that will tend to strengthen or diminish the unbalanced element. Usual applications are in religious ritual (including geomancy) and in medicine.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas.

" Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him. He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!"

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Winter Soltice

Today is the Winter Soltice.

We're heading into winter. The amount of reading I get through increases during the winter.

A couple of books I've read recently that I've really enjoyed are - Chinese Texts and Philosophical Contexts: Essays Dedicated to Angus C. Graham, edited by Henry Rosemont Jr  and The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein.

"Chinese Texts" is a scholarly one. The first few chapters were way over my head as they had to do with fine points of translating Classical Chinese, but the rest of the book was very interesting.Some of the essays had to do with things like who compiled the Zhuang Zi, and when was the first reference of the Dao De Jing and the Zhuang Zi together and referred to as a "school" or that the word "elements" in the "Five Elements" is used altogether in a different sense than modern westerners would use that word.

The Art of Racing in the Rain is a novel told from the point of view of a dog who has grown old with his family, is not nearing the end of his life and is now looking back on things. The dog's owner is a race car driver and the observations the dog makes about him and the way his lives his life resonates with the applications of Daoism and Zen in our everyday lives. It's a very good read.

I'm currently rereading Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. It's simply a classic.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Distance is a Relationship

Over at The Classical Budoka, there was an excellent post on the importance of studying distance in martial arts. Below is an excerpt. The whole article may be read here.

44. Ma: Fluid Space in Budo

December 12, 2011

In budo, like other physical endeavors, the interconnected factors of space and time (rhythm and timing) are crucial. In Japanese, the term for “space,” in between objects and opponents is “ma,” and the character can also be pronounced “aida,” as in “in between.” It is the space “in between” yourself and your opponent, the empty field that defines the potential of attack and defense, the ma-ai(the “meeting” space). Like music, however, “empty space” between notes or opponents aren’t “empty” in a sense that there’s nothing there. Potential is there. Fullness is there. Emptiness is necessary for fullness. Spaces between individual notes creates a song, its tension and melody. Space between adversaries define the field in which they fight, and the person who can control the space (and time) best is the one who wins.

An understanding of ma-ai (the proper distancing) is important, but many martial artists of even respectively high levels in their specific art aren’t aware of it beyond their particular specializations. Worse, kata-based training (especially when done individually, such as in karate kata and iaido) may make a person ignorant of proper ma-ai.


There’s an article that Diane Skoss, of Koryu Books, wrote about being a woman training in koryu budo. She made a comment that, even after years of aikido, she never understood mai-ai very well until she started weapons work in koryu. Then all of a sudden, she had to deal with opponents who came at her with short staffs, long staffs, naginata, spears, swords and all sorts of weapons, long and short.

Such training gave her an innate understanding of the elastic, variable nature of ma-ai, dependant on the situation, attacker, angle and weapon.

That is why, I suspect, that Okinawan karate and aikido included some kind of weapons training in their curriculum. Even Kodokan Judo had weapons work, but discarded them as it evolved into more of a specialized sport, and less of a martial system. If you don’t get out of your comfort zone in ma-ai, you won’t understand proper distancing. So this is an argument, in a way, for studying weapons if you are primarily a grappler or puncher-kicker.

In classical systems, there are various terms to explain ma-ai. The most common are the three different terms of toh-ma, uchi-ma, and chika-ma to denote the three basic distances. Depending on the weapons (or lack thereof), toh-ma is when the distance is too far (toh- is from the word for “far away,” toh-i) for you or the opponent to strike, unless you take steps to close the gap. Although you can begin to engage the enemy at that distance, you won’t be struck easily.


 The problem with ma-ai is that there are so many variables. Not just in terms of weaponry, but also in terms of rhythm and timing, angles of attack and positioning of the attacker and you. All of these will affect proper ma-ai. Space and time are not separate entities. They interact with each other.

While we’ve been discussing the physical tactics of handling space, we can’t also forget the mental/psychological and psychic overlay of spacing. In esoteric doctrines in some sword schools, even standing at a distance, you have a kind of  mental uchi-ma; i.e., you can still be too far for a quick strike with your sword, but if your spirit and energy is strong enough, you can already attack the opponent.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The 300 Tang Dynasty Poems, #43: A Song of Changgan

One of the worlds' literary treasures is an anthology of the greatest poems of the Tang Dynasty of China. The Tang Dynasty was a high water mark in culture in ancient China and poetry was especially esteemed. The 300 Tang Dynasty Poems may be found here. Below is poem #43: A Song of Changgan.

Li Bai

My hair had hardly covered my forehead.
I was picking flowers, paying by my door,
When you, my lover, on a bamboo horse,
Came trotting in circles and throwing green plums.
We lived near together on a lane in Ch'ang-kan,
Both of us young and happy-hearted.
...At fourteen I became your wife,
So bashful that I dared not smile,
And I lowered my head toward a dark corner
And would not turn to your thousand calls;
But at fifteen I straightened my brows and laughed,
Learning that no dust could ever seal our love,
That even unto death I would await you by my post
And would never lose heart in the tower of silent watching.
...Then when I was sixteen, you left on a long journey
Through the Gorges of Ch'u-t'ang, of rock and whirling water.
And then came the Fifth-month, more than I could bear,
And I tried to hear the monkeys in your lofty far-off sky.
Your footprints by our door, where I had watched you go,
Were hidden, every one of them, under green moss,
Hidden under moss too deep to sweep away.
And the first autumn wind added fallen leaves.
And now, in the Eighth-month, yellowing butterflies
Hover, two by two, in our west-garden grasses
And, because of all this, my heart is breaking
And I fear for my bright cheeks, lest they fade.
...Oh, at last, when you return through the three Pa districts,
Send me a message home ahead!
And I will come and meet you and will never mind the distance,
All the way to Chang-feng Sha.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Practicing in a Small Space

We should not give up...our goal...But...we should not be discouraged even though we cannot have it. So actually, as long as we are making effort, that is actual goal. – Shunryu Suzuki

If we wait until conditions are perfect in order to practice, we’ll usually find that we’ll be waiting a long time indeed. The perfect is the enemy of the good. Not all of us can set aside a specific time and location regularly. In that case, we have to practice what we can when time and space allows and ask ourselves “what can I do right here, right now to move the ball forward.”

One of the constraints we frequently face is space. I have always liked the standing practice, Zhan Zhuang, because it takes so little space; in fact nothing special. We only need time. Zhan Zhuang is very adaptable to time - if you have less time, you can hold a lower stance.

Practicing the Taijiquan form can be somewhat challenging. The long form covers quite a bit of ground and to set aside a block of 30 to 40 minutes for one run through isn’t always convenient. You can do things however, that are still useful to your development, like isolating and practicing individual sequences and really hone them.

The Five Elements from Xingyiquan covers a lot of ground, too. Each of the individual Five Elements forms can be done as a stationary practice. This sort of practice may not be “complete”, but it’s still useful.

Even the kihon dosa, the basic movements of the Aikido I learned can be practiced in a relatively small space and regular practice of these movements have a direct positive impact on one’s technique.

 Below is an extract from an article at 24 Fighting Chickens about how to practice one's Karate kata in a small space. The full article may be found here.

How to Practice Kata in Your Room
by Rob Redmond - July 12, 2011

Considerable floor space is required to perform a kata. 100 square meters gives one adult male the ability to perform just about any kata without running into a wall. When the dojo gets crowded, though, sometimes some shortcuts are necessary to make the kata fit the room. As you approach the wall, you pull back your front foot and then step forward with your other foot so that you take the next step without actually traveling anywhere. Then when turning back in the other direction, cut the step again to put yourself in the correct spot in three dimensional space.

But what if you want to practice at home? The driveway works well, unless your neighbors are close by and you don’t like them thinking you are a crazy karate sociopath.

So it’s off to the gym for some of you. Luckily the aerobics room is empty during lunch, so a gym nearby the office is a good thing. For students in school, there may be dance rooms on campus to use during free periods. There may be an empty tennis court for those of you in more temperate climates. The tennis ladies may not approve.

Public parks and fields work well for some of you. Others find those places a little too dangerous.

Besides, karate training doesn’t look like tai chi training. Tai Chi, for some reason, gives the impression that you are a harmless hippie best ignored. Practicing karate kata seems to invite a lot of unfriendly attention out in too public of an arena in the wrong neighborhood. A  racquetball court can work – sometimes.

Indoors you go, and your house or apartment is not that big. What now?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Chinese Folk Tales: The Sons of the Dragon

I received this link from a friend. It's now it the "Links" Section.

It's a website of Chinese Folk Tales. Below is one of them. Enjoy.

From Taiwanese Folk Beliefs: The Sons of the Dragon.

3. Sons of the Dragon
A dragon has nine sons.
The first son loves loud noises, so bells are adorned with the images of dragons.
The second son loves music, so musical instruments are adorned with images of dragons.
The third son loves to drink, so drinking vessels are adorned with images of dragons.
The fourth son loves mountain peaks, so the tops of tall buildings or other structures or places are adorned with images of dragons.
The fifth son loves weaponry, so weapons are adorned with images of dragons.
The sixth son loves literature, so images of dragons are found on movable type.
The seventh son loves litigation, so images of dragons are found in courtrooms.
The eighth son loves sitting, so chairs are decorated with the images of dragons.
The ninth son loves heavy objects, so the images of dragons may be found on plinths.

Friday, December 09, 2011

The China Challenge

Below is an excerpt from an article on the book, On China, by Dr. Henry Kissinger. The full article may be read here.

The China Challenge

Societies and nations tend to think of themselves as eternal. They also cherish a tale of their origin. A special feature of Chinese civilization is that it seems to have no beginning. It appears in history less as a conventional nation-state than as a permanent natural phenomenon. In the tale of the Yellow Emperor, revered by many Chinese as the legendary founding ruler, China seems already to exist.

Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, special assistant to President Nixon is toasted by Chinese Premier Chou En-laii Monday night, February 21, 1972 as the Nixon party was quest at a state dinner in Peking.
The Yellow Emperor has gone down in history as a founding hero; yet in the founding myth, he is re-establishing, not creating, an empire. China predated him; it strides into the historical consciousness as an established state requiring only restoration, not creation.

In general, Chinese statesmanship exhibits a tendency to view the entire strategic landscape as part of a single whole: good and evil, near and far, strength and weakness, past and future all interrelated. In contrast to the Western approach of treating history as a process of modernity achieving a series of absolute victories over evil and backwardness, the traditional Chinese view of history emphasized a cyclical process of decay and rectification, in which nature and the world could be understood but not completely mastered.

For China's classical sages, the world could never be conquered; wise rulers could hope only to harmonize with its trends. There was no New World to populate, no redemption awaiting mankind on distant shores. The promised land was China, and the Chinese were already there. The blessings of the Middle Kingdom's culture might theoretically be extended, by China's superior example, to the foreigners on the empire's periphery. But there was no glory to be found in venturing across the seas to convert "heathens" to Chinese ways; the customs of the Celestial Dynasty were plainly beyond the attainment of the far barbarians.

The most dramatic event of the Nixon presidency occurred in near obscurity. Nixon had decided that for a diplomatic mission to Beijing to succeed, it would have to take place in secrecy. A public mission would have set off a complicated internal clearance project within the U.S. government and insistent demands for consultations from around the world, including Taiwan (still recognized as the government of China). This would have mortgaged our prospects with Beijing, whose attitudes we were being sent to discover. Transparency is an essential objective, but historic opportunities for building a more peaceful international order have imperatives as well.

So my team set off to Beijing via Saigon, Bangkok, New Delhi and Rawalpindi on an announced fact-finding journey on behalf of the president. My party included a broader set of American officials, as well as a core group destined for Beijing—myself, as national security adviser, three aides and two Secret Service agents. The dramatic denouement required us to go through tiring stops at each city designed to be so boringly matter-of-fact that the media would stop tracking our movements. In Rawalpindi, we disappeared for 48 hours for an ostensible rest (I had feigned illness) in a Pakistani hill station in the foothills of the Himalayas—but our real destination was Beijing. In Washington, only the president and Col. (later Gen.) Alexander Haig, my top aide, knew our actual mission.

When the American delegation arrived in Beijing on July 9, 1971, we had experienced the subtlety of Chinese communication but not the way Beijing conducted actual negotiations, still less the Chinese style of receiving visitors. American experience with Communist diplomacy was based on contacts with Soviet leaders, principally Andrei Gromyko, who had a tendency to turn diplomacy into a test of bureaucratic will; he was impeccably correct in negotiation but implacable on substance—sometimes, one sensed, straining his self-discipline.

Strain was nowhere apparent in the Chinese reception of the secret visit or during the dialogue that followed. In all the preliminary maneuvers, we had been sometimes puzzled by the erratic pauses between their messages, which we assumed had something to do with the Cultural Revolution.

Nothing now seemed to disturb the serene aplomb of our hosts, who acted as if welcoming the special emissary of the American president for the first time in the history of the People's Republic of China was the most natural occurrence.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Who Needs Fiction: What Would Zhuang Zi Do?

A very old Chinese Taoist story describes a farmer in a poor country village. His neighbors considered him very well-to-do. He owned a horse which he used for plowing and for transportation. One day his horse ran away. All his neighbors exclaimed how terrible this way, but the farmer simply said "Maybe."

A few days later the horse returned and brought two wild horses with it. The neighbors all rejoiced at his good fortune, but the farmer just said "Maybe."

The next day the farmer's son tried to ride one of the wild horses. The horse threw him and the son broke his leg. The neighbors all offered their sympathy for his misfortune, but the farmer again said "Maybe."

The next week conscription officers came to the village to take young men for the army. They rejected the farmer's son because of his broken leg. When the neighbors told him how lucky he was, the farmer replied "Maybe."

A friend sent me a news story which I've posted below. The original article may be read here. Read the news story, think about the folk story and put yourself in the subject's place.

My brother found himself in a somewhat similar position. He found a suitcase in the street in front of his house. He opened it, hoping to find some sort of identification to return it to it's owner. It was full of jewelry.

The thought of keeping it passed in a moment as he considered all of the possible bad things that could happen as a result of his keeping the suitcase. He turned it into the police.

It turned out to belong to a local jewelry store. I don't remember the explanation of how it got into the street, but the jewelry store gave him a cash reward of something like $500 or $1000 (this is over 30 years ago). Certainly enough to be a reward, but not enough to be another burden.

For myself, I think winning the Lottery would be one of life's greatest calamities.

Man finds $150K in his backyard, turns it in

By Kelsey Williams,

On Monday, Wayne Sabaj, 49, an unemployed carpenter living in McHenry County, Ill., (about 60 miles northwest of Chicago) found some green stuff in his garden-about $150,000 worth, stuffed into two duffel bags.

The Chicago Tribune reports: "[Sabaj] contemplated his position for about a half hour, then - fearing that the money might have come from a bank robbery and someone might come back looking for it-he called the McHenry County Sheriff's Department."

Sabaj, clearly a realistic sort, did not toast his good fortune at the load of dough that literally appeared in his backyard, but said to his father, "We have enough problems, now we got another problem.  Look what I found in the garden."

At this point the police are baffled by the discovery, and for all they know, it could be that a leprechaun has traded in pots-of-gold for duffels of cash. Still they are examining the bags and their contents for clues and say they will work with Sabaj to see if he can keep the money if no true owner or explanation is found.

All I want to know: What kind of fertilizer does Sabaj use?

Saturday, December 03, 2011

The 48 Laws of Power: a Review

The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene and Joost Elffers is one of my favorite books on strategy. First of all, the hardcover is a beautifully produced book. Mr. Effers is an artist who was responsible for the presentation of the material.

Where The Art of War by Sun Tzu is an overview and basically a textbook on the subject, and the 36 Strategies tries to impart the knack of strategic thinking by way of a number of maxims, the 48 Laws of Power is more focused on the psychology of personal interaction; what Greene calls "Power".

Greene illustrates each of the "Laws" with example drawn from both Eastern and Western history and literature. Among my favorite examples are those of famous con-men and con-jobs, such as the swindler who posed as an official of the French government and sold the Eiffel Tower to a scrap dealer. Green also includes counter examples for most of the Laws depicting situations where the Law simply wouldn't work, or a reversal of the Law would be more in order.

Below is an extract from a book review a friend sent me. The whole review may be read here.

American Apparel's in-house guru shows a lighter side

'48 Laws' author Robert Greene acts as chief Dov Charney's informal older brother, preaching 'crush your enemy' but practicing tolerance. His books are big with rappers, executives and prison inmates.

August 30, 2011|By Andrea Chang, Los Angeles Times

When author Robert Greene wrote his bestselling book "The 48 Laws of Power," his win-at-all-costs message turned him into a cult hero with the hip-hop set, Hollywood elite and prison inmates alike.

Crush your enemy totally, he wrote in Law 15. Play a sucker to catch a sucker, he said in another. Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit.

Greene's warrior-like take on the quest for power, written more than a decade ago, would eventually attract another devotee: Dov Charney, the provocative and sometimes impish chief executive of Los Angeles clothing company American Apparel Inc.

The 52-year-old Greene — a former screenwriter who speaks five languages and worked 80 jobs before writing "The 48 Laws" — has become Charney's guru, a trusted confidant to the 42-year-old entrepreneur and, insiders say, a voice of reason on American Apparel's board of directors.

"There's definitely an older-brother, younger-brother dynamic," said Allan Mayer, a public relations man and fellow board member. "Dov is a very brilliant, creative guy and he can also be mercurial and very impulsive, which are excellent qualities, but sometimes he needs to be reined in. If Robert says,
'Well, hold on, buddy,' Dov generally will."

Charney refers to his close friend alternately as a genius, El Señor and Jesus. The American Apparel founder says he was hooked on "The 48 Laws" the moment he opened its burnt orange cover, with its straightforward philosophies of Machiavelli, the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu and others. He's handed out hundreds of copies to friends and employees, and readily quotes the laws during board meetings.

One of Charney's favorites: "Enter action with boldness" — Law 28.

"Everybody practices it every day," he said of the book's principles during a recent dinner of Korean barbecue and beer with Greene in downtown Los Angeles. "These are the rules that govern human interactions.... Robert's book is as much a documentation of your flaws — you just score yourself on each one."