From the very beginning, one should be aware that grammar provides no sure answer—there is nothing mechanical in the reading of literary Chinese—and that one should bring as much information to the act of interpretation as possible.
Michael A. Fuller. An Introduction to Literary Chinese, 2004 edition, page 7
知之为知之，不知为不知，是知也 The Analects (of Confucius)
Translation 1: to say you know when you know, and to say you do not when you do not, that is true knowledge
Translation 2: If you know, recognize that you know. If you don’t know, realize that you don’t know. That is knowledge.
Translation 3: to know what you know and what you do not know, that is true knowledge.
I’ve been a student of Mandarin Chinese for about 14 years, but my progress over this timeframe has been quite jagged. I’ve attended formal classes, practiced with my native-speaking wife, and performed countless translations. However, for the most part, I’ve been on my own, slowly (and oftentimes painfully) making progress in solitude. Oftentimes, I make no actual progress; I only have enough time to keep my skills from regressing.
I like the silence that comes with studying. It is a true escape from this modern, gadget-filled world that we find ourselves in. Just me and Chinese. It is great. But I do sometimes get lonely in my pursuit of understanding. I wonder what perspectives and experiences I am missing as I read through texts. Do others see something that I don’t? Are there other ways to interpret what I am reading? And while it is dangerous to project too much of ourselves onto the writings of others, it is also dangerous to just take words and grammar at face value. As such, it is critical that I begin approaching Chinese with more balance and nuance. How should one go about reading complex cultural and history-laden texts? This is the question that I seek to answer.
To that end, and as I referenced in a previous entry, I now have a Chinese tutor. We meet once a week, and I am confident that my work with her will take my skills to the next level. But there is an even larger community of Mandarin speakers out there that I hope to interact with. Just as I have used Lingua Sports Cards (and will continue to do so) to get to know others in the card collecting community, this site can be a great way to know and collaborate with others who share my passion for Chinese. Being alone often feel good. Feeling lonely does not.
As I consider the meaning of loneliness–especially as we head into Chinese/Lunar New Year–I am reminded of how I celebrated the last Year of the Dog New Year back in 2006 (anecdote is given below). My Chinese was at its infancy then. And while my skills have improved tremendously over the years, I still have a long way to go. Onward.
Chinese New Years 2006
Only once during the two years that I lived in Nanjing did I feel alone. And by alone, I mean physically/spatially alone, separated from the enormous humanity that makes up modern China. But I wasn’t lonely. The occasion was a night that I spent shooting baskets on the outdoor courts at Nanjing University of Finance and Economics (NUFE). I was working as an English and statistics instructor at NUFE, but there were no classes on this day. The basketball courts were usually packed with Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady wannabees, couples on walks together, and with Backstreet Boys music blaring over the loudspeakers. But on this January 2006 night, it was a different story: just me, my basketball, and about eight or ten empty basketball courts.
I can’t remember if the moon was out, but somehow I had no trouble seeing the hoop that late winter night. I had shot baskets hundreds of times in my life, and this go-around started out much the same: I put up shot after shot after shot, building up a good rhythm. Sometimes I would drive the length of the court, doing full court layups. Other times I would work on my mid-range jump shot. Nobody was around me; the school campus was deserted. After about 20 minutes of shooting, it dawned upon me how rare this was. For the first time since arriving in China the previous August, I was outside of my third-floor apartment that overlooked the courts where I was now shooting, and not a soul could be seen. But in truth, I actually wasn’t alone at all. I just needed to pay a little bit more attention. The people of Nanjing were busy celebrating Chinese New Year, and their presence somehow enveloped the dim, quiet, and unobtrusive NUFE campus where I stood. Firecrackers and fireworks were going off all around the city. The hazy, smoke filled sky danced above. I was a happy witness to all of this, so thankful that the twists and turns of my life had led me to that moment.
The longer that we get away from that night, the more it feels like the whole thing was a dream. I don’t remember how cold it was, how long I stayed outside, or anything else about that day. If I could go back, and relive that night again, I’d do so in a heartbeat. I’m not sure if Chinese New Years 2006 was the best day of my life, but it was certainly one of the happiest. I felt free. And I thought I had better write about it before it fades even further from my memory.
Word of the Day
phlegmatic – not easily upset, excited, or angered; our phlegmatic leader; she was phlegmatic even during the most difficult moments of the crisis; a strangely phlegmatic response to what should have been happy news