Thursday, November 23, 2006

Rhetorical Answers

As Mathematica chugs along and I attempt to bully it in the right direction I have a few moments to write about another interesting week.

I will talk shortly about some of the comments which have been made recently on Asymptotia, and Backreaction about a certain presentation at the quarks meeting in Shanghai. I attended a satellite conference to this where the talk was discussed with both amusement and frustration. The conference was particularly interesting as many of the people there are heavy ion physicists who have recently moved into AdS/CFT as they really see it as a promising step forward. Shamelessly enthusiastic some would say but I think it's a great sign that there is renewed exchange between these disparate communities. However, I have to leave that to a time where I can think a little more clearly. The end of a tiring week with lots still to do is not the time.

One picture from the conference however is, as usual, gastronomically related. We were taken to one of the best Peking Duck restaurants in town and, unusually, were given a good range of dishes, not toned down for the foreigners. This included the following which is worth trying simply for novelty value.

Monday's English corner was as usual full of surprises. Recently I haven't had time to prepare anything in detail, however, because the previous session in which we'd read through, acted out and analysed Ibsen's The Doll's House, had been a success I trawled the web for some more plays to go through. Finding free, short plays online turns out to be a none-too trivial task. After a good deal of searching I found two plays, both of which were abstract enough to keep discussions of the interpretation going for a long time while having language which wasn't going to be a burden. This worked well and we had multiple interpretations of both stories after an hour and a half of playing with them.

I'd struggled to come up with anything terribly inspiring but, as it's an English corner for students who already speak pretty fluently I thought that a discussion on rhetoric would be worth pursuing (both of the plays had included interesting structures of argument which had exemplified tricks of persuasion).

In fact I was also interested to know about rhetoric in China's history and whether there was a similar idea to that of the Greek system of structured argument. Having looked on the web I could find many famous speeches from the Western world but nothing from China so wanted to know whether this was just a language thing. Speaking to the pupils they said that, unsurprisingly, with China's recent history great public speeches of protest were rare and though there had been a few politicians who had persuasive techniques, such a skill was not considered such a great attribute as it was in the Western world.

We moved on to the case of Corax and Tisias and I was impressed to see that several of them had seen this example before. I now realise that getting them to read through a passage in silence in the class disturbs the flow quite considerably so I shall try not to make that mistake again. Still, we discussed this for some time and subsequently started talking about the ancient Chinese philosophers and in particular the language used many centuries ago.

The language in China at that time was filled with even more degeneracy than it is today and a single word, and character could have a vast wealth of meanings. Such sparsity seems initially to be a bad thing, but when used intelligently this means that ancient Chinese writing can conjure an entire story in just a few words. The modern example of this is the four word idiom, which I'm only starting to learn about, but can give a few of examples:

入木三分 means "one with a keen, penetrating intellectual strength" but literally it is translated from "ru mu san fen" as "enter tree three centimetres". This particular example comes from an ancient calligrapher who's forceful brush strokes would penetrate deep into the wood.

囊萤映雪 "nang ying ying xue", (capture firefly reflection snow) - Means to read by the light of bagged fireflies or the reflected light of snow.

望洋兴叹 "wang yang xing tan", (watch ocean breath out) Means to lament one’s smallness before the ocean.

悬梁刺股 "xuan liang ci gu", (suspend beam stab thigh) Tie one’s hair to a beam to keep from nodding off or prod oneself awake with an awl in the thigh.

OK, a few examples but it seems that they are still used in conversation and writing today to express concisely a metaphor for some sentiment or action. I'd be interested to hear from any Chinese speakers about your favourite idioms or correct me on any of the above comments

Lots of photos and comments from the conference I attended this week to come, including the joys of giving a talk which seemed to go successfully. For now my program is calling me so I must get back to work.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jon,

Yes! Do gather your thoughts and recollections about the conference.... I'd very much like to hear them, either here or at Asymptotia or Backreaction.



Unknown said...

Hi Clifford,

Yes, it felt like one of the most healthy and dynamic exchange of ideas between fields which I've been lucky enough to be involved in. I will write up my thoughts as soon as I get a spare moment.

All the best,


Anonymous said...

Hi Jon

I've tried to read a little more about Chinese idioms, with little success. I find it difficult to understand many of them, even after reading the story behind their creation, and their possible use frequently escapes me. I did find one which I have understood, so I thought I'd post it here to add to your collection:

"Academic buying a donkey"
博士買驢 (or 博士买驴 in simplified form)
bo2 shi4 mai3 lu2

bo2 shi4 means an academic
mai3 is to buy
lu2 is a donkey

So the idiom is "academic buying a donkey". The story goes that an academic once bought a donkey. Upon asking for a receipt the seller stated that he didn't know how to write and so asked the academic to write one for himself. He did so, but in the popular writing style of the day, 600AD or so. It took 3 pages to do so and there was not a single mention of a donkey! The seller suggested to the academic that he write concisely that he had bought a donkey on that day for a given sum. And so "Academic buying a donkey" is often used to describe a piece of text which is overtly long-winded and without actually stating anything, much like my post! It could be equally applied to many articles appearing on the arXiv daily, including my own contributions!

All the best


Unknown said...

Hi Jon,

Thanks for the addition. I'll attempt to use that one at the next available opportunity. Most of them do seem to be very obscure and I've had multiple interpretations from Chinese friends about the simplest of them, so I don't think we need to feel bad about finding them somewhat confusing.

All the best,