April 28, 2009

Chinese Internet Censorship – See it for yourself

From Freedom to Tinker:

You probably know already that the Chinese government censors Internet traffic. But you might not have known that you can experience this censorship yourself. Here's how:

(1) Open up another browser window or tab, so you can browse without losing this page.

(2) In the other window, browse to baidu.com. This is a search engine located in China.

(3) Search for an innocuous term such as "freedom to tinker". You'll see a list of search results, sent back by Baidu's servers in China.

(4) Now return to the main page of baidu.com, and search for "Falun Gong". [Falun Gong is a dissident religious group that is banned in China.]

(5) At this point your browser will report an error -- it might say that the connection was interrupted or that the page could not be loaded. What really happened is that the Great Firewall of China saw your Internet packets, containing the forbidden term "Falun Gong", and responded by disrupting your connection to Baidu.

(6) Now try to go back to the Baidu home page. You'll find that this connection is disrupted too. Just a minute ago, you could visit the Baidu page with no trouble, but now you're blocked. The Great Firewall is now cutting you off from Baidu, because you searched for Falun Gong.

(7) After a few minutes, you'll be allowed to connect to Baidu again, and you can do more experiments.

April 27, 2009

Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy

One of the miracles of our age is the ability, through recorded material (the DVD in particular) to witness extended performances that one would normally never have access to.

Do you wish to watch the complete Shakespeare War of the Roses series?  Do you want to watch all of Shakespeare?  Do you want to watch all of the Mozart operas?  Do you want to watch an orchestra perform the complete Beethoven symphony cycle (or a second Beethoven symphony cycle?)  Do you want to watch the full Wagner Ring cycle?  Do you want to watch a second Ring cycle?  A third Ring cycle?  A feminist Ring cycle?

This list could be continued for a very long time.  I am fortunate to live in a cultural center, so I have had a chance to see Ring cycles, Shakespeare cycles, and Beethoven cycles with my own eyes – but those were frankly once in a lifetime events.  (And some cycles are simply impossible – even if one were in Salzburg in 2006, it was simply logistically impossible to watch all 22 Mozart operas performed in his 250th year.)

Now, if this is true for Western performances, it is even more true for Eastern performances.  Major Chinese and Japanese dramatic works are typically from 6 to 24 hours long, and thus in an evening out, one will only get scenes from a performance.  While these can be quite satisfying, they simply do not reflect the genius of the author.

A particular wonderful and hard-to-see type of performance is Japanese bunraku – the Japanese puppet theater.  This is quite different from Western puppet theater – the puppets are half-sized representations of human and each is manipulated by a team of three performers, which will often be present on stage.  A shamisen player performs music while a singer chants the dialogue.  Because the performance is small, even the two large bunraku theaters (the Osaka Bunraku National Theater and the bunraku stage at the Tokyo National Theater) can only seat a few hundred attendees – and these performances are sporadic.  Still, bunraku theater is something special – whenever I visit Japan, I try to attend a performance, even if I have to substantially alter my schedule to attend.  I have never been disappointed.  A single ticket to an afternoon matinee performance can easily cost $100 to $200.  Most of the kabuki repertoire is adapted from the Japanese puppet theater (and thus come the famous scenes where the human kabuki performers mimic puppet characters.)

One of the more famous plays in the bunraku repertoire is Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy.  This script has been translated into English (and I can recommend that translation).  Scenes from the play can be found in a cheap Dover volume and in an older Oxford anthology.  There is a synopsis of the play here; it is loosely based on a real historical character, Sugawara no Michizane (845-903).  Sugawara was a calligraphy master and one of the two leading ministers in the royal court; and the play discusses the manuevers  – it concerns the political machinations as his rival Fujiwara no Tokihira tricks the emperor into exiling Sugawara.  Sugawara was a leading poet, and the 1746 play is a masterwork of Japanese writing, with long poetic sections.

Now, I’ve not come across a complete performance of this play – even one spread over several days or weeks.  Indeed, several parts of the play – including the first scene and especially the fifth scene are almost never performed.  So you can imagine my excitement when the Japanese public broadcaster NHK released a complete nine and half hour DVD set of the performance.  (If you want to shop around, the Japanese DVD code is NSDX-13208.)  Amazon Japan sold me a copy – with overnight shipping from Japan, for $140 – less than I have paid for some single bunraku tickets (the box set was released on April 24th, and it was mailed via FedEx from Amazon on April 23rd at 3PM, so that its buyers could have their copies on the next day.  My copy arrived in the US on April 24th – just before 10AM).  But my real delight came when I started watching.

This is no ordinary DVD set – it is a compilation of performances drawn over a period of five decades – including a few classics in black and white:

  • Act I Scene 1
        The Imperial Palace
        (filmed in May 1972)
  • Act I Scene 2
        The Bank of the Kamo River
    (filmed in September 1996)
  • Act I Scene 3
        Transmission of the Secrets
    (filmed in September 1996)
  • Act I Scene 4
        Outside the Gate
        (filmed in September 1996)
  • Act II Scene 1
        Sweet Words on the Journey
        (filmed in May 1972)
  • Act II Scene 2
        Awaiting the Tide at Yasui
        (filmed in May 1972)
  • Act II Scene 3
        The Chastising
        (filmed in April 2002)
  • Act II Scene 4
        Rosy Breaks the Dawn
        (filmed in January 1983)
  • Act II Scene 5
        Sugawara’s Farewell
        (filmed in January 1983)
  • Act III Scene 1
        Breaking the Carriage Apart
        (filmed in 1959)
  • Act III Scene 2
        Sake from a Tea-whisk
    (filmed in April 1989)
  • Act III Scene 3
        The Quarrel
        (filmed in April 1989)
  • Act III Scene 4
        The Death of Sakuramaru
        (filmed in April 1989)
  • Act IV Scene 1
        Mount Tenpai
        (filmed in April 2002)
  • Act IV Scene 2
        North Saga Village
        (filmed in May 1972)
  • Act IV Scene 3
        The New Student
        (filmed in April 1989)
  • Act IV Scene 4
        The Village School
        (filmed in April 1989)
  • Act V
        Extraordinary Events at the Palace
    (filmed in May 1972)

This extraordinary juxtaposition of filmings from 1959, 1972, 1989, 1996, and 2002 not only allows one to see a complete play that is almost never performed complete, it allows us to compare classic performances from across three generations.  The effect is intoxicating.

The box set includes a full copy of the script – in Japanese.  Fortunately, the DVDs include full English subtitles.  The box set is region-free and NTSC, so it can play on any American DVD player.  Because of the age of the films, all footage is in 4:3 format.

Most likely, this box set will be too expensive for casual purchase, but it is bound to appeal to aficionados.  But I do encourage you to ask your library to acquire a copy – watching this set allows you to experience something you are unlikely to ever encounter – a complete performance with expert troupes of this classic play.

April 26, 2009

Edmund Wilson’s Bible translation advice

Edmund Wilson, the 20th century’s most influential American literary critic, wrote about Bible translations.  You may have read one of his comments about the language in the King James Version, because it was cited by Alter and Kermode and in their Literary Guide to the Bible:

that old tongue, with its clang and flavor

(I am amused by the many bloggers who insist on adding a “u” to flavor in this quote – seemingly forgetting that Wilson was born in New Jersey and educated at Princeton – an unnecessary Anglicization!)

I reproduce below the entire paragraph in which this quote appears, from Wilson’s A Piece of My MindBecause it is a long paragraph, I have broken it up into smaller paragraphs here:

A similar revelation comes out of the Hebrew Bible.

The Hebrew religious conceptions, the imagery of the Hebrew scriptures have been an element of literature in English from the King James translation on.  This is, of course, especially strong in Milton, who knew Hebrew at first hand; but the pregnant phrases of the Bible, its apocalyptic visions, are a part of the texture of our language. 

The culture of no other Western people seems so deeply to have been influenced by these:  something in the English character, something mystical, tough and fierce, has a special affinity to Hebrew.  Yet the strong Hebrew strain in English is to some extent at variance with influence of the Greek and Roman tradition.  In proportion as one inclines toward this latter, one is likely to the resent the other.

In my own case, I followed, in my youth, the line of reaction then common against old-fashioned Bible-worship, the recoil from the rigors of Calvinism.  Yet my grandfather on my father’s side was a Presbyterian minister, though a very moderate one, and when my parents went to church on Sunday, they would leave me with my formidable grandmother, who undertook my instruction in the Scriptures.  These bleak and severe Sunday mornings, though they left me with a respect for the Bible, had the effect of antagonizing me against it, and this attitude was tacitly encouraged by the moral sabotage of my mother, whose family, once rigorous New Englanders, had scrapped the old-time religion and still retained a certain animus toward it.

At college, I was enchanted by classical Greek, and, though I made a point of reading through the Gospels, I told myself how immeasurably I preferred Socrates to Jesus.  Later on, I elected the second half of a course in Old Testament literature.  I already admired Ecclesiastes, and – though finding Ezekiel tedious – I tried to do justice to the Prophets. 

It was not til much later, in my fifties, that I acquired a little Hebrew, and for a third time, I had the experience of finding myself in contact with something in its pure and original form that I had previous only known in compounds or adaptations.  The strangeness of this element in English became a good deal more comprehensible when was able to take account, not only of the structural differences between the Semitic languages and the Teutonic and Latin ones, but also of the difference from our of the oriental way of apprehending the world that these structural divergences reflected. 

I have written about this elsewhere at length, so I merely want here to note that an acquaintance with the Hebrew bible is at once to make the biblical narratives sound a good deal more simple and natural – the archaic Jacobean English still today partly screens them from us – and to compel us to pay attention to certain fundamental discrepancies between the Hebrew way of thinking and ours.  The language of Jehovah and his worshippers, which seems in English grandiose and mysterious, may not, even in Gesenius’ dictionary, become to us readily intelligible and render itself in familiar terms; but here at least we can meet at first hand this vocabulary and these locutions, try to form some idea of their meaning to the men who first coined and employed them to deal with their objective and subjective worlds – or rather, with the moral continuum that embraced the phenomena of both.

It is useful to approach the Bible with a scholarly dictionary and commentary – for otherwise it is bound, more or less, to remain an esoteric text, a repository of tales for children, a dream book, a compendium of incantations.  The Jews – who have lost touch with the original text – have been interpreting it for a couple of thousand years in even more far-fetched and fantastic ways.  The Christians have been equally fantastic – beginning with the extravagances of Justin Martyr – in reading back into it the coming of Christ; and the old lady who was infinitely grateful for that blessed word Mesopotamia was only an extreme case of the Christian dependence on Scripture for this sort of consolation.

Some of the oddest features of the bible, as we get it through our Jacobean version, are simply due to mistranslations.  So Joseph’s coat of many colors was in reality a coat with long sleeves; so Moses had sprouting from his head, not horns,  but rays of light.  Yet the horns of Moses and the many-colored coat are as hard to get out of one’s head, unless one sees what they are in the original, as the images in nursery rhymes.

Many mysteries, of course, remain.  Some are puzzles of vocabulary or grammar:  there are, in the text of the Bible, something like five hundred words that do not occur anywhere else, and the copyists have made mistakes.  But it is difficult, also, to adjust oneself to certain fundamental features of the Hebrew way of looking at things, and, though there is constant speculation on these matters, they are now so remote from our habits of though that some scholars believe we must give them up.

In any case, we find here – with the language they have minted – the religio-legal codes and the lofty prophetic poetry, the wisdom derived form experience and the permanently significant legends, the influence of which, refracted by the organisms of other mentalities, have reached distant countries and distant times.

Here it is, that old tongue, with its clang and its flavor, sometimes rank, sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter; here it is in it concise solid stamp.  Other cultures have felt its impact, and none – in the West, at least – seems quite to accommodate it.  Yet we find we have been living with it all our lives.

April 23, 2009

Happy Birthday

2009 is the 400th anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare’s nasty little poems (all with twisted barbs) known as his Sonnets, and many organizations are celebrating the anniversary today, on this day celebrated as Shakespeare’s (unknown) birthday:  St. George’s Day.

Google UK has celebrated this convergence of celebrations with one of its clever doodles; this one reprising the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet:


(You can see this in color here)

To celebrate the day, here is one of the less nasty poems, although it still has its bitter thorn:

Betwixt mine eye and heart a league is took,
And each doth good turns now unto the other:
When that mine eye is famish'd for a look,
Or heart in love with sighs himself doth smother,
With my love's picture then my eye doth feast
And to the painted banquet bids my heart;
Another time mine eye is my heart's guest
And in his thoughts of love doth share a part:
So, either by thy picture or my love,
Thyself away art resent still with me;
For thou not farther than my thoughts canst move,
And I am still with them and they with thee;
     Or, if they sleep, thy picture in my sight
     Awakes my heart to heart's and eye's delight.

Bill Nye and the Fundamentalists

From the Waco Tribune (April 2006):

Audience members who expected to see Bill Nye “The Science Guy” conduct experiments and wow their children received quite a surprise Wednesday when Nye spoke at McLennan Community College. . . .

The Emmy-winning scientist angered a few audience members when he criticized literal interpretation of the biblical verse Genesis 1:16, which reads: “God made two great lights - the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars.”

He pointed out that the sun, the “greater light,” is but one of countless stars and that the “lesser light” is the moon, which really is not a light at all, rather a reflector of light.

A number of audience members left the room at that point, visibly angered by what some perceived as irreverence.

“We believe in a God!” exclaimed one woman as she left the room with three young children.

Nye also was critical of what he said was governmental agencies’ lack of action, even lack of understanding, in protecting the Earth from global warming and wasted resources.

Nye’s educational science show won 28 Emmy awards during its television run from 1992-98. . . .

April 19, 2009

My life (part 2)

Here is my dream from which I have only recently awakened:

I was serving on the tenure committee evaluating St. John Chrysostom (archbishop of Constantinople). 

Now, this dream was, as academic dreams go, a real humdinger, with many twists and interesting moments.  On waking, I wanted to blog all about it – but then I had a thought – the proceedings of a tenure committee are sealed – they are highly confidential.  So, I then find myself wondering – am I bound by a privacy oath that I took in a dream?  I haven’t exactly resolved that one yet.

So, you’ll all need to wait until a little later to see if I can release the committee’s recommendation.

April 14, 2009

This is my life

From alarm clock to leaving for work in five minutes.  Just like Tomonori Jinnai.

(Note:  even if you don’t follow all of Jinnai’s techniques, note his superior tie knotting technique.)

Link:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qin4UptOEsI