Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

Trying to write down what I think about Mao’s Last Dancer is like unpacking a Russian doll. There are stories within stories within stories.

The reviews tell a story about the film’s reception. Critics were harsher than I expected, oddly saying both that the movie was bland and that it was melodramatic.

Included on the disc is the filmmaker’s story of how the movie was made, which made the whole thing sound like a minor miracle. The casting was challenging because in addition to a fantastic Chinese-speaking ballet dancer who could play Li, they needed a whole set of kids to play Li and his ballet classmates at age 11, and a whole set of teenagers to play Li and his ballet classmates at age 15. They also had to choreograph and stage a bunch of different ballet performances in different styles: a Chinese imitation of a Western ballet, a Chinese revolutionary ballet, Don Quixote, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (familiar to me as the cartoon evolution of life on Earth in Disney’s Fantasia).

In 2003 Penguin published Mao’s Last Dancer, the autobiography of Li Cunxin, who is still alive and was consulted during filming. It must be strange to see your life made into a movie. I don’t think I’d like it.

Two cultures clash: Mao’s communist ideals and the American dream. Unsurprisingly, the movie teaches that it is better to live rich and free in the West than poor and oppressed by Party members who do not tolerate ideas that conflict with their doctrines.

And there is the plot of the movie itself (see below).

You see what I mean about the recursive nature of the story? There’s the story of the reception of this particular biopic; the story of the making of the film; the story in the film itself; the story in the autobiography the film was based on; the memories that the autobiography was based on; and the real-world cultural backdrop of the dancer’s life.

I’m still not clear on the title. The name “Mao” conjures up the Chairman, but Li was chosen by representatives of Madame Mao, not Chairman Mao, to learn ballet at the Beijing Dance Academy. I’m not sure why he was called the “last”, unless perhaps he was the last child selected during tryouts.

This movie, like Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Kings of Pastry, was a gift from my in-laws.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/maos-last-dancer/id424153088

Keep reading for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

Today Special

Let’s have a look at a strange sentence.

My class today was fun.

Which word is “today” modifying?

It’s an adverb, and the verb is “was”, so “today” must be modifying “was”. Easy, right?

Not so fast!

I think the sentence above is trying to say:

The class I had today was fun.

in which case “today” is modifying “had” because otherwise we’d say

My class was fun today.

So if you say “My class today was fun,” you’re either using Chinese syntax (which requires adverbs to go in front of verbs) to say that your class was fun today, or you’re using the word “today” to modify a verb that’s not technically even in the sentence but buried inside a possessive adjective.

You could say “Today’s class was fun,” using “today” as a noun but transforming it into a possessive adjective; then you’d be missing “my”.

In Chinese, I believe you could say “My today’s class was fun” because apparently there’s no rule against doubling up demonstratives like that; I’ve heard people say things like “my the other one is nicer”. In English.

In Singapore maybe you could also get away with “My today class was fun.” After all, “today” is an adjective on all the signs outside restaurants that say “Today Special”. Such signs are of course attempting to say “Today’s Specials”, but they not only fail to transform the noun “today” into a possessive adjective, they also fail to pluralize “special”, an adjective acting like a noun.

Why do we even have different parts of speech? Words change part of speech constantly, and people “misuse” them, and start fights about whether they are in fact misusing them or not, and yet we all manage to understand each other anyway. Most of the time.

Maybe the concept of parts of speech survives for entertainment value—and to provide jobs for English teachers!

Speaking of which, back when I was a teacher for a company called I Can Read, I posted about using “I can…” to test whether a word is a verb. The word ‘window’ hilariously failed my test.

Or so I thought. Shakespeare would disagree.

Antony and Cleopatra (IV.xiv.72):

“Wouldst thou be windowed in great Rome…?”
It just goes to show:

(a) Shakespeare is awesome,
(b) the internet is awesome, and
(c) you learn something new every day!

Railroad Tigers (2016)

In Railroad Tigers, Jackie Chan’s character is a Chinese villager living under the yoke of the Japanese army during WWII. He is the leader of a secret rebel group, the Flying Tigers. He leads the small, patriotic group on raids to harass and steal from Japanese soldiers stationed on the trains that pass through his village. They aren’t soldiers, though, and although they constantly risk getting caught, they never really accomplish much. What can they do to truly help their country? When a wounded soldier tells them he has failed in his mission to blow up an important bridge nearby, they know what to do… but not how to do it. Will they succeed?

Almost the whole film happens on a train, though there are some scenes in the village as well. I laughed a lot and thoroughly enjoyed it. Those who have disparaging things to say may have found the pro-China and anti-Japanese themes distasteful; or they may dislike silly action movies, since many action movies these days are gritty, dark, or at least largely serious in tone; or perhaps it’s partly just that they’re English speakers who don’t like having to experience jokes via subtitles.

In fact I wish my Mandarin (and my Japanese) were stronger, because then I’d have been able to appreciate the dialog better. Nevertheless, even though I mostly had to rely on the English subtitles to understand the dialog, it was still hilarious. And you don’t need subtitles for the slapstick comedy, anyway; you could get a fair amount of enjoyment from the movie even with the subtitles off—assuming you like slapstick.

In fact, the main reasons I like Jackie Chan’s movies are: (a) they’re silly, and (b) each of his characters is charmingly and effectively protective. Moreover, as other reviewers unfailingly point out, it’s amazing that Jackie Chan is still not just alive but also kicking. Hats off to an amazing and very dedicated lifelong artist!

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/railroad-tigers/id1225504120

I’m looking forward to the next Jackie Chan movie already, and I don’t have long to wait: Kung Fu Yoga is being released in Singapore this week.

Stackable jewelry box with lots of great feathers

If you thought AutoCorrect only affected text messages, think again.

Whoever was responsible for inputting the marketing text that describes the features of this stackable jewelry box got as far as “feat—” and then took the first word that was suggested.

I mean, clearly this is not the result of a manual typo or a translation error. Some kind of auto-complete software seems to be a plausible explanation in part because this product is made in China, and as I understand it the way you type Chinese is:

  • you type the transliterated (Pinyin) spelling of the syllable you want, using the Roman alphabet and possibly a number for the tone
  • some predictive software shows you a list of characters that match the sound and possibly also the sentence context
  • you select the character from the list

I can imagine similar predictive writing software being used for English text if the writer isn’t typing on a phone but also isn’t a native speaker.

Sakura Cuisine’s Saliva Chicken

I posted a photo of this restaurant before because the name seemingly advertised so many kinds of food. They’ve simplified the name—presumably not because they saw my blog post, but who knows?

Now they are promoting a dish they call “Saliva Chicken”.

The Chinese name of the dish is three characters (that’s the traditional one for chicken, not the simplified one):

口水雞
mouth water chicken

Note that there is no sure-fire way to determine how many characters in Chinese correspond to a “word” in English. If you take the first two characters together, they mean “saliva”, because that’s what “mouth water” is.

口水
saliva

The restaurant seems to be offering a chicken dish cooked with saliva (?!), but actually it just wants you to order the chicken dish that makes you salivate. If they’d named it “mouth-watering chicken” in English, the name would have been perfectly unobjectionable.

In my opinion, the problem is not that the Chinese language is hard, or that English is hard, just that translation is hard. All languages assign meanings in arbitrary ways. Why, after all, should we English speakers think that “saliva chicken” sounds gross, but “mouth-watering chicken” sounds delicious? This distinction is not meaningful in Chinese, any more than the distinction between “cow meat” (eew) and “beef” (yum).

MYE: Meiyuer Cables

The trademarked name on this “High-speed USB 2.0 extension cable” is “MYE Meiyuer Cables”.

Students of Romance languages might be forgiven for thinking ‘Meiyuer’ is a kreative spelling of the word ‘meilleur’ meaning ‘better’ in French, because that double ‘ll’ sounds like a ‘y’ and it’s a plausible positive-connotation company name.

  • French: meilleur
  • Spanish: mejor
  • Italian: meglio
  • German: besser
  • Dutch: beter
  • Danish: bedre
  • English: better (ameliorate means ‘to make better’—further proof that English is schizophrenic)

Okay, so probably this Chinese company did not choose a Romance language name. What does it mean? I dunno, let’s ask Line Dict.

meiyuer-cables-translation

This tool, which I love, by the way, is coming up with the name of an opera composer named Étienne Nicolas Méhul, because ‘Meiyuer’ is presumably as close a transliteration as is possible. But I guess I didn’t really expect the dictionary to tell me the meaning of a brand name.

Probably the company name uses ‘měiyù’ meaning ‘good reputation’? But it could also be using the characters for ‘beautiful jade’… Hang on, why don’t I just look up Meiyuer, the company, online?

Ohhhh, now I’m getting flashbacks of the editing/fact-checking job I had that involved looking at a lot of Chinese companies’ websites. They’re practically all red and clunky looking with ugly fonts, bad punctuation and English that ranges from unintelligible to unintentionally poetic…

meiyuer-cables-logo

Anyway, this company’s name in characters is 美鱼儿, which is pronounced ‘měiyúér’, and in English apparently means ‘beautiful fish child’. (I’m still mystified.)

‘(Little) Mermaid’ is close (but no cigar).

(小)美人鱼
(xiǎo)mĕirényú

Interestingly, it seems the company uses both the traditional and simplified versions of the characters… maybe because Guangdong borders Hong Kong, where traditional characters are the norm.

The point of all this was to say that in Singapore, I’ve noticed a tendency to make acronyms using one letter for each syllable rather than each word, because in Chinese, all the syllables are (more or less) considered separate words.

For example, if you look at the word Meiyuer, you probably wouldn’t split it into MYE, right? Unless you knew pinyin, in which case it’s obviously Mei Yu Er, even though they didn’t write it that way.

Oh, you thought I had something to say about the cable itself?

Nope.

The Origins of Chinese Characters by Wang Hongyuan

Ever wondered what etymology is like in the Chinese language?

It’s like this.

origins-of-chinese-characters-interior

So, is Chinese ‘pictographic’?

Well, does the ‘zhōng’ in ‘Zhōngguó’ (‘China’) look like part of a sundial? Because that’s what it is.

Drawing of a pole with some decorative streamers. The pole was placed in the center of a circle or dial so that a shadow cast by the sun on a calibrated dial could measure solar time—much like the gnomon or style of a sundial.

So yeah, ‘zhōng’ means ‘middle’ (as in ‘middle kingdom’), but it’s not because the line passes through the middle of the box. Rather, it’s because the whole stick thing (which has lost its notably asymmetrical streamers) is in the middle of a sundial.

I don’t know enough Chinese to benefit much from this book, but here and there I found something interesting, and the whole things reinforces the idea that the Chinese writing system is old, old, old. Examining how the characters evolved is like looking back in time. Reading the book made me feel like an archaeologist holding up a burning torch to peer at mysterious lines scrawled on the walls of a cave. The oldest characters embody the basic concepts of the society in which they were invented: food and shelter, war, birth and life and death…

When and Why I Read It

It was a gift to me from my husband’s parents years ago (sometime between 2003 and 2005). At the time, it was even more over my head than it is now, so it just sat there.

Frankly, I’m shocked that it’s still in print. It’s even got three reviews on Amazon. And since it’s selling at at a moderate price and a 15% discount, it’s not one of those print-on-demand inventory items.

Genre: Non-fiction (language, Chinese)
Date started / date finished:  22-Mar-16 to 11-May-16
Length: 200 pages
ISBN: 7800522431 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1993
Amazon link: The Origins of Chinese Characters

Kimberly Clark

Okay, so I know that logo is a K and a backwards C. But it looks a bit like a Chinese character. Okay, not exactly like a Chinese character, but enough like one that my brain has to struggle to interpret the shape. It could even be a five-pointed leaf, like a maple leaf, though it would have to be a more leaf-like color. Or it could even be a snowflake, since it’s blue.