On power and respect: the change in Thai perception of Russia

The other day we went to a restaurant in Silom, Bangkok’s business district.  At the end of the dinner, I got to chat with our waitress, who upon learning where I am from, started waxing on lyrically about what a great, strong and admirable leader Putin is and what a great rich country Russia is.
 
I am not quite used to Thais enthusing about anything Russian at all. When I lived in Bangkok in the late 1990s, Russia was a defeated Communist tyranny fighting a poor self-image, hyper-inflation  and a complete rehaul of its entire way of life in the midst of Yeltsin’s lawlessness. I remember reading then an article in the Times of India to the effect that Russia, with its compromised economical and international clout, is now a poor cousin to ignore not an ally to side with. It sounded unpleasantly opportunistic, yet  it did, with unashamed honesty, describe the wide-spread perception of Russia at the time. In Thailand, Russians were the farang jon, ‘poor Caucasians’, stragely dressed and with little purchase power.
All that has changed with Putin dragging Russia out of the Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes that it was in the 1990s. Russia’s estimated 5 billion dollar annual investment into Thailand and the influx of cavalierly spending Russian tourists seem to caus a sea change in Thais’ ideas about the country. Besides such visible signs as the ubiquitous Russian-language signs and menus, the attitude has shifted too: neither any longer a feared Communist empire, nor a poor cousin of the farang world, Russia now seems to be admired mostly on the back of its economic resurrection.

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Sinic vs. Indic seen through Nihonjinron

“Ethnic Thais overwhelmingly prefer yoga and Sino-Thais mostly do Tai Chi. Because Thais are more inert and the Chinese are more active.”  The Japanese teacher of Tai Chi I interviewed for my PhD fieldwork in Bangkok was talking from her 20-year experience. For someone like myself who does both every morning, her very Nihonjinron-style observation echoed with my own impression of the two traditions.

Firstly, quite a bit of time in yoga is spent sitting on the floor, while the Sinic martial arts keep you on your feet all the time. For me, that has to do with the type of personal eschatology each tradition adopts. The Indic way is about digging deep inside oneself to discover the Absolute and thus escape the physical world for good. On the other hand, the Sinic way is to harness the power of the Absolute and make it work in the physical world (cf. Mao’s simile of how the stupid, the clever and the wise deal with wind).
Secondly, in yoga many exercises and definitely meditation is done with your
eyes closed, while in Chinese martial arts your eyes are open and focused or, sometimes, semi-closed, and very rarely completely shut. A Nihonjinron thinker would conclude from that that Indians escape reality, while the Chinese actively engage with it.
Crude and generalist as they are,  these binaries seem to shed some light on the differences in the modernising trajectories of China and India. Or, say, how the two countries perform in the Olympics and other sporting competitions. As always, outliers are left unexplained such as India’s shining cricket glory or its astonishing economic growth over the last several years.

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井底之蛙: why frogs do not fly

Once they asked a frog who lived at the bottom of a well, ‘Would you like to fly in the sky?’

‘Why the fuck would I want to do that?’ quoth the amphibian. ‘Your sky is the size of a handkerchief!’ 

井底之蛙 – jǐng dǐ zhī wā, “frog at the bottom of a well”.

“In the sky full of people, only some want to fly, isn’t that crazy?”


 

More articles like this: 四字熟語- ancient wisdom in four-letter maxims

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弱肉強食: “survival of the fittest”

弱肉強食 (jakuniku kyōshoku)

Is Leben really a Kampf? Should we cull out the low-earners annually? Who will eat the strongest once they are too fat?

The proverbial “survival of the fittest”, the Neo-Liberal rallying cry
meant to justify every minor and major dastardly policy, in Japanese sounds
even juicier: “The weak are the meat for the strong”. That said, it’s no match
for my Dad’s laconic French, ‘in life you either fuck or get fucked’.

More articles like this: 四字熟語- ancient wisdom in four-letter maxims

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晴耕雨読:the joys of country life


晴耕雨読 (seikō udoku): “Till the land when the sky is clear, read a book when it rains.” For those aware of ancient history, this would surely remind of the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s retirement plan. After a career of feeding Christians to lions, introducing prostration as the form of greeting the emperor, and a slew of very savvy administrative reforms, he retired to blessed Dalmatia (now part of Croatia) to grow cabbages. When appealed by his subjects to return to the throne and fix the crumbling empire, he reportedly replied: ‘If you could show the cabbage that I planted with my own hands to your emperor, he definitely wouldn’t dare suggest that I replace the peace and happiness of this place with the storms of a never-satisfied greed.’ That uncool verbosity could have been avoided though, had he have a smattering of Chinese or Japanese:’晴耕雨読, innit!”.

More articles like this: 四字熟語- ancient wisdom in four-letter maxims

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Four-letter words are not always foul language: 四字熟語 and 成語

Chinese for Japanese is what Greek and Latin are for European languages or Sanskrit is for Thai and Malay: the source of a high, abstract vocabulary as well as, with a due bit of curiosity and intellectual effort, access to the wisdom of the ancients of the “Confucius say” fame.

One part of that ancient Chinese heritage are yoji-jukugo (四字熟語), delightfully laconic idioms that express very complex ideas or metaphors in mere four characters.  Using the same model, the Japanese have later come up with their own indigenous yoji-jukugo, just as succinct and sagacious as the 成語 (chéngyǔ) borrowings from China.
Quite a few of them are included in the national school curriculum and thus effectively are part of the daily vernacular. Every once in a while I post the juiciest and intellectually aesthetically striking ones here: 四字熟語/成語, so that you too can drink from that refreshing font of timeless wisdom. 

P.S. The Thai language also has a similar concept, where a four-letter, essentially four-word set expression represents a graphic metaphor, a moralistic proverb or a witty allegory. There’s a plethora of such in Thai but one that springs to mind first is บ้านนอกโคกนา (ban nok khok na), literally meaning “the countryside: a chicken coop and a rice field”, a both nostalgic and slightly pejorative description for where most people in this rapidly urbanising nation come from.

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Old-Style Japanese names of months (旧暦の月名)

Before Japan was restyled along the Western lines in the 19th century, it had enjoyed about three centuries of relatively isolated existence off the easternmost side of Eurasia. Even before that, a strong urge for departing from perceived cultural dependence on China, a great influence on Japan since its early days, had kept cropping up in various circles of Japanese society. Consequently, practically every aspect of Japanese life had evolved deliciously original or creatively reinvented to develop a rather unique flavour. 
For example, the latter-day boring names of months – the First month for January, the Second month for February, etc. – were predated by colourful native Japanese (Yamato) names.
I remember listening to a song by Nakajima Miyuki many, many years ago and admiring just how much more powerful and graphic was 嵐明けの如月compared to a mere 寒い二月.
Here’s a list of all old-style Japanese names for months with most widely accepted explanations of their  meanings:
  • 1月/January:睦月(むつき) Mutsuki – the month when families gather to celebrate;
  • 2月/February:如月/更衣(きさらぎ) Kisaragi – the month when winter clothes are changed for spring ones;
  • 3月/March:弥生(やよい)Yayoi – the month when leaves and grass finally become abundant;
  • 4月/April:卯月(うづき)Udzuki – the month when deutzia flowers (u no hana) blossom;
  • 5月/May:皐月/早月(さつき) Satsuki – the month to plant rice;
  • 6月/June:水無月(みなづき) Minadzuki – the month when the tsuyu rains stop;
  • 7月/July:文月(ふみつき/ふづき) Fudzuki – the month of poem-writing for the Tanabata festival;
  • 8月/August:葉月(はづき) Hadzuki – the month when leaves start turning yellow;
  • 9月/September:長月(ながつき)/菊月(きくづき) Nagatsuki/Kikudzuki – the month whe nights start growing longer or the month when chrysanthemums blossom;
  • 10月/October:神無月(かんなづき) Kannadzuki – the month when the first sake of the year is drunk as offering to gods;
  • 11月:霜月(しもつき)Shimotsuki – the month when frost starts appearing;
  • 12月:師走(しわす)/極月(ごくげつ) Shiwasu/Gokugetsu – the month when Buddhist priests are busy running end-of-the-year errands or the final month.

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Best Japanese textbooks

I have been teaching Japanese for last 15 or so years and two best textbooks I have come across are:

What makes the two stand out is that they are perfect both for self-studies as well as learning with a teacher/tutor.  Unlike many textbooks in the market that offer few or no exercises, these offer plenty practice for the words, kanji and grammar that you learn. That is the best way to make sure that you don’t forget what you  learn the next day, as it seems to happen way too often.

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Sexual morality in Indian myths

  1. Sita got laid at 6.
  2. Brahma did same with a daughter at 4.
  3. Five members sharing one wife (Draupadi).
  4. Strip a woman before everyone (Duryodhani and Draupadi).
  5. Gamble your wife(Pandavas) 
  6. Millions girlfriends and never marry anyone (Lord Krishna
  7. Eve-Teasing (Lord Krishna with gopis) 
  8. Send a nude girl to distract someone (Menaka to Vishwamitra) 
  9. Abandon your pregnant wife (Lord Rama andSita)
  10. Abandon your own child (Kunti to Karna) 
  11. Elope with a girl on her wedding (Lord Krishna with Rukmini) 
  12. Mother advises to share wife among brothers (Kunti to Pandavas about Draupadi).
Myths in every culture contain  instances of sexual  practices questionable from the point of view of current morality: e.g., righteous Lot upon escape from the ungodly Sodom had sex with his two daughters and had children by them. It only shows that our ideas about sexuality change drastically in the course of time. There is no doubt that our latter-day sexual mores will seem outrageous to our grandchildren.

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The Hundredth Anniversary of Thai Nationality

Back on the 10th of April we celebrated 100 years since the invention of Thai nationality, which appeared for the first time in the Nationality Act B.E. 2456, enacted by King Rama VI on 10 April 1913.  
Next year we will be celebrating the centennial of British nationality,  introduced by the The British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act in 1914. Although we tend to think of nationality as well as citizenship, traditions and such associated with it as something steeped in time, in reality, they all were created and normalised about a century or so ago. 
Good sources to learn about the complex history of such mainstays of the modern mass conscious are: Ben Anderson’s Imagined Communities and The Invention of Tradition edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger.
 

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