同性社交性 – homosociality

Many sociological terms lack decent equivalents in Japanese.  It seems the order of the day to get away with some clumsy Katakanese but to me it feels very unsatisfying ( 物足りない). In that sense, Chinese, having no other way but to render foreign words in relevant characters, shows more effort and creativity. Yet, character usage does differ between Chinese and Japanese and some Chinese neologisms feel a bit of a stretch or not quite there.
One example: homosociality. The Japanese Wikipedia article is titled ホモソーシャル, which is not just a mere phonetic rendering, but is not even a noun. What’s the noun from this then, ホモソーシャル性?Clumsy.
The Chinese term is 同性友愛. Makes a lot of sense,  doesn’t it? But then it excludes hierarchical homosocial relationships, which are not about either friendship or love.
My suggestion for a term with the coverage more or less equivalent to the English original is 同性社交性 or 同性関係性. What do you think?

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Writing Thai with Chinese characters? Consider it done!

When I started learning Thai, I really missed characters to make sense of the language. Many ur-Thai words (not those of Sanskrit, Pali or Khmer descend) do have that East Asian quality of being short, expressing a conceptual meaning, and also being handy to use as morphemes to form word compounds with new meanings. So what I did, I assigned Chinese characters to Thai words with corresponding meanings! I was so proud of myself,  thinking I invented a new way to write Thai! Besides, it really helped me ease in into a new language. As my Thai got better and words started making sense to me, I stopped writing them with characters.

Twenty years later, almost to the day, I discovered that there has long been a very similar way to write a Tai language like that: Sawndip script of the Zhuang language. This fascinates me no end, so I thought I would share this  discovery with you.

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花鳥風月: the beauties of nature

花鳥風月  literally means “flowers, birds, the wind and the Moon.” In the Tang Imperial court of China, whence the Japanese picked up their penchant for such four-letter words (四字熟語), nature appreciation was a big thing. After all, it was the early centuries of the Common Era and, in the absence of TV, internet and pachinko parlours, the only competitors to admiring the beauties of nature would be sex and, for the educated, books.

We rarely think this way, but for the most of us, everything around us, every single thing is man-made. Even trees in the park are planted there and the water in river is pollution-controlled and partly comes from sewage-processing plants. The nature on the other hand, is just-so. It happens there without anyone’s apparent will, yet it organises itself into ridiculously complex ecosystems, as if by chance. Human intrusions upon that marvelous order are like encroachment on a beautiful, elaborate building by increasingly smart, malicious mould that leaves mostly toxic waste and destruction in its wake. Even such beautiful excuses for progress and development as some architecturally fascinating cities and towns, ultimately are festering ulcers on the body of our planet. A particularly poignant example of such  human activity is the Tokyo Olympics 2020 site next to which the largest ongoing man-made disaster, the Fukushima Nuclear Plant keeps dumping lethal radioactivity into the Pacific Ocean and East Japan’s densely populated areas.
So, enjoy your 花鳥風月, while they are still around.

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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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zhao yi zhou calligrapher

It turns out my Chinese teacher is an accomplished calligrapher.


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Chinese-English character dictionary


This is a pretty cool online tool. Bummer, I can’t use it in my Chinese classes, because, by some strange twist of academic management, 30Russell Square is deprived of WiFi access to EduRoam.

What I really like is that YellowBridge allows you to draw characters in a Java applet window, much quicker than searching by the radical.

In search results you get

  • both the Traditional and Simplfied versions,
  • Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese pronunciation
  • Mandarin audio file
  • compound words
  • Java animation for the stroke order
  • usage examples (Chinese sentences with English translations)

Korean hanja readings are conspicuously missing.

Japanese readings, however, are not very reliable. For example, it claims that the Japanese reading for 团 is shuu. In fact, it is dan, related to the modern Mandarin tuan.

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