Saturday, October 30, 2010

And everywhere. In the midst of enjoying "Rosy Business," a superb HK TVB series set during the Taiping Rebellion in Wuxi, in Cantonese with English subtitles, I watched for the sixth time Wong Kar Wai's "Ashes of Time," the movie that really got me interested in wuxia and the martial arts genre, done in Mandarin with a convoluted plot and an outstanding cast that never bores. It was Tiny Tony Leung (Chiu Wai) I actually sought out the movie for, but it also includes Tall Tony Leung Kar Fei, Brigitte Lin, three Cheungs (Maggie & Jacky & Leslie) and Carina Lau, Tiny Tony's wife. Talk about all-star cast!

But like some kind of addict, I return to Korea for The Slave Hunters...subtitles for which must have been translated by someone with a really unusual dictionary.

"ferine little twerps"..."wobbling like a parturient wench"..." "her fugacious smile" ..."cunning little varlet"... Who talks like this?

The subtitler must use the "Special Oxford Korean-English Dictionary for Asian Drama for Westerners." I enjoy all these things to expand my mind, (never mind the swashbuckling swordsmen), picking up Mandarin, Cantonese and to a lesser extent, Korean. But I never thought I would be expanding my own English vocabulary!

If you don't know these words, just look them up. You'll learn more that way than if I just tell you what they mean.

I think I may have use for "cunning varlet" at work this week.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Just completed John Blofeld's Taoism: The Road to Immortality, which may be the loveliest overview and exposition of Taoism I have ever read, though not sure I would have said that three or five or ten years ago. Blofeld is one of the spiritual "Old China Hands" whose name turns up among the folks, like David Kidd and Graham Peck, who were lucky enough to be in China in the mid-20th century, sometimes for political reasons, sometimes for spiritual ones.

In this book, nostalgic, informative and objective, I found an explanation (or at least a curious reference) of something that intrigued me in a Hong Kong kung fu drama I enjoyed some months ago: the ice toad. I shouldn't be surprised that scriptwriters of popular Chinese TV series might have heard some old stories of Taoist immortals. Wuxia literature and film is replete with references to Taoist practices.

In a discussion of the "mysterious portal," the gate to immortality, Blofeld retells a classic story of "A Gift from the Moon Goddess." A seeking scholar is invited by a Taoist to follow him into a gleaming white landscape.

"Passing through a 'rockery' of ice pinnacles skilfully (sic) arranged to resemble a chain of mountains, they came to a moated place...wherein a venerable toad of prodigious size, its body seemingly composed of lustrous white jade, sat working with the kind of pestle used by druggists."

The seekers moved on, advised by the toad, "Brother, you know I cannot stop now,"and taking no further notice of his visitors, it "continued pounding some gleaming crystals from which arose what looked like the rainbow mist one sometimes sees above a rainbow on a sunny day." The seekers leave the toad to his labors and ultimately come to see Chang O, the Goddess of the Moon.

The actual meaning of the toad is still completely opaque to me. In the drama, the ice toad absorbed poison in characters so afflicted. I only know it must have some larger older mythical significance than a weird idea in a TV series.

A little googling about Chan Chu, the jade sitting frog, reveals:

Moon Goddess Tradition

  • Historically, Ch'an Chu is also associated with the Chinese moon goddess, Heng O, according to "Myths and Legends of China" by E.T.C. Werner, a Fellow at the Royal Anthropological Institute and author of several noted studies of Chinese culture and folklore. In Chinese mythology, the moon is associated with immortality and the feminine principle of "Yin," as opposed to the masculine principle of "Yang." Because Ch'an Chu dwells with the moon goddess, the sitting frog is able to use "Yin" energy to drive out negative energy and welcome positive "Qi" energy, according to Werner's studies.

  • I actually have a copy of Herr Werner's book; how funny that a Google search would send me back to my own bookshelf. Now, would someone tell me where to get an "ice toad." Maybe eBay?

    Sunday, October 17, 2010

    An element in classical Taoist practice and philosophy is the concept that the physical body, the structure of one's life even, is a patterned microcosm of the larger phenomena and forces in the universe and society. The dynamics of yin and yang, the wu xing, the bagua, the hexagrams, all can be used to understand and describe the world --from the internal processes of your digestion and inner spiritual progress, to the forces of nature and socio-political events. We may long to be hermits, separate from the dust and noise of the world, but it's hard to do that in today's society; we are left to create the hermitages inside ourselves.

    I have been thinking about this after a blog-o-pal observed how technology --particularly cell phones and digital media players-- contributes to the noise, virtually addicting their users, blocking them from any spiritual understanding or development. Or at least that's what I think he meant...he may beg to differ. "The master does not own an iPod," he says. This thought was ironically communicated via the internet.

    Like practically everyone in China, our Taoist master in Wudang was always on his cell phones, sometimes dueling cell phones; he used one of them to provide quiet background music for our Eight Brocades practice. Sometimes a sound track can be useful; other times it is distracting. Indoors it can add to the practice; outdoors it competes with the sounds of nature. I'm reminded of the singing speaker-rocks on some of the mountain trails, annoying Buddhist music but certainly much more tolerable than the Maoist-propaganda broadcast (with no on/off switch) to an earlier generation used to imposed noise. Because of this, perhaps the Chinese can tune it out more easily.

    "On my way home, just leaving the temple...."

    Yin Yang Phones

    My other teacher, a scholar-meditator, carried a laptop and could sometimes be found updating his website.

    Though working within ancient traditions, these guys use state-of-the-art technology. Technology that has replaced the obsolete tools of swords and gourds. (Will the cell phone someday become symbolic?)

    The challenge, like that of quieting the noise of one's own mind, is to know when enough is enough. Having mastered my new car radio, I am enjoying Teaching Company CDs, and certain music on my iPod soothes me on commutes home. I have yet to succumb to the actual radio parts -- I have been more likely to choose silence over NPR, even.

    Worse than the noise of technology though, there is the noise of society, i.e., that hell of other people. I am constantly bemused by a running theme in the Chinese and Korean drama I have been studying (possibly an addiction, more likely just something I have to explore to its zenith so I can let it go, an exercise in attachment to Vincent Zhao and Song Il-guk). The theme is of the orphan, the long lost family member who returns to revenge or heal the family from which he was stolen or abandoned...usually well before he knew there even was such a family. (Not infrequently this discovery is made during a death scene, at which point you learn the person you are in love with is...your brother.) Perhaps my own condition of only-childness --solitude comes naturally to me-- makes this puzzling. What is it about bloodlines and geneology that makes one person more family than another? It appears that the sibling is the most family-validating relationship in the here and now, even more than parents and children, which are projections of self into the past and future. I have friends (who have siblings) who say, "You are a sister to me." I treasure that, but not completely sure what it means exactly. I'm not sure what my reaction would be to someone who arrived at my doorstep to announce, "I am your half-brother; during the war, your father and my mother...." Soap opera fodder.)

    Carried to an extreme, the notion of siblings might explain the arguments over useless islands claimed by various nations; family is just nationalism on a smaller scale. Homesteads and remote islands...whom do they belong to? And when someone wants you to be on their side, they want to make you family, ohana, with invitations to big noisy family dinners, political rallies, school reunions, family-expanding ceremonies. I've always felt like a spectator at these things, celebrating my own sacramental moments privately or with a chosen few.

    As a Taoist-leaning only-child, I sometimes step back and wonder. What's with all this noise?

    "Can You Come to Tea?"

    Monday, October 11, 2010

    I have no idea how to express that in Chinese, but I wish I could. Something like xin nongcuo? Heart confusion? I'm just guessing. A dictionary can be a dangerous foolish thing and explains all those bizarre subtitles.
    Just watched the just-released DVD of The Karate Kid, remake of the 1984 classic (with Jackie Chan, who was actually kind of sweet in the Mr. Miyage role), a movie I never much liked anyway. I am left with a confused heart.

    I wanted to see it, had been advised to see it, because it has scenes shot in Wudangshan, a place I have visited three times and where a part of my heart remains. I intend to return. It is strange to see temples, mountains, and even people, really, that are part of my own private memory, in commercial film.

    Since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Wudang has become more known to a world that (in cinema anyway) percieved Shaolin as the ultimate center of Chinese martial arts. Shaolin is a Buddhist place; Wudang is a Taoist center. There is a difference in these outlooks, not just that the Shaolin guys shave their heads and the Taoists sport unshorn topknots. Shaolin is already widely commercially understood and promoted; who hasn't had the opportunity to see Shaolin monks (if they really are monks) doing their thing on stages all across America (and China)? I am concerned that the same thing may happen to the Taoists. I enjoyed a great kung fu show at the very site of Karate Kid's filming, by young adepts showing off their skills. I would like to think they will just stay there, not become promoted like Polynesian culture is in spectacles in Waikiki and the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii.

    I should say that even though I was weeping at points during the movie, it is junk sentimentalism. What mother would allow her son to take on the bullying, to say nothing of the really brutal tournament...well, the Virgin Mary I guess, but really, there was no larger principle at work here. Or was there? A precocious 12-year-old who knows a little karate (he practices with a TV show) and capoeira, who thought he was street-smart in Detroit, can become a Taoist-inspired kung fu champion in Beijing in a matter of a few weeks?

    And there are some scenes that I think are not Wudangshan at all, but Huashan, anther Taoist sanctuary, but who would know? I am a little concerned that Wudang, an intensely spiritual place, is becoming a trendy tourist spot. More and more people (myself included) are drawn there the way westerners visit the Holy Land to tread the land where Jesus walked; in Wudang, to learn Taoist philosophy where Zhang San Feng created tai chi chuan.

    The film has been credited with showing a new contemporary China (the Olympic Bird's Nest, the CCTV building!), fabulous rural scenery (karst formations, trains through the mountains, the Great Wall) , and other places we might never see--hutongs and street markets. But if that's what you're looking for, I can think of many Chinese- and Japanese-produced films that do a far better job: Zhou Yu's Train; The Bird People in China; Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, Yellow Earth.

    I would not tell anyone to not see this film. But I would tell you to not take it too seriously.

    Fantasy Set

    The Real Kung Fu Kids

    Real Masters Showing Off Skills

    Jackie & Jaden

    Saturday, October 09, 2010

    I have been struggling with my new car radio, which is far from intuitive and has a manual written by so-called tech writers whose resumes must include the production of countless VCR manuals. The radio's buttons are tiny, the legends hard to see. But it's JVC so it must be good? I managed to get it to receive local radio stations and playback from my iPod, but, like MS Word, it has countless unnecessary and unintuitive features and options. Somehow I locked the CD player, the feature for which I bought it in the first place, to play Teaching Company CDs so I could learn something on my daily work commute. Alas, the radio would display nothing but the cryptic ODAA-I, whatever that meant.

    I was all ready to just buy another radio, when I thought, "I'll give it one more try and then call customer service." Observing the time-honored tradition of RTFM, I retrieved the cryptic and convoluted user guide, printed in four languages, and noticed the big print on the manual's back page:

    With my Hello Kitty pencil's point, I activated the reset button, and, woo hoo, now the CD player works. I reset my four favorite station presets (who actually needs 15 FM station presets and another 5 AM?--to say nothing of an option to allow user-entered text-based IDs for the favored stations, like FOX TALK NEWS, or HIP HOP CLASSICS or OLD FART OLDIES. Perhaps this comes naturally to folks who have been sending text messages on phones for the past decade). I think I have finally mastered the sequence of actions needed to set the radio clock, although it seems like it should do that automatically.

    I admit all this digital technology is so cool, but I have never had the patience of a young friend who said, "When I get a new device, I just spend an hour or two with it figuring out all the commands." I want a wu wei radio. On-off. Volume up-down with a knob. A couple of push buttons for favorite stations. Maybe another button or two to activate the iPOD or CD.

    At least I didn't embarrass myself with a call to a tech support rep who would have thought I was an idiot, muttering to himself, "RTFM."
    Having finished the curious not-so-historical (and sometimes completely hilarious**) KD, The Divine Hero, and pondering the grand themes that might lurk in a TV drama based on a high-tech comic book hero, I watched with some interest the apparent transfer of power process happening in real time in Pyongyang.

    The Dear Leader, (son of the Supreme Leader, no divine hero, really, though appointed "eternal president") who has the worst fashion sense of any head of state in the world, seems to have appointed his pudgy youngest son to carry forward the communist autocratic patrilineal monarchy in North Korea.

    My observation was that perhaps The Divine Hero is a subtle political statement as much as a mindless sexy action thriller (accented with grand themes of justice, revenge, filial piety, "grobal" economic power, and romantic love). The fictional drama is about a gang of four corrupt businessmen, military and judicial friends who 25 years earlier stumbled into an arms and drug deal and made a huge amount of money, securing themselves in powerful positions in the economy and government. To protect their interests they tried to kill the family of the policeman who was a threat to their plans, succeeding in mom and dad's demise in a house fire, but unbeknownst to them, the children survived. The Divine Hero (played by the divine Song Il-guk, who is himself the grandson of a well-respected Korean general and recently married to a high court judge), carries out a revenge mission because the system was never going to bring the bad guys to justice. Their own children have been charged, in a Confucian way, to maintain their position and get rid of the the troublemaker. By keeping the power in the family, the tradition and the money remain intact.

    Oddly, it's the daughters who help, unwittingly, to bring down the empire. One of them (a cop) discovers, too late, that in fact she is the Divine Hero's sister; another (a reporter) that she is the daughter of one of the bad guys. One lives and one dies. And not who you expect.

    The Divine Hero, who has some serious issues with violence and taking the law into his own hands, is not exactly excused. At the conclusion of the drama, the reporter who discovered her father was one of the corrupt businessman, observes that if a legal system is inadequate, people will seek their own revenge and justice.

    I'm wondering now if The Divine Hero has some subtle meaning in Korean. One of the tycoons is a pudgy guy with an even pudgier son who is basically stupid and, lacking any kung-fu, surrounds himself with martial artists (including a particularly amoral and deadly guy acquired from the family's casino in Las Vegas, closest to a serious threat to SIG's more skilled character.) The other target of Song Il-guk's revenge is a retired general (whose hair style is vaguely reminiscent of the former Prime Minister of Japan's) and whose son is as calculating as the other's is dumb.

    They all appear to be archetypes in a corrupt economy and I would think some of these points would not go unnoticed by frustrated folks in Seoul who send care packages of ballpoint pens and plastic bags to impoverished relatives on the north side of the DMZ.

    That the avenger actually comes through Hawaii is also ironic. Was it only a year ago that the Dear Leader of North Korea alluded to blowing the Aloha State out of the water?

    **Subtitles and heavily accented English provide surely unintended entertainment. At one point in the story, Vivian, a gorgeous woman, yin to SIG's yang, who plays the Korean-Hawaiian connection, asks the hero, whom she has betrayed badly, "to have mercy on her soil." Also, she invites some businessmen anticipating high "levenues" (leveraged revenues?) from her project, on a tour of the planned island real estate development. "We can go up to the deck and then have a little butt cruise," she purrs in heavily accented English. Not making this up.

    Sunday, October 03, 2010

    An unexpected, unwelcome knock at the door Saturday afternoon. The Wizard called for me to deal with it, not being quite so bold as Liu Ling, one of the the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove.**

    It was a neighbor, not one I really know, but recognize, and a uniformed officer of some law enforcement agency, holding a USPS Priority Mail parcel.

    I listened to a lengthy and unnecessary explanation how the good neighbor had found the key to the parcel drop box on the floor of the mail plaza and summoned the officer (who I think had a U.S. Customs patch on his shoulder). The package was retrieved and tracked to my address.

    I'd earlier gotten my mail (apparently overlooking the key that fell to the floor) and had been a little disappointed, anticipating my latest shipment of Korean drama DVDs might arrive. I'd had a similar false hope the night before with a package, but from my friend who is moving and sent me some remnants of her purging --cosmetics, room fragrance, a miniature bonsai kit, books, a fantastic red Japanese dragon kimono).

    But yesterday, I was delighted, "Ah, it's my Korean Dramas, I was hoping they would come today," then thinking I should have bitten my tongue when I contemplated the possible customs violation.

    I'd ordered these things earlier in the week from a site that was mysterious and ambiguous in its marketing and payment mechanism. It was hard to tell where they were coming from and though the DVDs were cheap, the shipping costs were rather high. But since I'll try anything once, I placed an order at the only source of the complete English-subtitled "The Divine Hero--A Man Called God," and for a few other things, but neglecting to specify my "free movie" with purchase.

    So I was pleased to get an email within 48 hours, with a USPS tracking number, and a note that since I had failed to select a free movie, they would make a random choice for me!

    I didn't expect the parcel to be hand-delivered. After I took delivery, the neighbor and the cop, who is a resident of our complex, lingered at my doorway; was I supposed to tip them or something? Sign a receipt? I thanked them and did the Hawaii thing and gave each a big hug. I've never before spontaneously hugged a lawman. (Or even not spontaneously.) At least there seemed to be no issue with customs. The DVDs came, legitimately, from Texas. (How they got to Texas is not my concern.) I recommend the vendor if you're in the market for these things.

    Sorting through the package, I wondered what the free DVD would be. They guessed my preferences pretty well with "The Legend of the Shadowless Sword," although they couldn't have known I already have a copy of that movie, but still, what were the odds? Into the Christmas gift pile, along with a duplicate copy of "House of Flying Daggers" which my Chinatown vendor once gave me free. Free film with purchase of a certain size seems to be a standard practice. Makes up for the high shipping costs.

    I loaded the "Divine Hero" disc with episodes 13-24, which I had previously downloaded in Korean with Chinese subtitles but now am hoping for the clarification of a couple of plot points. (It's not like it's hard to watch again; SIG's hairstyle is more reasonable in the later episodes.)

    There are English subtitles, but clearly by a Chinese translator who knows pinyin working from the Korean to render*** the English: some very curious phrasings, typos and utter lack of upper case, adding a level of entertainment and enlightenment. (You can learn a lot about language this way.)

    First, Song Il-guk's character, generally Romanized as Choi Kang Ta, becomes Cui Qianda or sometimes Qiangda. And "cos" means both "because" and "course." "Wanna" is consistently used as "want to."

    More for your entertainment:

    "Honey is closed to that man lately." (The female protagonist has been spending too much time with Song Il-guk.)

    "Don't worry, I'm a shoemaker, it's the same like mending the shoes." (A Korean who makes the most beautiful Italian-styled stilettos sewing up Song Il-guk's wound, a frequent activity in this drama. Actually, there's a lot of focus on shoes in this drama, now that I think of it.)

    "I thought of you cos I wanted to heard your voice."... "Of cos I saw the suspect." ... "Maybe here there's someone I gotta mee." ... "Then we pk." (Completely cryptic.) All these in episode 13. It's going to be a fun ride.

    And there's my favorite so far, a simple common typo, "Don't worry, he can survive even in the dessert." Which makes me think of Song Il-guk smothered in whipped cream with maybe a cherry strategically placed. I must help him!!

    **Liu Ling, a Taoist of the second century BCE, is described as a heavy drinker who never wore clothes in his own home. A visitor, perhaps his neighbor delivering a misdirected parcel, was shocked when he answered the door buck naked. Liu Ling said,"I take the whole universe as my house and my own room as my clothing. Get out of my trousers!"

    ***I had a piano teacher when I was young named Ludwig who looked exactly like Beethoven. In addition to being a classical pianist, he was also pharmacist. I once said, "How did you like my rendition of the Moonlight Sonata?" To which he responded, "One renders lard; one plays music."