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Digital Rhythms from Stone Drums
Part I of The Cross-Stitched Pig
...From times past I’d heard of the stone drums, now I saw them,
their dense fearful characters like slithering snakes or dragons.
Peering closer, I started trying to write the words on my stomach,
longing to read them, but alas! My mouth was fettered.
I strained to make out the radicals, guessing at the rest,
sometimes getting a word or two, missing eight or nine:
“Our chariots are stalwart our horses well paired...”
“For fish he has tench strung on willow wands...”
Su Shi, Song of the Stone Drums (Translated by Burton Watson)
At some point in the late Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 B.C.) or early Warring States Era (475-221 B.C.), scribes working for the king of Qin engraved ten granite boulders with poems commemorating an epic royal hunt. In the millennia since, generations of Chinese literati contemplated the so-called “Stone Drums” with a mixture of awe and regret. The Stone Drums offered undeniable proof of the glorious antiquity of an advanced Chinese civilization; but as with Ozymandias, only traces of their grandeur remains.
The Stone Drums still exist, but most of the characters carved into their surfaces started wearing away into illegibility many centuries ago. The photograph that leads off this essay is of a rubbing made during the Song dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) The images document a version of the Chinese writing system known as the “great seal script” -- a transitional stage between the pictographs scrawled on Shang dynasty oracle bones and the “small seal script” standardized for all China by the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty in the second century B.C.
Space and time collapsed on my first encounter with Su Shi’s poem about the Stone Drums. With a tinge of despair that resonated all the way from Kaifeng to Berkeley, a poet who lived one thousand years before my time contemplated objects that dated back roughly 1500 years before his time. Anyone who has ever tried to guess the meaning of a Chinese character can relate. Reading Chinese is hard! Fearful, even.
But the poem isn’t just an exercise in evoking frustration; it’s also a celebration of Chinese characters, filled with call-outs to legendary calligraphers and culture heroes associated with the invention of writing. Chinese characters are difficult to memorize and decipher, but they are also indisputably cool; they are a code weaving thousands of years of Chinese civilization into one continuously intelligible tapestry. Cracking that code facilitates the appreciation of Chinese history and culture on levels both visceral and esthetic. Su Shi’s poem is an ode to that power.
I was reminded of Su Shi this March while reading two books about the Chinese language: John DeFrancis’ The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, published in 1984, and Jing Tsu’s Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern, published in January of this year.
The books make a nice matched set. DeFrancis delivers a vociferous rendition of the thesis that the Chinese writing system is so hard to master that, in the interest of China’s modernization, it should basically be junked in favor of something easier for the general public to grasp. Jing Tsu tells a different, more triumphant story: how the Chinese writing system, despite its obvious impediments to widespread literacy, managed not just to survive, but to flourish.
My initial plan was to write a quick post pointing out something that DeFrancis understandably failed to anticipate and I don’t think Jing Tsu emphasized quite enough: digital technology rescued the Chinese writing system from its own structural encumbrances. Digital input systems, online dictionaries, and smartphone apps did away with vast amounts of the drudge work previously required to identify and to write Chinese characters. Computers have democratized access to Chinese literacy. Based on my own experience, I can state without hesitation: It has never felt easier to learn how to read and write Chinese than it does right now.
This seemed like a simple enough thesis to state in a few words while plugging Jing Tsu’s entertaining and informative book. But the argument was complicated after just a few hours spent reviewing recent academic research studying the impact of digital input systems on reading comprehension and literacy. Has a student of Chinese “learned” a Chinese character if she can type it into WeChat using a pinyin-based Romanization system but when given a pen and paper can’t remember how to write it by hand? What does literacy really mean?
Do I “know” something if all I’ve done is google it?
As a former technology reporter who spends hours every day looking up Chinese characters on my Pleco dictionary app and then writing them down on yellow legal notepads, this intersection of ones and zeroes with the Chinese script tantalized with narrative possibility.
I fell in love with Chinese characters years before I was seduced by Sichuan food, and far predating my career as a professional writer or an Internet geek. I spent a solid ten years memorizing Chinese characters before I sold my first freelance piece or sent my first email.
And then, while raising a family and chasing the Internet journalism dream, I forgot almost all of them. My fluency disintegrated and my dictionaries gathered dust. Eventually, only a slender strand connected me in a meaningful way to Chinese culture: the act of cooking Sichuan food.
That strand turned into a lifeline. The commitment to write about Chinese food spurred reengagement with the Chinese language. Technological progress smoothed the path forward.
Writing about writing; writing about technology; writing about the technology of writing: I could no more resist the siren call of such a beguiling meta-leveled labyrinth than guests at my home can resist my chicken wings. I indulged my curiosity about the Chinese writing system: books with titles such Writing and Authority in Ancient China (Mark Lewis), Chinese Writing (Qiu Xigui) and Writing on Bamboo & Silk (Tsien Tsuen-Hsuin) are now stacked behind my laptop. And then, a few weeks ago, I followed a footnote and stumbled on an amazing piece of scholarship by Tobias Zurn, a historian of religion at Reed College: “The Han Imaginaire of Writing as Weaving: Intertextuality and the Huainanzi’s Self-Fashioning as an Embodiment of the Way.”
Zorn makes the case that there is a primordial connection between the craft of weaving and the act of writing in China. The character commonly used today for “literature” wen (文) originally meant “pattern.” When scribes put together “books” made from slips of bamboo, they literally wove the pieces of bamboo together with string. Zurn argues that the authors of the second century B.C. text Huainanzi self-consciously embodied this relationship between writing and weaving by constructong a new text from a multitude of excerpts from earlier texts.
Writing as weaving: could there be a more irresistible mandate for a newsletter that likes nothing better than to cross-stitch Sichuan food with basketball and Ukraine and salt goddesses? My laptop is a loom!
I dispensed with the idea of a quick one-off and started sketching out a multi-part saga. The first item on the new to do list? Figuring out what dish would pair best with this embroidery.
The answer initially seemed obvious and easy. The poet Su Shi, born and raised in Sichuan, is famous for his love of pork. He even wrote a poem in praise of pork! His name is attached to one of China’s most famous pork dishes! To this day, Sichuan produces and consumes more pork than any other comparable region in the world, a fact with huge economic and environmental consequences. I have dilly-dallied long enough: The opening chapter of my original book proposal spun a zillion threads from the deconstruction of one of Sichuan’s most famous dishes: hui guo rou (Twice Cooked Pork).
So bring on the pork belly! Right?
END OF PART I. Read PART II.