fruitless

July 25th, 2009

Well, it wasn’t an entirely fruitless trip. Almost, but not entirely.

One of the things I’ve been wanting to do with my summer is start studying a little Classical Chinese. I’m not happy knowing that, Tang poetry, as just one example, is supposed to be amazingly beautiful without being able to appreciate it myself. And I’m seeing more and more throwbacks to Classical in the stuff I read- y’know, odd little choices of phraseology and that kind of thing. And I guess there are probably other reasons, too. It might be nice to approach Chinese from a new angle, for example.

Of course, a book will be necessary.

Yesterday afternoon was supposed to be a much-delayed bookshopping trip, but I found myself looking for excuses, and then something came up at the office which put me on call and unable to travel further than a ten-minute walk, and so I wound up hanging out with Roubaozi under the trees in the courtyard of the neighbouring hotel. Anyway, I was thinking it would be more fun to go bookshopping with my wife.

Then today lzh went off to visit a friend, leaving me home alone. The weather was just too good and I’m far too conscious of how little I get out these days, and so I was getting more and more restless. At about half past two I quickly googled a couple of books I’d been recommended way back when I first realised I need to study a little Classical Chinese, settled on the BLCU series as the most likely prospect, then sent a message to the Mrs saying I’m off bookshopping, got my stuff together, and ran.

I mean, there are only so many days that can be spent vegetating in front of a computer, and they ain’t many.

So I walked up to Pingleyuan then along to the bus stop. No. 52 along to Dongdan Lukou Xi, then walked around to the Wangfujing Bookstore. Nothing. I mean, absolutely nothing. Brilliant. That meant I had to wade through the crowds of tourists all the way to the other end of the Wangfujing pedestrian street to try the Foreign Languages Bookstore.

Somehow I wasn’t accosted by any of the tour guide/teahouse/art gallery scammers.

But there’s something fundamentally unsound about a bookstore that sells part 2, and only part 2 of a three-part series (somehow ‘trilogy’ just doesn’t seem to fit language textbooks). The way I see it, Classical is a different, albeit closely related, Sinitic language, distinct enough from Putonghua that I need to start from the very basics. I may well be wrong on that, but I’m just not comfortable starting on book 2. I mean, if I were to study Portuguese, Spanish or Italian, I certainly would not presume to skip straight to book 2, no matter how easy book 1 may be. When I was in Norway, although I could understand the gist of average newspaper articles with neither dictionary nor friend’s translation, I borrowed a beginner’s level Norwegian textbook from the local library because that was precisely the level I was at. My knowledge of Classical Chinese is at pretty much the same level as my knowledge of Norwegian, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese or Italian, so of course I want to start with book 1, if for no other reason than my own peace of mind. But the Foreign Languages Bookstore had only part 2 and the staff did not seem to understand that a person holding part 2 and asking if they have part 1 probably wants them to go check out back or wherever it is they store their books.

They did have another Classical Chinese textbook, but entirely in Chinese and traditional characters and perhaps a level or two above me. There was also one titled something like Classical Chinese for Modern Use, also from BLCU Press, but glancing through it didn’t quite seem to meet my needs.

So I left my name and cellphone number, as they said they could call me if part 1 came in, maybe even reserve a copy for me. Fair enough. I suspect, though, that a trip out to Wudaokou to buy the book (books, perhaps, I might as well get all three if I can) direct from the BLCU bookstore may be in order. I think perhaps finding their phone number and checking up over the phone may be a good idea, though. It’s an awful long way to go only to find they don’t have the books. Still, lzh reminds me that tomorrow she has work to do… from home… on my computer… yes, my computer… ok, our computer… so perhaps a long trip out northwest might be a good idea. And if BLCU’s store is out of stock, there’s always BeiDa and Tsinghua and other bookstores in the area.

Anyways, after not finding part 1, I had a short browse around the Chinese language and culture side of the first floor of the Foreign Languages Bookstore. I had noticed one book during my search for the book I wanted, another in the same series, but titled 《中国人文地理》. I was a little curious, so picked up and flipped through. Too easy. Glancing through the texts I did not see any unfamiliar characters. That makes me feel good- a second-year level textbook from BLCU doesn’t challenge me. Nice. Still, I shouldn’t be challenged by books at that level, not after all these years.

More browsing raised one point all would-be authors would do well to remember: Don’t patronise your audience. I picked up a book on calligraphy, a subject I have been mostly unmotivatedly interested in since my earliest days in China, only to see phrases like “You may even have learnt a few Chinese characters” or “There are too many famous Chinese calligraphers for a beginner to remember them all”. And so I think when I finally do get myself motivated to practice calligraphy, I will continue to stick with materials produced for Chinese students. Really, what an utterly ridiculous attitude to take towards your potential readers.

So then, after a bit of dithering, I thought this outing can’t be thrown away so easily and strode off northwards up Wangfujing, past the cathedral, right up to where the street fades into a narrow hutong. Then right and down 钱粮胡同/Qianliang Hutong (hey, cool, I was curious about the name, and it turns out 钱粮 is a word). Then up a bit and across what must’ve been Dongsi Nan Bei (hmm… ditu.google.cn is centred on Xuanwu District) by that point, then eastwards along Dongsi 7 Tiao, thence up again onto Dongsi Shi Tiao and eastwards to the nearest bus stop.

It was an interesting little stroll through the hutongs. Most of the houses were in the ramshackle, rundown state you expect of any hutong in Old Beijing off the tourist trail, but a lot of them were being fixed up and more than a few actually looked pretty nice. Qianliang Hutong even sported a couple of trendy-looking cafes, a very large siheyuan whose average-height walls were extended with a forest of barbed wire suggesting it was home to somebody Very Important, and another Siheyuan that lacked the barbed wire but looked like it, too, had been taken over and fixed up by somebody with both money and taste (a rare combination, indeed). Not only that, but a lot of work was being done on a lot of siheyuan, work that looked, through the attitudes and actions of the labourers, more like renovation, or at least rebuilding, rather than the mindless destruction that precedes some fancy, but soulless and far too often horribly tacky apartment block.

So I didn’t get the books I wanted, but I got out of the house and got a decent walk, at least.

4 Responses to “fruitless”

  1. Brendan Says:

    Qianliang Hutong is a nice walk — there are a couple of pleasant cafes there, and an excellent vegetarian restaurant one alley over in Yuqun Hutong.

    As for classical Chinese textbooks: The 古代漢語 series from Beida is a pretty good reader. It’s all in traditional characters, but it’s probably a good idea to get used to those if you’re planning to do any in-depth study of classical Chinese — and it takes much less time to get a passive knowledge (i.e. reading) than you’d think. The BLCU materials, as far as I know, are all printed in simplified characters; I haven’t looked at them for ages, but remember thinking they seemed decent enough. The problem with Chinese-language materials (or at least the ones I’ve seen) is that they’re based on the fiction that Chinese people can, by virtue of being Chinese and reading modern Chinese, understand classical Chinese with nothing more than a few footnotes to explain that such-and-such a character was the name of a prefecture famous for producing top-quality donkey manure during the Warring States period.
    I haven’t seen any Chinese-produced teaching materials that do anything even close to an adequate job of explaining the grammar of classical Chinese; for that I’d recommend picking up a copy of Pulleyblank’s Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar, which is basically the lecture notes for a course he taught. That should stand you in good stead as a reference text for when your classical Chinese textbook fails (which it will) to explain why a sentence is, e.g., using 弗 instead of 不之 before a verb. (弗 is a contraction of 不之 for constructions where 之 is a preposed object.)

  2. John Zhang Says:

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  3. John Says:

    Every so often it’s passed through my mind that it’d be quite interesting to know something about Classical Chinese. I have a little information about it in Daniel Kane’s book The Chinese Language, but I suspect that trying to find anything detailed in English about it is probably difficult to impossible and even if you could, it’d be expected that you knew modern Chinese.

  4. wangbo Says:

    Brendan, I believe it was your reply to a request I posted on twitter for advice on such matters that had me googling the BLCU books and Pulleyblank. I decided to go for the BLCU books because they seemed most easily available here (and I don’t have a functioning credit card or paypal or anything like that, so easily available here is pretty important). Speaking of easy availability, the almost complete lack of anything related to Classical Chinese in the bookshops I’ve visited this weekend- as in I saw the grand total of 4 books on the subject, and bought two of them- I’m not sure I want to go scouring the city for the Bei Da set just yet. Right at this point I’m just looking to get a grounding in Classical, so the BLCU series suits me for the time being.

    Actually, I’m starting to see what you mean about Traditional taking less time than one would think to get a passive knowledge of. I was flipping through one book at the Foreign Languages Bookstore yesterday which was all Trad. and no English, and it wasn’t too difficult to understand. Context helps a lot, of course. Anyways, for the time being I’ll stick with BLCU and simplified, but I will look into moving up to Trad. once I’ve got a grounding in the basics.

    John Zhang, I’ll fix the link right now and check out your website later on.

    John, I’m sure you could find something that would suit you.