Dr. Joseph Chen on Joseph Needham / The Man Who Loved China (Simon Winchester)

Remember when I read Two Books, one of which was The Man Who Loved China, by Simon Winchester?

I read the book to take part in a book discussion. This book discussion actually followed a lecture by Dr. Joseph Chen (UCSD), an expert on Joseph Needham (the protag). These two events, joined by a pizza and salad dinner, comprised another Year of China event.

Dr. Chen’s talk was really interesting. It actually didn’t talk about Joseph Needham, the person, but actually further explored some of the topics Needham was interested in, namely astronomy and acoustics, and updated Needham’s findings with recent archaeological discoveries.

I was initially horrified that his talk was entirely his reading off his slides, word for word, mispronouncing some. It made me lament again at why Chinese men seemed to be so much worse than their female counterparts at learning English, etc. — but then I realized that this might be a characteristic of old academics, compounded by a difficult-to-learn language: I’ve certainly had professors who taught their seminars as lectures where they read off ancient typewritten pages.

Enough about the lecturing itself — the lecture, once more, was a reinvestigation of some astronomy findings. I remember no proper nouns (language hammer hits me as well), but there is an astronomical text that reports about the alignment of constellations on equinoxes. From this, scholars have been able to determine that the most plausible time for that alignment to have happened — and the document to have been written — was 2400 BC. This was evidence that the human beings in China were doing astronomy in 2400 BC.

But then, when esteem in China hit lows in 19th century Europe, people (in fact, Japanese scholars // knee-jerk prejudice check — ask me about this if you don’t know what I mean) decided to say that if you took the time of observation to be 7pm instead of 6pm, it could have been much earlier (7th century BC?) — and thus the document would no longer be evidence that Chinese civilization was around in an organized, science-performing way, and in fact, the astronomy itself could have been a Babylonian derivative.

…but then someone unearthed a bunch of bells — and a big wooden chest. These were easy to date; they were really old (2400 BC) and the chest had a carving that matched up with the first document.

Now the bells. These were bona-fide chromatic bells, man, crafted in shapes so that they would not resonate for as long, and would not require the musician to dampen it.

The chromaticism of the bells (woah, let’s sing that instead of Carol of the Bells) confused me because Chinese music is thought of as so so so firmly pentatonic. [insert kid from street who pulls up corners of eyes and, in an inplausibly in-tune way, sings “A A-A G G E E G”]

I couldn’t figure out why Chinese music was holding out on me — why hadn’t I heard this chromatic music of the motherland yet? Was there some Imperial council that decided that oh, 12 tones were not conducive to the empire’s stability and we should go back to only 5, a la Council of Trent (polyphony, piousness, Palestrina)?

Turns out; no. I asked Dr. Chen after the talk, and it was rather that the chromatic tones allowed musicians to move between various pentatonic mode/scales. [This reminds me of that footnote in Joseph Fux’s Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum that talks about the hard and soft hexachords, or whatever] In other words, chromatic tones were for modulatory purpose only, not for staying in. (how people knew, I will not ask)

Shame; I was so hoping for this big trove of late-Romantic –> 20c. works to be unearthed from China’s musical history, just waiting to be brought to light (modernity, westernity, whatnot), just as Needham …shipped (nicer-sounding than ‘stole,’ right?) a bunch of cool scientific widgets from China’s scientific history and put them in boxes in his Cambridge office-manor.

Oh! One final really cool thing / bit of nonsense:

Apparently the word for ‘pitch’ in the old days was lv4, the same as the second character in ‘law’, and the word that usually means ‘rate.’  I’m sure this was a retrofitting, but look! the physics of sound is so transparent in the language! I hadn’t been that excited since learning that ‘function’ was literally ‘envelope number.’ f sends members of Z/pZ to the complex numbers — via first class mail.

From Vera Pavlova’s If there is something to desire

I’ve been reading some of Vera Pavlova’s poems. This collection, If there is something to desire centers on love, depression, desire, and contradiction.

Tenderly on a tender surface
the best of my lines are written:
with the tip of my tongue on your palate,
on your chest in tiny letters,
on your belly. . .
But, darling, I wrote them
May I erase with my lips
your exclamation mark?

nonononono Vera, only I can make metaphors as tawdry as that.

Perhaps when our bodies throb and rub
against each other, they produce a sound
inaudible to us but heard up there, in the clouds and higher,
by those who can no longer hear common sounds . . .
Or, maybe, this is how He wants to check by ear: are we still
No cracks in mortal vessels? And to this end He bangs
men against women?

Clever. I hadn’t thought of that. Now another poem:

A Remedy for Insomnia

Not sheep coming down the hills,
not cracks on the ceiling–
count the ones you loved,
the former tenants of dreams
who would keep you awake,
once meant the world to you,
rocked you in their arms,
those who loved you . . .
You will fall asleep, by dawn, in tears.

Spinner, do not hesitate:
while the kiss is fresh,
snip the two threads
with one swift cut.

A poem is a voice-mail:
the poet has stepped out, most likely
will not be back. Please leave a message
after you hear a gunshot.



I know this word because my mom enrolled me in a CTY Distance learning course, “Crafting the Essay,” when I was 7th grade. She then decided that I should probably keep on doing writing courses, so in 8th grade, I was in “Writing Analysis and Persuasion.”

One of the essays we had to analyze was Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief.” I can’t remember the assignment, but I do remember that that analysis was one of the hardest to write. Orchids. What do I care about orchids? What do I care about Florida and obsessive young men–why weren’t they taking proper jobs, and why didn’t their families tell them to get it together?

It also confused me that the writer’s name was Orlean, reminiscent of New Orleans, but the essay was about Orchids in Florida. Or. Or. Or. My mind jumped from golden place to golden place and couldn’t find anything to analyze in her languid prose. Like the orchid thieves who searched for the legendary “ghost orchid” but not nearly as obsessive, I got stuck in some disgusting metaphoric swamp and couldn’t get out, no matter how many highlighters I dragged over the page.

I don’t highlight anymore. And I realized today that I stopped feeling smart–abhorrent to polite society smart, way too cocky for my own good smart, but also, everything is easy smart–about the same time that I started questioning my mother’s acuity.

At risk of implying causation or subscribing to “every young girl needs a strong female role model” pop-voodoo-smegma, I hope that my observation is totally off the wall. But my mother has said that those writing courses were her best attempt to outsource my education, and stopped because she thought I didn’t like it.

I don’t know if I liked them at the time. I don’t think I took criticism very well then (symptomatic of my retarded development), but writing those essays was never very difficult, never as difficult as churning out an analytical 4-pager on Hamlet for AP Lit, just 3 years later. Those courses probably benefited me unfathomably much. But at the time, I probably showed great displeasure: I simultaneously didn’t want to outgrow my mother’s academic care and suspected that I was; but no one did anything about this conflict, so here I am.

Repost: (untitled)

Love and Other Demons, Gabriel García Márquez

I think I associate colors with authors. For example, Kundera is a brassy cobalt blue. Cather is a golden green sunshine. Marquez, for me, will always be a glittering brazen, golden fog of fireflies.

«No hay medicina que cure lo que no cura la felicidad».

No medicine cures what happiness cannot.

Can any quotation be more fitting to explain the placebo effect?

«Ahora sí, cuéntame el sueño».
Era muy simple. Delaura había soñado que Sierva María estaba sentada
frente a la ventana de un campo nevado, arrancando y comiéndose una
por una las uvas de un racimo que tenía en el regazo.
Cada uva que arrancaba retoñaba en seguida en el racimo. En el sueño era
evidente que la niña llevaba muchos años frente a aquella ventana infinita
tratando de terminar el racimo, y que no tenía prisa, porque sabía que en la
última uva estaba la muerte.

“And now, tell me the dream.”
It was very simple. Delaura had dreamed that Sierva Maria had sat at a window overlooking a snow-covered field, eating grapes one by one from a cluster she held in her lap. Each grape she pulled off grew back again on the cluster. In the dream it was evident the girl had spent many years at that infinite window trying to finish the cluster, and was in no hurry to do so because she knew that in the last grape lay death.