Images from the British Library

This morning Twitter is all a-twitter with news that the excellent people at the British Library have released a million images over on Flickr under nicely non-restrictive licences so that they can be re-used, re-mixed and re-purposed. This is exactly the kind of thing that an organisation such as the British Library should be doing, and so it is a cause for celebration. After a quick search through some of the images, I thought I’d share this one, which is one of my favourites, from Mrs. Archibald Little’s 1899 book, Intimate China: the Chinese as I Have Seen Them (what do you mean, you haven’t heard of it…? Best head over to the internet archive and download the whole book!)

Anyway, the image caption says “Sacred Tiger”, although I can’t help thinking that this might be a typo, and that it should say, “Scared Tiger”, or perhaps “Anxious Tiger”.

Sacred Tiger, from  "Intimate China. The Chinese as I have seen them" 1899
Sacred Tiger, from “Intimate China. The Chinese as I have seen them” 1899


You can find the rest of the photo-stream by following the link HERE.

Up North With the Donkey-Rat

Just a quick post this, as I have a train to catch up to Newcastle, and—before that—a lost mobile phone to track down (that’s the trouble with mobile phones: they move around, so it’s hard to remember where you last put them… I like my phones affixed to the wall). I’m heading up to Newcastle for a conference on Working Wonder, back in the Fine Art department where I did my undergraduate degree. I’m looking forward to being in what is probably my favourite city.

I’m doing a paper on the diviner Guo Pu (郭璞), and an interesting tale that I first came across in [amazon_link id=”9004103767″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Writing Against the State: Political Rhetorics in Third and Fourth Century China[/amazon_link] by Dominik Declercq. The tale concerns Guo Pu’s encounter with a strange creature. The account Declercq draws from comes from the seventh century compilation, the Jin Shu 晉書, but this is drawn in turn from the fourth century Sou Shen Ji 搜神記 (see here). Here’s the passage I’m talking about.


From the Sou Shen Ji

郭璞過江,宣城太守殷佑,引為參軍。時有一物,大如水牛,灰色,卑腳,腳類象,胸前尾上皆白,大力而遲鈍,來到城下,眾咸怪焉。佑使人伏而取之。令璞作卦,遇遯之蠱,名曰“驢鼠。”卜适了,伏者以戟刺,深尺余。郡紀綱上祠請殺之。巫云:“廟神不悅。此是郱亭驢山君使。至荊山,暫來過我,不須觸之。” 遂去,不复見。

Guo Pu crossed the river, and the head of Xuancheng prefecture, Yin You, made him a military adviser. Once there was a creature, large like a water-buffalo, grey in colour, with stumpy legs, its legs like an elephant, its chest at the front and the tip of its tail white, very strong and dull-witted; and it came up to the city walls. The crowd were all astonished. Yin You got his men to stalk and trap it. Then he ordered Guo Pu to perform a divination. He got the hexagrams “dùn” [䷠ / “fleeing – retreat”] changing to “gǔ” [䷑ / “work on what has been spoiled”]. Having performed appropriate divinations, he said its name was “Donkey Rat.” One of the men who had stalked it pricked it with a spear, a foot deep. A prefectural official went to the temple to ask if it should be killed. The oracle said, ‘The temple god is displeased. This [creature] was sent from Lake Gongting by the Lord of Donkey Mountain [Mount Lu, 廬山 Lushan, with Lü / here substituted for Lu ]. It came as far as Jingshang, and recently passed by me here. You must not touch it”.


What my paper is about is the question of where the wonder is in this tale. I’m interested in the Western imperative to wonder—which appears everywhere from Brian Cox’s mop-headed stargazing, to the homilies of the religious on BBC radio’s Thought for the Day, to the wide-eyed enthusiasm of the artists. Roughly, my argument (and it is rough) is that wonder is a curious kind of notion that has an ethical force in the West, and that is in need of further examination, and that what we take for wonder may be rooted in a particular relationship to the unknown (or the unknowable) that is not as universal as we imagine. Along the way I’m going to be talking about great chains of being, flat ontology, and—of course—the 萬物 or ten thousand things. All in fifteen minutes. Well, I can but try…

The main reason I’m saying any of this, however, is that it is an excuse to show you the following picture I made of a donkey-rat, a piece of photoshopping of which I am inordinately proud. If you see one of these wandering around your way, do let me know. I’d love to meet one…


Donkey Rat
A Donkey Rat in its Natural Environment


Document Mountains, Meeting Oceans

Somewhat to my sadness, the teaching year is over; but because bureaucracy abhors a vacuum, rushing in to fill the void left by the departing students is a coming tide of endless meetings, a long summer of juggling paperwork. It’s always a relief when the autumn rolls around, and I head in to my first lecture of the new academic year to see the ranks of faces from the years before, and I have a chance to remind myself that this is why I am doing the job.

They are strange, these summer months in the academic world. Everybody imagines that we are retiring to our quiet hillside villas to write in our libraries, when we are, in fact, lost in a blizzard of spreadsheets and documents and meetings known only by their acronyms. So the following passage struck something of a chord. It comes from the wonderful [amazon_link id=”0385339356″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]A Dictionary of Maqiao[/amazon_link], which I’m picking my way through in Chinese, with the English translation to one side. The novel, written by Han Shaogong (韩少功) and translated beautifully by Julia Lovell, is a dictionary of the rural village of Maqiao during the Cultural Revolution. It is savage, funny, wonderfully digressive, and deeply strange—my kind of novel. I’m about half way through, as I’m making my way through the Chinese slowly; but the following, from the dictionary entry on “Speech Rights”, particularly struck me.

Documents and meetings are both the key to safeguarding power and the best way of reinforcing speech rights. Mountains of paperwork and oceans of meetings are a fundamental or integral part of, and genuine source of excitement within, the bureaucratic way of life. Even if meetings are river upon river of empty talk, even if they haven’t the slightest real use, most bureaucrats still derive a basic level of enjoyment from them. The reason is very simple: it’s only at these moments that the chairman’s podium and the mats of the listening masses will be placed in position, that hierarchies will be clearly demarcated, giving people a clear consciousness of the existence (or lack thereof) and degree (large or small) of their own speech rights… Only in this kind of an environment do those with power and influence, immersed in the language with which they themselves are familiar, become aware that their power is receiving the warm, moist, nurturing, nourishing, safeguarding protection of language… and this is often far more important than the actual aims of the meeting.

“Mountains of Paperwork and Oceans of Meetings”; or, in Chinese, 文山会海 (wen shan hui hai , literally “document mountains, meeting oceans”) — I love this expression. Of course, meetings are not only empty talk: glimmering somewhere amongst those spreadsheets there are, I have to remind myself, useful and valuable purposes. But nevertheless, earlier today whilst we were mid-meeting, with five of us looking frowningly at one version of a spreadsheet whilst a sixth was talking about an entirely different spreadsheet, I thought of Han Shaogong’s book, and I thought that if I am to get through the coming months of paperwork, I’ll probably need crampons, ropes, and plenty of Kendal Mint Cake, whilst if I am to survive the next barrage of meetings, I should probably make sure that, at the very least, I am wearing a rubber ring around my waist…

The Evolution of the Concept of De 德 in Early China

For visitors to this blog who are not yet familiar with it, the Sino-Platonic Papers website is a repository of freely-available PDF richness and wonder that should not be overlooked. The purpose of SPP, which is edited by Victor H. Mair of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations is  “to make available to specialists and the interested public the results of research that, because of its unconventional or controversial nature, might otherwise go unpublished”; and new on SPP is an extended essay called “The Evolution of the Concept of De 德 in Early China” by Scott Barnwell of the admirable Bao Pu blog. Scott’s essay is top of my “to read” pile. I’m particularly interested in the idea of “forgetting” the good that one does, which is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. However, it’s a long paper, so it will be a month or so before I get round to it (must get this manuscript finished first…); but you can get your own copy of the paper here, and I’ll write about it when I have the time and leisure to give it my proper attention.

Cheese, Chinese and Chauvinism

Recently I’ve been watching some philosophy programmes from Beijing Open University. It’s a slow process—transcribing as I go—but good as a way of practising my Chinese. I have realised that when it comes to language learning, you need to make use of materials that are themselves interesting. So when I bought Harry Potter (or Hali Bote 哈利波特) in Chinese because I thought it might be a good, easy read, I forgot that I’d never had the slightest desire to read more than three pages of the English version, so I really shouldn’t have been surprised when trying to read the book in Chinese did not improve the experience for me. You’d think that reading five pages of philosophy in Chinese would be more arduous than reading five pages of Harry Potter; but in Chinese, as in English, I find that the reverse is true. Read more


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