Accidental Sinology

I’m down in Bangor for a brief spell, where I’ve been talking to creative writing and translation students about how a few years back I found myself stumbling into matters Sinological, and the general mayhem that has ensued since then. I wasn’t sure that I was going to get here at all this morning, as there was train chaos across the midlands; but five trains (five!) later, I pulled in to Bangor station on time. And I’m glad I made it.

It’s been a fun afternoon. My talk was called “A Book of Changes? Writing, Chance and the I Ching: or, The Adventures of an Accidental Sinologist”, so I was talking about my forthcoming novel-of-sorts, A Book of Changes, based around the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching. Read more

The Dark Arts

This morning I have been preoccupied with two things: firstly, baking bread (having made myself a frisky little sourdough starter); and secondly working on the final edits of my Yijing (易經) book. This has involved shuttling between the kitchen and my desk, as I attend to the both creations. Anyway, as I was looking after the loaf in the kitchen, I flicked on the radio to hear an economist talking about the mysteries of global finance. When I returned to the book in front of me, and stumbled serendipitously across the following section, which I thought was worth sharing:

The complex science that in ancient China was known as shuxue 數學 — a term that, when applied to the numerological speculation that surrounds the I Ching, is only inadequately translated as “mathematics” — is no less abstruse than that most divinatory of practices, economics. Indeed, if one wanted to seek out the contemporary equivalents of those ancient diviners, they would be found not amongst the religious, nor amid those strange, otherworldly figures who spend their days enveloped by incense clouds, but instead amongst those other mystics who, schooled in economics and the dark arts of finance, are passionately convinced that in the manipulation of number there might lie the secret of our future destiny.

Understanding, misunderstanding and failing to understanding the classics

I’m writing this from Bangor, where I’m at a conference on Cultural Translation and East Asia; and in about an hour’s time, I’ll be in a panel where I’ll talking about the Chinese classic the Yijing 易經 (I Ching) and about my novel-in-progress, A Book of Changes, which puts the Yijing to work as a kind of literature machine, giving rise to one story for each of the sixty-four chapters of the Chinese text. As I need to hurtle off and give my paper, this post will be necessarily brief.

As a linguist of only middling powers, I’m intrigued by questions of mis-translation, this being something I’m guilty of almost every day. I’m interested in the grains of indeterminacy that creep in when you translate between cultures and settings, and more broadly I am interested in the role of misunderstanding and non-understanding in the way that we relate to, and understand, the world. Read more

Chinese and Bagpipe Music

As many who know me will be aware, I’ve spent a good deal of the last three or four years trying to make some inroads into the Chinese language. This is, in part, related to my various research interests, and in part related to the book I’ve been working on exploring the Yijing, or Chinese Book of Changes, as a kind of Calvino-style literature machine. And although progress has been perhaps a little slow, Chinese being—as China scholar David Moser once famously pointed out—damn hard, I’m fairly happy overall with how it has all been going. I’m terribly rusty on conversation, to be sure—living here in the UK, I don’t have as much practice as I would like—and my reading ability goes up and down, but I can pick my way through academic articles in Chinese, at least on a good day, or if I do it in the morning when my mind is fresh; and I’m finding the experience of getting to grips with Chinese immensely fruitful. And, more to the point, fun. Read more

Divination and Doubt

For the last seven years or so, I have been up to my ears in one of the strangest books in the world, the Yijing 易經, or Book of Changes. The Yijing  (or, as it is often more popularly known, the I Ching) is, by any measure, one of the oddest books in existence: a bronze-age manual for governing, a divinatory text, one of the foundations of Chinese culture, a book that made Leibniz’s pulse race, and one of the texts most beloved of flaky New-Agers in the West. And because, perhaps, I like to think of myself as more or less sane, I have tended to be a little shy of talking about the Yijing. It is, after all, a book that attracts all kinds of quixotic crackpots and loons, a motley and curious company to find oneself amongst. Read more


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