Ramblings: Ahaha, if last chapter was heavy in history, this one is heavy on linguistics. Once again you can tell that from the chapter title. While English novels often use ambiguous chapter titles, Chinese novels are very direct in their naming, sometimes blunt to the point of giving a spoiler. This makes it easier find a certain chapter that you like to reread, which I often do.
I actually had fun doing research while translating this chapter since I have an interest in linguistics (well, in humanities in general).
I have started cross-referencing the Vietnamese version with the Chinese ebook I found online, which I find very helpful in this chapter. Google, its Translator and Wiki did all the intermediary work though lol.
T/N: Any notes at the end of relevant paragraphs that are indicated with an asterisk * are usually my own translation notes, unless I say otherwise in square brackets. Words in square brackets [ ] in sentences are also words I added for clearer meaning.
Credits of this chapter also goes to Ari, my proofreader.
Chapter 4: A genius in languages
On the third day, we make camp beside a river in the midst of a dry season. Little monk and his mother begin their mantra chant and do not partake in the evening meal. I eat with the others, still the same Western Regions’ bread and hot noodles.
My tent is shared with other ladies-in-waiting, while the ‘noble’ monk gets his own private tent and special treatment. Our classroom is thus set up at his place. When I walk into his tent and see the scene, I freeze. Jiba is shaving her son’s head. Flecks of red hair fall down on the white cloth wrapped around his neck. He gives me a gentle smile and gestures for me to wait for a moment.
I begin to study Kumalajiba while waiting. His forehead is not pressed like his mother’s. And how fortunate it is that monks in this time and place do not have the practice of burning dots* on their heads, or else in addition to the pain of flesh, the scarring would have destroyed his near-perfection face.
*Small, circular burns that are given to the monk when he ordains, created with small, coiled and waxed wicks.
When I think about this practice of burning dots, I cannot help but smile. It is originally a special custom from Chinese Buddhism. At first, like other countries, Chinese monks did not burn dots on their foreheads. It is said that this practice was started by Emperor Wu of Liang, a Buddhist devotee during the Southern and Northern Dynasties. The emperor tried to join the monastic life three times, but in all those three times, he was ‘ransomed’ back by his ministers using substantial offerings.
In order to spread the influence of Buddhism and increase the number of followers, Emperor Wu of Liang decided to pardon the prisoners on death row by forcing them to become monks. But afraid that they might escape and reoffend, the emperor issued an edict where, on top of the “Qian punishment” (tattooing the face with ink), he also ordered the dot-burning on the prisoners’ heads to easily identify them during a pursuit.
In my opinion, this practice of burning dots on monks’ heads stem from the rulers’ intentions. Monks do not participate in economic production, do not pay taxes, and do not reproduce, so if their numbers increase too much it would adversely affect economic productivity. In addition, there is also the old proverb, “There are three ways to be unfilial, the worst is to not reproduce and thus discontinue the family line.”* The history of suppression against Buddhism was often motivated by the need to maintain economic development and to uphold moral standards.
* 不孝有三，無後為大 originated from Mencius (Mengzi) in “Li Lou Shang”
However, the existence of religion is vital for rulers to keep society in order. For that reason, the monastic must have identification and the government must regulate the number of followers tightly. A way to recognize the monastic is the presence of burned dots on their head. Those who shave their heads and pretend to be monks are thus easily identified. Fortunately, after liberation, the practice was abandoned, even though I heard that some temples still carry out the ceremony…
I look up with a start and see the little monk looking very eager. After shaving, he seems quite refreshed and cheerful. I look around. Jiba has already left without me knowing. I hurry after the little monk to a long table and begin our first lesson.
The little monk teaches me Tocharian first. Even though he is earnest and patient, given the limited Han level and how hard it is to remember Tocharian script, I find myself struggling and my forehead damp from the sweat. This is even harder than when I learned German. After an hour, exhausted in both body and mind, I beg for a break. My Tocharian lesson thus ends on a disastrous note.
After a quick break, it is now my turn to teach the little monk Han language. I used to teach the visually impaired as a volunteer every summer, so I am quite confident in teaching basic Han. Basic Han is not too hard to learn since it all starts with learning characters by sight. The problem is, ancient times have no notion of a phonetic system [ex. Pinyin], so it will be difficult [for him] to remember the correct pronunciation.
The method that was used in ancient times was called “fanqie”, which combines the syllables of two different characters (already known phonetically) to indicate the pronunciation of a new Han character. Usually, the onset (initial consonant) is represented by that of the first character; the final and the tone are represented by those of the second character. [example omitted]. The fanqie method uses a special dictionary called “Guangyun”*. But I am not a person from ancient times. I cannot utilize fanqie, nor can I apply the pinyin system, which is an invention two thousand years later. In the end I decide to teach by example—I would pronounce the character first, the little monk repeats it after, and then he has to learn it by memorization.
*a Chinese rime [yes spelled like that] dictionary that was compiled from 1007 to 1008 under the orders of Emperor Zhenzong of Song. Note, there is an earlier book that predates it, called Qieyun.
I pull out my scrap paper and pencils, drawing and lecturing at the same time. The little monk finds my stationery very strange. He keeps asking me how I obtained the glossy white paper and the pencil with the hard head. I can only lie to him that a strange person gave them to me, how I am the only one who has them in this world, and I do not know how they were made. After that, I pretend to be stern and ask him to focus on the lesson, no further questions allowed.
“日月水火土，金木耳口手.” To prepare for this time travel trip, I had to dedicate a year to learning how to write in traditional characters. But I sweat just thinking about the seal script used in the Qin dynasty. I can comprehend it, but writing it is a different matter. I hope I am not changing history as I speak. Fortunately, the little monk lives in the faraway Western Regions, and it would be hard for him to get to the Central Plains.
 a shorthand way of listing the basic Chinese characters, literal meaning is “sun moon water fire earth, gold wood ear mouth hand”; the full set has 80 characters
 Chinese writing system from 5th century to 1946, when the government introduced a new standard—Simplified Chinese
 Xiao Zhuan – ancient style of Chinese calligraphy developed in Qin (state), by the time of Han dynasty prominently used for engravings and seals, hence the name in English
The little monk used to learn Han so he can still remember some characters. He is very serious in his studies; his eyes stare at my notepad intently and his head bobs every now and then. The gentle smell of sandalwood from his body wafts in the air. My first teaching lesson wraps up in that sweet and comforting smell.
The next day, we continue on our journey. Communication between Kumalajiba and I has improved. He picks up after me quite fast. I just need to explain the meaning of a character once, and even if the character reappears in later lessons, he would not ask again. In addition, he also knows how to arrange words in a sentence in the correct SVO (subject-verb-object) order in Han grammar.
In this era, if I want to communicate with other Han people, I obviously have to use the classical way of speaking. But with the little Western monk, I still apply the 21st century way of speaking. Because he is a foreigner, I’m not worried that he will find out the truth.
Kumalajiba likes to learn about the history, geography and customs of the Central Plains. I try to teach him using what I have learned in history books. The more I talk with him, the more I realize that besides his intelligence, the little monk also possesses a very impressive memory.
I ask Kumalajiba why he brings along an army when in fact, I want to find out his background. He tells me that they have been travelling across many countries over the last four years, but between them are miles of wasteland and deserts with no signs of life. Furthermore, all the places they passed by are areas with no governance and often subject to thievery. Thus they have to have an army along to protect their precious Buddhist scriptures and other valuable belongings. Xuan Zhang in his journey to the West also met numerous thieves. I nod my head in agreement over the wise practice of having soldiers along. But I still haven’t uncovered the little monk’s background, only that he left Kucha with this army four years ago. I guess that they must have some ties with the royal family, because only royal relatives would be able to bring the army along for protection.
Jiba silently follows behind us and listens to our conversation. Her expression always remains unperturbed and calm. Occasionally she would say a few words to her son. Even though I don’t understand what she says, her gentle voice tells me that it is probably not a reproach regarding me. She conducts herself in an elegant and polite manner. I know she loves her son dearly, but she doesn’t show any intimate gestures a mother would display to her child, perhaps because they follow the Buddhist way.
However, when it is time for chanting mantra, she becomes very serious. A pious and solemn look would reflect in her countenance, her eyes cast, as she chants together with her son. During those times, the two of them would block out all that belongs to the earthly realm, and focus their heart and mind on Buddha. Their chants resonate all around and seem to transcend beyond the physical. For the first time, I can feel the power of religion striking a chord deep in my heart. I stand outside their tent and listen to their chant, my mind lost in a daze.
In the evening we continue with our lesson. I struggle for a long time but cannot seem to recall any words, so I obediently show my hands to the little monk.
“What is it?” The little monk learns modern Chinese from me so his words are not very formal.
“Hit my hands,” I tell him with a smile, “Our Han teachers always do this whenever a student makes a mistake. You see, I am very self-aware, so I can easily admit my wrongdoing.”
“You did what wrong?” Those light gray eyes of his glow brightly, almost as if they can see the depths of the person opposite.
“I forgot all the Tocharian—er I mean Kucha words that you taught me yesterday.” I pretend to be sad at first but then laugh at myself. Why do I keep calling it Tocharian?
The little monk also smiles, a smile as bright as the stars. “My fault not knowing how to teach, how can I blame you!”
He spreads out his left hand toward me, while his right hand grasps mine and hits it against his palm. It is not a hard hit, but I feel the sting nevertheless. He then says to me, “It is I who needs hitting. If tomorrow you still can’t remember lesson, I will take hit.”
I quickly take my hand back, touched by his words. I tilt my head and try hard to focus on the characters before me.
I achieve more progress in my learning than yesterday. Kumalajiba’s skill in Han also improves. I have finally finished learning the Tocharian alphabet. So I can remember it better, I carefully write down each letter with corresponding phonetic beside it. Kumalajiba keeps on praising my method, but I make him promise to not tell anyone about it, or else history may change.
“But why? You came up with it?” he asks.
I can neither deny nor confirm, so I answer in a vague way, “Han people don’t like women who are unusually talented, so if you tell others that I invent this method of writing phonetics, I will be seen as a witch and get burned alive,” borrowing from the story of Joan of Ark.
“The Han should not be like so.” After a moment’s pause, he looks at me solemnly and adds, “Humans are all same no matter what gender. Women are also intelligent.” The rest of it, he says in Tocharian, perhaps because his Han vocabulary is not adept enough to express his thoughts.
I smile. Such earnestness from a youth like him gives me such a warm feeling. But I have to change the subject soon because if we continue, I don’t know how much longer I can lie for.
“It’s good that you can think like that. Now, it’s my turn to teach you. Confucius, a great scholar from ancient China, said: Wēn gù ér zhī xīn, which means to practice what you learned, and from there you will learn something new. For that reason, I will now test you on the Han characters you learned yesterday.”
I place my scrap paper and pencil in front of the little monk. “Start writing!” I tell him. “One hit on the palm for every character you get wrong!”
The little monk smiles at me as he takes the paper and pencil. The way he holds the pencil is still awkward but he still has the look of a student. One by one all the characters from yesterday flow out of the pencil. How impressive! He actually remembers all of them!
A few minutes pass by with me sitting there stupidly, my mouth agape, before I finally regain the composure of a teacher. Humph, let me see if he can still escape my punishment with the next test.
“Pronounce each character out loud for me!”
He looks at me, eyes still smiling. As I watch him go through all 30 characters, not missing even one, my mouth goes slack. There is still an accent but as a whole, not one character is said incorrectly. Yesterday, I did not teach him how to write any phonetic! I wonder how high his IQ is?
“I respect YOU!”* as shocked as I am, this is the only sentence I can think of. I do not dare to say it aloud, of course.
*the “I” and “YOU” in this sentence were in English in the original text
I continue with the lesson. After I finish with the pictograms*, I move on to transformed cognates* (a method of using two Han characters to explain each other with one condition: they need to have the same radical and similar meaning), and then to simple words.
*Chinese characters are classified into six types: two of them being pictograms (xiangxing) and transformed cognates (zhuanzhu); the other four are simple ideograms (zhishi), compound ideograms (huiyi), rebus (jiajiezi) and phono-semantic compounds (xingsheng).
I find myself a little bit upset. Even though we are both learning a foreign language, why is there such a big difference in ability? If we continue like this, the little monk will be writing essays in Han while I struggle with Tocharian vocabulary! Even more embarrassing, Kumalajiba has already learned to utilize the phonetic system I just taught to pronounce characters. Even though he is not completely accurate, he is pretty close.
Maybe I will have to step down from my job very soon in the future!
As always, if any reader knows Chinese or is well-versed in Chinese history/Buddhism, feel free to comment on any inaccuracies or suggest a better substitute name/word/phrase. Comments on grammar and spelling mistakes are also appreciated. Or any comments at all actually XD