March 31, 2004

Postcard from Peking

Er, Beijing. Um, Peiping. Anyhow 北京.

Some people get to go to Las Vegas for business trips. Others of us (in this case me, Richard Sproat, and Chilin Shih) look elsewhere for our linguistic insights, specifically the Northern Capital of the Central Flowery Mountain. Which, now that I think about it, was also built by people with a lot of money and power at ridiculous expense in a location with really awful weather near a desert. Although the weather just now, thank you for asking, is really quite lovely, spring having arrived, all plum blossoms and willow buds and other Asian cliches.

I can tell you that the variety of food is much better now in Beijing than in my student days (my vague memories of that period seem to involve a lot of watermelon. Watermelon, cabbage, gruel, dumplings. And watermelon. And did I mention the gruel? Not to imply that I'm not fond of gruel, I am, very much, but in those days it was the really boring kind of gruel, not, say, the nice Hong Kong kind with the dried scallops and pig parts.) Anyhow, this isn't watermelon season, but I did get my fill of dumplings, which were quite excellent, I can especially recommend the fennel dumplings (hui xiang jiao zi 茴香饺子). In the last five years or so, it seems, Sichuan food has become very hip in the capital, and Richard and I ate (and saw signs everywhere else for) the well-known "shui zhu yu"水煮鱼, fish which is poached and then marinated and served in really astonishingly "numbing and hot" ("ma la" 麻辣) oil, numbing by means of massive quantities of Sichuan pepper ("huajiao", Xanthoxylum piperitum, fagara pepper), import of which has, I gather been recently banned in the United States, which makes replicating the recipe (especially the "massive quantity" part) difficult here in the States, and indeed, may cause the gastronomic semantics of "Sichuan restaurant" in the US to change wildly in the next decade.

There. I got the word "semantics" into that last sentence, which makes this a legitimate language log post. Besides, as further evidence of linguistics at work (albeit linguists at play) we visited some products of what might be called "Ming Dynasty Applied Speech Science"; the famous Echo Wall at the Temple of Heaven park, the Three Sounds Stone and the amplifying platform on the Round Altar, presumably all cases of architectural acoustics designed give a little magical extra to whatever it is that Emperors say upon ritual harvest occasions.

But what makes it even more legitimate is the following tidbit, which arises from a visit that Richard, Chilin, their daughter Lisa, and I made to what is now called Prince Gong's residence. (This is one of the very many estates that claim, in a sort of Chinese version of "George Washington Slept Here", the honor of inspiring what many, including yours truly, consider The Greatest Novel Ever Written, Cao Xue Qin's Story of the Stone. For those of you who have somehow managed to miss this, I recommend the really astonishingly unfaithful but nevertheless incomparably wonderful translation by David Hawkes and John Minford).

Where was I? Oh yes. In the Qing dynasty. Now as legend has it (and I checked this on the web, so it must be true), it came to pass when the great Kang Xi emperor 康熙 (1622ish) was only sixteen that his grandmother fell ill. Kang Xi thereupon got brush, ink, and paper, and drew a large (2-foot-ish high) character, the word 'Fu' 福 , "fortune, well-being", and sent it to her. This was no ordinary Fu 福. No, Kang Xi managed in the cursive Fu-swirls to build in the character for "long life" (shou) as well, and indeed later scholars have identified in its lovely brush-strokes the characters for "child" (zi), "long life" (shou), "fields" (tian), "money" (cai), "more" (duo), plus a dot (dian) hence carrying the hidden meaning "More children, more money, more land, more life, more Fu, and a little more". As soon as she received this magical Fu 福, Kangxi's grandmother's health improved, whereupon Kang Xi knew that his calligraphy had magical powers. He therefore commanded that a large stone be brought (note to confused readers: this stone has nothing to do with the Story of the Stone mentioned above), and that a copy of his "Fu" 福 calligraphy be carved into the stone. Kang Xi died, and the stone was forgotten for two generations, until He Kun, the evil prime minister of the Qianlong emperor, heard of the magical powers of the "Fu 福", and managed to steal the stone from the court. (yes, yes, the old "evil court minister with magical powers" story. But He Kun was specially evil, and may be the origin of many evil court ministers in a whole bunch of really excellent wuxia (武俠; swordsman/knight-errant/martial arts) novels, such as my favorite, Louis Cha's (Jin Yong) The Deer and the Cauldron (鹿鼎記), also translated by John Minford).

But we digress. To hide the magic Fu 福, He Kun built a special cave in his gardens at his estate north of the palace, and placed the stele there in this special cave. It is not known what magical use He Kun made of the Fu 福 but eventually he died, and his mansion and gardens passed on to other inhabitants, and to make a long story, well, still pretty long, He Kun's estate is none other than Prince Gong's residence, and thus you may guess that the stone has since been found and was seen in person by Richard, Chilin, Lisa, and yours truly.

Zhou Enlai, the premier of China, later called this Fu 福 "the greatest Fu福 in China". According to some souvenirs that Richard, Chilin and I bought, it's in fact "the greatest Fu 福 in the world (天下第一福)", but between you and me, I suspect that this may just be marketing hype.

Here's a really ugly gaudy velveteen souvenir scroll of Kang Xi's magical Fu (yes, yes, this is a picture of a souvenir I actually paid money for, but I promise the real Fu, which is just stone, is much more beautiful, but I couldn't find a picture on the web). If you look really carefully, you can see the "greatest Fu 福 in the world (天下第一福)" part on the right.

A final linguistic tidbit about Fu 福. As all you Chinese speakers out there know, Fu is the character that you often see around New Years, on doors throughout China and Hong Kong, upside down, like this. This is because the word "dao4" means both "upside-down" (written 倒) and "arrives" (written 到), so the visual image of an upside-down Fu would be described verbally as "Fu2 dao4" which would then mean both "upside down Fu" and "fortune arrives". A nice example of a visual-verbal bimodal pun.

p.s. Anyhow, as Richard points out, if nothing else, our trip and this post have together clearly raised the bar on fu.

Posted by Dan Jurafsky at March 31, 2004 03:49 AM