Month: February 2016

Chengyu: 不二法門 / “The One and Only Way”



bù èr fǎmén

Literal meaning: “[The] Dharma Door of Non-duality”

Idiomatic meaning: “the one and only way”

The original Buddhist meaning is very different from the common vernacular meaning today. “Non-duality” refers to the Middle Path of Buddhism, which threads between two extremes. This particular chengyu is derived from the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra, and the following passage illustrates the non-duality of existence and non-existence.


The Worldwide Impact of 1MDB

A bit late on this article, but Michael Peel and Jeevan Vasagar at The Financial TImes write about the ever-growing global fallout and implications of the Malaysian government’s failed 1MDB “sovereign wealth fund”:

It is not just a matter of domestic politics. The impact of the cases is being felt way beyond Malaysia’s borders due to the amount of money allegedly involved and its scope. The parties said to be affected include foreign officials, leading banks and offshore financial centres, with transactions stretching from Kuala Lumpur to the Cayman Islands and from Abu Dhabi to New York.

1MDB has become a test of regulators’ ability, and desire, to penetrate a web of dealings that take full advantage of the privacy and cross-border complexity available in the global financial system. It is also being seen as a measure of how well authorities deal with cases of suspected grand corruption.

Honestly at this point I just wish Malaysia wasn’t only well-known for global calamities. Before, no one I talked to in the States even knew what Malaysia was. Now, when I tell someone I’m from Malaysia the usual response is “oh, isn’t that where that plane disappeared?” (and then the inevitable “do you know where it is?” Yeah, because clearly all Malaysians have been hiding this secret for the last couple years…)

Cooked: Matcha Green Tea Ice Cream

Matcha Green Tea Ice Cream

I recently got a Cusinart ice cream maker for cheap ($13!) at a local thrift shop, and it’s exciting to venture into the crazy world of ice cream making. The first recipe I made was a chai vanilla recipe I adapted from Melissa Clark’s master ice cream recipe (verdict; it was way too sweet; halving the sugar content would probably be good) but really what I wanted was to make green tea ice cream.

The recipe I used for this was JustOneCookbook‘s – found here. It’s a good thing it’s eggless, because I know many people who consume dairy but don’t eat eggs. The ice cream turned out very well – it’s not too saccharine.

Hu Shih on the Fall of the Roman Empire

Working on a piece about Chinese historiography, and I came across this piece by Hu Shih on Rome in 1912 – clearly showing signs of Gibbons’ influence:

「忽念及羅馬所以衰亡,亦以統一過久,人有天下思想而無國家觀念,與吾國十年前同一病也。羅馬先哲如 Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius 皆倡世界大同主義。。。又耶教亦持天下一家之說,尊帝為父而不尊崇當日之國家,亦羅馬衰亡之一原因也。」

“I suddenly recall that the reason for Rome’s demise was that it too had been unified for too long. People had a “world-mindset” but no conception of their country, a sickness just like that of our country ten years ago. [1] Early Roman philosophers like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius all promoted the principle of the “Great World Unity”… Furthermore Christianity also supported the notion that the world was one family and respected God as the Father but did not respect the country of the day. This too, was a reason for Rome’s demise.”

[1] Perhaps a dig at Kang Youwei?

The False Etymology of “Mandarin” = 滿大人


In a discussion on the nature of race and ethnicity in late imperial China, the role of the “Manchu” ethnicity came up. The highly heterogenous nature of Hong Taiji’s creation of ethnicity has been exhaustively enumerated elsewhere, and wasn’t the source of my confusion. In our discussion, a fellow student brought up the idea that the Manchus occupied such a unique role in the late imperial history of China that even the very language of the region was named after them. Not the Manchu language, mind you – but the variety of Sinitic we call “Mandarin” today.


My esteemed classmate proceeded to narrate the etymology she (and several others in the class from the Greater China region) had heard: When Europeans first made contact with Chinese people, they mistook the phrase “Master Man[chu]” (滿大人 Mǎn dàrén) to be the language Chinese spoke, hence the English term “Mandarin” to refer to the language most northern Chinese speak. It seems to be a pretty common folk etymology.

In short:

Mandarin mǎn dàrén → English mandarin

This seemed off to me. Firstly, the first Europeans in Ming China were not English. Secondly, I had always thought Mandarin was simply a translation of 官話 Guānhuà, “officials’ speech”. Was I right?

As it turns out, it was an erroneous folk etymology. The OED charts the evolution/borrowing of the word mandarin as:

Sanskrit mantrī → Malay menteri → Portuguese mandarim → English mandarin

Furthermore, the term Mandarin was used to refer to the speech of the officials very early on: Dominican Francisco Varo’s text Arte de la lengua Mandarina “The Arts of the Mandarin Language” was published in 1703. As for the term’s usage as “official”, even today, officials are called mentri in Malaysia. “Prime minister” is perdana menteri while the heads of the states’ executive branches are called menteri besar (“first minister”) or menteri ketua (“chief minister”).

On the Peter Liang Case

Jay Kang has a thought-provoking piece on the Asian-American reaction to the case of Peter Liang, the NYPD cop who was convicted of manslaughter for the killing of Akai Gurley:

“Even if you believe, as I do, that Liang should be in jail, the inevitable follow-up question — why only Liang? — suggests that the unjust protections routinely afforded to white officers should be extended either to everyone or to nobody at all. To ignore this suggestion is intellectually dishonest.

“But to engage with it is to ignore the overwhelming context of the case: yet another unarmed black man killed by yet another police officer. The cleanest response — one I’ve seen throughout social media, where clean, vaguely lobotomized responses often reign supreme — is to simply say that some justice is better than none. But how can any sincere confrontation of racial inequity in policing and the criminal-justice system ignore the inconvenient singularity of Liang’s conviction?”

Many Asian-Americans feel that Liang was the scapegoat to appease the growing discontent against police killings of unarmed black males around the country. So many white officers have not even been indicted for the killings (Daniel Pantaleo in Eric Garner’s case, Darren Wilson in Michael Brown’s [Ferguson] case), so why is it that the only guy that’s been convicted is an Asian-American? Indeed, I feel strongly that #blacklivesmatter, but the Liang case makes it difficult for me to explain to elders in my community that racial justice among other minority groups is something Asians have to fight for, too.

I remember a few years ago, I overheard an Asian-American student at Princeton remark, “well, Asians are basically white in America, right?” The Liang case forces us to reassess the unique situation our “racial” group is in, and why that behooves us to advocate for the rights of all other minority groups, rather than being complacent with an alleged position as a privleged group. I disagree with Kang’s opinion that to take up Liang’s cause is an inherently unjust cause, however. I think there are valid points, too, made by those who defend him. The issue of militarized policing in the United States is far larger than any single police officer – regardless of race – and can only be ameliorated by a nationwide revamping of training, education, and laws.

Minority Under-Representation in Hollywood

The New York Times on Hollywood’s “inclusion problem,” a problem that goes far beyond not nominating any minorities for the Oscars:

“The study found that women and girls made up less than 34 percent of speaking characters in movies and scripted series. The share was worse in films: About 29 percent of the parts went to female actors.

Minority groups represented a little more than 28 percent of speaking characters in films and series, about 10 percent less than their share of the general population, according to the study. Just 2 percent were identified as L.G.B.T.

Women were heavily outnumbered by men behind the camera, making up about 15 percent of directors, about 29 percent of writers and about 23 percent of series creators, the study found.”

Why My Heart Isn’t With Bernie

There used to be a common saying (that I hear less of recently) – “my head is with Hilary, but my heart is with Bernie.” The notion was that while us progressives wanted policies that looked like Bernie’s, we knew that they were unrealizable dreams. I used to think that, too. But I have recently come to realize how thoroughly unworkable his plans are, and honestly, I don’t even think I want his policies as dreams.

The independent Tax Policy Center conducted an analysis of Sanders’s tax plan (emphasis mine):

“He estimates his “Medicare for all” health plan alone would cost nearly $1.4 trillion annually. To help finance it, he’s proposing a 6.2 percent employer tax, which he calls an “income-based health care premium” (and which would likely be passed on to workers). And a 2.2 percent income-based tax on most households. And income tax rate hikes on income in excess of $250,000, with a top rate of 52 percent, a level the US has not seen since 1981. And big rate hikes on most investment income, which would be taxed at the same rate as wages. And he’d expand the estate tax and cap the value of deductions at 28 percent for those making $250,000 or more.

And even with the wildly optimistic tax revenue projections his campaign releases, there’d still be a big revenue shortfall that would have to be covered by other tax increases. Politifact also notes:

“With Sanders’ proposed taxes, costs would need to be trimmed by roughly 42 to 47 percent — a tall order when “the most generous estimates of how much you could cut cost are on the order of 20 percent,” said Sherry Glied, a professor of health policy and economics at New York University who’s served in the George H.W. Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations.”

As a fiscally conservative progressive, there’s just no way I could support Sanders with a clear conscience.

“The Principal Varieties of Mankind”

"The Principal Varieties of Mankind"

Came across this illustration in the course of my research for Sylvia Wynter‘s Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument. Published on May 3, 1850 by James Reynolds, it’s credited to John Emslie, who also wrote and illustrated the New Canterbury Tales.

This need to classify and to sort humanity into differing levels of “civilization,” “culture”, and “advancement” is perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of the last new centuries. Even worse is the fact that it was presented in rational, almost self-evident terms.

Chengyu: 鍥而不捨 / “Perseverance”



qiè ér bù shě

Literal meaning: “To carve without giving up.”

Idiomatic meaning: To persevere, to stick with it.

This is an excerpt from a longer sentence in the Xunzi:

“If one carves and gives up, even rotten wood will be uncarvable. If one carves without giving up, even metal and stone can be engraved.”