Rouzer, A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese, Overview

I am currently using Rouzer’s A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese to teach first-year Literary Chinese to students with at least two years of modern Chinese.  As I teach, suggestions for other instructors and notes for my own future use come up.  Consequently, I am going to write a few entries on my experiences with the book.

Each lesson has one or more Texts in Chinese.  From the beginning, the Texts are actual Chinese, not something made up, cleaned up or simplified; I think this is the best approach, both pedagogically and also in terms of keeping up student interest. The first 10 lessons are selections from the 說苑, a Han-dynasty anthology. Lessons 11-21 are selections from biographies in the 史記, Lessons 22-30 are from the 孟子, Lessons 31-21 are a pair of Six Dynasties accounts of women warriors, and Lessons 33-40 are from the 莊子.  This is a good range of selections, although it might be nice to have some Tang, Song, and/or Qing texts.

Next in each lesson comes a list of the new vocabulary items.  All characters are defined, even ones that you would expect a student with two years or more of modern Chinese to know.  Long form characters are used, and the short form alternatives are not given.  In each vocabulary entry, Rouzer gives the pronunciation of the character in modern Mandarin, the Japanese on and kun readings, and the Korean reading.  He also tells you the radical under which the character may be found.  The definition for each character gives ALL the meanings for the character, not just the one used in the current lesson. In addition, vocabulary items are not repeated in later lessons even when used in new senses, so students will have to flip back to the first occurrence of the character to figure out how it is being used.  But if students cannot remember where in the book they first encountered a character, there is a Comprehensive Glossary organized by radicals on pp. 441-496, and a Mandarin Pronunciation Index on pp. 497-518, which identifies the character by number of occurrence (each character has a unique number according to the order in which it is first introduced in the book), radical number, and number of strokes in addition to the radical.

The third part of each lesson is the Commentary, which largely focuses on grammatical points, but sometimes also discusses historical or cultural issues.  One of the best features of the Commentary is the inclusion of Practice exercises, in which students are asked both to translate sentences out of Literary Chinese into English and translate sentences from English into Literary Chinese.

At the very end of each lesson is a Character List of all the new characters in this lesson, organized b their frequency of occurrence, based on Bruce and Taeko Brooks’s Chinese Character Frequency Lists.

Overall, I think the book is well structured and includes a lot of useful information.  The Introduction is also very helpful, and I was pleased to see that Rouzer listed Pulleyblank’s excellent An Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar.  I do quibble, though, with his suggestion that the best Chinese-English dictionary for literary texts is Mathews‘.  I think that one should go the way of the other dinosaurs.  Liang Shiqiu’s Far East Chinese-English Dictionary seems much better to me.  I asked my students how much practice they get using dictionaries and was interested to learn that they almost never use them.  Apparently, students today use an app for their iPhones that allows you to write your character and then it will identify it for you and give you a dictionary entry.  This sounds delightfully convenient, but I’m worried about a generation of Sinologists who don’t know how to find characters by their radicals.

In the future I hope to give notes on my experience teaching each of the first ten chapters of Rouzer’s book.  That is how much I plan to cover in one semester.  We do one lesson in two class meetings of an hour and 15 minutes per class.  The first class we go around and I have them sight-read the text in Chinese then translate it, and we discuss the grammar and vocabulary.  The second class of the week, we finish the reading, review the grammar, and then go over the Practice exercises, which they are to have completed and bring to class.  I collect these and grade them.  We could certainly cover a few more than ten lessons in a 13-week semester, but I will spend some class time on supplemental assignments, including readings from Liu Shaoqi’s “How to Be a Good Communist.”

Posted in Sinology, Teaching | 4 Comments

Philosophy Majors after Graduation

My department had a large graduating class last year:  28 senior majors.  I sent out a poll, asking students what their post-graduation plans were.  This is part of a project I have to work up a handout of what our majors do with philosophy degrees after graduation.  So far, 15/28 majors have answered.

5/15 are about to start graduate or professional school in the fall

7/15 are currently employed or have a firm job offer

The rest are seeking employment.

Choices for graduate/professional school include PhD (PPE at a German university, French literature, philosophy), MA (“Chinese and American Studies”) JD, MFA, a “fellowship to study language abroad,” and MBA.

Those with jobs include high school teachers, teaching English in France, paralegals, and “Media Executive at a Public Relations Firm.”

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World Series of Poker

Okay, this post is going to be addressed to a narrow audience:  poker fanatics who understand the politics of the World Series of Poker.

I attended the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas last year.  I won $1600 by coming in fourth in a side tournament (“side tournament” means it’s not an official tournament), and I used that money to buy into event #54, a no limit hold’em event.  I didn’t “cash,” but it was fun to participate in an actual “bracelet event.”  In events where you cash (finish in the money), you are invited to contribute 1% to the official charity of the World Series of Poker, which last year was Bad Beat on Cancer.  I always contributed, even when I cashed in a single table “sit’n’go.”  However, I did have a little discomfort, because I know that on the board of directors of Bad Beat on Cancer are Phil Gordon, who was associated with Full Tilt Poker (an online poker site which vanished with the players’ money after being indicted by the Department of Justice) and Annie Duke, who was associated with both UltimateBet and Epic Poker (the former a very sketchy online poker site, and the latter a live league that made a bunch of promises to players before evaporating due to poor funding).

I notice that this year the official charity of the WSOP is One Drop, the charity of the billionaire founder of Cirque du Soleil Guy Laliberte.  (It’s dedicated to providing clean water to the world’s population.)  There is no mention of Bad Beat on Cancer on the WSOP website and no mention of this year’s WSOP on the BBoC website.  I assume the association with Gordon and Duke brought the charity down.  It’s unfortunate, because raising money for cancer research is obviously a good charity.  (And I know that cancer has touched Phil Gordon’s life.  He was a founder of BBoC because he lost an aunt, if I’m not mistaken, to it.) However, I was genuinely concerned about donating money because the board of directors had shown such poor judgment in the past.

Guy Laliberte seems like a pretty great guy overall.  (Of course, now that I say that, it will turn out that he’s performing Satanic goat sacrifices in front of kids at an orphanage.)  I admire people who earned the money they’ve made through their imagination, intelligence, and hard work.  In addition, I admire people who then aren’t shy about using their money and social prominence to help other people.

Turning to a more narcissistic topic:  my wife and I will be at the WSOP for 11 days this year, just like last year.  I’m a little worried about having a “bankroll” to play poker with, because we’ve had a lot of expenses this year.  However, we’re going to save some money out of our paychecks from May and June, and use that for poker.  I was looking over my “trip report” from going last year (which I posted to a poker website), and I was reminded that I don’t really play poker every day at the WSOP. Some days you end up spending 8 hours playing a “cash game” and are up a little or down a little.  Other days you play a few single table sit’n’gos and walk away with a couple of tournament entry “lammers.”  Then some days you get into a multi-table tournament that lasts 8 hours.  And some days you relax or do sightseeing.  The trip is still a luxury, but this is really the only big vacation my wife and I take during the year, so we really need it.

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Ethical Relativism and Realism

“What makes a man go neutral?  Lust for gold?  Power?  Or were you just born with a heart full of neutrality?” — “Captain Zapp Brannigan,” Futurama

There is a considerable body of philosophical argumentation pro and con ethical relativism.  However, I harbor the suspicion that the argumentation is irrelevant to what makes people ethical relativists or anti-relativists.  (We lack a really satisfactory term for whatever the denial of relativism is.  “Realism” has the wrong connotation for non-philosophers.  “What’s so ‘realistic’ about your view?  Relativism seems more ‘realistic’ to me!”  I think “realism” also lends itself to the mistaken impression that to be an anti-relativist you have to be a Platonist.  “Objectivism” would be just the right term, except that it has been appropriated by Randians, that cult of pseudo-philosophers.)  Anyway, back to the main topic.  If philosophical argumentation has little effect on one’s belief in relativism or realism, what does?

When I get into an extended discussion of this issue, it becomes clear to me that ethical relativists generally think that relativism is a more open-minded view.  Realism, they think, is the view of people who are judgmental and narrow-minded.  Realists, on the other hand, seem to think that relativists are morally wishy-washy.  “How can you really believe that Nazism is wrong if you’re a relativist?  And if you don’t really believe Nazism is wrong, how will you oppose it?”

When pressed, my experience has been that philosophical realists and relativists will back down from these commitments … at least nominally.  But I’ve had the odd experience of arguing with someone, having them admit that there is no connection between, say, realism and dogmatism, and then listening to them bring that claim up later in the same conversation as an explicit or implicit assumption.

I saw an article online that attempted to establish a connection between a commitment to ethical relativism and open-mindedness.  (I can’t find the url or the citation.  If you’re reading this and know what I’m referring to, please help me out.)  There were a LOT of methodological problems with the study, as I recall.  For one, the author noted a correlation between flexibility in solving mathematical problems and a tendency to believe ethical relativism, and tried to draw a conclusion about that.  However, just because someone is flexible, creative, and “open minded” in mathematical contexts, that does not entail that he is ethically open minded.  (William Shockley, one of the inventors of the transistor, was a notorious racist and advocate of race-based eugenics.)  Nonetheless, I think it is interesting that the author of the study was using as his working hypothesis the claim that ethical relativists would be more open-minded.

My own experience has been that people who advocate most loudly for ethical relativism are generally not open-minded. Indeed, in my years of teaching, relativist students have been positively rabid in rejecting anything that challenges their views.

What about the claim that realists tend to be dogmatic?  My experience has been that if people emphasize “facts,” “evidence,” and “proof” a LOT, they are generally extremely dogmatic.  Maybe it is the “proof” part that is the root of the trouble.  In any case, I don’t find most realists to be dogmatic.  Then again, I might be subject to confirmation bias, since, like most people, I find it easier to sympathize with people I agree with.


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Obama: Marriage-Wrecking Marxist

I’m surprised that anyone is surprised that Obama came out in favor of gay marriage.  When Joe Biden expressed his support of gay marriage, my assumption that Obama was about to announce his own support.  I also don’t buy the notion that Biden broke the news of the administration’s stance without permission.  I think Biden agreed to come out first (no pun intended) in order to test the waters and make sure no one was completely shocked.  (I remember that Gerald Ford’s press secretary said that you should never completely surprise the press with anything; leak it before you announce it.) But however it happened, let me just say an “amen” to Obama’s decision.  (Hint:  No one who opposes gay marriage was going to vote for you anyway, Mr. President.)

I gather that Bristol Palin (poster child for Republican unwed mothers) has come out against the President’s view, stating that, “We know that in general kids do better growing up in a mother/father home.”  Palin the Younger is even less deserving of serious attention than Palin the Elder, but I did enjoy the twitter comment from nolageek, who commented, “Let’s all bask in the irony of Bristol Palin talking about the importance of raising a child in a traditional marriage.” (Source.)

I get a lot of my political news from the site, which I read via its RSS feed to my mailer.  I’ve learned some interesting things.  For example:

  • The Green County, VA, Republican Party newsletter has called for armed insurrection if Obama is re-elected, on the grounds that he is “an ideologue unlike anything world history has ever witnessed or recognized.”  (Source.)
  • Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, a Fox News Contributor and colleague of conservative commentator Sean Hannity, recently delivered a sermon in which he explained that, “I think that one of the greatest mistakes that America made was to allow women the opportunity to vote. We should have never turned that over to women. … Men in the good old days understood the nature of the women, they were not afraid to deal with them. … Wherever women are taking over, evil reigns.”  (Source.)
  • The loss in private-sector jobs due to Bushonomics has been more than made up under Obama.  However, unemployment remains high primarily because of the loss of public sector jobs, such as firefighters, police, and teachers.  Well, it’s not like we needed people to fight fires, arrest criminals, or educate our young people. (Source.)

I worry sometimes that, because an avowedly “progressive” website is one of my primary news/opinion sources, I suffer from confirmation bias.  However, it has been difficult for me to locate a responsible conservative counterpart to  When I’ve tried to watch Fox News (and I have), the level of discourse is so unapologetically moronic that it just confirms my “liberal bias.”  For example, I can no longer take anyone seriously after they assert that Obama is a “Marxist” or is listening to his “Marxist advisors.”  You see, I’ve actually read Marx.  Indeed, I took a course with a leading theoretician of Marxism.  Now, I don’t think that Marx offers us a viable roadmap toward anyplace I think we should go.  However, I do understand Marx well enough to know that Obama, whose economic policies would put him in the center of the Republican Party of the Nixon era, is hardly a Marxist.

So are there are conservative blogs, websites, or RSS feeds worth reading?

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What Is the Standard for Reading Classical/Literary Chinese?

If you want to read Confucius in the original language, you need to know Classical Chinese.  If you want to know much of the later two and a half millennia of Chinese philosophy, you need to know Literary Chinese.  (Classical Chinese is, roughly, like Classical Latin.  Literary Chinese is kind of like Medieval Latin.  Contemporary Mandarin Chinese is like Italian.)  Sometimes I am confronted with comments of the form, “Surely, So-and-so reads Classical Chinese.” If the comment needs to be made, the answer is generally “Not really…and don’t call me ‘Shirley.'”  (Sorry.  I guess that joke only works if you say it out loud.)

More seriously, there is a long-running debate in language pedagogy of what counts as “being able to speak language X.”  Everyone agrees that there are levels of competence, with one end being absolute lack of any knowledge and the other being fluency equal to an articulate native speaker.  Beyond that, the lines are hard to draw.  For modern Mandarin, the gold standard is now the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK), administered by the China National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, an official People’s Republic government organ.  The HSK certifies one in speaking, aural comprehension, written comprehension and even writing at the beginning, intermediate and advanced levels.  Performance on each level is certified as no rank (failing), “acceptable,” and “honors.”  I’ve never taken the exam, but I suspect that I would probably be intermediate acceptable.  Do I “speak Mandarin Chinese”?  I think so.  I can order in restaurants, give directions to a cab driver, introduce myself to people and exchange pleasantries, and even stumble my way through a public talk, although I dread it and often have to turn to a bilingual colleague for help when I get stuck.  (怎麼說 ‘Categorical Imperative’ 用中文?)

There is nothing comparable to the HSK for Classical or Literary Chinese.  However, here is a rough standard I would support.  Paul Rouzer’s A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese (Harvard East Asian Monographs, 2007) is a textbook used by many good schools.  (I’m using it in my Literary Chinese course next year.)  One of the nice things about Rouzer’s book is that all the texts, beginning with Lesson 1, are authentic Classical or Literary Chinese texts.  I would say that if you can read the sample texts in Unit 1 (Lessons 1-10) — without using Rouzer’s lexical and grammatical notes — then you have functional ability in Classical or Literary Chinese.  (The constructions are all basic enough that anyone should be able to read them, whether they focus on Classical or Literary Chinese texts.)  Okay, tell you what.  You can use a dictionary a maximum of 10 times to look up any characters you happen not to know.  (I dumbed out on 縛 in Lesson 10, so I have to cut everyone else some slack.) But if you can’t read those introductory texts fairly easily, even with a limited-use crutch — well, then you don’t really “read Classical/Literary Chinese.”

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Does Science Advance?

Does science progress in a cumulative way?  In other words, do later scientific theories build upon earlier ones by keeping older established truths about the world, and adding us more truths?  The standard answer, familiar from Whiggish history and brief historical asides in scientific textbooks, is that it does.  Aristotelian-Ptolemaic astronomy predicted the motions of the planets; Copernican-Galilean astronomy did a better job of prediction and was simpler; Newtonian physics explained how force and mass accounted for the motions studied by Galileo; Relativity Theory adds an explanation of the motion of objects close to the speed of light.

The problem is that this account is either false or misleading at every stage.  The Copernican astronomy was NOT more accurate than Ptolemaic, and required just as many “epicycles.”  Newtonian physics made planetary motion much more complex (and less circular) than Galileo had imagined.  In the Newtonian universe mass is preserved and energy is preserved, and both are found in absolute space and absolute time.  In Relativity Theory, mass-energy is preserved in a space-time manifold.

It’s tempting to say that, despite the differences, the theories are still “talking about the same things.” But what would those things be?  Aristotle talked about the Four Elements —  earth, water, fire, air — and quintessence (the last being the stuff the planets and stars are made of).  Galileo had to drop this elemental theory in order to reconcile terrestrial and non-terrestrial motion, but he didn’t have anything better to put in its place.  Newton talked about objects with mass exerting the otherwise inexplicable force of “gravity” over potentially infinite reaches of space.  Einstein talked about mass-energy causing deformations in space-time.

We might say that the observations are the same.  But what we see is, at the least, heavily influenced by what we think we are seeing.  A “pendulum” is a special thing, a central model for all kinds of regular motion, beginning with Galileo. Prior to Galileo, a “pendulum” is a silly toy, illustrating nothing but constrained fall.  Mass is another good illustration of how nothing is simply observed.  If “mass” could be observed, cave men would have known about it.  Mass is inferred based on observations whose intent is to measure it:  absent the intent, there is no mass to observe.

Are we left with the conclusion that science does not advance?  Perhaps it advances only in the sense that later theories can explain why our ancestors said what they said, and saw what they saw, whereas earlier theories cannot do the same for the latter.  Contemporary chemists can explain why Priestley obtained a gas that encouraged combustion, by saying that it is oxygen.  However, Priestley’s theory that he had isolated “dephlogisticated air” cannot explain many of the phenomena familiar to the modern chemist.  We might say that scientific theories are “trap doors”:  once one has gone through them, one cannot go back.

But are we sure that the crossroads of science can only go one way?  Was there a way to save Aristotle’s theory of the Four (terrestrial) Elements if there had been a brilliant defender of it?  I can imagine a science fiction novel about an alternative present in which we treat illnesses and travel in space, perhaps even better than we do now, using updated Aristotelian physics.

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Student Praise

I don’t want to make this blog a record of student praise, but I got an email today from a former student that made me smile.

I hope you’ve been having a great semester and enjoyed your spring
break! As I’m preparing to graduate, I’ve been thinking back a lot to
my first semester in your class (and how much time I’d spend on your
500 word papers!) and I’ve realized how much that class continues to
shape the way I think. Even though I’m no longer a Japanese major, and
I don’t even go to Vassar anymore, those texts are still so vivid for

What is ironic is that this student transferred out of Vassar and completed her degree at another college.  She said that she found the student culture at Vassar, especially among other female students, too competitive.  I was very surprised to hear that, as that is not the vibe I get from students at all.  However, sometimes people hide when they are under pressure.

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My Job

I have to work out the days and times for our department’s courses for next year, based on the preferences of my colleagues.  Of course, I have colleagues who teach at the same times, on the same days, in the same rooms every year, because “IT’S ALWAYS BEEN THAT WAY AND THAT’S THE WAY IT’S GOING TO STAY!”  (How nice that the study of philosophy has taught us all to question our presuppositions.)  This makes it harder to accommodate colleagues who might have a legitimate reason to want a particular schedule (like childcare, or the need to coordinate a multidisciplinary course with another department or program).

Today, the utter absurdity of this task was driven home to me when I had to redo the entire schedule because I noticed the fine print in the “Scheduling Formula” that states…College regulations forbid offering 75 minute, 100-level courses during the 10:30-11:45 time slot on Mondays and Wednesdays or on Wednesdays and Fridays.

Somebody shoot me.  Please.

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I recently heard a great political zinger:  Newt Gingrich “is a stupid man’s idea of what a smart man sounds like” (Paul Krugman on This Week with Christiane Amanpour).  Sounds accurate to me.  Then again, I’ll be laughing out of the other side of my face when the moon becomes the 51st state!

If I were a reporter, I would like to ask Gingrich a question: “Your campaign criticized Romney for speaking French.  However, you cite French sources in your dissertation.  So do you speak French yourself, or were you lying in your dissertation by representing that you had consulted primary sources you could not actually read?”

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