Book review: Far East Pinyin Chinese-English Dictionary

cover of dictionary

Far East Pinyin Chinese-English Dictionary
The Far East Book Co, Taipei, 2001
ISBN: 9576124638
Cost:NT$450 at PageOne Bookstore, Taipei

One of the best things about this dictionary is its compact size. It is easy to handle and not too heavy or bulky so you can easily carry it round and refer to it. All the characters are arranged in alphabetical order according to Hanyu Pinyin. There is a Hanyu Pinyin index at the front of the book. It seems a little redundant, but it might be useful if you are not sure about the exact pronunciation of a character. There are also radical indexes and stroke number indexes at the back of the dictionary.

The format of the entries is very easy to read and particularly useful for someone who has a good knowledge of pinyin, but not characters. The entry for each character begins with the pinyin followed by the character in red type. There is then a definition or definitions of the character in English. Following this there is a list of words that begin with that character. The list is arranged with the word written in bold in pinyin first, followed by the character and a definition in English.

The definitions given are clear and concise, but there are no example sentences and it does not state whether the word is noun, adjective, particle, etc. There is an appendix with a table of countries and their capitals in pinyin. However, there is not always a corresponding entry in the dictionary so you cannot know the characters used for the name of the city or country.

Another appendix contains a comparitive chart of Hanyu Pinyin and Zhuyin Fuhao (also called bo po mo fo). Only traditional characters are used in the dictionary. When there is an alternate or simplified form of a character used in Taiwan this is noted in brackets. A table of simplified characters would make a useful addition to this dictionary. On the back of the dictionary it says that, "Beijing dialect is used as the standard pronunciation. The pronunciation used in Taiwan is also provided if there is any difference." However, in the text it is not really made clear where differences exist.

Some characters have multiple pronunciations and these are noted, but the addition of some notation to clearly indicate differences in pronunciation between Taiwan and China is really needed.

Similarly the dictionary includes words from both Taiwan and China, but doesn't make the origins clear. For example, jìchéngchē and chūzūchē are both defined as taxi. The former word is used in Taiwan and the latter in China. In Taiwan chūzūchē means hire car, but someone using the dictionary without this knowledge could easily be confused. Another example is tóngzhì. In the text it is defined as comrade. However, in Taiwan it is most commonly used to mean gay or homosexual.

Overall this dictionary is useful but it could be improved. In particular the differences in usage between Taiwan and China need to be made more clear. It is probably a good dictionary to carry around and use on the run, but it is not a definitive reference.

Taiwan romance novel

cover of jade phoenix

Jade Pheonix is a romance novel set in Taiwan. Syd Goldsmith, the book’s author, is a former American diplomat who has spent many years living and working in Taiwan.

Dan Bloom has written a review in today’s Taipei Times. Michael Turton also has a review on his blog.

You can find out more about the book and where to buy it at the author’s website.

A Tibetan in Taiwan

Bradley Winterton reviews a new book by Tsering Namgyal in today’s Taipei Times. Tsering Namgyal is a former reporter for the Taipei Times and now a freelance writer. Searching for Buddha’s Tooth is his first book.

The book is a collection of essays that focus on Tibetans in exile. As far as life in Taiwan goes he reports on the arrival of some Buddha relics in 1999 — one real and one apparently fake. He also comments on the changing attitudes of the KMT government towards Tibet that culminated in His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s first visit to Taiwan in 1997.

The Taiwanese and Tibetans have much in common. They should be closer in a spirit of friendship and solidarity in their struggle against the Chinese. Let’s hope this book helps bring them together a little bit more.

Monk's thunder

A new book just published in Australia, Thunder From the Silent Zone: Rethinking China by Paul Monk, may be of interest to readers in Taiwan. The book "seeks to challenge many of the received assumptions and fixed ideas which so often determine the way we think about China and its relationship with the rest of the world."

Monk is well qualified to write such a book. He is a former China analyst for Australia's Defence Intelligence Organisation. In an opinion piece published in The Age yesterday Monk comments on the desperate need for political reforms in China to accompany the ongoing economic reforms. He comments:

China's political institutions are as "insolvent" as its state-owned industries and banks. They are living on borrowed time and badly need fundamental reform. It is in the interests of China and the rest of us that such reform takes place.

Those who follow Australian politics will know that Australia's political leaders have worked hard to build strong relationships with China in recent years. They have even done this to the extent of putting human rights issues and even Australia's treasured alliance with the US a distant second. Australian politicians have not done this for ideological reasons. It has been done purely with the intention of gaining access to China's markets. Much of the recent growth in the Australian economy has been driven by Chinese demand for Australian resources. There seems to have been little consideration of whether this relationship may not be in Australia's best strategic interests.

Australia has also distanced itself from any support for Taiwan, even to the extent of saying it would not side with the US in a potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Four chapters of Monks' book are devoted to the Taiwan issue. In a recent talk broadcast on ABC Radio National's Background Briefing (Sunday 18 September 2005) he comments:

Not the least of the rumbles that we hear every so often is the rumble of thunder that rolls across the Taiwan Strait. So significant is the question of the fate of Taiwan for the future of China and the whole Asia Pacific world that I have devoted four chapters of the book to it. You will not be particularly surprised, I trust, if I tell you that I call for and assay a quite fundamental rethinking of how this matter should be understood and the dangerous impasse at which it now stands might be transformed. Once again, however, I do not engage in prediction. I simply point out that there are assumptions at work which tend not to be critically examined and which, if revised, could bring into being a future that is waiting to happen – a free Taiwan securely within the orbit of a free China and the abatement of strategic anxieties around the Pacific Rim.

It is good to know that Taiwan still has some friends in Australia. It seems Australia's foreign policy is being driven by political interests rather than a result of being informed by bad intelligence. Let's hope the book gets the audience it deserves.

Comics chronicle the history of Formosa

Bradley Winterton, the Taipei Times regular book reviewer, recently wrote a very praising review about a ten volume set of comics, A History of Taiwan in Comics, that tell the history of Taiwan.

You might think comics are just for kids but Winterton remarks, “[the books] combine accessibility for quite young readers with a really astonishing level of historical sophistication” and “the historical detail at times feels as if it’s approaching graduate studies level.”

So much history is distorted and biased and often used to promote political agendas. It would be very easy to fall into that trap when writing about Taiwan’s history. However, these books try to tell every side of the story. Winterton writes, “this refusal to come down heavily on one side or another [concerning the effects of Japanese colonisation] is an educational lesson in itself. Education in Asia has too often been a case of learning by rote, but that is the last thing offered here. Look at the evidence and make up your own minds. This is the moral of these highly colorful volumes.” He further notes, “If there are any special sympathies expressed, they are probably for the aboriginal communities.”

The publishing company has also published Traditional Stories of Taiwan’s Indigenous Peoples in a bilingual comic book format. I am sure it would also make interesting reading.

The books are in a bilingual format (Chinese and English). They can be purchased for NT$1,200 from Third Nature Publishing.

Taiwanese literature

cover of A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers Walk into almost any bookstore and you can be sure to find a plethora of books, both fiction and non-fiction, about China. Yet there seems to be very few titles about Taiwan published in English. Does this mean there is no great Taiwanese literature or has it simply slipped through the cracks of the fickle world of publishing?

I suspect the answer is the latter. I recently stumbled across a very interesting book from Taiwan by chance in a second hand bookshop. On reading the synopsis on the back cover I didn't hesitate to buy it. The book, A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers (千江有水有千江月) by Hsiao Li-hung (蕭麗紅), is beautifully written and works on many levels. It is a love story, a snapshot of life in a traditional Taiwanese family in the 1970s and finally it is about the spirit of Zen.

This book is worth reading both as a great piece of literature and for its insights into Taiwanese culture. It provides a snapshot of life in rural Taiwan at a time when traditions had not yet been swept away by the tides of urbanisation, industrialisation and increasing affluence. It is an intimate portrait of a world now largely lost. The quality of the translation is very good. Many of the idioms and folk tales that form part of the story would not translate directly into English. However, the translator has managed to render them into a form that is easily readable and that maintains what I imagine to be something of the style of the work in its original language.

I am not sure if the English translation is readily available in Taiwan. If you can read Chinese you should have no difficulty finding the original Chinese edition of the book. The book is part of a series of translations of Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan published by Columbia University Press. Full bibliographic details and the publisher's synopsis are reproduced below.

A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers
by Hsiao Li-hung (translated by Michelle Wu)
Columbia University Press, New York, 2000
ISBN: 0231117930

Synopsis Winner of the 1980 United Daily Literature Competition, this novel about love, betrayal, family life, and the power of tradition in small-town Taiwan was an instant bestseller when first published in Taiwan and went through 60 printings in its Chinese language edition. At once a bittersweet romance and a vividly detailed portrait of life in a southern Taiwanese coastal town in the 1970s, this lyrical work affirms the values and traditions that have nurtured Taiwan through the centuries and will continue to in an increasingly industrialized society.